Looking to History to Understand the Current Political Parties
The factions of the third party system are indicative of the actual factions in American history that comprise the “big tent” political parties of any era.
Or, more specifically the factions of the late second party system and third party system, so from about the 1840s to the 1890s, are indicative of America’s actual factions that comprise the two major parties.
Looking at America’s big tents as factions helps us to see the reality of the two-major parties of any era, that is, that they are actually coalitions of different ideological factions that band together to win elections (just barely settling on vague party platforms, if they can manage to even do that).
With those qualifiers in mind, the main factions we want to look at on this page are the factions of and around Lincoln’s 1860 election (where coalitions were abandoned for lines drawn in the sand over the divisive issue of slavery).
This will help us to clearly see four different positions on social issues and the use of government (two major voter issues in American history) that clearly lay at the heart of American political factions and American politics:
- The Northern liberal Whig/Republicans (this is a coalition of conservative, moderate, and “radical” AKA “progressive” Northern social liberals and classical conservatives who didn’t want an anti-immigrant Know-Nothing America or a Confederate agrarian Democracy with “states’ rights” or slavery; they wanted “globalist big government modernism and/or social justice;” this party was itself a big tent dominate in the North, but there were Southern and Boarder State Republicans),
- The Nativist Know-Nothing [sometimes] Whigs/Republicans of any era; the classically conservative and socially conservative allies of the Whig/Republicans (this is the anti-immigrant party, despite being social conservatives, they butted heads with the Southern Democrats; this faction broke off from the National Republicans/Whigs, thus resulting in the Whigs/Republicans becoming more liberal than they had been by Lincoln’s era),
- The Southern Democrats and their Northern allies (the Confederate southern social conservatives who were one large part of the Democratic Party; the ones who supported slavery), and
- The Free Soil [sometimes] allies of the Democrats who took a “classically liberal” or [in modern terms] “libertarian” “states’ rights” position (this is the major faction, along with the populist reformers and Southern Democrats, who made up the old Democratic Party; This faction is more like the Van Burens and Jeffersons and even Jacksons, the liberals who weren’t southern Democrats, but weren’t exactly populist reformers either).
In other words, there aren’t two basic ideologies (North and South or Democrat and Republican), instead there are a number of different ideological factions who form coalitions. Above we can see social conservatives of the north and south and liberals of the north and south. Below we will see even more factions to help us better understand the general truism.
The Many Factions of the Third Party System
Above you’ll notice that those four factions don’t tell the full story (after-all the coalition of Northern Republicans clearly contains a few different types of Lincoln-era Republicans).
With that in mind, we can also note the following factions from around 1860 and toward to the Gilded Age:
- The Populists (who were another type of liberal democrat, closer to what we would today call socialist or social liberal). This faction is denoted by figures like W. J. Bryan. Here it is important to note that this faction contained right-wing populists AND left-wing populists (which caused tension within the Peoples’ Party and later the Democratic Party when they joined the Democrats at the end of the Gilded Age). This coalition was focused on workers’ rights and moralism.
- Reformers, which was a general name for early [often religious] factions of progressives from the North and South who generally focused on creating Communes and pushing for moral policies. Reformers generally want on to become known as populists and then in the modern era, progressives.
- War Democrats who were Democrats of the North who allied with the Republicans in the Civil War (big business Democrats some of who would become “bourbon liberals”).
- Copperheads who were pro-Confederate northerners.
- Bourbon Liberals who were boarder state and northern liberals who went down south to “help” reform it during and after Reconstruction (or carpetbaggers who went down to profit off the war torn south… depending on your perspective).
- Conservative Northern Republicans who wanted to keep the union together for business reasons (but didn’t’ care about racial issues as a social issue). Some of these “switched” to Democrats after the war, thus some can be said to have become “Bourbon Liberals.”
- Radical “Progressive” Republicans who were elite (not populist) progressive social liberal “radical” Republicans opposed to the Confederates on moral grounds (like abolitionists).
- Civil Service Republicans who were pro civil service elite progressive liberals of the post-Civil-War period.
- Stalwart Republicans who were crony capitalist elite Republican liberals of the post-Civil-War.
- Conservative Southern Pro-Business Democrats who were more concerned with the southern economy than slavery (although to be fair, the southern economy was driven by slavery prior to the Civil War). These are Southern Business people who were not “Bourbon Liberals.”
- The Socially Conservative Populists of Reconstruction who were those ex-Confederates who strongly resisted Reconstruction.
In other words, there are many different types of classical and social liberal and conservative factions who are either elite or populist and some single-voter issue factions.
The Civil War may have split the country by North and South, but like in any era, the reality is America is less “two bing tents” and more like Solomon’s baby (you can’t just split it in two).
Still, as is the nature of the two-party system, the many above factions generally come together over broad platforms to form two-big tents to win elections (in a winner-take-all system, there is no other viable choice; or historically at least this seems to be the case).
Although the above list isn’t exhaustive, nor does it cover later voter issues like “pro-choice,” today say that (very roughly) about 1/2 of these factions are essentially in the Big Tent Republican, about 1/2 are in the Big Tent Democrat, while a fraction of the remainder can be found in third parties.
Or rather, the spiritual ancestors of these factions can be said to comprise the major parties (along with some newer factions formed over modern single-issue voter factions like “the religious right,” an evolution of the populist conservative, and neoliberals and neocons, which are somewhere between pro business conservatives of the Republican Party, Stalwarts, War Democrats, and Bourbon Liberals).