Change is frightening. It’s disruptive and mysterious. It’s also constant. Embrace it or shape it and you can survive. Ignore it or resist it and you won’t. As it is in business, technology or climate, change in American politics is also constant. And more rapid than you might think. Though political change can feel like it moves at a glacial pace, it can move fast-sometimes violently. And often. Political historians will tell you that America has experienced six distinct political party periods in our 240-year history, each one ushered in by fairly swift changes, usually within the course of a few years. We refer to these periods as “party systems.”
What makes them distinct actually varies. The creation of a party-we’ve had presidents from four-the arrival of a new issue, the enfranchisement of a group of people or just a general shift in social or economic consciousness can all contribute to what signals the birth of a new and the death of an old party system. It happens about every 40 years. And it will happen again, without question. The current one turned 50 a few years ago. Straight math tells you, we’re due.
As humans, one of the things that our nature makes us susceptible to is the tendency to overstate the permanency of our current environment. Unless we have a concrete reason to believe something to the contrary, we assume things have always been the way they are, fundamentally. We also overstate the resiliency of current circumstances and underestimate just how different the future may look. Because we haven’t seen it. Projections are exactly that. Views of what the past might look like in the future. They’re dangerous that way.
To that point, if you ask most people, they’ll have some sense that though the specificity of political issues has changed over the years, our political history has always broken down along conservative or liberal lines and always will be. And in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, conservative means small government, liberal means more government. Which would imply that we’ve been locked in a 240 year struggle over “as little as possible” vs. “as much as it takes”, when it comes to government that is. It’s a fine narrative. One you could probably support with dozens of quotes from our founding fathers about the dangers of government infringement. The only problem with it is that it’s entirely false.
Here’s one of those times where context and history can help understand the past in a way that will lead us to the conclusion that we really don’t understand the future. At least not the way we think we do. Tracking a distinct line of demarcation between conservative or liberal views throughout the six American party systems is a pretty frustrating exercise. I tried. You can’t. And for good reason because the idea of liberal or conservative is something that we didn’t actually get around to arguing until the 20th century, and not really in the way that we do now until the last 50 years.
But what about all those quotes from our founding fathers about the evils of government, you might ask. Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” also wrote. “The best government is that which governs least.” Right?
Well, there’s a few things to consider there. The least of which may be the fact that he never actually said that.The first appearance of that quote in print was ten years or so after Jefferson died. But never mind that. There’s something more important. It’s what our founding fathers actually meant when they spoke of tyrannical government overreach. And it’s vastly different than what we think of today, and not just because it’s adjusted for technology and culture. Because it was fundamentally a different debate.
Not your father’s revolution…or is it…
When it comes to revolutions, the American Revolution is a big one. When it comes to impact on Americans however, you could make the argument that it’s actually a runner up to another one that happened 90 years earlier in England, the Glorious Revolution. That one’s a long complicated story that we won’t get into that involves a civil war, religion, the collapse of a monarchy, the rise of parliamentary power and all kinds of things in between that took decades to sort out. But the key takeaway from the blood and battles of 17th century England was that there was an ongoing and growing struggle over the balance of power between the monarchy and parliament. It’s a straight line to our founding fathers.
Ninety years later when the enlightenment movement came about and the “Rights of Man” became the battle cry for our revolution, that other revolution was still front of mind. And for our bristling revolutionaries, parliament had become synonymous with the interest of the people and the monarchy represented the interest of centralized government. For context, it’s important to remember that tragically few people in 17th and 18th centuries were granted the ability to elect their representatives. Most of mankind was still governed absolutely. So for the most part, when our founding fathers lamented government, they lamented the crown, because it was absolute, ordained and not democratically elected.
Our original “ask” as a colony was for representation in Parliament. Had we gotten it, history may have been different. The expansion of the distrust of all government, even representative government, was still a good century away. And it really only cranked up when that representative government started to tell people that they weren’t allowed to do things that they wanted to…like own other people. Which wasn’t really about government. It was about owning other people and the economic and cultural dependency on the practice in one region relative to another.
The point is, the debate is flexible. And it changes.
The Winding Path
The true political debate for the first 75 or so years of our country, the first two of our six party systems, had nothing to do with the size and power of the government as a whole. It was actually an ongoing debate between the power of the president and the power of congress, our version of the crown versus the parliament. The formerly English white land owners continued the argument from the previous 150 years because they didn’t really know any better. And they were scared to death that we would slide back into monarchy. It had very little to do with the role of federal government as a whole.
The next few systems would show us wander even further away from big government concerns. The third party system was a debate over slavery masked in state’s rights propaganda. Following that, the fourth party system was an interesting transition into trust busting and the elimination of corporate influence in government. By the end of the fourth party system, the Republican party, born at the dawn of the third system had ridden a wave of equal treatment of minorities and big business reform to eighty years of political dominance-a stark contrast to the modern conservative movement. Which makes you wonder, if conservative values are anchored in tradition, which traditions are we actually talking about here? The answer is entirely dependent on what point in time to choose to discuss.
Now that we’ve addressed and largely dismissed the notion of a permanent debate of big government versus small government, we are now freer to investigate the roots of our current situation. Which can be found in two significant events of the 20th century. The first was the great depression and the dawn of the “New Deal” Democrats of the fifth party system which focused, for the first time really, on the needs of the modern American working man at the expense of corporate shareholders and general taxpayers. The second was the final enfranchisement of African Americans that resulted from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s that ushered in the 6th and current political party system. These two events that happened within a generation of each other served to do two critical things.
The first was that for the first time, we created an immediate risk that those who possessed wealth, could be impacted by the need to support those that did not.
The second was to create a need to sustain a cultural, ideological racial divide that once was satisfied by law.
And the overall impact is this. On two impossible to change levels, we’ve created the “we’s” and the “they’s”. And if there’s one thing we generally struggle to get past in any large scale, it’s the fact that the we’s are always right…and the they’s are always wrong. Which is why our current political discourse sounds like Red Sox and Yankees fans debating who sucks more. It’s not getting sorted out. And it’s painful to watch.
If we decide to look at the problem objectively, a social safety net and the overnight enfranchisement of a minority group that will disproportionately require that safety net, raises a very real concern that we may grow our government programs at a level that will require disproportionate funding from the people who need it least. And it’s a fair concern, logically. But the reality is, it’s not going back to the old way. Because there never really was the old way without legal segregation or other unacceptable poverty and social justice issues. And people tend to forget those things when they think of the Mayberry they so desire. So we need to take the next step. The step that no one is interesting in taking just yet. The step that will likely kill the sixth party system and give birth the seventh. That step is to ask ourselves, if it’s not going back to the old way, and the old way is a subjective term relative to how old and what color or what gender you are, is this debate still relevant? The reality that has been building over the last 30 years is that that it’s not.
We’re not shrinking our government. Both Democratic and Republican regimes over the last thirty years have increased the size and scope of government. We haven’t had a balanced budget in twenty years and when we did it came under the party that is supposed to spend too much. We live to be eighty years old. Technology and communication have shrunk the world to the point that our requirement to defend ourselves is enormously expensive. Most of the medical treatments we use today to provide our quality of life didn’t exist forty years ago. The burden to educate our youth requires them to graduate from 18th grade before they’re competitive for employment because the things we make today are made with science and technology, not sweat and commitment. The list of current issues could go on and on. None of these things are good or bad. They simply are. Remember, adapt to or shape the change and survive. Ignore and resist and you don’t.
Nothing about the reality of 2015 America would have you believe that shrinking the government alone is the most effective strategy to advocate for in order to navigate the next fifty years, unless you were stuck in the irrelevant loop of the sixth party system debate. On the other hand, growing government with ineffective social programs that don’t work is also not a good plan. So let’s stop talking about either of those things and start talking about something else-solving 21st century problems, not complaining that the 20th century ones didn’t go your way. If you’re a stalwart of political parties, I understand that you can’t. But don’t worry, your parties, as they exist right now, are terminally ill. And history has shown us, they will die. If not in name, in form and function. So be wary of hanging on. History is generally not too kind to those who stay too long.
The Seventh Party System
42% of our voting population identifies as independent. Which means that presently 58% of the voting population, registered Democrats and Republicans have weakened their relevance as members of the electorate. That sounds harsh, but when our elected officials have increased their partisan voting records over the last forty years to levels not seen in modern political times and no one will address the meaningful issues discussed in the previous paragraph in a productive way, that’s where we are. People who blindly vote the party line, are no longer relevant. Which means that we independents have all the power. We also have all the obligation to drive change. And history shows, change comes swiftly when it does.
So, in service to making our country as great for the next 100 years as it has been for the last 240, let the seventh party system be the system of outcomes. Where we debate the how of our outcomes, not the if. No congress and no president can get elected without our consent. We are the king makers. So let’s choose wisely. Let’s choose those who stop debating climate change and start talking about solutions. Let’s choose those who are willing to throw out the current social safety net in service to creating one that actually works. Let’s choose those who talk about how our government can fund itself without beating around the same debates of taxes or debt. The change is coming. The 42% of the electorate identifying as independent voters, by the way, is the highest it’s ever been since pollsters started asking that question. And it’s growing. The winds of change are blowing.