In the United States Presidential election of 1848, Whig candidate Zachary Taylor emerged victorious over Democratic candidate Lewis Cass with a 163/127 vote in the Electoral College. Taylor was the last elected Whig President, and Millard Fillmore—the Vice president who finished Taylor’s term after he died in 1850—was the last Whig to serve in the office at all. In 1852, Democratic Party candidate Franklin Pierce trounced his Whig opponent, Winfield Scott, with a resounding 254/42 vote in the Electoral College.
By the next election in 1856, the upstart Republican Party—established in opposition to slavery—made an impressive showing for a newcomer. Democratic candidate James Buchanan took 174 electors, winning the election, but Republican candidate John Frémont took an impressive 114. Millard Fillmore, now with the ‘Know-Nothing’ party (successor to the already-defunct Whig party) carried one state (Maryland) and took only 8 electors.
Since the election of 1852 went to the Democrats, our system has been dominated by the same two parties: Republican and Democrat. Other parties have fielded candidates, even winning electors sometimes, but have never won election to the Presidency. Very few high political offices at either the federal or state levels have gone to people outside of these two parties in well over 150 years now. Third parties are, essentially, a minor distraction and an occasional force in local politics.
Our political system is built in a way that favors a relatively stable two-party system, as opposed to a frenetic U.K.-style multiparty system. There are pros and cons to either arrangement and, truth be told, I often think that we ought to shift toward some sort of hybrid system that incorporates some of the best elements of the two. Perhaps our Senate could be structured as it is (favoring two-party control), and the House could be re-structured (with a Constitutional amendment, of course) to more resemble a parliamentary multiparty system. That’s just something to think about on a boring afternoon.
What I do think it’s time for, though, is a change. Our system favors two political parties, but nothing says it has to be the same two. In fact, the first parties of our two-party system were the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists. Later, the Democratic-Republicans gave way to the Democrats. The Federalists gave way to the Whigs. Then, as discussed above, the Whigs gave way to the Republicans. There’s no reason that the Republicans or Democrats (or both!) can’t give way to new parties. Things change. Just because this has been our political dichotomy for over 150 years doesn’t mean it has to be that way for the next 150—or even for the next 5.
I’m not a member of either of our political parties. I align philosophically closer with the Republicans than I do with the Democrats, but the Republicans have a nasty tendency to espouse the right beliefs and then . . . not follow them. The burgeoning federal deficits and expansion of federal power under President George W. Bush (R) are fine examples of what I mean; how can one make record-setting federal deficits on one hand, while saying you’re a ‘fiscal conservative’ on the other? This ‘free market’ Republican spent billions of your dollars on bailing out private companies that should have been permitted to go bankrupt, increased federal regulation of industry, expanded the size and breadth of the federal government, and more.
What’s even more telling is what he didn’t do, even with his own party controlling Congress for much of his Presidency. He didn’t reform the tax code. He didn’t fix (or plan for the dismantling of) our flawed, broken, and soon-to-be-bankrupt Social Security program. He didn’t rein-in federal spending—in fact, he didn’t veto anything the Republican Congress sent to his desk, no matter what it cost or how far outside the proper limits of federal authority it fell. He didn’t restore, or even try to restore, the balance of power between the federal government and the states. Aside from the assertive foreign policy against radical Islam (which is, of course, quite important), I can’t tell what differentiated the Republicans from the Democrats. We conservatives were faced with the same problem in the 2008 election: our choices were Democrat and Democrat-light.
The cliché is well-worn, but sadly quite accurate: the two parties are, in many ways, one and the same. We conservatives aren’t much better off with Republicans in charge than we are with Democrats in change. I suspect that most liberals would say the same with the party names reversed.
Speaking from the conservative side, I want a party that actually does the things it says it will when it gets to the halls of power. I want a party that will restore the federal republic and the delineation of authority between the federal government and the states. I want a party that will reform the tax code so 53 percent of the population doesn’t have to carry the entire burden for the other 47 percent. I want a party that trusts the people and empowers the people, not themselves and their bureaucracy. I want a party that will be true to its ideals and make things happen instead of just keeping the seats warm for 4 or 8 years while we plow ahead on the road to tyranny and socialism.
I’m not convinced the Republican Party can be that party without a whole-sale top-to-bottom reformation; I think, at this point, it might be easier to start a new one. The ‘Contract With America’ and Republican revolution in 1994 (and the Reagan revolution before it) showed that a majority of Americans are on-board with common-sense, conservative, free-market ideals, but now we need a party that will actually follow through with them when it gets to the Capitol and/or the White House. I’m tired of Republicans talking a good game and then falling back on the same old big-government bull-s*** they said they opposed as soon as we put them in power.
Perhaps the ‘tea party’ movement, which has many of the right ideas, can organize itself into a new political party. Maybe the new party comes from somewhere else. Wherever it comes from, I hope it gets its act together soon. I would love to be able to vote in 2012 for some ‘change I can believe in.’
In times like these, the ‘stability’ of the two-party system is its worst feature. It is too stable. It’s too centrist and wishy-washy. It has become stagnant. The parties believe nothing strongly, and are utterly incapable of doing anything that breaks the mold or jumps us out of our national rut. We argue around the edges and avoid discussing the fundamentals, lest we offend anybody.
It’s time for a little political instability to shake things up. A new party (or two) could potentially do the trick. Even if the existing two parties manage to hang on and survive, they’ll at least be forced to get back to the basics and get back in sync with their stated values.
Note: Mark Trauernicht pointed out to me that President Taylor died in office in 1850; his Vice President, Millard Fillmore—also a Whig—finished out his term. As such, Fillmore was actually the last Whig president. I corrected my introductory paragraph to state that Taylor was the last elected Whig president and made a few other minor clarifications.