How did political parties become the central part of society?
By Chadwick Dolgos
“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
— President George Washington, farewell address, Sept. 19, 1796
The nation has since gone on to ignore President George Washington’s warnings. Political parties are at the very center of modern-day elections. They are responsible for nominating candidates, financially backing politicians and hitting the campaign trail to get their nominees elected.
In his famous farewell address, Washington recognized that people naturally organize based on shared interests and goals. He argued, however, that the existence of political parties in a popularly elected government weakens the fabric of democracy.
Political parties soon become more concerned with winning elections and gaining control than with governing in a manner that has the people’s best interests in mind.
Party influence has driven supporters to do more than just show up to the polls and vote.
Loyalty to one political party has become more of an obsession over the years, with acts of violence and vandalism being committed as efforts to promote party agendas.
For example, Gazette 2.0 reported on Aug. 20 that State Rep. Anita Kulik’s office was defaced with the words “BLUE LIVES MATTER” and “MARXIST” written in chalk on the sidewalk directly outside of her Carnegie office. While the perpetrators remain at large, Rep. Kulik’s husband Joseph Kulik believed this to be the work of her opponent Danny DeVito’s supporters.
More recently, photographs emerged online of graffiti spray-painted on Congressman Mike Doyle’s office on East Carson Street in Pittsburgh. The vandal(s) wrote “Elections, No! Revolution, Yes,” above a sickle and hammer in red spray-paint. The same message later appeared on the garage door at the home of Sean Parnell, Republican candidate for Congress in District 17.
Congressman Conor Lamb’s Mt. Lebanon office was also vandalized with a similar message, “Don’t Vote! Fight for Revolution!,” accompanied by the same sickle and hammer imagery, though it is unclear when the vandalism occurred.
Some voters say they have even gone as far as to remove friends and family from their social circle for holding opposing beliefs. “Anyone that supported Trump was kicked out, even family members,” said Maggie Brizzoli of Coraopolis.
Brizzoli says she takes every vote for Trump personally. “The fact he wants to take gay rights away and women’s rights, and told the proud boys to stand by is enough for me that anyone who supports him doesn’t support me, and I am okay with that!”
She has removed everybody who supports Trump, including family members, off of her social media platforms and out of her life completely. “I don’t want anything to do with people who agree with him.”
Washington predicted political parties would develop into self-interested, divided factions that would do anything to win an election. Despite his injunction, the third presidential election was riddled with party politics.
Federalists, like John Adams, believed in a strong centralized government, whereas Democratic-Republicans feared that a strong centralized government would impede on individual liberties and states’ rights. Federalists supported a loose interpretation of the Constitution. Democratic-Republicans such as Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, argued that the Constitution outlines the roles and powers of each branch of government and should be adhered to strictly.
Adams won the first politically contested presidential election in 1796, becoming the second president of the United States.
Understanding how dangerous political parties could be to a country, Adams wrote, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other,” in a letter dated Oct. 2, 1789 to Jonathan Jackson, the first marshal of Massachusetts.
When Adams became President in March 1797, the cards were stacked in his favor. Both chambers of Congress had Federalist majorities. The fifth and sixth Congresses of the U.S. remained under Federalist control for the entirety of Adams’ presidency.
The Supreme Court, which only consisted of six members in 1796, was packed with Federalist justices. Every justice on the highest court of the land during Adams’ tenure supported the Federalist Party in one capacity or another prior to their appointment.
Adams had the opportunity to nominate three justices to the Supreme Court: Justice Bushrod Washington, Justice Alfred Moore and Chief Justice John Marshall. Adams nominated Marshall after losing his bid for reelection.
The Federalist Party controlled every branch of government, allowing them to act without consequence. The Federalists successfully passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were a series of laws targeted at mitigating immigration, specifically from France, and restricting what can be said or published about the government and its officials. Opposition to these acts fell on deaf ears.
The Sedition Act made it illegal to publish false, scandalous, and malicious writing against acting members of government. Though in clear violation of modern-day interpretation of the First Amendment, the act faced no challenges in the courts because the courts were packed with Federalist judges. The Sedition Act expired on March 3, 1801, coincidentally on Adams’ last day in office.
Adams lost his bid for reelection to Jefferson, becoming the first one-term president. The Federalist Party, becoming frustrated with Adams, split their votes between Adams and Alexander Hamilton, resulting in a toss up between Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Jefferson was selected by the House of Representatives to serve as president and Burr became Jefferson’s vice president.
Right before leaving office, Adams and the Federalist Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801. Commonly referred to as the Midnight Judges Act, the act reduced the number of justices serving on the Supreme Court from six to five upon the next vacancy. This meant that two vacancies would need to be made on the court before Jefferson could appoint a Democratic-Republican justice.
Adams feared power being shifted from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans. Knowing Federalist influence was diminishing in the executive branch, he rushed to nominate as many judges as he could to protect the government from his opposition.
Similarly to Adams, President Donald Trump enjoyed Republican control of both chambers of the 114th Congress and a five to four conservative majority on the Supreme Court. While Trump did lose Republican control in the House during the 2018 midterm election cycle, the Senate remained under Republican leadership for the entirety of his first term.
Trump also successfully nominated three Supreme Court justices: Justice Neil Gorsuch, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Barrett was confirmed by the Senate to the Supreme Court on Oct. 26, just eight days before the 2020 presidential election.
While the 2016 election resulted in major Republican victories, voters illustrated their frustration with the state of the union when they flipped the House from Republican to Democratic control and decreased the 54-44 Republican majority in the Senate to 52-46 in 2018.
Law enforcement prepared for and warned of potential riots and violence following the results of the 2020 election. The White House, where Trump hosted his watch party, erected a non-scalable fence around the premises as an added security measure.
The election inspired record voter turnout, with at least 159.8 million registered voters casting their ballot, compared to 136.6 million in 2016 and 131.4 million in 2008, the year President Barack Obama was elected.
Evidenced by the election and the events leading up, the country appears to be divided.
Democrats maintained control in the House, though losing some seats, while Republicans maintained control of the Senate, reducing their majority by one seat. Whether party politics can be solely to blame for how the election played out is up for debate, but one thing is certain: We did not hearken to Washington’s exhortation.