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.