From The New York Times, Political Party Meltdown by Kevin Baker:
Roosevelt elaborated: “We ought to have two real parties — one liberal and the other conservative. As it is now, each party is split by dissenters.”
He was wrong. The idea of two ideologically consistent, European-style parties that offer voters clear-cut choices may sound logical. But our federal government has always worked best when our major parties were instead messy, exasperating contradictions, sprawled across many different regions. In fact, that’s almost the only time our government has ever functioned well.
With a few notable exceptions, the men who drafted the American Constitution were much more concerned about the excesses of power than getting things done. They threaded it with checks and balances that made it easy for a determined opposition to stop any agenda. They considered parties to be an inherent evil.
Once they stepped down from the picture frame and walked into the hurly-burly of actual political life, though, the founding fathers spent much of their time hiring professional slanderers to accuse one another of treason, malfeasance and perversion.
Debate was vigorous, but unilluminating.
Things tended to get done only when one party, like the Federalists or the Whigs, was driven almost entirely out of government — and then what was done created new resentments and stalemates. Hamilton and the Federalists established a central bank in 1791, only to see James Madison and the Republicans let its charter expire in 1811, throwing the country into financial turmoil. Madison re-established a central bank five years later, only to see Jackson and his Democrats let its charter expire again, 20 years later, setting off a horrific depression.
Young America was a nation possessed of immense energies but no compass, always threatening to sail off into chaos. Parties made coalitions across regions, but these always proved unstable, or ineffectual.
But it may be true that all of these varied rebellions herald the beginning of a sea change in our politics, one that swells across the narrow lines of party and place. What the adherents of all these fledgling movements have in common is the growing belief that the establishment narrative of America no longer makes any sense.
The populists of the 1880s and ’90s could no longer believe in a system that seemed utterly corrupted, that kept them from realizing a decent return on their harvests no matter how hard they worked and foreclosed on their farms ruthlessly. But the reality of their daily lives led them to see beyond political prejudice and the regional cultures that they had been taught to believe in their whole lives. They made common cause with people they had despised.
Today’s Americans are beginning to reject establishment narratives that accept what feels like permanent economic stagnation and foreign threats. They will not always be right, these new populists, and the solutions they advocate may be worse than the original problems. They may be prey for demagogues and false gods. But they have — some of them anyway — started to break out of the narrow, ideological spaces they had previously been confined in and may have taken a first, wrenching step toward restoring practical democracy.
Read the whole article – puts our political chaos in some historical perspective.