How did the two-party system develop in the U.S. and what is meant by party eras? What are the major functions parties perform in a democracy and why are parties on the decline? What are the...

 How did the two-party system develop in the U.S. and what is meant by party eras? What are the major functions parties perform in a democracy and why are parties on the decline? What are the consequences of these events?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The emergence of political parties was not something originally envisioned by the Framers of the Constitution.  In Washington's Farewell Address, he prophetically speaks about the dangers of political factions and parties, something he saw emerging out of his own administration:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages & countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders & miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security & repose in the absolute power of an Individual: and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

Washington recognized that the emerging rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson was disastrous in terms of the nation's direction. Washington recognized it, but could not do anything about the emergence of political parties in the American governmental lexicon.  The development of Hamilton's Federalists and Jefferson's Democratic- Republican party set the course for the two party system in American politics.  

Party Eras are a construction of the two party system reality.  The Party Era refers to an extended period of time in which that faction enjoyed political power.  Hamilton's Federalists enjoyed the first Party Era, followed by Jefferson's ascendancy to President and the Democratic- Republican Era.  Party Eras are usually defined by critical elections that call for a change in leadership assertion.  For example, the Election of 1800 was seen as a "Revolution of 1800" because it ushered out Hamilton's Federalists as Jeffersonian Democratic- Republicans affirmed control of American political reality.  

Political parties are a thorny issue in American politics.  Proponents of the political parties believe that they provide a unified and cohesive voice so that a specific slate of issues can be heard.  The political party enables the individual who believes in a specific set of ideas to have their voice heard.  In the case of the Jeffersonian Democratic- Republicans, the voices of farmers and agrarian interests were represented.  This is an attractive feature of the political parties, as it shows like minded individuals supporting causes on a broad scale.  The critic of political parties would invoke the Washingtonian idea of "factions" as political parties can create a divisive political reality.  The critic of the political parties argue that individual voice becomes swallowed by the party and that individuals show more loyalty to the party than to the nation.  The goals of a republic can only be accomplished when individuals place the interests of the nations before any singular party.  In this light, parties perform functions in a democratic setting to both praise and derision.

It is difficult to see political parties on the decline in American government. The Republican and Democratic parties have a firm hold on the direction of American politics.  The decline might be in how Americans view both parties. The American public sees both parties with skepticism.  There does not seem to be any realistic threat of a viable third party.  Both parties feature a strong grip on the American political reality.  However, the results of sinking approval ratings in both parties could result in voter apathy and a political withdrawal of the body politic.  While there could be many potential consequences of sagging faith in the two party system, this reality can be seen as one of them.

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