The 27 million people who watched President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on Feb. 7, 2023, witnessed the spectacle of a family divided, with boos and cheers perfectly arranged along party lines.
Are political parties getting in the way of the nation’s well-being? For the approximately 40% of those polled in January 2023 by the Gallup Organization who say they are neither Democrats nor Republicans, but independent, as well as any viewers of the State of the Union speech, the answer is likely “yes.”
As a historian who has spent years studying America’s early political leaders, I can say with confidence that today’s Americans are not the first to fret over the potential harm that parties can inflict. And yet, facts indicate that it wouldn’t be wise to turn away from traditional political organizations.
‘The greatest political evil’
Distrust of parties has a long history.
“The great Affairs of the World, the Wars, Revolutions,” a young Benjamin Franklin wrote, “are carried on and effected by Parties.” In 1731, when Franklin wrote that sentence, the American nation hadn’t even been born and the young printer was styling himself as a proud member of an expanding British empire.
But he feared that parties’ particular agendas would eventually thwart the general interest. In public affairs, Franklin sadly concluded, very few “act with a View to the Good of Mankind.”
During the 18th century, the term “party” simply meant “faction.” It automatically conjured the specter of inner division, fragmentation and social chaos.
In his 1796 Farewell Address, President George Washington, for example, warned against “the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.” Parties, for him, were like a “fire.” While a fire can be useful, when unquenched it will burst “into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.” Finding ways to moderate “the fury of party spirit” was for Washington pivotal to the survival of the entire nation.
In 1780, the Articles of Confederation, the feeble first American constitution, was about to be enforced. John Adams had already made a strong case against the excesses of parties.
“There is nothing I dread so much, as a division of the Republick into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil,” he wrote.
Adams, apparently, was an oracle of sorts.
‘Mischiefs of faction’
Americans have always had the sense that parties, by and large, can grow to be a tumor on society.
In order to convince the states to switch to a proper constitution, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay authored the Federalist Papers, to date one of the most influential collections of essays in political theory.
They gave their full attention to parties. The Constitution, they argued, should be ratified precisely to curtail the “mischiefs of faction,” as Madison said in Federalist #10.
And in Federalist #15, Hamilton stressed the same argument: The Constitution would be the best answer to the spirit of faction, “which is apt to mingle its poison in the deliberations of all bodies of men.”
But poisons, as it happens, can be remedies as well. The authors of the Federalist Papers never suggested that Americans should get rid of parties entirely.
While parties often are local groups attempting to advance their narrow agendas, Madison, Hamilton and Jay insisted that those forces could be harnessed to promote the common interest.
Their recipe was to enlarge the nation. In a big nation, they claimed, many competing interests would naturally appear, and it would be much harder for any given “factious leader” to rise to power.
Any group, or lobby, would have to build on general principles and shared values, not on a narrow agenda. Any faction would thus morph into a political party in a positive sense.
Let the nation expand: “The influence of factious leaders,” Madison wrote in Federalist #10, “may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.”
Democracy ‘unthinkable’ without parties
Modern political science acknowledges the value of political parties. Some scholars have also said that parties are the “makers” of democratic governments: “Modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties,” wrote American political scientist Elmer Schattschneider in 1942. Not everyone agrees on this, of course, but parties today can be a bulwark against the pettiness of identity politics and tribalism.
In other words, parties can still provide culture. As the authors of the Federalist Papers assumed, they can be a good substitute for family, clan, club, team. And just like a team or a family, they can move people’s hearts, not just their brains.
In Federalist #17, again, Hamilton recognized the issue.
“It is a known fact in human nature, that its affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object.” A person, Hamilton explained, “is more attached to his family than to his neighborhood, to his neighborhood than to the community at large.”
Parties can be the solution to this very problem. They can be the cement of society. People wave their party flags, or sip their coffee in their party mug, because they are passionate. But the passion that their party elicits can overlap with the general interests of the nation, or the world.
Parties can be at once the source of personal identity and the wings that take citizens to the sky.
Parties have repeatedly let people down. They have stifled the “cords of affection” while fomenting division – and they keep doing this. But they can also act to promote the common interest.
Nothing is decided yet. As Madison stated in Federalist #14, “Hearken not to the unnatural voice which tells you that the people of America, knit together as they are by so many cords of affection, can no longer live together as members of the same family.”
They still can. And political parties can help them.