Party Politics

views updated Jun 08 2018

Party Politics

Fredrik Logevall

"A splendid little war," John Hay called the 1898 conflict between Spain and the United States. It was splendid, he told his fellow Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, because it had moved things "our way." In other words, military victory and overseas expansion were helping President William McKinley and his Republican administration against William Jennings Bryan's Democrats. "I do not see a ghost of a chance of Bryanism in the new few years," remarked Hay. At the time, the summer of 1898, John Hay was the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. Before long he would be appointed secretary of state. Thus, his was no ivory tower statement pronounced far from the halls of power. Rather, his comments on the connection between party politics and foreign policy came from the highest level of American officialdom.

The ambassador was not claiming that McKinley had chosen war to help the Republican Party, although it was widely believed that the president would have suffered politically if he had not requested a declaration of hostilities against Spain. What Hay was saying was that the course of American foreign policy was inextricably tied to domestic politics in the United States, and that the party in power has partisan politics partly in mind when it acts on international developments. Hay saw nothing wrong with this. The developments in 1898 meshed with his own worldview; he had no objection to the use of force "when necessary," and he saw an imperial push into the Caribbean and Pacific as potentially helpful to his business friends. If the Republicans benefited as well, so much the better. Hay believed in the GOP, considering it the "party fit to govern," a bulwark against inflation, radicalism, and civil disorder. Bryan's Democratic-Populist rural alliance almost won the 1896 presidential election on free silver, a domestic issue. Hay now judged that the Republicans would pick up strength on foreign policy and could establish themselves in power for a decade or more.

This is by no means an unusual example in American history. If anything, John Hay represents less than the usual identification of domestic politics with U.S. foreign relations. He never ran for elective office, although other secretaries of state have, from Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams to William H. Seward and James G. Blaine on down to William Jennings Bryan, Charles Evans Hughes, James F. Byrnes, and John Foster Dulles. Nor did Hay depend on politics for his living after his early thirties. Hence, he was not forced to think of the next election in terms of personal financial survival.

In contrast, most of those who have shaped American foreign policy have been professional politicians, accustomed to thinking of individual recognition, career progress, and personal income in connection with party favor and victory at the polls. So it has been with presidents of the United States, the most important makers of foreign policy. So also with secretaries of state and defense, at least until the last few decades, when these offices have usually been held by nonpoliticians (who, of course, are bound to the president's political positions). So with a number of those who have headed American diplomatic missions abroad; now, as always, many of these assignments are handled under political patronage. So also with congressmen who specialize in international matters and with other leaders in both major parties, in and out of office.

Could these individuals, being practical party politicians, be expected to forget domestic politics when they weigh foreign policy alternatives? Hardly. And, as a general rule, they do not. No doubt some have obsessed about it more than others, but all, or virtually all, have operated from the assumption that if they do stop thinking of the next election or ignore the reaction of the other professional politicians in Congress and in the field, they are not likely to be able to put across their programs. In the words of the historian Fred Harvey Harrington, "Success in American foreign policy, like success on domestic issues, requires continuing success in domestic politics."

Which is not to say it is only about winning elections. As the Hay example illustrates, politicians often have had particular and deeply felt ideas about international matters, ideas that their party (or a large segment of their party) have shared or endorsed. Often the candidates of the opposing party have had different ideas. Foreign policy, therefore, is about choosing among real policy choices as well as getting partisan advantage from those choices.

That said, the argument here is that elections are particularly important in determining why the United States has followed the international course it has. In America the jockeying for political advantage never stops. Viewed from a president's perspective the next election (whether midterm or presidential) will arrive all too soon, and presidents are well aware that voters are capable of giving incumbent parties the boot (as they have done with regularity since 1945: in 1952, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1992, and 2000). Moreover, the overall state of a president's relations with Congress and his standing in public opinion deeply impact his ability to get things done and, in general, to lead effectively. As Ralph Levering reminds us, political campaigns are significant because they indicate which foreign policy issues each candidate believes his opponent is vulnerable on, and which issues each candidate believes are likely to strike a response chord in the voting public. "The interplay between candidates and voters, culminating in the voting first in the primaries and then in the general election in November, thus establishes (a) the winners who will have primary responsibility for shaping U.S. foreign policy, and (b) the broad parameters of acceptable political discourse on foreign policy for the foreseeable future."

It seems obvious, then, that those who analyze U.S. foreign policy decisions should carefully consider the role of domestic politics in those decisions and in what happened afterward. Analysis must, of course, also take into account geostrategic, economic, cultural, moral, and other influences. Sometimes these influences, rather than practical politics, have been decisive. More often than not, however, the nonpolitical factors have been interwoven with political considerations, which need to be identified and explained. Although students of the interplay between domestic politics and foreign policy often include within their purviewand properly soa wide range of potential influences, including public opinion, the media, and ethnic groups and other special interest groups, the focus here is on party politics, in particular on the impact of partisan imperatives and election-year concerns on presidential decision making in foreign affairs.


Over the years scholars have produced some excellent special studies of the interrelationship between politics and diplomacy. What is striking, though, is how often studies altogether omit mention of domestic politics. Some do so because they tell the story in the old-fashioned way, recording exchanges of diplomatic notes and making no attempt to get behind the formal documents. Others dig much deeper yet still treat the professional politicians involved in the making of foreign policy as though they were not politicians at all.

Historiographical trends among diplomatic historians, it is clear, have conspired against a prominent place for domestic politics. Most of the early giants in the field, among them Samuel Flagg Bemis, Dexter Perkins, and Arthur Whitaker (Thomas A. Bailey was a notable exception), focused on state-to-state interaction, on high U.S. officials and their counterparts in the countries with which Washington dealt. The research of these "orthodox" historians was often intelligent and exceptionally valuable, but they tended to frame their questions in a manner that allowed them to avoid inquiring into the domestic political calculations that helped shape policy, or the partisan disputes that often accompanied the implementation of that policy. Perkins's three-volume study of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, for example, takes more or less as a given that national security concerns brought about the doctrine, while Bemis's book on Jay's Treaty concludes before the bitter debate in Congress in 17951796 on the treaty's implementation. Herbert Feis, an orthodox historian of the early Cold War, likewise focused exclusively on the White House, the State Department, and state-to-state relations in his effort to assign responsibility for the origins of the Soviet-American confrontation.

This emphasis among orthodox historians on high politics met with a spirited response from a group of "revisionist" scholars who came of age in the late 1950s and 1960s. But although revisionists distinguished themselves by emphasizing the importance of domestic forces in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, they paid curiously little attention to party politics. No less than the traditionalists, they treated the U.S. government as a monolithic actor, albeit one shaped largely by the economic and ideological interests associated with the U.S. government's capitalist structure. The emphasis was on internal sources of foreign policy, but not on partisan wrangling, election-year maneuvering, or other political concerns. Thus, Walter LaFeber's The New Empire (1963), which dealt with Gilded Age foreign relations, gave little room to the congressional coalition that time and again thwarted the expansionist initiatives of the high officials that are a chief concern of the book. In William Appleman Williams's classic work The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) one looks in vain for any sense that partisan concerns have on occasion played a key role in shaping American foreign policy. In this and other Williams works, congressional speeches and campaign pronouncements were generally cited only to show the supposed consensus behind American economic expansion. As the historian Robert David Johnson has rightly noted, revisionist interpretations of the Cold War by the likes of Gabriel Kolko and Noam Chomsky share little or nothing in common with Herbert Feis apart from a tendency to treat the U.S. government as a unitary actor unencumbered by internal dissension.

The emergence in the last two decades of the twentieth century of "postrevisionists"a loose collection of scholars of the Cold War who did not fit easily into either the orthodox or revisionist campsdid not change the pattern. John Lewis Gaddis, a founder of postrevisionism, gave close scrutiny to domestic politics in his first book, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, but gave steadily less attention to it in his subsequent worksto the point that in We Now Know (1997), Gaddis's major reinterpretation of the early Cold War, party politics figured hardly at all. Melvyn P. Leffler's A Preponderance of Power (1992), a highly important volume on the Truman administration's national security policy, likewise gave little space to the interplay between foreign policy and party politics, a characteristic shared as well by Marc Trachtenberg in his prizewinning book A Constructed Peace (1999). Trachtenberg's study, subtitled "The Making of the European Settlement, 19451963," says nary a word about domestic politics, and his American policymakers appear to operate in a rarefied geopolitical stratosphere that keeps them largely immune to domestic pressure.

What is striking about these and other postrevisionist studies is not that they have tended to place geopolitics at the top in their hierarchy of causality; given the neorealist or national security perspectives to which many postrevisionists adhere, that is to be expected. Rather, what is striking is that domestic politics appears so far down in that hierarchy, if it even makes it on the list at all.

To a remarkable degree, then, scholars of American diplomacy, whatever their other disagreements, have tended over the years to agree on one important point: partisan wrangling and electoral strategizing have generally not been significant determinants of the nation's foreign policy. It is a perspective that accords with the popular belief that political differences among Americans should, and in fact usually do, stop at the water's edge, that it would be improper and indecent to mix politics and foreign policy, and that American leaders generally have avoided doing so.

In 1974, when the Watergate scandal was catching up with President Richard M. Nixon, Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger was asked if the resignation of the chief executive and the resulting damage to the Republican Party would change the course of American diplomacy. Certainly not, retorted Kissinger, everything would be the same. "The foreign policy of the United States," he maintained, "has always been, and continues to be conducted on a bipartisan basis in the national interest and in the interest of world peace." Others have voiced like sentiments, though usually without introducing quite so much historical error. Operating here is the traditional belief that national patriotism holds Americans together against the outside world. However much citizens may disagree on domestic questions, runs the argument, they mustand willpresent a united front on foreign relations, in the national interest and to uphold the nation's honor. Discussions of this subject can become heated and bring forth Stephen Decatur's celebrated toast given at Norfolk in 1816: "Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong."

It is a comforting notion, since it protects America's leaders from charges of "sordid political calculation" or "playing politics with the national honor." But it also separates diplomatic history from reality. It fails to consider the plain fact that there inevitably are differences of opinion on foreign policy, and that in a democracy these differences are put before the people, if at all, through the political process (that is, through politics)facts that professional politicians are not likely to forget.


These differences were much in evidence from the very beginning of the two-party system, in the 1790s. Few were the foreign policy decisions in that decade that were not affected by partisan concerns. Even George Washington's Farewell Address, to this day the major statement of the need for American freedom of action in foreign affairs (it warned against "permanent alliances"), must be seen in light of the 1796 election. The French minister to Philadelphia, Pierre Adet, upset over the pro-British Jay's Treaty and America's failure to honor the 1778 alliance with France, worked hard to have Thomas Jefferson win the 1796 presidential race over the Federalist candidate, John Adams. That interference influenced Washington (and his coauthor Alexander Hamilton, a bitter foe of Jefferson) to issue the Farewell Address that warned Americans against tying themselves to the fortunes of any "foreign influence." The historian Alexander DeConde put it succinctly: "Although cloaked in phrases of universal or timeless application, the objectives of the address were practical, immediate, and partisan."

Party politics and electoral strategizing also permeated the atmosphere in the lead-up to the War of 1812 and indeed helped bring on the hostilities. As many historians have demonstrated, the increasingly bitter partisan struggle over domestic and foreign policy in the early years of the century, exacerbated by the effects of the war between Britain and France, grew into corrosive mutual distrust. Federalists and Republicans were deeply split on the best policy vis-à-vis Great Britain, and the vote for war followed partisan lines81 percent of Republicans in both houses voted for war (98 to 23), and all Federalists voted nay (39 to 0).

But President Madison's concerns went deeper than defending against Federalist attacks on his commercial warfare policy. He also had to worry about dissension among fellow Republicans and the possibility that these "malcontents"who wanted a tougher line against the Britishmight move to create an anti-Madison ticket in 1812. By the spring of 1811, sympathetic legislators were warning Madison that he had to do something to unify the party, and by July of that year the pressures of domestic politics were making it very hard for the administration to agree to anything short of Britain's total capitulation to American demands. According to the historian J. C. A. Stagg, for Madison "there seemed to be only one course of action that would be both honorable and effective. He could regain the initiative at home and abroad by moving toward the positions advocated for so long by his Republican opponents. If he did not do so, there was the possibility that they would coalesce into a formidable anti-administration party, make the issue of war and preparedness wholly their own, and turn them against him in the months to come." In Stagg's words, "the nation's honor, the president's political salvation, and the unity of the Republican Party required that American policy now be directed toward war." What's more, the strategy worked: by May 1812 the malcontents had faded and a sufficiently large Republican majority had emerged in both houses to renominate Madison. The declaration of war followed in June.

This is not to suggest that Madison's fears for his domestic political standing alone drove the decision making that led to war with Great Britain. Monocausal history is seldom satisfactory history. The violations of American maritime rights, the impressment of American seamen, British incitement of hostile Native Americans, American designs on Canada and Florida, the depressing effects of British policy on American farm priceseach of these mattered as well, as did the long-standing partisan squabbling between Federalists and Republicans. It is also clear, though, that the president's perceived political needs, specifically his concern about possibly losing his party's nomination in 1812, shaped American policy in crucial ways. In particular, understanding why the war happened when it didin a presidential election year, and with the incumbent in a precarious position at homerequires understanding the high-stakes struggle within the Republican Party.

Consider again the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. In a provocative work bearing the prosaic title The Making of the Monroe Doctrine (1975), the historian Ernest R. May rejected the claim of Perkins and others that conceptions of national interest and foreign policy were supreme in the origins of the doctrine. Instead, May argued, party politics were decisive. ("The positions of the policymakers were determined less by conviction than by ambition.") In May's view the outcome of the foreign policy debates can only be understood in relation to the struggle for the presidency, because the Monroe Doctrine was "actually a byproduct of an election campaign." The threat of intervention by the European powers into the Western Hemisphere was nonexistent, and American officials knew it. As a result, they could play politics with the British proposal for a joint policy statement; John Quincy Adams opposed joint action while his bitter presidential rival John C. Calhoun fervently supported it. Adams's candidacy would have been hurt by consummation of an alliance with Britain because the British were thoroughly unpopular among the U.S. electorate. As secretary of state, Adams would have been attacked for joining with the British even if he opposed the alliance in private cabinet discussions. Calhoun pushed for acceptance of the London government's offer, knowing Adams would be blamed for it, while President Monroe, anxious to leave the presidency with his reputation intact, gave in to Adams to avoid a fight that might tarnish his record. It is a compelling argument, made in part, as May noted, on the basis of "inference from circumstantial evidence." One does not have to embrace May's thesis in its entiretyWere officials really so certain that no foreign danger existed?to see that party politics were instrumental in the making of the doctrine.

And party politics were instrumental in foreign policymaking at various other times as well in the decades before John Hay took such delight at the outcome of the war against Spain. Here one thinks, for example, of the debate over whether to recognize Greek independence in 1823 (which, like the Monroe Doctrine, was intimately bound up with the 1824 presidential race); of President Franklin Pierce's attempt to acquire Cuba in 1854 in order to placate proslavery leaders in the American South; and of Grover Cleveland's decisionmade partly for partisan reasonsnot to submit the 1884 Berlin agreement on Africa's partition (of which he basically approved) to the Senate for approval.

Nor did things change after the century turned. The Wilson administration's original decision to postpone recognition of Bolshevik Russia in 1918 was not primarily the product of political pressure within the United States, but the fact that this nonrecogition continued for fifteen years and was intimately connected with domestic politics. A few politicians seem to have felt that nonrecognition would damage the Soviet Union or protect the United States against real dangers. Many more were convinced that taking a stand against the Soviet Union and domestic radicals was "good politics" or that those who openly favored diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union would suffer political punishment. Consequently, practical politics in the United States served to prevent these two major powers from discussing their differences until the need for foreign trade enabled Franklin D. Roosevelt to reestablish diplomatic relations in 1933.

In 1936 and again in 1940, Roosevelt allowed reelection concerns to affect his approach to the Nazi menace. In the late summer of 1936, Roosevelt told journalists of his desire to convene a conference of world leaders to discuss ways to assure the peace of the world; at the same time, he ruled out taking any steps prior to the election that could open him to Republican charges that he was embroiling the United States in overseas commitments. Four years later, Roosevelt's hesitation in finalizing the destroyers-for-bases deal with Great Britainhe delayed for nearly four months after receiving Winston Churchill's desperate pleas for destroyersowed much to his fear that Republican challenger Wendell Willkie might use the issue to rouse isolationist sentiment and thereby cost Roosevelt the election that fall. Only after Willkie agreed not to make the transaction a campaign issue was the deal struck. Overall during that critical year, Roosevelt moved cautiously on foreign policy, concerned that open diplomatic moves would evoke isolationist predictions of U.S. involvement in the fighting and undermine his chances for a third term.


To be sure, Americans have on occasion set partisan and personal political concerns aside in foreign policy, in line with the sentiment of Stephen Decatur's toast. This has been the pattern in the early stages of the nation's wars. But such consensus on international matters has often been short-lived, more so than is generally acknowledged. It is often assumed, for example, that the period surrounding the onset of the Cold Warfrom the end of World War II to the start of 1950was a bipartisan period in U.S. foreign policy. A close examination of these years suggests otherwise. There was a period of strong bipartisanship on foreign policy decisions in Washington from the passage of the aid to Greece and Turkey in 1947 through the middle of 1949, but it was not there before that time or after.

In late 1945, with the popular Franklin D. Roosevelt dead and World War II over, Republicans in Congress saw a chance to gain control on Capitol Hill in the 1946 elections and to take the presidency two years later. On domestic issues they could run against the federal government and against trade unions, especially the open influence of the American Communist Party in those unions. On foreign policy issues the GOP could denounce Truman's "weakness" in dealing with the Soviet Unionthat is, unless the administration preempted this line of attack by standing up forcefully to Moscow.

Domestically, Truman could do relatively little to deflect the Republican challenge on policy issues. He could, however, be firmer with the Sovietsa shift urged on him in the fall of 1945 by his White House chief of staff, Admiral William Leahy, and by the two leading senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Tom Connally of Texas and Republican Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. Vandenberg, who represented a state with a large number of Polish Americans unhappy with developments in their native land, was especially adamant about standing up to the Kremlin on all fronts.

It is unclear just how much of an effect partisan politics had on Truman's decision to "stop babying" the Soviets in early 1946. But he was very much aware of the growing congressional criticism of Secretary of State James Byrnes's continuing efforts to make deals with Moscow, and also Congress's aim, now that World War II was over, to reassert legislative authority of some foreign policy issues. The evidence is not conclusive, but it appears Truman was significantly affected by strong pressures from Congress to take a harder line toward the Soviet Union in the early weeks of 1946. In the election campaign that autumn, political paranoia and exploitation was much in evidence. Republican campaigners delighted in asking voters: "Got enough inflation? Got enough debt? Got enough strikes? Got enough communism?" Senator Robert Taft, one of the most distinguished figures on Capitol Hill, accused Truman of seeking a Congress "dominated by a policy of appeasing the Russians abroad and fostering communism at home," while in California, a young House candidate named Richard Nixon denounced his opponent as a "lip service American" who consistently voted the Moscow line in Congress and who fronted for "un-American elements." And indeed, the GOP scored a resounding victory in the election, gaining control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928. The day after the election several of Truman's advisers met and concluded that the White House would have to take definite steps to put the Democratic coalition back together if Truman was to have any chance of winning the 1948 election. One such step: make clear to the American people that Harry Truman opposed Soviet domination of eastern Europe.

As the 1948 election approached, Truman missed few opportunities to talk up the Cold War, a strategy urged on him by numerous advisers. Such a stance, they pointed out, would insulate the president against Republican charges that he was too soft on Moscow and at the same time undercut Henry Wallace's bid for the presidency on the Progressive ticket. In November 1947, White House aide Clark Clifford and former FDR assistant James Rowe predicted that relations with Moscow would be the key foreign policy issue in the campaign, that those relations would get worse during the course of 1948, and that this would strengthen Truman's domestic political position. "There is considerable political advantage in the administration in its battle with the Kremlin," the two men told the president. "The worse matters get the more is there a sense of crisis. In times of crisis, the American citizen tends to back up his president." In the months that followed, White House speechwriters talked tough on Soviet-American relations and mocked Wallace's call for improved relations with the Kremlin, portraying him as an unwitting dupe of communists at home and abroad.

It was a conscious blurring of domestic and foreign communism, and it would have important implications for politics in Cold War America. In the spring of 1947, Truman had created the Federal Employee Loyalty Program, which gave government security officials authorization to screen two million employees of the federal government for any hint of political deviance. It marked the inauguration of an anticommunist crusade within America's own borders that paralleled the Cold War abroad, a crusade that contained a large element of practical politics. Opposing radicals and the Soviet Union was a way of attracting votes and building a political reputation, or of avoiding being denounced as a fellow traveler. Meanwhile, any possibility for honest debate and criticism about policy toward the communist world disappeared, as those on the left who might have articulated an alternative vision lost cultural and political approval. For at least a quarter of a century thereafter, campaign attacks from the left on either Democratic or Republican foreign policies proved singularly unsuccessful.

Truman went on to win the 1948 election against the expectations of many. Stunned Republicans immediately began working overtime to exploit the communist victory in China, allegations of communists within the U.S. government, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson's support of the accused spy Alger Hiss as they maneuvered for revenge in the midterm election two years later. When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, Truman initially received strong bipartisan support for his decision to intervene. But he knew the Republican support could evaporate quickly. When Truman that summer considered a plan to expand the war into North Korea, he feared that what the historian Melvin Small called "the prudent but not anticommunist-enough decision" to halt at the Thirty-Eighth Parallel could hurt the Democrats at the polling booth in November. Truman authorized General Douglas MacArthur to try to liberate North Korea and announced his decision at a cabinet meeting where the major item on the agenda was the election.

MacArthur's gambit caused Chinese forces to intervene from the North in November 1950, and a military stalemate quickly developed. When the Truman administration commenced armistice talks in 1951, GOP leaders, still determined to make foreign policy a central part of their criticism of the Democrats, immediately went on the attack. Any truce at or near the Thirty-Eighth Parallel would be an "appeasement peace," they charged. When the presidential election campaign geared up the following year, Republican leaders, including nominee Dwight D. Eisenhower, asserted that Truman had been foolish to agree to negotiations and that he was compounding the error by continuing them in the face of clear evidence that the communists were using the time to build up their forces in Korea. Even the apparent economic health of the nation was turned against the White House: the prosperity, GOP spokesmen charged, "had at its foundation the coffins of the Korean war dead," slaughter that as yet appeared to have no end. The historian Rosemary Foot, in her study of the Korean armistice talks, showed that this partisan pressure contributed to the hardening of the administration's bargaining posture in 1952. "Sensitivity to public charges, to congressional attacks, and to electoral charges that the Democratic administration had been led into a negotiating trap by its 'cunning' enemies, all reinforced the administration's preference for standing firm rather than compromising," Foot concluded. Pleas from the State Department for a flexible posture, especially on the nettlesome issue of repatriating prisoners of war, fell on deaf ears.

Attacking an incumbent's policies is a simpler matter than governing, as the Republicans would soon learn. Upon taking office in January 1953, Eisenhower faced not merely the task of bringing the Korean War to an end (a deal was reached in July 1953) but a myriad of other thorny issues as well. Party politics, it is clear, influenced his approach to many of them. And it was not just the Democrats Eisenhower had to think about; he also confronted differing impulses on foreign policy within his own party. Some socalled old guard Republicans such as Robert Taft were dubious about the Europe-centered internationalism to which Eisenhower and his soon-tobe secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, adhered in the 1952 campaign; many of them wanted a limited American role in world affairs, rooted in an airpower-oriented Fortress America strategy and weighted more toward Asia. Eisenhower immediately set upon placating this old guard on military, Asian, and domestic security matters to gain its acquiescence in a Europe-first internationalism. He undoubtedly had the old guard partly in mind when he wrote to his NATO commander, Alfred Gruenther, in the midst of the Quemoy-Matsu crisis of 19541955, that "at home, we have the truculent and the timid, the jingoists and the pacifists." On Taiwan, the president continued, he was considering "what solutions we can get that will best conform to the long term interests of the country and at the same time can command a sufficient approval in this country so as to secure the necessary Congressional action " (original emphasis).


On Indochina, as well, domestic political imperatives affected Eisenhower's policymaking. During the intense administration discussions about whether to intervene militarily to help the beleaguered French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Eisenhower told his cabinet that he could not afford to let the Democrats ask who lost Vietnam. But he was not prepared to get involved without broad domestic and international backing. At a news conference Eisenhower invoked the domino theory to try to create support for intervention (probably less because he believed in the theory than because its dramatic imagery could rally support to the cause), and he consulted with Congress and key allied governments. The misgivings of the Senate leadership and the British government convinced the president to reject air strikes to save the French position, but there is no doubt that fear of the "who lost Vietnam" charge continued to weigh on his mind. One reason the administration worked hard to distance itself from the Geneva Accords on Indochina later that year was that it feared it might get a hostile reaction from vocal anticommunists on Capitol Hill.

It was not the first Vietnam decision by an American president in which domestic politics played a role, nor would it be the last. Indeed, a good argument could be made that for all six presidents who dealt with Vietnam from 1950 to 1975from Truman to Fordthe Indochina conflict mattered in significant measure because of the potential damage it could do to their domestic political positions.

This was especially true of the three men who occupied the White House during the high tide of American involvementJohn F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon. From the start in 1961, and especially after Kennedy agreed to seek a negotiated settlement in Laos giving the communist Pathet Lao a share of the power, senior U.S. officials feared what would happen to the administration at home if South Vietnam were allowed to fall. Kennedy told his ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith: "There are just so many concessions that one can make to communists in one year and survive politically. We just can't have another defeat this year in Vietnam." In November 1961, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara advised JFK that the loss of South Vietnam would not merely undermine American credibility elsewhere but would "stimulate bitter domestic controversies in the United States and would be seized upon to divide the country and harass the administration." U.S. assistance to South Vietnam increased steadily in 1962 and 1963, ultimately reaching the amount of $1.5 million per day. Still, success remained elusive. By mid-1963 the president had grown disillusioned about the prospects in the struggle, and he reportedly told several associates of his desire to get out of the conflict. But it could not happen, he added, until after the 1964 election.

Johnson's misgivings did not go quite so deep, but he too, after he succeeded JFK in office in November 1963, ruled out a major policy change before voting day. As McGeorge Bundy would later say, "Neither [Kennedy nor Johnson] wanted to go into the election as the one who either made war or lost Vietnam. If you could put if off you did." Bundy's comment carries great historical importance, and not merely because he was right in his assessmentJohnson, we now know, sought above all else that year to keep Vietnam from complicating his election-year strategy, judging all Vietnam options in terms of what they meant for November. No less important, the comment matters because 1964 proved so crucial in the making of America's war in Vietnam. It was a year of virtually unrelieved decline in the fortunes of the South Vietnamese government, a year in which the Vietcong made huge gains and the Saigon government lost steadily more support. It was a year when America became increasingly isolated on Vietnam among its Western allies, and when influential voices in Congress and the pressand indeed within the administration itselfbegan voicing deep misgivings about the prospect of a major war. And it was a year when the administration made the basic decisions that led to Americanization early in 1965. Already in the spring of 1964 the administration commenced secret contingency planning for an expansion of the war to North Vietnam, but with the tacit understanding that nothing substantive would happen until after Election Day. In November and December, with LBJ safely elected, the administration moved to adopt a two-phase escalation of the war involving sustained bombing of North Vietnam and the dispatch of U.S. ground troops (subsequently implemented in FebruaryMarch 1965). The White House strategy of delay through the first ten months of 1964 had not eliminated Johnson's freedom of maneuver, but it had reduced it considerably.

Nixon, it is clear, had his eyes very much on the home front in making Vietnam policy, not merely in the lead-up to the 1972 election but from the start of his administration in 1969. In vowing to get a "peace with honor," he and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger thought as much about voters in Peoria as about leaders in Moscow and Beijing and Hanoi. Top-level conversations captured on the taping system Nixon had installed in the Oval Office early in 1971, for example, make clear just how deeply concerns about Nixon's domestic standing permeated Vietnam policy. In a phone conversation that took place late in the evening of 7 April 1971, shortly after a televised Nixon speech announcing further Vietnam troop withdrawals, Nixon and Kissinger concurred on the matter of the "breathing space" they would get domestically by ending the draft:

KISSINGER: I think, Mr. President, I'm gonna put the military to the torch [on the matter of the draft].

NIXON: Yeah. They're screwing around on this.

KISSINGER: They're screwing around. They're worried that it will make the volunteer army not work. But the hell with that if we can get ourselves breathing space for Vietnam.

NIXON: Listen. Ending the draft gives us breathing space on Vietnam. We'll restore the draft later, but goddamn it, the military, they're a bunch of greedy bastards that want more officers clubs and more men to shine their shoes. The sons of bitches are not interested in this country.

KISSINGER: I mean, ending, going to all-volunteer in Vietnam is what I mean, is what we ought to do.

NIXON: Mmm-hmm.

In the summer of 1972, as a negotiated settlement with Hanoi looked to be within reach, Nixon expressed ambivalence about whether the deal should come before or after the election that November. On 14 August Nixon told aides that Kissinger should be discouraged from expressing too much hopefulness regarding the negotiations, as that could raise expectations and be "harmful politically." On 30 August, Nixon chief of staff H. R. Haldeman recorded in his diary that Nixon did not want the settlement to come too soon. The president, according to Haldeman, "wants to be sure [Army Vice-Chief of Staff Alexander] Haig doesn't let Henry's desire for a settlement prevail; that's the one way we can lose the election. We have to stand firm on Vietnam and not get soft."

Even before he assumed the presidency, Nixon had sought to manipulate foreign policy for personal political advantage. In the final weeks of the 1968 campaign, rumors that Johnson was on the verge of announcing a bombing halt (to hasten a peace settlement and thereby help Democratic presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey), sent the Nixon campaign into a panic. Nixon secretly encouraged the South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu to refuse to participate in any talks with Hanoi before the election, with assurances that if elected he would provide Thieu with more solid support than Humphrey would. It is possible that Thieu's subsequent refusal to take part in the negotiations in Paris, announced just days before Election Day, might have damaged Humphrey's campaign sufficiently to deliver what was a razor-thin victory to Nixon.


The Vietnam War may be somewhat unusual in the degree to which it linked domestic political considerations and foreign policy, but it is by no means exceptional in the nation's recent history. Jimmy Carter's decision to launch a risky and ultimately disastrous mission to free American hostages in Iran in the spring of 1980, for example, owed something to his domestic political difficulties in an election year, including a tough challenge for the Democratic nomination from Senator Edward Kennedy. Carter's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, urged the action "to prove to the columnists and our political opponents that Carter was not an ineffective Chief Executive who was afraid to act." Carter himself explained that he had "to give expression to the anger of the American people. If they perceive me as firm and tough in voicing their rage, maybe we'll be able to control this thing."

A decade later another president confronted the perception that he was too timid. During the 1988 campaign George Bush had to endure a Newsweek story on him in which the words "Fighting the Wimp Factor" were emblazoned on the cover, and there were charges from conservative quarters in the months after the inauguration that he was not resolute enough in foreign policy. The "wimp" charges could be heard again in October 1989, when Bush failed to back a nearly successful coup d'état against the drug-running Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega. "We'll be hit from the left for being involved at all," the president noted privately, "and we'll be hit harder from the right for being timid and weak." This right-wing reaction to his inactionRepublican Senator Jesse Helms referred to a "bunch of Keystone Kops" in the administrationalmost certainly contributed to Bush's decision in December to order the invasion of Panama to arrest Noriega. In August 1990 various motives moved Bush to adopt an uncompromising position toward Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, but one of them was surely the domestic political benefits that he and his advisers believed could accrue from it. Locked in a budget battle with Congress, faced with a messy savings and loan scandal, and with approval ratings sagging, Bush saw a chance to demonstrate forceful presidential leadership and galvanize popular support. Tellingly, perhaps, he received encouragement to "draw a line in the sand" from British prime minister Margaret Thatcherwho herself had received a powerful boost to her domestic position from Britain's "splendid little war" in the Falkland Islands eight years earlier.

The war against Iraq was the first military conflict of the postCold War era. In the years thereafter various commentators complained that America's newfound status as the world's sole superpower, one without a compelling external threat to unify the populace, had allowed party politics to infuse foreign policymaking to an unprecedented degree. Many drew a contrast with the supposedly bipartisan and selfless days of the Cold War. It was a dubious claim; party politics and foreign policy have always enjoyed a close relationship in the United States. This was so in the most tense periods of the superpower confrontationduring the Cuban missile crisis, John Kennedy considered the domestic political implications of the various options before himand it was true in less traumatic times.

Still, few would deny that the partisanship became more pronounced in the Clinton years than it had been in decades, the atmosphere in Washington more poisonous. The power of the presidency in foreign policy seemed diminished and that of Congress as well as ethnic and other special-interest lobbies enhanced. Republicans saw personal political advantage as motivating virtually every one of Bill Clinton's foreign policy decisions and, after capturing control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, worked diligently to thwart many of his initiatives. In April 1999, for example, during the war in Kosovo, the House of Representatives refused to vote to support the bombing; that October, the Senate voted down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treatyan action the New York Times compared with the Senate defeat of the League of Nations after World War Ieven though the president and sixty-two senators asked that it be withdrawn. Clinton and his advisers, meanwhile, insisted that their only concern in making policy was promoting the national interest. The early evidence about the policymaking process in the Clinton White House suggests strongly that he and his aides paid close attention to how various policy options would be perceived at home and that their determinations in this regard helped inform their decisions. In other words, Clinton was much like his predecessors.

During the debate over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's eastward enlargement in 19961997, Clinton administration officials insisted that bringing as much of Europe as possible under the NATO banner would serve the nation's strategic interests. They also said it was important to reassure the eastern and central European populations after Moscow became more nationalistic and assertive in 1994. No doubt they were being truthful in these claims, but Democratic Party leaders surely also saw enlargement as a surefire vote-getter among eastern European ethnic communities in battleground states in the Midwest, states Clinton had to win in the 1996 election. Foreign observers often perceived this domestic political element to be the root motivation behind the expansion. Said Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien (who thought his microphone was turned off) to Belgium's prime minister about NATO enlargement in August 1997: "All this for short-term political reasons, to win elections. In fact [U.S. politicians] are selling their votes, they are selling their votes. It's incredible. In your country or mine, all the politicians would be in prison."


The skeptical reader will wonder if the case here is not being made too strongly. After all, foreign policy issues seldom decide elections in the United States. Does it not follow that American diplomacy and party politics must have only minor influence on each other? Not necessarily. It is true that in the United States, as in other countries, voters tend to give their chief attention to domestic matters. But foreign policy questions, though of less importance, have in most years been significant enough to merit the attention of practicing politicians. The professionals in politics have always realized that when domestic issues are in the forefront, diplomatic questions can still shift a few votes in swing districts in critical states. This can mean the difference between victory and defeat for a national ticket or decide control of Congress. That, essentially, has always been the politician's interpretation of the politics of American foreign policyboth for those who are in and those who are out of office.

This is still true and can be seen in the care with which presidential aspirants take on Israeli questions and the related matter of the Jewish vote. Small in national totals, this vote is critically important in New York, California, and other states with major urban centers. Even in 1948, Clark Clifford and other Truman aides were thinking partly about electoral politics in urging the president to extend recognition to the new State of Israel. Since 1876, Clifford knew, every winner of a presidential election had carried New York State, where in the 1940s Jews constituted 14 percent of the population. Extending recognition to Israel would help deliver the state to Truman in November and could also help the president in other states with sizable Jewish populations. The Emergency Committee on Zionist Affairs, and later the American Zionist Council and the American Israel Public Affairs Committeethe latter self-described as "the most powerful, best-run, and effective foreign policy interest group in Washington"proved effective in exploiting the potential power of the Jewish vote to gain continued material and diplomatic backing for Israel.

True, the close U.S.Israel relationship after 1948 was the product of many things. Israel had the strongest military force in the Middle East, and there were good geostrategic reasons why Washington sought to maintain close ties with Israel and work together on matters of common interest. Moreover, the convictions of evangelical Christians, as well as the feelings of other Americans touched by the courage of Israel, meant that a broad cross-section of Americans could be counted on to back firm U.S. support for Israel's security. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to deny that electoral imperatives influenced American policy toward the Middle East at all points after the late 1940s.

Likewise, America's policy toward Cuba after 1959 was deeply affected by the influence of the Cuban-American community in South Florida and the desire of presidential contenders to win Florida's sizable chunk of electoral votes. In October 1976, for example, Cyrus Vance, then a foreign policy adviser to Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign, advised that "the time has come to move away from our past policy of isolation. Our boycott has proved ineffective, and there has been a decline of Cuba's export of revolution in the region." If the United States lifted the long-standing embargo on food and medicine, Vance speculated, the Castro government might reduce its level of support for the leftist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in Angola. Carter was sympathetic, but he acted cautiously in the campaign. "There were no votes to be won, and many to be lost, by indicating friendliness toward Castro," the historian Gaddis Smith wrote of Carter's thinking. Subsequent presidents would encounter the same dilemma when they contemplated a change in Cuba policy: the need to weigh an alteration to a failed and indeed counterproductive embargo policy against the perceived power of the militantly anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) to sway the Florida vote.

These kinds of calculations were nothing new in American politics. From 1865 to 1895, for example, most Americans were too absorbed in goings-on at home to spare much time for over-seas developments. Voter attention revolved around such domestic concerns as the reconstruction of the South, sagging prices, and recurrent depressions. Nevertheless, national politicians labored hard on the diplomatic sections of their party platforms, and candidates spent time outlining or camouflaging their opinions on foreign policy. The reason was plain. The Republicans and Democrats were evenly balanced, and presidential and congressional elections were decided by razor-thin margins. The least slip, even on diplomatic positions, might mean the loss of a handful of votes, which could spell calamity at the polls.

It is well to remember that, when domestic questions rule, they often relate closely to foreign policy. This has been the case with tariffs, immigration, witch hunts against radicals, and, in the early twenty-first century, with agricultural prices and production and trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994. The relation of these problems to party politicswhich is often very closeagain draws diplomacy into the domestic political arena.


In an interview in the summer of 1965, McGeorge Bundy, a former Harvard dean who served John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as national security adviser and was an architect of the Americanization of the Vietnam War, was asked what was different in the actual conduct of American diplomatic affairs from how it had seemed to be "from the safety of Harvard Yard." According to the interviewer, Bundy replied that the first thing that stood out was "the powerful place of domestic politics in the formulation of foreign policies."

It was a revealing comment, but not a surprising one (except to the extent that officials seldom make this admission on the record). The relationship between domestic politics and foreign policy has been an intimate one throughout the nation's history. It may be debated whether the connection is a good thing or a bad thingwhether overall it has been beneficial to the nation's record on the world stage. For the moment, though, it is enough to say that the connection is there and is important. Just why so many students of American diplomacy seemingly have lost sight of this reality over the years is somewhat of a mystery. Partly, the inattention can be explained by the historiographical trends outlined early in this essay, which moved many diplomatic historians away from giving serious and sustained attention to domestic politics. Partly, too, it may reflect an overreliance by scholars on official U.S. government documents in their research; essential though these documents are, they can mislead. American statesmen have always been averse to admitting, even to themselves, that their foreign policy decisions could be affected by private political interest. As a result, a reader of the vast archival record, finding little or no evidence of partisan wrangling or election year strategizing, could (wrongly) conclude that these must have mattered little in shaping American policy.

Whatever the case, it is clear that the influence of party politics on the American approach to international affairs needs to be identified, measured, and explained. Foreign policy, it turns out, is always a political matter. It is not always a crass partisan matter. It is well to remember that the parties historically have tended to speak for different constellations of values and interests, different constituencies with genuine philosophical differences about America's place in the world, and that those differences have sometimes also been evident within parties. But it is always political.


Blumenthal, Sidney. Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War. New York, 1990.

Chafe, William H. The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II. 4th ed. New York, 1999. A first-rate textbook on the United States after 1945.

DeConde, Alexander. "Washington's Farewell, the French Alliance, and the Election of 1796." Mississippi Valley Historical Review 43, no. 4 (March 1957): 641658. A provocative article on the shaping of the Farewell Address.

. Ethnicity, Race, and American Foreign Policy: A History. Boston, 1992.

Divine, Robert A. Foreign Policy and U.S. Presidential Elections, 19401948, 19521960. 2 vols. New York, 1974.

Drew, Elizabeth. On the Edge: The Clinton Presidency. New York, 1994.

Foot, Rosemary. A Substitute for Victory: The Politics of Peacemaking at the Korean Armistice Talks. Ithaca, N.Y., 1990. The second of two important studies by the author on the Korean War.

Freeland, Richard M. The Truman Doctrine and the Origins of McCarthyism: Foreign Policy, Domestic Politics, and Internal Security, 19461948. New York, 1972.

Gaddis, John Lewis. The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 19411947. New York, 1972. An essential study of U.S. decision making in World War II and the early Cold War.

Haldeman, H. R. The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House. New York, 1994. An indispensable source on the Nixon presidency.

Hughes, Barry B. The Domestic Context of American Foreign Policy. New York, 1978.

Johnson, Robert David. "Congress and the Cold War." Journal of Cold War Studies 3 (2001): 76100.

Kegley, Charles W., and Eugene R. Wittkopf, eds. The Domestic Sources of American Foreign Policy: Insights and Evidence. New York, 1988.

Lebow, Richard Ned. "Domestic Politics and the Cuban Missile Crisis: The Traditional and the Revisionist Interpretations Reevaluated." Diplomatic History 14 (1990).

Levering, Ralph B. "Is Domestic Politics Being Slighted as an Interpretive Framework?" Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Newsletter 25 (1994): 1735. An accomplished historian calls for greater attention by foreign relations historians to domestic politics.

. The Cold War: A PostCold War History. Arlington Heights, Ill., 1994.

Logevall, Fredrik. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. Berkeley, Calif., 1999.

May, Ernest R. The Making of the Monroe Doctrine. Cambridge, Mass., 1975.

Perkins, Bradford. Castlereagh and Adams: England and the United States, 18121823. New York, 1964.

Quandt, William. "The Electoral Cycle and the Conduct of Foreign Policy." Political Science Quarterly 101 (1986). A specialist on the Middle East expresses concern about the influence of elections on the conduct of foreign policy.

Rosati, Joel A. The Politics of United States Foreign Policy. New York, 1993.

Rosenau, James N., ed. Domestic Sources of Foreign Policy. New York, 1967.

Small, Melvin. Democracy and Diplomacy: The Impact of Domestic Politics on U.S. Foreign Policy, 17891994. Baltimore, 1996. A concise and penetrating history that defines "domestic politics" broadly.

Smith, Gaddis. Morality, Reason, and Power: American Diplomacy in the Carter Years. New York, 1986.

Smith, Tony. Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy. Cambridge, Mass., 2000.

Snyder, Jack. Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991. A leading political scientist tackles the subject with verve and insight.

Stagg, J. C. A. "James Madison and the Malcontents: The Politics Origins of the War of 1812." William and Mary Quarterly 33 (1976): 557585.

. Mr. Madison's War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 17831830. Princeton, N.J., 1983.

Westerfield, H. Bradford. Foreign Policy and Party Politics: Pearl Harbor to Korea. New Haven, Conn., 1955.

Woods, Randall B., and Howard Jones. Dawning of the Cold War: The United States' Quest for World Order. Athens, Ga., 1991.

See also Congressional Power; The National Interest; Presidential Power; Recognition; Revisionism; The Vietnam War and Its Impact.

Party Politics

views updated May 14 2018

Party Politics


Good Feelings. Before the 1820s most Americans agreed that political parties or factions were inimical to American republicanism. Parties were seen as combinations of men who controlled the actions of others, and like other institutions that held power, they were subject to corruption. In spite of these beliefs organized political parties emerged within a few years of the ratification of the Constitution. For nearly two decades Federalists and Democratic-Republicans fought over economic issues. After the War of 1812 the Federalists tainted themselves by considering secession at the Hartford Convention even as the forces of the United States under Andrew Jackson were defeating the British outside of New Orleans. The Federalist Party declined rapidly in most areas, heralding the beginning of the Era of Good Feelings, during which the Republican Party dominated American political life. James Monroe was the beneficiary of one-party rule and was twice elected, the second time winning every electoral vote cast but one. Yet, without an opposition party to focus on, the Republicans began to squabble among themselves. National Republicans advocated a program of banks, tariffs, and internal improvements, while their opponents, the Old Republicans, or Tertium Quids (Latin for Third Things), adhered to Jeffersonian strict construction of the Constitution, states rights, and limited government. Into the mid 1820s the National Republicans controlled the government,


Andrew Jacksons elation at winning the presidential election in November 1828 was tempered by the loss a month later of his wife, Rachel. Jackson believed that Rachels death was caused by his opponents slanderous attacks on her character during the campaign. Thus, he was particularly sensitive when Peggy Eaton, the wife of his nominee for secretary of war, John Eaton, became the center of a social and political controversy. Eaton had met the much younger and already married Peggy Timberlake when he and Jackson, both United States senators from Tennessee, boarded at Peggys mothers house, Eaton and Timberlake began a love affair so distressing to her sailor husband that he apparently committed suicide when he learned of it. Eaton realized that, marrying the young widow might bring scandal to the Jackson administration. He consulted the president-elect, who gave his permission. The wives of Jacksons other cabinet members were less forgiving. Led by Floride Calhoun, wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, they (and their dutiful husbands) snubbed Peggy Eaton. Jackson, reminded of Rachels plight, was outraged. He looked with new favor on Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, a widower who was free to lavish attention on Peggy Eaton. When Jackson learned that Calhoun had secretly denounced his actions in Florida in 18181819, the rift was complete, and Jackson reorganized his cabinet in order to drive Calhoun supporters out. In 1832 Van Buren, not Calhoun, was the vice-presidential candidate. Van Buren had won the petticoat war.

Source: Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom, 18221832 (New York: Harper, 1981).

and in 1824 all five declared presidential candidates claimed this affiliation.

Second Party System. The Second Party System, which existed from the early 1830s to the mid 1850s, was different from the system that had pitted Federalists against Democratic-Republicans. The early system developed from the top down, in the Congresses of the 1790s, over federal economic and foreign policy. There were no real state organizations or nominating conventions; instead congressional leaders met in the smoke-filled backrooms of Washington boardinghouses to select candidates. The Second Party System developed in the states, in response to presidential elections. Nominating conventions, which started with the Anti-Masonic Partys convention in 1831 and became common by the mid 1830s, allowed the peoples delegates to choose candidates. In contrast to the lack of legitimacy that tainted parties in the earlier period, the Whigs and Democrats of the 1830s claimed to defend republicanism by offering voters a choice between one or the other. Naturally, advocates of each party portrayed themselves as defenders of republican ideals, while their opponents were targeted as corrupt threats to liberty. As Americans came to accept political parties as legitimate, integral parts of the political process, voter turnout rose dramatically. Only 27 percent of the electorate voted in the presidential election of 1824. By 1840 more than 80 percent of the voters went to the polls. For the rest of the nineteenth century, turnout hovered around 75 percent.

Major Parties. Democrats and Whigs differed over many issues, mainly economic questions. Democrats controlled the presidency in all except two elections from 1828 to 1850 and usually controlled Congress. In spite of Democratic control, Whigs on occasion could form a strong minority. For example, in 1836 Democrat Martin Van Buren won 51 percent of the popular vote against a total Whig popular vote (split among four candidates) of 49 percent. In 1844 James K. Polk defeated his Whig opponent Henry Clay by only thirty-eight thousand popular votes. As sectional questions involving slavery intensified in the 1840s, party lines began to blur. The Wilmot Proviso of 1846 was the first congressional vote in which northern Whigs and northern Democrats united to oppose southern Whigs and Southern Democrats.

Democrats. The Democratic Party received much of its support from westerners, southerners, and eastern laborers. Nonevangelical Protestants, immigrants, and Irish Catholics also overwhelmingly supported the party. Democrats drew on Jeffersonian doctrine to favor limited and frugal government, though some, such as Andrew Jackson, had no problem asserting governmental power in support of what they considered to be the interests of the people. Democrats not only feared the power of big government but also abhorred other privileged institutions that threatened the independence of the individual by consolidating power and using it to their advantage. Democrats opposed banks (centers of financial power), transportation monopolies (such as canal companies), and high tariffs that protected industries and created a class of wage laborers, while also raising costs for the independent yeomen farmers of the ideal Jeffersonian agrarian republic. Democrats favored territorial expansion, hoping that western land would provide a place where self-sufficient farmers could thrive. Because they placed a premium on limited government and personal liberty, Democrats tended to oppose reform movements such as abolition and temperance. Most southern Democrats supported the spread of slavery to the West, and many northern Democrats were against any specific restrictions on slavery. However, part of the northern wing of the party became committed to free soil and briefly left to support the Free-Soil Party in 1848. The antislavery group was known as Barnburners because, like the farmer who got rid of rats by burning down his barn, they seemed willing to sacrifice the party over their opposition to slavery. The Barnburners were opposed by mainline Locofoco Democrats, so called because during one convention they were left in the dark when others walked out and took the lights with them, leaving those behind to use newly invented matches, or locofocos, to light the room. This intraparty feud wrenched the Democrats, especially over patronage matters.

Whigs. The Whigs were the party of most eastern businessmen and merchants, and those with ties to commerce. Evangelical Protestants were overwhelmingly attracted to the Whigs, as were some southern planters. Remnants of the Anti-Masonic Party also joined the Whigs. The party first coalesced in the mid 1830s in response to Jacksonian policies, especially Jacksons attack on the Second Bank of the United States. Whigs believed in larger, active government. They supported government regulation of banks (to guarantee a secure supply of credit), high protective tariffs, and government-funded internal improvements. Whigs believed that commercial expansion and opportunity were the best way to fight tyranny and ensure the peoples independence. Commerce and markets would create an economic environment where all Americans would prosper. Because they favored commercial expansion and consolidation, Whigs generally opposed territorial expansion. They argued that areas already in the Union needed to be linked, with canals, roads, and railroads, as well as secure bank credit, before the country expanded geographically. Further, many Whigs were nativists who opposed the addition of Native Americans and Mexicans, or free-soilers who opposed the spread of slavery into the West. As evangelical Protestants, Whigs tended to support a variety of reform movements and favored moral persuasion to intervene in the lives of those who they thought needed help.


The 1828 presidential election; pitting the incumbent John Quincy Adams against Andrew Jackson, was one of the nastiest in American history. Jacksonian newspapers such as the Richmond Enquirer, the Argus of Western America, and the New York Enquirer not only reminded voters that Adams had stolen the presidency by making the alleged corrupt bargain with Henry Clay but also accused him of being a monarchist and a spendthrift who had used public funds to purchase a billiard table. He was even accused of prostituting a young American girl to the Russian czar when he was the United States minister to Saint Petersburg. Rumors circulated that Adamss wife was illegitimate and that the couple had engaged in premarital sex. Jackson, noting, I never war against females, made sure that the charges against Louisa Adams were not repeated, but the damage was done. Adamss supporters also resorted to scurrilous charges: the general was, they claimed, a drunkard, duelist, gambler, and slave trader. Some alleged that his mother was a mulatto prostitute, and he was accused, in the Coffin Handbill, of murdering six militiamen during the War of 1512 and killing twelve others in various duels. Some of these charges were true, but the campaign sank to a new low when a Cincinnati editor, Charles Hammond, began circulating a story that Jackson and his wife were bigamists. Rachel Robards had married Jackson in 1791, and the two had lived together for two years before learning that her divorce from her first husband had only recently been granted. Adams partisans questioned whether an adulterer should hold the nations highest office. The allegation destroyed Rachel, who died within a month of Jacksons victory; she preferred, she said, to be a doorkeeper in the house of God than to live in that palace in Washington.

Source: Paul C. Nagel, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (New York: Knopf, 1997).

National Pastime. In an era when Americans found little time for recreation or leisure, politics was the nations most popular pastime. The campaign season brought a variety of politically oriented events such as conventions or picnics. Even in years when there was no presidential election, parties vigorously contested state and local elections. Pennsylvania, for example, elected a governor every three years and held annual statewide contests for canal commissioners and state legislators. Political campaigns lasted several months, with nominating conventions usually meeting in the spring before the fall election. Newspapers were overtly partisan and boldly printed their parties tickets at the top of every issue. Political holidays, particularly the Fourth of July, were celebrated with readings of the Declaration of Independence and other orations, as well as parades, dances, and barbecues. Daniel Websters oratorical skills were first noticed at Independence Day celebrations. In contrast to modern practice, however, political candidates rarely spoke on their own behalf, instead sending their friends and supporters to campaign for them. Seeking office seemed selfish, and saying too much on issues might cost votes. When Pennsylvania Whig gubernatorial candidate Joseph Markle traveled the state in 1844, Democratic papers claimed that he had degraded himself by becoming a common traveling electioneer, huckstering for votes. The only acceptable way for candidates to address issues was to write private letters outlining their positions, with the understanding that the letters were intended for general release.

Spoils System. Running a successful campaign was only half the battle. After assuming office, politicians distributed patronage, in the form of public offices, to compensate those who helped them get elected. Some traditionalists, such as John Quincy Adams, refused to appoint men to office simply to reward them for their loyalty, but Adams lost the presidency in 1828 to Jackson, who endorsed the idea. It was a Jackson supporter, New Yorks William Marcy, who noted, to the victors belong the spoils. Jackson had nearly ten thousand federal jobs available and appointed nearly one thousand new people in his first year and a half in office, but by the end of his second term he had still replaced fewer than one in five federal officeholders. Jacksonians did not see the spoils system as an unprincipled use of offices as rewards or punishments but as a way of making government more responsive to the people. They denied that government service required special training (although most of Jacksons choices were men of status and wealth) and believed that rotating offices frequently would keep the country from developing a bureaucracy of corrupt officials. However, the spoils system faced a backlash. Political reformers argued that spoils denied the people their choice of servants. Many previously appointed positions, such as judgeships, became elective offices during the period.


Ronald P. Formisano, The Birth of Mass Political Parties, 18271861 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971);

Richard P. McCormick, The Second American Party System: Party Formation in the Jacksonian Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966);

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Age of Jackson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1945).

party system

views updated Jun 11 2018

party system. Though parties have existed in Parliament since the later 17th cent., many MPs prided themselves on their independence, and party ties were loose and often personal. There was little supporting organization in the country, save for ad hoc committees at election time, and little of the paraphernalia of discipline and propaganda which characterizes modern parties. In the later 18th cent., as public opinion became more vocal, there were indications that parties were improving their organization and encouraging coordinated effort, particularly for electoral purposes, but the influence of individual patrons remained great. Mass parties were a late 19th-cent. development, reflecting the growth of the electorate, and the need for an army of enthusiastic helpers in the larger constituencies. The National Liberal Federation, founded in 1877, was a body separate from the traditional and informal Liberal party organization within the House of Commons. The two were eventually grafted together, and a similar process occurred on the Conservative side. In contrast, the Labour Party was founded as a body outside Parliament, whose task was to elect Labour members to the House of Commons.

The general election of 1992 was contested by more than 90 parties, but few had much chance, under the existing electoral system, of returning an MP. It is difficult to believe that the Jolly Small Brewers Party (polled 343 at Worcester) or the Forward to Mars Party (91 at Huntingdon) threatened the supremacy of the main parties. In 2001 over 80 parties put up candidates, the Wessex Regionalists polling 167 at Wells and 66 at Winchester. The tiny parties, however valuable they may be in representing opinion, do not really form part of the party system.

That system, as it has developed, fulfils four important functions. First, the parties raise finance and mobilize a massive voluntary organizational effort, especially when their role in local government is taken into account. Running the party machine, particularly if the party is in power in a large city, demands much time and trouble, but leaves the parties with some independence from the state. Secondly, the parties act as a valuable conduit for public opinion, with procedures for formulating party policy, conferences for giving their approval, and manifestos on which the party will fight a general election. Thirdly, the parties have their own mechanisms for choosing local and parliamentary candidates and some method of electing their party leader, who becomes prime minister if their party wins a majority of seats. They offer a valuable training in democratic politics and many cabinet ministers have begun their careers as local chairmen, treasurers, and councillors. Lastly, the system offers alternatives to the voters and provides a safety valve against frustration and disappointment. We should therefore carefully distinguish democratic parties from the political parties found in many authoritarian forms of government, which are merely an extension of state power. The party system in a democratic society is a means both of contributing to government and of containing it.

Hugh Berrington; and Professor J. A. Cannon

party, political

views updated May 23 2018

party, political See POLITICAL PARTIES.

political party

views updated May 21 2018

political party Group organized for the purpose of electing candidates to office and for promoting a particular set of political principles. See individual articles

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