Main content

American political parties - 23 January 1976

A great and good friend of mine whom I have known for more decades than it's comfortable to count sends me, from Middlesex – I thought that in the days of unisex dressing there was no more middle-sex. No matter – he sends me a postcard begging help with three exclamations marks.

Which must mean that he is under the stress of considerable emotion, because he has lived enough years with the human race not to be easily panicked by the way we behave. He says, with admirable crispness, "we gather that some 200 years ago, our revolting colonies" – maybe rebellious would have been a little more tactful this year – "our revolting colonists turn themselves into a democratic republic, can you give us English or Great Britons, an easy way of remembering whether Democrats with a capital D, or Republicans with a capital R, are left or right?"

Is this a naive question? If it is, it's one that even some professors of political science are often too superior to ask, though I have run into slews of them who are just as baffled by the question as anybody. Nobody, indeed, ought to be ashamed of asking the question because a true answer is so complicated as to drive even the most interested person up the wall.

However, we are not going to go into more than a jot, or tittle, of the story. I’d like to hint, merely how hard it is to begin to answer it and then I will make a dogmatic statement so that when you come to hear about the ten Democrats and two Republicans who are running for the presidency this year, you will be able to make up your own mind, which of them is right, left or centre. I’ll tell you right now that by August when the two nominating conventions are over, ten of the 12 will be left at the post.

First of all, the men who founded the American republic and wrote the Constitution were unanimously agreed on one thing, they were setting up a republic instead of a monarchy. This was so obvious to them that nobody called himself then a republican, and the Republican party was not founded until the middle of the 19th Century. Another thing they agreed on right away was that they would not have political parties at all – which will sound, to politicians, like a recipe for chaos and to ordinary mortals, a prescription for paradise.

Well, George Washington, who presided over the constitutional convention, like a cross-breed between Moses and Winston Churchill – a man, you will gather, of enormous presence – Washington said in an early meeting that they were all sufficiently familiar with the history of monarchies and republics, to know that political parties breed obnoxious what he called "associations and combinations and they'd do without them. Agreed?" Agreed. Of course, the moment you get a handful of people together arranging how to govern anything, a nation a village, a dramatic society, they will have their own interest which they will push. The farmers aren’t going to take the same view of food prices as the grocers, people who live by fishing are going to be more interested in boat building than people who grow dates in the desert. In the local dramatic society, a man with a beautiful sister is going to push her for the star part, whereas the local Communist will insist on no stars – he being absolutely against the cult of personality – provided he can direct the show.

In other words there are bound, in any collection of people planning a government, there are bound to be factions and in no time of that famous 17-week meeting, the factions made themselves heard. The southern planters took the same oppressive view of the negro as the northern shippers, since they both made their livelihood from either importing the slaves or working them. The Quakers of Pennsylvania were all for making treaties of peace with the Indians and working with them side by side. This was madness to the mountain men, who had seen a brother's throat slit, or a daughter raped. And so on and on.

But they pretended for quite a while, that you could run a continent of vastly different climates and very different ways of life without political parties. In the first elections the runners called themselves federalists – meaning they stood for the welfare of the whole nation above the selfish interests of their own neck of the woods. So you look through the records, and it says George Washington, federalist, won. He was succeeded by John Adams, federalist, and then, in 1800 there was a contest between a federalist and one Thomas Jefferson, who was obsessed by the needs of ordinary people, as distinct from land owners, property owners and the like, and he invented a party and called himself, a Democrat Republican. Is that clear?

Ha ha ... well, we are not going on much longer with this confusion of faction and party. Jefferson was succeeded by two more Democrat Republicans, and then a National Republican and then, there arrived a brilliant irascible soldier back-woodsman. A democrat in any age, small d or capital D, Andrew Jackson who just about founded the Democratic party as we know it today – in the crude sense that he suspected all bankers and bosses, and pretended to speak for the mass of people.

Then for a while there was a Whig party, which fought it out with Democrats for about 20 years. And, you will be greatly relieved to hear, the Republican party so-called was founded in the 1850s, elected its first president, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860 and for the remaining 115 years, it’s been a ding-dong battle between Republicans and Democrats.

Now, for the dogmatic statement. On the whole, today, you can assume that the Democrats are inclined to the left, and the Republicans inclined to the right. But having said that, I ought to take it all back again, at least to the extent of reminding you that inside each of the two parties there is something very like a left wing and a right wing. But it is a bigger, more active and flappable right wing among the Republicans. Now this is fairly new, when I say fairly new I mean it's only, say, 50, 60 years old.

I remember when I was making the films of my television series on America and we had come to the end of the 19th Century. We were out on Long Island, filming in the home of former president Theodore Roosevelt. It was pretty obvious to any viewer who saw that programme that though I tried as always to keep my cool, I regarded Teddy Roosevelt as something of a hero. He had come crashing into politics in a corrupt time, and he fought the bankers and the immigration inspectors, and the police taking bribes, and the slum landlords. He went after the steel trust and the railroad tycoons, he was, if ever there was a spokesman for the poor dumb victims, of these barons – that's to say you and me – he was it. Well now, my director was a young man who did his homework very diligently. He was alarmed when I read over what I had written about Teddy Roosevelt. A strange, and baffling thought crossed his mind, and clouded his face.

But he said, "Do I understand that Teddy Roosevelt was not a Democrat?" I was speechless. But not for long. "On the contrary," I said, "he and Lincoln are the two great Republican presidents". "But I thought," he said that, "Republicans are the bad guys, the Establishment, and the Democrats are the good guys, the reformers." Well, of course, you could tell where he stood. "But not in Teddy’s time," I said.

The Democrats were the machine politicians, the well-entrenched and crummy Establishment of the cities. The Republicans in Theodore Roosevelt’s time were the great progressives. In fact, in 1912 there was an unholy row in the Republican party and Roosevelt broke away, and formed a party called the Progressive Party, and in 1912 he ran as its candidate. But for most of our time, that's to say the time of most people listening to me now, the Democrats have been hot for reform, especially if the federal government is going to foot the bill. And when the country begins to find that the price is too high, or the reforms have gone too far for its stomach, then the country usually cools off and votes in a Republican.

I don’t know if my friend, or any other friends, is much enlightened by all this because, I can hear some students of American politics screaming, quite correctly, that the American party system is not ideological at all, and it’s true that the Democrats would never win any national election if they didn’t embrace southern conservatives, northern labour unions, the blacks in one place or the blacks in all places, the poor whites in another, liberals here and conservatives there.

The Democrats had a 20-year run, from Franklyn Roosevelt through Harry Truman, the long lean years of the Depression and the second war, and the seven fat years after the war, till 1952 when the country reverted to an old habit, which is to canonise the military hero of the last war. It did this with General Washington, and then, after the civil war, with General Grant. So it elected General Eisenhower, and since him we have had two Democrats in the White House – Kennedy by a hair's breadth, Lyndon Johnson by a landslide – and two Republicans – Nixon by the biggest landslide, Ford by appointment of the disgraced Nixon. That's to say he was appointed vice president, and naturally succeeded when Nixon resigned.

Well, as a general thing the cox and box act between the Democrats and the Republicans has lately been so monotonous, and whoever is in inflation goes soaring and so does crime, and so does the appalling unemployment rate among the blacks, that many people yearned for the very labels my old friend would like to slap on the two parties – hence the rise of the so-called Conservative Party, very powerful in New York and California. But everywhere else, both conservatives and liberals tend to stay inside the party which is best organised in their state.

So, to wind up, if you want to snap rule-of-thumb judgement for 1976, I’d say only one thing – the country seems to be going conservative, and this should mean that it’s a bad year for liberals, whether they are in one party or the other. But neither of them, I think, will call themselves right or left. They all claim to be representing all good men and true. And, of course, all good women and true. That's to say, representing the people of the centre.

The trick for any person running for public office in this country is to guess how far to the left or right of centre most people want to go. Right, my friend? Right.


Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC

Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.