How has the appeal of the major US political parties changed since 1789? Include the topics of   the Whig Party of the 1830’s, the Republican Party of the 1860’s and the Republican Party of...

How has the appeal of the major US political parties changed since 1789? Include the topics of   the Whig Party of the 1830’s, the Republican Party of the 1860’s and the Republican Party of the 2000’s.

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

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When George Washington left office, he warned against the presence of political parties.  Washington viewed factionalized government as striking at the essence of what American government should be:

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth...

Washington felt that political parties helped "to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts" of American government.  Despite this warning, once he left, the emergence of political parties in American government became an embedded part of the nation's experience.

The first emergence of political parties becomes evident once Washington leaves office.  The establishment of the Federalist party versus the Democratic- Republicans develops from Washington's former cabinet members.  Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson become the rallying points for each party system.  The Federalists saw that a strong federal government, emphasized by the construction of the national bank, would be vital for guiding the nation.  This was contrasted to the Democratic- Republican view point that emphasized a smaller and more localized understanding of government, along with an emphasis on agricultural growth as critical to the new nation.  These two approaches in its view of power- one seeking to expand it from a centralized position and another one seeking to disseminate it amongst different agencies- would help to form the basis for political parties appealing to the public's imagination.  Political parties used message and relevance to connect to the public.  The Federalists and Democratic- Republicans started this process.

Such a desire to assert the vital nature of the political party agenda to the mindset of voters continued in the Second Party System.  The Democratic- Republican party had grown into the Democrats led by President Jackson.  This vision of the Jacksonian Democratic party emphasized executive leadership as critical to the guidance of the nation.  The Democrats saw that the other branches functioned best when they were being led by the Executive branch and enjoyed the patronage this support offered.  The contrasting view was articulated by the Whig Party, who favored legislative assertiveness of power over the Executive- minded model of the Democrats.  Led by Henry Clay, the Whigs favored protectionist control and sought to create impasses where Jackson wanted executive control to dominate the crafting of public policy.  This growth of political partisanship was significant in how power was to be viewed, as well as directly suggesting that individuals benefitted depending on which party they supported.

The growth of the Republican party can be tied to the national divisiveness that was present in the issue of slavery.  The Whigs had emerged as a political party that wrestled with the slavery concept. As Henry Clay, "the great compromiser," tried to negotiate the issue away, slavery was proving to be just too intense to vitiate through legislative appeals.  Clay's death helped to bring about the end of the Whig party because members could not sustain the negotiation and could not counter the intensity featured in the issue of slavery leading up to the Civil War.  The Republican Party emerged as the anti- slavery party.  Its platform was lucid:  Reject slavery and advocate for its abolishment.  Unlike the nuanced and negotiated approach that Clay sought and could not be maintained once he died, the Republicans offered a stark contrast to the Whigs, who ended up becoming splintered into different parties as a result of its stance on the issue of slavery.  The appeal of both parties to different segments of the population, one that was arranged on ideological grounds, became most evident in this period of American History.

The development of the Republican party as one that took central issues and made them the focus of their platform was critical in its growth.  From 1860, the two dominant parties in American History have been the Republicans and the Democrats.  While there has been some growth in other parties, the Republicans and Democrats have been the locus of American politics for over the last 150 years.  The appeal of both has been on issues and also in cultural appeal.  The Republicans and Democratic parties have become associated with a "particular" group of individuals with a certain set of beliefs.  As time has passed, both parties' ability to connect with voters have also been demonstrated through the elevation of specific personalities that have emerged as leaders in each party.  Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Bill Clinton have become synonymous with the Democratic party as much as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush have become associated with the Republican brand name.  The Republican party of the 2000s have developed in this light, associating itself around both issue and specific personality in its appeal to the American public.  The ascension of George W. Bush as President in one of the most contested presidential elections in American History was critical in this growth.  The bitter and contested nature of the election, one where the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision essentially handed the Presidency to Bush, helped to establish the timbre of party growth in the new century.  Either one was going to be for the party in power or rally as a force against it.  In this case, the party in power was the Republicans and they understood how power was to be disseminated while they were in control.

The Republican Party of the early 2000s associated itself with the policies of George W. Bush.  Much of this became enveloped with the issue of terrorism as a result of the attacks of September 11.  The Republican party was viewed as the party of power, the party of the Executive Branch, while the Democrats were viewed as the legislative control with their presence in both branches of Congress.  As America moved into economic challenges throughout the Bush presidency, the use of federal stimulus packages and centralized approaches to solving economic hardship became of critical importance to the Republican party and offshoots within it.  As time passed, two distinct branches of the Republican Party developed, appealing to different constituents in the party's base.  Mainstream Republicans were becoming increasingly challenged by anti- establishment Republican groups such as the Tea Party group.  While not a formal political party, the Tea Party emerged as a critical aspect of the Republican party in midterm elections such as 2010, when mainstream candidates were defeated in favor of those who supported Tea Party initiatives, such as rejection of federal stimulus money, decrease in taxes, and more localized control where federal government had been present.  As the election of President Obama has galvanized many Republicans to stand against him, the Republican, as a party, still struggle with the presence of the Tea Party as opposed to more established brand of the party.  How the party navigates this division and its appeal to the public will help to significantly define its future.  How both parties continue to appeal to both the public as well as Washington's idea of the "unity of government" will be critical to the experiment that desires to "form a more perfect union."

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