Political factions are vogue

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Political factions are vogue

What do the Federalist Papers #10 and #51 say about factions? How, when, and why were political parties first formed in the United States? Has the system changed since the founding of the nation? What has remained the same?

At the founding of America, the writers of the Constitution warned against factions and political parties. This warning has apparently gone unheeded, because today more than ever American citizens are polarized in their political affiliation between the two major parties active within politics. This division between factions has an early beginning within the political landscape and dates back to the very first presidential administration under George Washington (1).

As early as 1787, James Madison was writing about the dangers of factions in Federalist #10. Madison saw the creation of factions within a popular government eventually leading to violence from competition while jockeying for power. There is no reasonable way to keep factions out of politics though because the fuel that feeds the fire of factions is liberty (2). Further, Madison explains that factionalism is a part of human nature, and part of the flaws of humankind. The solution is certain measures should be implemented to impede a majority faction from abusing a minority. This comes to be known as “checks and balances” and establishes the foundations of the argument for a representative republic instead of direct democracy. Madison goes to lengths to defend the checks and balances within Federalist #51. He bolsters his discussion by explaining how a republic defends against tyranny from rulers, but tyranny of a majority of society over some other portion3.

Despite apparent dangers of these warnings, it did not take long for politicians to ignore them. The first factional dispute occurred within the first Presidential administration between James Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson (1). Both men had a very distinct idea on the purpose, size, and power execution of government, specifically the Executive branch. This debate carries on today and is central to public administration (4). Jefferson was the first to organize public support and created the Democratic-Republicans. With the organization and support of this first party Jefferson became the Third President of the United States. 

Throughout America’s political history there have been six major party systems from the beginning to present day. We see the first factional conflict occur around 1788 between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. After the failure of the Federalists to connect with the people a new party was introduced to fill the vacuum in 1828 known as the Whigs. The Whigs and Democrats fought for control right up until the Civil War when the Whigs were unable to reconcile the differences between their constituents in the North and the South. Around 1856 is when the Grand Old Party was born, and the Republican and Democrat factions who are in existence today (1)

Not only have parties come and gone from the political stage, but their characteristics have changed over time as well. The characteristics shift from single party dominance, shared dominance and the occasional realignment. With realignment we see the parties incorporating new groups of constituents, like Dixiecrats fleeing the Democrat party in the 1960’s, and Blacks leaving the Party of Lincoln (1). New political philosophies have marked these realignments as well. For example, Democrats were initially resistant to some causes like civil rights, but that no longer holds true. Each realignment can be traced to a significant social event within American history.

There remains a constant despite the six changes and numerous shifts in ideology. This constant is the two-party system of American politics. Political systems in other countries like Canada are similar in their methods of election and selection, but these countries have multiple parties. Given the history and strength of the current political parties it seems that the two-party system will thrive well into the future.

Through internal factional disputes, realignments, wars, economic turmoil and numerous other stresses and conflicts--political parties within American government remain. Even during times of dissatisfaction with governance performance, the American population seems content with the two-party system. 

1. Bibby, John, and Brian Schaffner. Politics, Parties and Elections in America. Cengage Learning, 2011. 

2.Madison, James. Federalist #10

3.Madison, James. Federalist #51

4. Kettl, D. (2002). Transformation of governance: Public administration for twenty-first century America. The Johns Hopkins University Press

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