Origin of the Species

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By David Von Drehle
Sunday, July 25, 2004

Once upon a time in America, there was a political party that believed in a strong central government, high taxes and bold public works projects. This party was popular on the college campuses of New England and was the overwhelming choice of African American voters.

It was the Republican Party.

The Republicans got started as a counterweight to the other party: the party of low taxes and limited government, the party suspicious of Eastern elites, the party that thought Washington should butt out of the affairs of private property owners.

The Democrats.

The fact that our two parties have swapped platforms, rhetoric and core ideals so completely might be spun, by some people, as a shortcoming. Some people might paint the stark soullessness of our parties -- which appear happy to argue the opposite tomorrow of what they argued yesterday, if that's what it takes to keep the argument going -- as somehow a bad thing. After all, party-bashing is a surefire crowd pleaser.

In good times and bad, through crisis and calm, Americans have hated the parties. George Washington himself called them "truly [the] worst enemy" of popular government; his sensible veep, John Adams, lamented them, too. "There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and converting measures into opposition to each other," Adams wrote, even before the Revolutionary War had been won.

Roughly a century later, Theodore Roosevelt was sounding the theme, heaping scorn on Republicans and Democrats alike. "The old parties are husks," he declared, "with no real soul within either, divided on artificial lines, boss-ridden and privilege-controlled, each a jumble of incongruous elements, and neither daring to speak out wisely and fearlessly on what should be said on the vital issues of the day."

These days, Americans hate the parties because they are too polarized. Texas billionaire Ross Perot based his impressive independent 1992 presidential bid on a promise to end party squabbling. We also hate them because they are not polarized enough. In 2000, consumer advocate Ralph Nader justified his race for president by saying that Democrat and Republican were just two names for the same old thing.

But I'm here to say: Let's not go overboard. True, our feuding parties may be to blame for the gridlock, ill will, finger-pointing and score-settling that besmirches our current civic life. Also for the failure to project a clear foreign policy, the inability to control spending in an economic downturn and the frittering away of precious years as the ticking time bomb of health care and retirement costs threatens the prosperity of future generations.

Also for the heedless destruction of reputations, the facile reduction of genuine crises to mere debating points, the equally facile inflation of mere debating points into alleged crises and the subversion of national priorities to base factionalism and personal greed.

Who among us is without a flaw or two?

This week, America will watch -- sort of -- as the Democrats gather in Boston to cheer themselves and their presidential candidate. The delegates will approve a platform that no one reads and gab in the aisles as various elected officials give speeches that no one listens to. Later this summer, Republicans will stage a similar event in New York. The vital question, here on the eve of the conventions, is how these parties -- these unprincipled, opportunistic, haphazard and inconsistent contraptions we've lived with so grouchily for so long -- have managed to produce such a surplus of freedom, prosperity and happiness compared with so little (in the grim balance of human depravity) murder, tyranny and corruption. Hard as it is to imagine, they must be doing something right.


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