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.

Bear with me here.

I'm thinking.

Here's something in their favor: At least they're not shooting each other anymore. Two hundred years ago this month, the vice president of the United States slipped away to an undisclosed location for a private meeting with the former secretary of the Treasury. On a bluff in New Jersey, overlooking Manhattan, Aaron Burr mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton with a single shot from a dueling pistol.

Obviously, their tiff had become acutely personal by that point. These brilliant leaders of our new nation would not have gone blasting away at each other without profound justification, namely Burr taking umbrage at something Hamilton may (or may not) have said that could have appeared in a newspaper but actually, in fact, didn't. Before their relationship sank to that dire nadir, however, the clash between our third vice president and the principal author of "The Federalist Papers" began as pure partisan politics. Hamilton was a Federalist, and Burr was a Republican (which is what the Democrats called themselves in those days. Really). In 1800, Hamilton schemed to keep Burr out of the White House, on account of Burr having earlier schemed to keep the Hamiltonians out of power. Scheming, thwarting, ridiculing, back-stabbing: One thing led to another until . . .


Talk about the politics of personal destruction.

The point of this story is that, bad as partisan rancor seems today, it can be a lot worse. Party politics can spawn war, riot and feud. Abroad, party differences have produced purges, prisons and genocide. Seen in this light, Dick Cheney's use of the f-word on the floor of the Senate seems positively civil -- at least he's not drawing down on Robert Rubin.

The other lesson to be taken from the sad tale of Burr and Hamilton is that our rival parties didn't erupt like a couple of warts on the otherwise unblemished face of our nation. They were with us from birth. The stupendous figure of George Washington could rise above partisanship, but he was the only one. After him, the two most brilliant and visionary young men in the fledgling United States advanced dramatically different ideas about what America's future should be, and who should lead the nation there. Two geniuses, two rivals, two egos -- two parties.

Hamilton was one of them: handsome, ambitious, slippery and great. An emigrant from the West Indies, born out of wedlock, Hamilton hustled and strove his way to the right hand of Washington during the Revolution. He was also a gifted and energetic writer, a skill he applied as one of the most effective salesmen of the U.S. Constitution, then later used for lacerating attacks on his political enemies. Hamilton envisioned a centralized country governed by a strong president -- maybe even a king -- in cooperation with a mercantile aristocracy. He pictured a nation of merchants, manufacturers and financiers bound together by a central banking system and protected by high tariffs.

Then there was Thomas Jefferson: refined, ambitious, profligate with money but wonderfully efficient with ideas. He was Hamilton's only real equal. Jefferson envisioned a decentralized country, a loose confederation of states governed as lightly as possible; he pictured a nation of planters and yeoman farmers; he preferred democracy to aristocracy and therefore was suspicious of anyone who sought to concentrate power.

No sooner was Washington sworn into office than Hamilton and Jefferson began splitting the new country into competing factions. The Father of Our Country tried to rein in his scions by appointing Hamilton and Jefferson to the two most prominent seats in his Cabinet. But the rivalry of Treasury Secretary Hamilton and Secretary of State Jefferson soon made today's Colin Powell vs. Donald Rumsfeld friction look like a back rub at Elizabeth Arden.

They disagreed on matters great (like the French Revolution) and small (like the best way to address the president). Hamilton bankrolled a newspaper so he would have a place to publish his anti-Jefferson tracts -- written under a pen name, though everyone knew his dazzling stuff when they saw it. Jefferson, a bit more circumspect, encouraged a friend, poet Philip Freneau, to launch a competing newspaper, and drafted his pal James Madison to write anti-Hamilton tracts.

By the end of Washington's first term, the animosity between Hamilton and Jefferson "had reached the point where they could hardly bear to be in the same room," historian David McCullough wrote. "Each was certain the other was a dangerous man intent on dominating the government." The only thing they could agree on was that without Washington for four more years, the country might split into pieces.

The old general signed on for another term, then retired to Mount Vernon, leaving a divided government behind. In 1796, Federalist John Adams was elected president with Jefferson -- leader of the opposition -- as vice president. This exercise in bipartisan government turned out to be a dud. Jefferson wanted to start off with a warm and generous letter of praise to his old friend Adams, but his fellow party strategist, Madison, urged him not to send the letter, warning that it was dangerous to say nice things about an opponent.

Within two years, mobs of Federalists were rioting against Jeffersonian mobs in the streets of Philadelphia. "Politics and party hatreds destroy the happiness of every being here," Jefferson wrote to his daughter. As the United States lurched to the brink of war with France, the name-calling and mudslinging in the late 18th-century media outstripped Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh at their angriest. One pro-Jefferson editor asked what "occult causes" had moved Americans to support Adams -- "a wretch whose soul came blasted from the hand of nature."

To silence criticism, Congress passed -- and Adams signed -- the egregious Alien and Sedition Acts. These appalling laws sharply curtailed the Constitutional freedoms of speech and the press. Benjamin Franklin's grandson, a pro-Jefferson newspaper publisher, was among the two dozen Jeffersonians arrested and charged under the sedition law with libeling President Adams. Several newspapers were shuttered.

Passions approached the fail-safe point. Then, for reasons not entirely clear, Hamilton decided that his intramural disputes with Adams outweighed his grand philosophical disputes with Jefferson. He turned on his fellow Federalist. The Hamiltonian party fractured, never to rise again. Jefferson's party prevailed in the 1800 free-for-all and would hold the White House for the next 40 years.

WHICH, COME TO THINK ABOUT IT, is something very good that we can say about our parties: They tend to fall apart.

From the very beginning, whenever one party has gotten strong enough to start passing horrible laws such as the Alien and Sedition Acts, it has crumbled soon thereafter. Empowered, the parties overreach. Or members let some element of the party push its dogmas to the extreme, thus driving away moderate supporters. Or they calcify and then find themselves unable to deal with emerging problems. Something happens, and the pendulum swings. This happened to the Federalists. Years later, outrage at the tyrannical airs of the populist strongman Andrew Jackson split Jefferson's party into two camps -- the Jackson Democrats vs. the Whigs of Henry Clay -- and left it unable to cope with the issue of slavery. Then the Republicans had a heyday after winning the Civil War, but they, too, soon got to infighting. More recently, the Democrats deflated like a leaking dirigible after Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In other words, there is something about our parties, some power-sensitive self-destruct button lodged deep in the machinery, that keeps them from getting too big. On the surface, that might not seem like much. It is so much a part of American history that we take it for granted. But think about it -- what did the 20th century teach us about parties that grow too strong? The fact that our parties, at their most powerful, just . . . fall apart . . . would have seemed like a priceless blessing to the Jews of Nazi Germany or to the gulag prisoners of the Soviet Union.

WHY, THEN, DON'T WE HAVE LOTS OF LITTLE PARTIES? When our two major parties engage in their periodic undoing, why don't they disperse their constituencies like dandelion seeds? Why aren't we more like Italy: Picture an America in which the Green Party is robust, and the Workers Party is muscular, where the Right to Life Party has seats in Congress alongside the Hollywood Liberal Party, the Gun-Toting Celebrity Party and the Portly Demagogue Party (where the aforementioned Limbaugh and Moore would finally make peace over a nice hot fudge sundae).

If I were a political scientist, I would explain this by delivering a dense and learned explanation of Rational Choice Theory and the Nash Equilibrium, complete with multi-variable mathematical equations. I would show how the electoral college and the institution of the Senate combine to reinforce the two-party system at the expense of proportional representation, etc., blah, blah and blah.

But since I don't really understand that stuff, I prefer to say: Because we are Americans. Charles de Gaulle once asked why anyone could think France would unite behind a single party when the country has 200 varieties of cheese. In the United States, things are simpler. We've given the world just two varieties of cheese: the kind with individually wrapped slices and the kind where the slices stick together. We're binary people: Coke vs. Pepsi, boxers vs. briefs, Ruben Studdard vs. Clay Aiken.

This either/or outlook has significantly shaped our politics. The most obvious example is North vs. South. We fought our bloodiest war over this one, and it is still with us, in important ways. But there are others: big government vs. small government, high taxes vs. low taxes, city vs. country, big business vs. populist. And one I call "prim vs. frisky," which for most of American history was an argument over banning alcohol, but in recent decades has moved mainly into disputes over sex.

There's even a recurring pro-French vs. anti-French argument, which often plays out as internationalist vs. isolationist. The Hamiltonians loved to insinuate that Jefferson was a French dupe. More than two centuries later, the Republican National Committee is circulating news releases noting that John Kerry has French relatives, and House Republican leader Tom DeLay sometimes starts his speeches by saying, "Good afternoon -- or, as John Kerry might say, Bonjour."

The two-party system has turned out to be a highly flexible tool for working these two-sided disputes. The parties try to build winning coalitions and agendas by taking sides in these various perennial debates -- creating Roosevelt's "jungle of incongruous elements" -- much as the captains of two playground kickball teams choose classmates one by one. The Federalists, for example, chose North, big government, high taxes, city, big business, prim and anti-French. Whereas the Jeffersonians lined up South, small, low, country, populist, frisky and pro.

And the game got started.

But here's where it gets tricky. Most people, and most factions, who support a party don't buy into every single element of the party line. Given the chance, they would probably choose some from Column A and some from Column B. But they prefer a particular party at a particular time because, for them, a particular agenda item matters more than all the others. As circumstances change, other items on the agenda rise in importance. Arguments that were submerged suddenly surface. What was minor becomes major -- and suddenly instead of party unity you get party disintegration. Here, in cartoonishly oversimplified form, is how it has worked.

AFTER THE COLLAPSE OF THE FEDERALISTS, the Jeffersonians seemed to have everything going for them. True, they didn't know what to call themselves. First they were the Republicans, then they were the Democratic-Republicans, and finally, with the fiery populist triumph of Jackson, they settled on plain, old Democrats.

Initially, the party's coalition produced success upon success. Jefferson's pro-French internationalism ensured that relations were sufficiently friendly that cash-strapped Napoleon turned to us when he wanted to sell the Louisiana Territory for a song. And a weak central government was in sync with the ravenous and anarchic settling of the West -- at least from the Caucasian perspective. A newborn nation loosely stitched together along the Atlantic Coast became, in half a century, a hemispheric power with plans to span the continent from sea to shining sea.

The party's success attracted voters. But as more people backed the Democrats, the likelihood that they would all agree diminished. The Jeffersonian burst of lightly governed expansion changed the American agenda, and with it the balance of interests in the Democratic Party.

For example: When populist frontiersmen swept Jackson to power, and then came clomping into Washington in their muddy boots, demanding their spoils -- and when Old Hickory began leveraging his popular support to defy Congress and the Supreme Court -- many Democrats began to fear the rabble and their "King Andrew." They dropped out of the Democratic coalition and formed the Whig Party, named in honor of the anti-monarchists of England. Building their own coalition, they pieced together some remnants of Hamiltonian politics, promoting government programs to build railroads and canals, all funded by high protective tariffs.

More important, slavery became a divisive issue for the Democrats. In Jefferson's day, the small-government crowd could coexist (sometimes uneasily) with pro-South partisans by framing the slavery debate as a matter of states' rights. "This Union can exist forever divided into free and slave states, as our fathers made it," the Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas said, expressing this live-and-let-live, head-in-the-sand view. Westward expansion, however, split this uneasy coalition. Now the question shifted to whether slavery should be extended into the new territories. It was one thing for Northern Democrats to tolerate slavery where it had existed for generations and another for them to advocate more of it. Their reluctance just made their Southern partners dig in their heels.

The result: the 1860 vote. The Democrats split into Northern and Southern factions, each nominating its own presidential candidate. "The Democratic Party was broken in two," journalist Jules Witcover wrote recently in his history of the party, "at last succumbing to the reality that it was split between a Southern wing that clung to slavery and insisted on imposing it on the whole party, and a Northern wing that would no longer permit the South to do so."

This opened the White House door to Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president. Once again, a big party had fallen apart -- just in the nick of time.

LINCOLN'S REPUBLICANS were just six years old, having formed in 1854 from the husk of the Whig Party. The Whigs, too, had been undone by the rising drama of human bondage. "As the slavery issue came to the fore," historian Lewis L. Gould explained in his book on the Republicans (a companion to the Witcover history of the Democrats), "the Whigs found themselves more and more divided between their northern and southern wings. Their platform labeled slavery a dangerous issue . . . but said little more."

The Republicans married Hamiltonism to abolitionism for a 100 percent big-government platform. They believed in the national union over states' rights. They believed in government programs to organize and develop the conquered frontier. Even as Lincoln waged war on the rebellious Confederacy, he signed some of the most important public works and infrastructure legislation in U.S. history, all passed by the Republican Congress -- laws authorizing the transcontinental railroad and granting the right of way; the Homestead Act to encourage settlement of the empty prairies; a program to educate those settlers at land-grant colleges; and so on.

This new party supported high taxes to pay for its ambitious agenda. The GOP passed the first federal income tax, a temporary levy to pay for the Civil War. And it supported high tariffs on imported goods. The agenda made sense in the context of Hamilton's vision of the United States as a great industrial and financial power. From the beginning, U.S. economic potential was awesome, but for its first century, that potential was still taking shape. U.S. businesses needed government aid and protection from the stronger economies of Britain and Europe. They needed a national banking system. They needed a transportation network. They needed protective tariffs to keep domestic markets from being flooded with low-cost, high-quality foreign goods.

At first, the Republican coalition produced success upon success. The Union was preserved, the slaves were freed, the oceans were linked by the iron rails of progress. The United States enjoyed a burst of economic activity unmatched anywhere in the world, personified not just by Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan, but also by Post and Kellogg, Borden and Hershey, Heinz and Campbell, Sears and Woolworth. The consumer economy was born.

But just as the Jeffersonian westward expansion sharpened the slave question, this Hamiltonian burst of government-sponsored development changed the American agenda, and with it the balance of interests in the Republican Party. For example, the bloody toll of the Civil War and the chaotic muddle of Reconstruction revived anti-government, states-rights sentiments in the North, thus strengthening the Democrats.

More important, U.S. business had become a colossus. In fact, it was so powerful that some of the same people who had supported government protection of American business now started to believe that the government should protect people from American business. One of them, Theodore Roosevelt, became president in 1901 upon the assassination of William McKinley, and over the next 11 years, Roosevelt split the Republican Party. He continued to see big government as a force for national progress, thus alienating those in the GOP coalition whose main commitment was to big business.

In 1908, after his trust-busting, canal-building, federal-land-conserving presidency, Roosevelt turned the White House over to his friend William H. Taft. But T.R. came to feel that Taft was returning the party to the plutocrats, and after four years of uneasy retirement, he returned to challenge Taft in 1912. Forced to choose between them, the Republicans took the more conservative path. They nominated Taft.

"In its essence, 1912 introduced a conflict between progressive idealism . . . and conservative values," wrote James Chace in his recent history of that election. "The broken friendship between Taft and Roosevelt inflicted wounds on the Republican Party that have never been healed."

This rift paved the way for Democrats to grab the mantle of progressivism. It was, after all, high time for the Democrats to reinvent themselves. The Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer was vanishing in the din and bustle of the urban and industrial future. So the party found a new future in the cities, among the working people.


This time there was no violent break. It happened in fits and starts. Democrat Woodrow Wilson, elected in 1912, thanks to the GOP crackup, was no Abraham Lincoln -- his presidency was a hodgepodge, and so was his party. This was not entirely his fault; some blame lay with William Jennings Bryan, the previous leader of the Democratic Party, who pinned the party's hopes on populism. This small-town, Bible Belt movement was mainly about money -- the populists wanted more money in circulation -- but it also attracted a lot of prims to the Democrats and left the party deeply divided over Prohibition.

But much of the problem was attributable to Wilson. Though he billed himself as a progressive, he was a caveman on racial issues, and, politically speaking, he had all the warmth, appeal and deal-making skills of cold tripe. Wilson's uneven leadership ceded the 1920s to GOP presidents, but this was a false noon for the Taftian conservatives. When the Great Depression hit, the Republicans were a disaster, and Democrats regained the upper hand in U.S. politics. Now the parties had crumbled and reformed themselves to such an extent that they had almost entirely swapped coalitions.

The New Deal Democrats of 1932 chose from the menu of enduring American either/ors: big government, high taxes, populist, frisky and French. But the trauma of the Depression was so intense that Franklin Roosevelt was to able to bring both Northern and Southern voters into the same coalition -- under an anti-big business banner. He was able to hold progressives and fundamentalists in a single uneasy alliance by delivering the balm of government assistance. FDR gave working people the right to unionize and to have unemployment insurance and worker's compensation. But he also managed to hold on to moderate business leaders by saying he was saving them from the far worse fate of socialism. No president ever enjoyed more or stranger bedfellows.

It was the old familiar cycle: At first, the party's coalition produced success upon success. The Depression was ended. Fascism was defeated. Union wages and the GI Bill helped produce a robust middle class. Social Security eased the fear of growing old. A war-worn Western Europe coalesced behind U.S. leadership to form the world's most prosperous alliance.

But this burst of big-government reform changed the American agenda, and with it the balance of interests in the Democratic Party. For example, many of the farmers and working people who embraced the New Deal as an answer to the Dust Bowl and the bread line were shocked to find themselves, when good times returned, in the company of cocktail swillers, pacifists, beatniks, feminists and hippies.

More important, once the crises of the 1930s and 1940s were past, the country found itself face-to-face with the long-festering issue of racial discrimination. Without the Depression or war to hold the Democrats together, it was no longer possible to accommodate both segregationists and liberals. In 1948, the young mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, grabbed the Democratic convention and tugged it to embrace civil rights. When that happened, an angry group of Southern Democrats bolted from the party and nominated South Carolina's governor, Strom Thurmond, to run for president as a protest.

The complete breakup of the New Deal coalition took time, but by 1964, Thurmond had left the Democratic Party altogether, and over the next 20 years, millions of Southerners followed him. Segregation died, thankfully, as a legitimate issue, but resentment of Washington, D.C., endured. When Republican Ronald Reagan came along in the 1980s, preaching that "government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem," he achieved an electoral college landslide to match FDR's victory in 1936. Old Dixie was transformed into a stronghold for the party of Lincoln.

AFTER TWO CENTURIES of assembling coalitions, watching them split, then scrambling after the pieces like children under a pinata, our parties have arrived at this moment topsy-turvy. The Republicans have morphed into the party of low taxes and limited government, the party of Reagan, pushing an agenda that is conservative both fiscally and morally -- low tax and very prim -- but more assertive internationally than at many times in its past.

And it seems to have worked. In recent years, the GOP has enjoyed higher levels of party identification -- that is, more people say they are Republicans -- than at any time in the history of the Gallup Poll; Republicans are even with the Democrats. Their party controls the White House and Congress and a majority of state legislatures.

Is this the start of a long reign? Or is the GOP on the brink of getting too big? If you listen closely to the internal arguments of America's Republicans, you can hear a lot of strain between the prims, with their morality-setting agenda, and the segment of small-government voters that prefers to be left alone. Even within the small-government congregation there is tension between the low-taxers and the budget-balancers.

Call me a wacky optimist, but I like to think both parties will continue, somehow, to screw themselves up on a regular basis. I hope so, because if you take the long view, it's a pretty good thing we have going here. Partisan invective aside, our system is strong enough to be relatively stable, yet weak enough not to do the sort of catastrophic damage we've seen from tyrannies around the world.

Unlike Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson lived long enough to see that the partisanship of their youth meant little compared with the values that endure: concord, trust and mutual respect. In his retirement years, Jefferson renewed his friendship with Federalist John Adams. The old rifts were repaired as the two men traded warm and wise letters, reflecting on all that had happened since they had worked together on the Declaration of Independence. In one of those unbelievable strokes by history's screenwriter, Adams died in Massachusetts precisely 50 years after he had signed that crucial document. It was July 4, 1826. They say his last words were, "Thomas Jefferson lives." The spirit was correct, though the words were wrong, for Jefferson had died that same morning in Virginia.

"We acted in perfect harmony thro' a long and perilous contest for our liberty and independence," Jefferson wrote to Adams in 1813. "A constitution has been acquired which, tho' neither of us think perfect, yet both consider as competent to render our fellow-citizens the happiest and the securest on whom the sun has ever shone. If we do not think exactly alike as to its imperfections, it matters little to our country which, after devoting to it long lives of disinterested labor, we have delivered over to our successors in life, who will be able to take care of it, and of themselves."

If we do not think exactly alike . . . it matters little. Such brilliance! It reminds me of one more thing to be said in favor of our much-maligned parties. Now and then, they produce such leaders. Not as often as we would like, surely. But, so far, often enough.

David Von Drehle is a Magazine staff writer. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on washingtonpost.com/liveonline.