The truth is that America’s history of its famous and infamous characters is a mix of altruism and selfishness, honesty and corruption, courage and cowardice, wisdom and stupidity, prudence and rashness, unity and divisiveness. Natural cynicism makes me think the specific gravity leans to selfishness, corruption, cowardice, stupidity, rashness and divisiveness.
WHY HAS AMERICA SURVIVED SO FAR? HOW MUCH LONGER?
It raises questions why America has survived so far and how much longer a nation so confounded can survive. Survival to this point and beyond has nothing to do with American people standing head and shoulders above their counterparts in other countries. Americans are not exceptional as a group of individuals.
In my opinion, the reasons for success are a design of government structure that has withstood efforts of generations of Americans to destroy it and that the nation was placed under protection of an Almighty God from the very beginning, first by early European settlers and again by the Founders as they laid out the design of a governmental plan. Who knows how much further we can stretch the wisdom of the Founders and the patience of God?
HISTORY OF THE MODERN DEMOCRATIC PARTY (AND MARTIN VAN BUREN)
1821 - A good place to begin my argument is in the year 1821 which was when the modern Democratic Party was formed. (It wasn’t the party of Jefferson, as widely proclaimed. Jefferson and Madison had very different principles and goals but they, especially Madison, did start the party system.)
I summarize the story from the history book as follows. Martin Van Buren was the son of a tavern owner in Kinderhook, New York. He resented the autocratic landowning families in this area and found enough like-minded politicians to control the New York State Constitutional Convention in 1821 enacting universal manhood suffrage.
He learned to employ newspapers as no other political figure had, linking journalists’ success to the Party’s fortunes. He perceived the necessity of discipline and organization to control the masses he sought to organize. He sought to create a political party dedicated to no other principle than holding power.
The problem with the political climate developing in the young nation was the disagreement over slavery which was dividing the states between the North and the South. Van Buren (and many others) viewed the logical result of this would be civil war, which he hoped to avoid. The best way to do that, he reasoned, was to remove slavery (and any other issues) as a party consideration.
He joined southern planters with northern non-elites to form a national organization dedicated to attaining and retaining political power. An important factor in attaining success was in taking advantage of the growing size of government which provided an ever-larger pool of government jobs with which to reward supporters: to the victors belong the spoils. Van Buren tied his star to a practice that, at its roots, viewed men as base and without principle. If they could be silenced on the issue of slavery with the promise of a job, what of their integrity? Yet, that was the strategy for the noble purpose of saving the nation from civil war.
1824 - Andrew Jackson was chosen as the standard bearer for Van Buren’s party in 1824. The Electoral College vote was: Jackson 99, (John Quincy) Adams 84 and Clay 41. There being no majority, the decision fell to the US House of Representatives. Clay was Speaker of the House and he detested Jackson so Adams received his votes. The one-term Adams’ administration was plagued with “pay back” acrimony for the “stolen election”.
1828 - In 1828, Jackson and his VP, John Calhoun, coasted into office. When he left office, Jackson had more totally consolidated power in the executive branch than any previous president, ensuring what Van Buren had dreaded: a powerful presidency subject to sectional pressures. His adept use of the spoils system created a large-scale government bureaucracy that further diminished states’ rights. This planted the seeds for the “New Deal” and the “Great Society” and (I would add) Obama’s eight year reign.
1836 - Van Buren followed Jackson into the presidency in 1836 to reap the blame for all that turned out badly from Jackson’s initiatives. After one term he was defeated by Whig candidates, William Henry Harrison (Tippecanoe) and John Tyler.
Harrison died after one month in office and Tyler succeeded him. The interesting thing about the succession is that the US Constitution’s language on presidential succession is not precisely clear that the Vice President automatically becomes the fully empowered president when his predecessor dies in office. Some doubts were raised. Tyler just assumed direct succession was the intention and took control. In this little-noted act he cemented the foundation of the Republic in future times of chaos and instability. This small snippet of history typifies the generally untidy political proceedings that have been part of our nation’s Presidential campaigns and the use of presidential power, once elected.
The formation of the modern Democratic Party isn’t a particularly heart-warming story especially the part about founding principles. However, there have been moments in later history where that party has provided great leadership for the country.
PARTY POLITICS NOW (AND DONALD TRUMP)
At this moment, the Democratic Party is at a low point in its history, despite having one of its members in the White House. At least, that’s my opinion. In many ways, it espouses the principles and methodologies Van Buren invented but has added cultural dogma and governing philosophy that moves the nation far from the direction the Founders intended and defined.
The Democratic Party is not alone in American political history in experiencing recurring shifts in goals, initiatives and methodologies. All have been the same in that regard. But now is a very bad time for one of the two major political parties to be focused on matters of lesser importance.
Of course, Donald Trump is doing his best to coax Republicans into the same mindset. The Democratic Debates have been particularly useless in addressing key national issues. The Republican debates have been notably better except for time spent in personal attacks. The debate this Thursday should provide good reminders of issues which should be the basis of your vote in November. Trump’s likely absence should raise the quality of debate immensely.