The Origins of Our Strife
By: Connor Reardon
The state of American politics is an abysmal one. While in most countries, political office is associated with civil service, and if not honor, at least a sense of duty, the American understanding of politics is very different. This is because American political conditions have been in a warped and corrupt state for, at this time, roughly two centuries. Today, American politics is associated with all manner of incompetence, corruption, and talking shop lawmaking. Meaningful action is a rarity, and trust in the government is a luxury held by less than forty percent of Americans at any given time. The title of Congressman has become associated with pandering and lying to constituents, and selling oneself to lobbyists’ interests. Few presidents in recent history have been able to exit the White House with a firm consensus that they were successful, and Supreme Court Justices are, more often than not, ridiculed for following agendas more closely than they follow the constitution, and have been known to take into account of their decisions some incredibly flexible definitions of words. Meanwhile, while the federal machine is known for being corrupt, at war with itself, and inefficient, local politics are followed only by a handful in any given community. Most people take no interest or concern in local politics whatsoever.
This is clearly a dire state of affairs, and it brings one to ask the question of just how it is that our Republic found its way here. How has statesmanship become associated with what is essentially anti-popular and corrupt dealmaking? How can it be that special interest lobbies, through mere finance, are able to make or break a political career, and therefore effectively hold for ransom the stability of this country?
To understand the depth and causes of this state of ailment, we must look far back into American history. At the birth of the new republic, after the Articles of Confederation had been abandoned in favor of the Constitution we have today, the country was beginning to see political divisions along two lines. Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party and Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans were the two primary forces at odds with one another. The first party system effectively decided the fate of American politics as a whole, once the Federalist Party had become extinct. The far reaching effects of Democratic-Republican victory in the first party system are only present because the first party system was not only divided upon ideological grounds. It represented two forces, at odds with each other, with completely divergent interpretations of what politics meant, and the very nature of statesmanship.
The Federalists, with Hamilton at their head, and acting as their primary mouthpiece, represented the first and only vestige of the Aristocratic Idea within American politics. Alexander Hamilton had been known in his time for advocating what amounted to a monarchical State, though not quite a monarchy. And the Hamiltonian Federalists acted in accordance with a traditional and Aristocratic interpretation of the nature of politics. To them, one who holds political office was to do so in service to the State, and the national wellbeing. A statesman was, first and foremost, a civil servant. One who was expected to campaign for and use power with a sense of duty and responsibility. This contrasted very heavily with the Democratic Idea espoused by the Jeffersonian camp. They, being the “party of the common man” and being largely beholden to the interests of agrarians with little concept of the State, advocated a wider suffrage, and a more self motivated politics.
The Democratic-Republican conception of statesmanship and politics had existed ever since the party’s founding, as demonstrated by the practices of a great many of its party members, who campaigned through pandering as opposed to advocating firm principles. However, it was never put into such concise and meaningful terms as when Andrew Jackson crystalized this conception with his “Spoils System”. Jackson quite literally said “To the victor goes the spoils.” which not only referred to his idea that the party in power should be free to ruthlessly abuse its opposition and distort the State at its whim, but also that on a personal level politics was now understood as “spoils”. Essentially, Jackson was the climax of the Democratic-Republican idea of politics as, rather than the Hamiltonian-Aristocratic conception of dutiful civil service, a corrupt form of personal economics. An incredibly partisan concept, completely opposite to the Platonic concept of a Republic, whereby the victorious party enhances its power and the wealth of its members by selling public offices through appointment to its own people.
This corrupt economics still lingers today, and now more than ever we are seeing appointments to civil service offices made along partisan, rather than meritocratic, lines. These are the fruits of democracy as we understand it, ultimately. It is a system which rewards self motivated ends, pandering, corruption, and inefficiency. The Hamiltonian duty-sense ultimately failed because, unlike the Jeffersonian Democratic Idea, the Federalist Aristocratic Idea was not one of ruthless electioneering tactics, and of senseless pandering, but one of responsibility in statesmanship. Consequently, it failed to hold onto its power because it advocated a responsible platform based on mannered principles. The underhanded Democratic-Republicans were keen to exploit the Federalists’ sense of duty and civil service, and ruthlessly partisanized the American system to a point beyond which the Federalists could compete. This process only compounded in later party systems, wherein it became necessary to pander, lie, lobby, and seize “spoils”, in order for a party to even survive.
The legacy of the Democratic Idea of Jefferson has turned American institutions into a great battlefield, where politics does not mean politics, but merely corrupt economics. Where honest and trustworthy statesmanship is almost unheard of. This has led to great internal division at all levels of society, along party lines. It has also led to the establishment of an apparently unshakable party duopoly, and the formation of government after government which is at war with itself. All branches of government do not check the power of each other. Rather, they actively sabotage one another and try to expand their own power. Consistently uncooperative legislatures have resulted in the past several administrations being required to essentially rule through executive order, which means their achievements within their term can be easily undone by their successor. Additionally, the fruits of the Dem-Rep legacy have seen lawmakers appeal to lobbies to get elected, after which they go through absolutely every means to perpetuate their power, with the help of those same lobbies, in order to fulfill their promises and bargains with said lobbies.
With lobbying and partisanism entrenched in the system, one wonders what Washington and Hamilton would think of the current state of things. Nowhere else in the world is politics as violent and distorted as it is in this country, currently. Nowhere else in the world is there a constant power struggle between the branches of government, the undoing of one administration’s achievements in their entirety by the next, only for that process to be repeated after the next election, and legislative elections in the middle of a president’s term designed to sabotage his administrative capacity. What is worse than this state of affairs is that the vast majority of Americans recognize that something is deeply wrong with the present state of things. A great many, in fact, take part in movements and causes which seek to change the distant and broken establishment. But it is useless, as the establishment does not listen. We the people have become reliant on political outsiders to attempt to fix what is broken because it is common knowledge that political insiders are not trustworthy, are lethargic, and are not radical enough.
What we have all seen in the past several years of our lives, as well as what our parents have seen, and their parents, and their parents as well, was all arranged with the tragic conclusion of the first party system. That first party system, wherein the conception of politics which was inherently irresponsible, motivated by sectional interests, riddled with dishonesty and lies, managed to prevail over an Aristocratic idea of civil service. The force of light, honor, stability, and duty, was overwhelmed by the anti-traditionary forces, whose propaganda, dogmatism, and pandering, was too intense and appealing to the populace to be overcome.
Now, this is not simply some scathing attack on the Democratic-Republican Party and blind praise of the Federalist Party. Rather, it is an analysis of the crossroads which those two parties represented, and the ultimate concepts of politics which they espoused. Their surface-level ideologies and platforms could not be less relevant in this case. The nature of the men of those parties, and those parties’ practices and visions for the nature of American politics, however, is what is compelling. We can clearly see today what has become of the triumph of the party of Jefferson, of Jacksonian “spoils”, of all which has occurred in the wake of an onslaught of self-motivated career politicians. We have seen the very meaning of politics and the nature of government become bastardized over the course of this country’s two centuries and beyond of independence. We have seen the economic, social, and political consequences of our increasingly broken way of things.
And now more than ever, America is approaching another crossroads. As the partisan duopoly is gradually imploding, as new, rejuvenated anti-establishment forces seize control of the parties from within, there seems to be an impending referendum on the nature of all things American. The great question is, when the time comes, will we opt in for another century and beyond of “spoils”? Or will we look both behind us and ahead of us, and favor the honest, duty bound, honorable, and Aristocratic concept which Hamilton represented? If there is ever to be a meaningful change in this country, any future in which plans may be made on the federal level which will exceed a lifetime, any future in which we can again trust our government, it will have to stem from this. From a recognition of the errors of our present understanding of democracy, and republic.
It is incredibly unlikely that anytime soon there will be a new party which represents a return to the Aristocratic Federalist conception of civil service. However, in analyzing the consequences of the first party system, as well as how its consequences tie into present conditions, we can make clearly apparent the legacy it has had. Not only the legacy, but the potential of the other side, of what could have been. By tracing the heritage of the present state of disarray, only then can we get to the root of the problems which face our institutions, and supplant them with something greater.