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The Evolution of Political Parties

Have our political parties always been this contentious? What purposes do political parties serve? Our two party-system was present at the founding, but the evolution of political parties in America has not been linear. Explore the nuances within liberal and conservative factions. Prepare to engage in discourse about the benefit and harm political parties cause and what role the people have in them.

Podcasts & Videos

Beyond the Legacy: The Evolution of Political Parties in America

  1. Watch and listen to the 60-Second Civics video below. If you'd like, you can also read along using the script that appears below the quiz. Or you can turn on the video's subtitles and read while watching the video.
  2. Take the Daily Civics Quiz. If you get the question wrong, watch the video again or read the script and try again.
Episode Description

Part 1

Dr. Donna Phillips: Welcome to Beyond the Legacy as part of the Civil Discourse, An American Legacy Project. Today we are joined by Dr. Lester Brooks, American history professor emeritus from International Community College. We're going to go into more depth about political parties and conservatism in American history. So, Dr. Brooks, we have we have talked briefly about the evolution of our political parties from our founding to today.

Dr. Donna Phillips: But this notion of conservatism that we see today and over time has evolved as well. Can you talk more about what that meant in our founding and in the different time periods in American history.

Dr. Lester Brooks: That there is that conservative thread throughout history? And sometimes people don't understand that the ideologies of the political parties have shifted over time. In the 1790s, the first two political parties, the Federalist Party and the Republican Party, sometimes called the Democratic Republican Party, sometimes called the Jeffersonian Republicans, while the Jeffersonian Republicans had faith in the people. That was Jefferson's thing.

Dr. Lester Brooks: He had a faith in the people, whereas the Federalist Party, they had a lot less faith in the people. If we look at Hamilton, Hamilton and even John Adams, the belief that the leaders should essentially be the ones that dictate or call the shots, that there should be a strong government, a strong central government, particularly Alexander Hamilton, a strong government and they produced no.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And that was the ideology that people adopted, a strong central government. Jefferson Now let's keep the central government a weak central government as parties evolve. By the time we get to the Jacksonian period, the Jacksonian Democrats, Jacksonian Democrats wanted minimal government interference, just as Jefferson minimal government, in fact interference. The more conservative a group would be the John Quincy Adams supporters, the national Republicans.

Dr. Lester Brooks: By the time we get to the 1850s and sixties, the Civil War era again, there is to some degree a new political party. Now we have the Republicans and the Democrats. The Democrats by the 1860s are the party of the South. They are going to support states rights. They're going to support the continuation of slavery. The they're going to support a weaker federal government that won't interfere in what they want to do.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Whereas the Republican Party, they wanted a stronger federal government. They believed and certainly they were split as well on both parties had their conservatives and their liberals. But it would be the more conservative party would have been the Democratic Party in the 1960s. As we get into the 20th century, the more Conservative party would be the Republican Party who did not like Franklin D.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Roosevelt's programs, this social welfare. In fact, Herbert Hoover, who was elected in 1928, believed that the people didn't need handouts, that the people were strong. They had proven themselves independently over time, that they would pull themselves up out of the quagmire of any depression. So this is a more conservative that the government doesn't need to bail people out, whereas the Democrats and Franklin D Roosevelt said, yes, we do have to have these federal programs because people need assistance.

Dr. Lester Brooks: By the 1960s, one of the key factors in all of this will be the civil rights movement and those who are supportive of the civil rights movement. Many belong to the Democratic Party, where, as the Republicans were rejecting the civil rights movement, the extension of those rights, any handouts, any radicalism that comes from the civil rights movement, the Republicans are rejected that are more conservative Republicans question the freedom free speech movement, the women's rights movement.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And so the the hippies of the 1960s. So there is this thread of conservatism that believed in tradition, the way things are structured, the way things should be done, that you don't go out in the street and and protest. So we see this conservative thread throughout American history and to some extent, there's a balance here between that liberal thread and the conservative thread that they certainly monitor one another.

Dr. Lester Brooks: They certainly provide each other with an ideology. And there's a unifying aspect to the different sides, even though the party designation has to some degree changed over time. But you do see the liberal and conservative threads throughout American history going back and forth. And to some degree, same arguments. 

Dr. Donna Phillips: Yeah, it's interesting the way the names have changed and the arguments and the ideologies are not pure. You know, they're not pure from their founding, but they are all represented by the different parties throughout the time.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And even within a political party. We have those differences. And in the civil War era, we had the conservative Republicans, we had the moderate Republicans, we had the liberal Republicans who were called the radical Republicans and conservative Republicans. They were angry at Lincoln. Don't get the slavery issue involved in things. Leave it alone. Don't touch it. Whereas the radical Republicans, the liberal Republicans were angry with Lincoln.

Dr. Lester Brooks: They were saying, You're dragging your feet on the slave issue. You've got to do something about emancipation. So here Lincoln is getting it from both ends of the spectrum. So we've always had within a political party, we've had these conserver of moderate and liberal elements within the different political parties.

Dr. Donna Phillips: And and some people today and even in our history have worried that political parties and factions are bad for our our government and our country. How would you what would we say to people to understand their role or how we might.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Absolutely. And the 1790s people did not want political parties. George Washington, in his farewell address in 1796, said specifically where he gave advice to the people Beware of political parties because they're going to divide you. They're going to divide you on the North-South issue, the East-West issue. So he said, beware of political parties going all the way back to Federalist number ten in the ratification process of the Constitution.

Dr. Lester Brooks: James Madison said factions, they're out for themselves. So early on in American history, people did not like political parties. They thought they were evil things and they would cause mischief. But by the mid 1790s, people are beginning to realize that political parties are here because they reflect different views. They reflect a certain ideology. They're arguing there is going to be a conservative way of looking at things.

Dr. Lester Brooks: There's going to be a liberal way of looking at things. And we see that reflected in the political parties. We see it in the 1790s and we've seen it ever since. Not reflecting the ideological view, presenting us with candidates that have the same type of view, the electioneering process in the 1790s. We really don't see that electioneering process.

Dr. Lester Brooks: It really only explodes in the election of 1828 where you really see an explosion of campaign gimmicks. The parades, the dinners, the banners, the buttons, all of that. And one of the reasons is because there was no popular vote in this country until the election of 1824. Now, naturally, to win the presidency, you have to have the Electoral College vote.

Dr. Lester Brooks: But literally, there was no popular vote until the election of 1824. You won't even see a popular vote tally until 1824 one. Now, if there's going to be this popular vote, you have to get the people out to vote. How do you get the people out to vote? You stage parades and banners and and then you have party conventions.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And so that's when we see the electioneering process really beginning to take off. But we've always had the ideology. We've had candidates who basically in 1790s, you ran on your reputation, John Adams reputation, Thomas Jefferson's reputation, the monitoring. There's always been the monitor, the Federalist Party monitor, the Republican Party. The Republican Party monitored the Jeffersonian Republicans and they watched each other like hawks.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And this is necessary. This is absolutely necessary because we, the people, need to know what the party in power is doing correctly and what they may be. And the best way to do that is to talk to the party on the outs, on the opposition party. So it's an informed. The parties have been very informative as informing us of not only an ideology in the 20th century.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Traditionally, if you are a Republican and you were the party of big business, you were the party that believed in minimal government interference. If you were a Democrat in the 20th century, basically you were the party of labor. You were the party of minorities in the urban areas. So here again, this ideology that is provided to us by the political parties as well as candidates, the monitoring and just the unification, the unifying Republicans all over the country, every state, they can get a message across because there are Republican Party organizations in each state.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Same thing for the Democrats. So if you want to get anything done, you contact that local Republican or Democratic committee and they can send it throughout the states and the Congress.

Dr. Donna Phillips: So they're here to stay.

Dr. Lester Brooks: They're here to stay. And how many? That's a good question, because we have had more than two parties, which is always a fear of a candidate to have that third party, because the third party means who's going to lose votes to that third party. And so that's always been a concern of candidates in an election.

Dr. Donna Phillips: And might that be connected to that remedy that James Madison talks about in Federalist ten? Now, a third party is not the exact same thing as all the factions and fight factions with factions. But I wonder if you foresee a world where we have multiple parties that then allow for more of the.

Dr. Lester Brooks: We probably do need more than two parties. One, I think one of the problems that the two parties are having is how do you contain everybody in it? One of the reasons the Whig Party fell apart in the 1850s. How do you keep the Northern Whigs and the Southern Whigs together, all because of the slavery issue, And they couldn't do that in the 20th century.

Dr. Lester Brooks: How do you keep the minorities labor together in a political party? And so again, there are only so many planks you can have in a party. And how do you handle that? In the 1850s, you do have one plank political parties, the American party, they were against immigrants. And so they were 100% Americanism because any immigrant, as far as they were concerned, immigrants were mostly Irish.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And what was wrong with the Irish? They said they were Catholic. They had allegiance to the pope. They were rowdy because they drank too much. So but with one plank, you don't draw that many people in your under your tent. Well, we now have Republicans and Democrats. How many people can you get in your tent with all the beliefs that people have today?

Dr. Lester Brooks: And so I think ultimately we're going to have to have more than just the two political parties, because do the two political parties represent everyone? And it'll be interesting to see how that takes shape. I mean, what is going to happen there?

Dr. Donna Phillips: So somewhere between the single issue party and the omnibus current two party system, maybe there's something in the middle there that would be a better remedy, that would better represent people and their views and.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And and how do you appeal? If if we have a population of 320 million in this country, do the Republicans can the Republicans speak to all those people? Can the Democrats speak to 320 million people? Is that are they now to wield is just too big to handle what kind of. And so we're getting back to number ten, what kind of factions are we going to have?

Dr. Lester Brooks: Are we as the Republican Party, represent the poor, that the Democrats represent the poor who represents the middle class? Who represents the elites? So will it divide over those issues? Will a divide over gender and identity issues because that's going to be an issue in the future. So where are these divisions going to take place and how will they develop and how do you appeal?

Dr. Lester Brooks: One reason we have only two is because you have to appeal to as many people as you can to get enough votes to win. But if you're not, if you can't appeal to that many people, then what do you do? So that's another problem. And that's what Madison was saying, that the factions will bump heads until there's a faction that provides for the general welfare and that one will draw enough people in their tent.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And that's the key. You have to draw enough people in your tent. Otherwise, you don't win the election. You don't get your ideal ology in place and what you want to accomplish. You can't do it unless you have enough people in your tent.

Dr. Donna Phillips: Thank you, Dr. Brooks.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Thank you.

Dr. Donna Phillips: This has been beyond the legacy as part of our civil discourse, an American legacy project. Thank you. Welcome to Beyond the Legacy, An Extension of the Civil Discourse and American Legacy Project. I'm gonna Philipps We previously talked with Dr. Lester Brooks about conservatism and its evolution through our different political parties and our American history. Today, we'll continue to go deeper and talk more about liberalism in the same time periods, as well as the nuances of how our political parties have evolved and changed over time.

Part 2

Dr. Donna Phillips: Thank you for joining us, Dr. Brooks.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Thank you for having me.

Dr. Donna Phillips: Sure. Dr. Brooks, starting in our founding era, how was liberalism portrayed and exemplified in our political parties?

Dr. Lester Brooks: The question in that early period seemed to be to what extent do you believe in the people, for instance, during the Constitutional Convention? George Mason. Question Whether you should allow the people to choose the president. He said that you might as well let a blind man choose colors as let the people choose an executive. So there is that question.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Do you believe in the people? The Jeffersonian Republicans seem to have more belief in the people. Yet the nuances of these political parties. It's we're talking in generalities. And when you look at political parties over time, there are these nuances and variations, and it's tough to generalize. But that's what we're doing here. So the Jeffersonian Republicans, Jefferson had a great deal of faith in the people, even though he also talked about a natural aristocracy.

Dr. Lester Brooks: So there is this sense of liberalism, this belief in the people, the people's involvement in their government. And we see this, although it's hard to look at a direct threat in these political parties from a political point in the 1790s and try and follow it all the way through today, it's just impossible because of the changes in their viewpoints, their ideologies and the circumstance, circumstances of the time in which they live.

Dr. Lester Brooks: But there is that sense of of liberalism in the 1790s, and as I said, it was based on how much faith you had in the people's involvement. By the time we get to Jackson, the Jacksonian Age, we seem to see the perception was that John Quincy Adams was more a leaders. At least that's what the Jackson Jacksonian Democrats portrayed him to be.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And so this liberalism would be on the Jacksonian Democrats. They were able to use various electioneering tactics to get the people out. They were much more successful at it than the followers of John Quincy Adams, the National Republicans. The Whigs engaged in electioneering. But certainly the Democrats were really skilled at it. And that election of 1828 really shows us an explosion of the electioneering tactics, because now there's a popular vote.

Dr. Lester Brooks: As of the election of 1824, there's a popular vote. And with the popular vote, that means you have to get the people to come out and support your candidate. So now we see that the the cookouts, we see the parades, we see the banners and the buttons and the slogans and all sorts of ways to get the people out to vote.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And if we continue into the Civil War and Reconstruction period, now we have the division, the Northerners and the Southerners are the party of the White South was the Democratic Party. They would be the more conservative party then the more progressive, the more Liberal Party would be the Republican Party. They were the ones who sometimes would talk about the radical Republicans.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Sometimes people forget that these political parties all seem to have a conservative group. They had a moderate group and they had a liberal group. And in the Civil War reconstruction here, the Republicans had a conservative group. They had moderates and they had the liberals, which were called radical Republicans at the time. These individuals, the radical Republicans, believe that government could be more actively involved in providing citizenship for the freed.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And so we see their attempts to bring about a more rights for the freedman in the aftermath of the war. So they would be viewed as that liberal wing of a political party. And so, again, there is that thread of of liberalism that we see, and it will continue in Theodore Roosevelt's time, beginning of the 20th century. We see the Progressive Party and again, it's the idea of using the government to provide for the people.

Dr. Lester Brooks: What can they bring about to uplift the people. So we get the government coming up with various programs that will improve the quality of life for the people. Programs such as the Meat Inspection Act. And this was just one concern of the progressives that there should be an inspection of the quality of food, the Food and Drug Act.

Dr. Lester Brooks: So again, the quality of food. And so, again, trying to use the government to improve the quality of life. So that sense of liberalism and we can take it on into the 1930s and Franklin D Roosevelt. So now we're hit with the Great Depression. Well, what should the government's response be? President Herbert Hoover An essential belief in rugged individualism, as he called, Let the people solve the depression themselves.

Dr. Lester Brooks: But President Franklin D Roosevelt believed that the government should be involved, that the government can help the citizen. And so he comes out with a host of programs, Civilian Conservation Corps Works Progress Administration, on and on, to try and help uplift the country out of the Depression. And so, again, what can the government do to assist Americans? In the 1960s, we now see the civil rights movement as part of of the governments and involvement, trying to support the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Dr. Lester Brooks: So we're beginning to see again there is this attempt where the government should get involved in various programs to improve the quality of life of the American citizen. So throughout history, we see this progressivism, this liberalism at different times by different parties in this evolutionary process, depending on the circumstances at the time and the beliefs of the party.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And that will continue and into the future. Which party will be more progressive, more liberal, which party will be more conservative into the future? And I'm sure that they will change over time.

Dr. Donna Phillips: Great. And is there anything else you want to add about the nuances of how our parties have evolved over time?

Dr. Lester Brooks: Again, it's so hard to talk about political parties because essentially what we've been doing is generalized. We've been painting in broad strokes, and at any given time in our history, we could really get into the nuances of these political parties. And as I said before, we could see that there is a conservative group among each of the parties.

Dr. Lester Brooks: We can see a moderate branch. We can see a liberal branch. And so it's it's hard to sort of talk about them in these broad stripes, broad strokes. But we have to do it in this sort of format, a generalization of these political parties and hopefully what will happen is the facilitators will be able to uncover the layers that we see in each political party because they all had various layers.

Dr. Lester Brooks: They were all at certain times at each other's throats. There were disagreements with political parties about how to to behave. There were, for example, just to give you one example. Election of 1800. Alexander Hamilton was a member of the Federalist Party. John Adams was the candidate for the Fellows Party in election of 1800. Alexander Hamilton wrote a pamphlet that was critical of John Adams and even said that he wasn't fit to be president.

Dr. Lester Brooks: So you do get these squabbles within political parties, and that shows you how complex this situation, this issue is. Political parties that they're not always in agreement with one another.

Dr. Donna Phillips: Thank you, Dr. Brooks. I think that's a great place to end and turn back the conversation to those who are viewing this video so they can deeply explore different periods of our history and the parties and and the events that have shaped the parties views and actions.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Thank you.

Dr. Donna Phillips: So thanks again for joining us for this series.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Appreciate it.

Dr. Donna Phillips: We appreciate you.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Thank you.

Dr. Donna Phillips: This has been Beyond the Legacy, of part of our civil Discourse: An American Legacy Project. Thank you.

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