Independence, Democracy, and a Republic

The problem with our perception of tradition is that we always imagine tradition to be much older than it really is. Unlike many people’s perceptions of patriotic history, the United States did not officially adopt the phrase “under God” for the Pledge of Allegiance until the 1950s. In the fashion world, diamonds only became a girl’s best friend in the 1930s when De Beers decided to make its stake in the U.S economy. And then there is this tradition of a two-tier political party system in the United States.

Since the United States’ official implementation of the Constitution in 1789 we have had strong and very active political parties. The first of these was the Federalist Party, organized by the first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in 1789, the same year the French overthrew their government to form a democracy. Whether authentic or not, Hamilton claimed his party represented the people of the United States and this party held significant power over the United States government until 1801. Since then, U.S citizens witnessed the growth of hundreds of different political parties catering to various interests. This diversity is testimony to the United States’ ideological strength for acceptance, bearing examples such as the National Woman’s Party (1913-1930), the Communist League of America (1928-1934) and the Vegetarian Party (1948-1964).

This diversity, while still present, changed dramatically in political dynamics shortly after Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1938. After over 150 years of power shifts and changing platforms, the United States’ power centralized within a two-party political system that exists to this day. There may be hundreds of parties on the presidential ballot come this November, but only two are considered viable contenders for the political crown. This is a recent tradition that many consider fixed and immovable.

Some countries like India, suffer from accusations of a one-party system, whereas other more recent democratic countries have a wider dispersal of power among their political parties. However, the oldest liberal democracy in the world remains two-tiered. The rigidity and recalcitrance of the United States’ two parties’ political processes has sparked numerous complaints among pundits and politicians. One recent politician has used this problem as a springboard for his presidential nomination.

Ralph Nader’s not-so-recent call to arms has focused on the immovability and entrenched interests of the Republican and Democratic Parties. His adamant opposition to the two parties found exception most consistently in the recent drop out in the Democratic race, John Edwards. CNN’s political ticker, January 1, 2008, reported:

Nader, who has long said Democrats and Republicans are almost indistinguishable, called Edwards his party’s “glimmer of hope.”

After Edwards dropped out, it took a little over a month before Nader announced on Meet the Press his presidential bid. His move elicited accusations from both Democratic contenders, who characterize Nader as a political parasite latching liberal voters away from the Democratic Party base. Ralph Nader was not the first third-party nominee to destabilize the two-party system. It was only sixteen years ago that Ross Perot ran on a third-party ticket, siphoning votes from George Bush and allowing a young and highly charismatic Democratic Governor of Arkansas to win the ticket to the White House.

Nader’s bid might be problematic, but the underlining principle behind it holds merit. There is a need to destabilize and, perhaps, undo the strict confines of our two-party system. Recent awareness of Congressional corruption charges only hint at the possible problems inherent in an unchanging political system. And it is hard to change such a political system. Just look at the rate of incumbent victories in the U.S Senate. Since 1914, 80% of U.S senators have won reelection. In a system that fosters and protects political incumbency, there is a acute need for new political organizations and strategies.

Perhaps Nader’s idea is correct but his method is flawed. If we applied an economic analysis to the problem, it would seem more probable to make change through the consumer base, in this case, the voter. For example: Imagine what would happen if 80% of the country registered Independent. Would the Republican Party still hold winner-take-all elections in the majority of states? Would the Democratic Party even attempt to maintain their Superdelegate system?

The United States is a republic and adheres to democratic principles. But before these concrete necessities and introduction of the U.S Constitution in 1789, there was the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Perhaps Independent is where we need to return.

  • Stalin

    Mike,

    A very well written piece. I agree that the 2 party system is not that old of a tradition. Long live the Whigs!! It would be nice to see the 2 majors not treat everyone else like 2nd class citizens.

    I have a question about you bringing up the pledge of allegiance. It is true that “under God” was not added until the 50’s. Also in the 50’s “In God We Trust” was printed on our currency. However, did you know that “I God We Trust” likely came from Francis Scott Key’s final stanza of the Star Spangled Banner, “”…And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust’.” So there is a little more tradition than you might think.

  • Michael

    Stalin, good point. In fact, it is interesting to note that the Pledge of Allegiance was written and dispersed to schools across the country in an effort to drum up patriotism during the official declaration of the World’s Fair Grounds in Chicago near the turn of the century.

    There is always roots to everything– but it is how we package it together that makes it important to query. The five pointed star that is now a symbol of Israel and Judaism was appropriated in the mid 20th century, and yet many centuries ago, stood for different religious practices. There is a diverse traditional background to this symbol, but it was how it was packaged as a patriotic and national symbol that made it effective and power today.

    One other interesting example, why I go off on a tangent, is the swastika, which was an ancient Indian symbol that is used throughout Asia as a positive image. The Nazis appropriated it (but drew it upside down by mistake) and presto– new and dark meaning.

  • Michael, I thoroughly enjoyed this commentary. Well-written and researched. The restructuring of the legislative branch is an ongoing discussion between my husband and I. For the life of me, I do not understand why there are not such things as term limits to prevent one from running a dictatorship on their state or at the federal level. Take for example Ted Kennedy, I think he’s been a Massachusetts senator since the state was a colony.

    I was having a discussion with an Uncle of mine whose from Massachusetts, and is a Democrat. I mentioned that there seemed to be no term limit on Ted Kennedy’s seat. I asked him why the voters keep reelecting Teddy, he simply answer me “because he’s Ted Kennedy.” I couldn’t believe he wanted me to take that at face value. He left me with no substance behind the comment whatsoever.

    The part of your piece I took issue with, and of course you knew I’d take issue with something, was you assessment that “perhaps independent is where we need to return.” One could argue that political issues were a lot less vulgar in the days of the constitution’s inception. I have always seemed to fall on the federalist side of the issues. However, way back when, it didn’t seem like we had wedge issues such as abortion, gay marriage, or legalizing drugs. The political differences have changed from then to today. We argue over political views which may not have applied back then. I think that’s why we have divided down party lines on some of the more divisive issues. With our country so split on these core issues, it would be impossible for Conservative Republicans to even look at an independent candidate. Most of the independent candidates tend to be somewhat liberal on the issues I mentioned.

  • Michael

    Conservative Gal– good points and I agree with you about term limits, especially for people like Ted Kennedy.

    My urging to go Independent was not to vote FOR Independents, but rather to register Independent– and then vote for whomever you desire. I do realize this will hinder primaries in states that have closed elections, but if enough people did this, that rule would be wiped clean.

    Independents can be conservative or liberal — vote for Green candidates or “Red” candidates, it wouldn’t matter. What would happen, though, is a forcing of these two parties to begin to cater to their lost constituency and realize they can no longer take things for granted.