If you ask one of America’s most prominent historians about the two-party system in US politics you can expect to go from zero to enlightened in just over two minutes. Thank you, Sean Wilentz.
The framers of the US Constitution did not envision or plan for America to have political parties; they didn’t like the idea of ideological clans, believing them to be divisive and damaging to the commonwealth that they were building. But not for lack of irony, the very system these framers designed was fertile soil for partisan groups to arise.
Political controversy in the 1790s, just a few years after the Constitution was signed, saw the emergence of two groups, the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party, who disagreed on the federal government powers of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. They managed to iron out their differences however, and party politics ended for a sweet decade in 1816, a period that became known as the Era of Good Feelings – no, really.
Needless to say, the good feelings have since evaporated. And although we have cooperation across the aisle and bipartisan efforts on some issues (such as unlikely allies Cory Booker and Newt Gingrich on prison reform), the two-party sentiment is stronger than ever in US politics. Third parties come and go, but they risk splitting the vote and fracturing the thin unity that spans the left-right spectrum of politicians and voters, so they tend to bubble up and recede – but not without shaping the political agenda and forcing the major parties to refine their stance on important issues.
Sean Wilentz's most recent book is 360 Sound:The Columbia Records Story.