Founding Brothers

28 February 2004

I complain loudly and often about the United States’ two-party system. I think it’s ludicrous to pretend like there are only two sides to every political issue, and I think that the sides the parties choose are often arbitrary at best.

It’s my disdain for out two-party system that has prompted me to institute a personal voting rule: I always vote for the strongest third-party candidate unless I feel strongly about the Republican or Democrat. As a result, my Presidential votes have been cast for Ross Perot, John Hagelin, and Ralph Nader. (This fall, however, I’ll make an exception and vote for the anti-Bush, which now seems like it’ll be John Kerry.)

I’ve always wondered why we have such a rigid two-party system in this country. I’ve asked around, but nobody’s ever been able to provide a satisfactory answer.

The other day I checked out a bunch of audiobooks to rip into iTunes. One of these was Founding Brothers by the controversial Joseph J. Ellis. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers (originally recommended by Duane Krings, and then by Kris) explores how those larger-than-life characters of American mythology, the Founding Fathers, wrestled with the incipient idea of American nationhood. (Though, considering, Ellis’ track-record with truth, one has to wonder how reliable his stories are.)

I’ve been listening to the book’s preface this week on my drives to and from work. It’s been interesting, if a bit tedious. Then, yesterday on the trip home, I came to the following passage. Though this is long, it is well worth reading. And comprehending.

It is truly humbling, perhaps even dispiriting, to realize that the [modern] historical debate over the revolutionary era and the early republic merely recapitulates the ideological debate conducted at the time, that historians have essentially been fighting the same battles, over and over again, that the members of the revolutionary generation fought originally among themselves. Though many historians have taken a compromise or split-the-difference position over the ensuing years, the basic choice has remained constant, as historians have declared themselves Jeffersonians or Hamiltonians, committed individualists or dedicated nationalists, liberals or conservatives, then written accounts that favor one camp over the other, or that stigmatize one side by viewing it through the eyes of the other, much as the contestants did back then. While we might be able to forestall intellectual embarrassment by claiming that the underlying values at stake are timeless, and the salient questions classical in character, the awkward truth is that we have been chasing our own tails in an apparently endless cycle of partisan pleading. Perhaps because we are still living their legacy, we have yet to reach a genuinely historical perspective on the revolutionary generation.

But, again, in a way that Paine would tell us was commonsensical and Jefferson would tell us was self-evident, both sides in the debate have legitimate claims on historical truth and both sides speak for the deepest impulses of the American Revolution. With the American Revolution, as with all revolutions, different factions came together in common cause to overthrow the reigning regime, then discovered in the aftermath of their triumph that they had fundamentally different and politically incompatible notions of what they intended. In the dizzying sequence of events that comprises the political history of the 1790s, the full range of their disagreement was exposed and their different agenda for the United States collided head-on. Taking sides in this debate is like choosing between the words and the music of the American Revolution.

What distinguishes the American Revolution from most, if not all, subsequent revolutions worth of the name is that in the battle for supremacy, for the “true meaning” of the Revolution, neither side completely triumphed. Here I do not just mean that the American Revolution did not “devour its own children” and lead to blood-soaked scenes a the guillotine or the firing-squad wall, though that is true enough. Instead, I mean that the revolutionary generation found a way to contain the explosive energies of the debate in the form of an ongoing argument or dialogue that was eventually institutionalized and rendered safe by the creation of political parties. And the subsequent political history of the United States then became an oscillation between new versions of the old tension, which broke out in violence only on the occasion of the Civil War. In its most familiar form, dominant in the nineteenth century, the tension assumes a constitutional appearance as a conflict between state and federal sovereignty. The source of the disagreement goes much deeper, however, involving conflicting attitudes toward government itself, competing versions of citizenship, differing postures toward the twin goals of freedom and equality.

But the key point is that the debate was not resolved so much as built into the fabric of our national identity. If that means the United States is founded on a contradiction, then so be it. With that one bloody exception, we have been living with it successfully for over two hundred years. Lincoln once said that America was founded on a proposition that was written by Jefferson in 1776. We are really founded on an argument about what that proposition means.When shown in this light, it all makes sense to me. The friction between Republicans and Democrats, and the structure of our two party system, is not something to chafe against; it’s inherent in our political system, it’s an integral part of our Constitution. It’s as if there wasn’t one country founded as the United States, but two, and they’ve been living together, hopelessly tangles, for two hundred years. It’s like yin and yang. It’s like a schizophrenic child. We cannot have one without the other. Democrats need Republicans, both for balance and to provide a source against which they can contrast their own ideas. Conversely, Republicans need Democrats for the same reasons.

Where, then, does that leave me, a dyed-in-the-wool independent? I’m just happy to see that there’s a reason for the to-and-fro.

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