Last Updated 03 Jan 2023

Early American Politics And The Role of Alexander Hamilton And Thomas Jefferson In It

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America today is growing more and more divided by the year. This is detrimental to American society as a whole. Our current political standstills, most obvious in the United States Congress, have not always been this way. This complete lack of bipartisanship we see on a day to day basis means that no compromises can be made amongst opposing political parties, and if no compromises can be made, Congress cannot do its job. Below, we will be discussing how this happened, how it affects the citizens of this country, and how to fix it.

The United States has, almost since the ratification on its Constitution in 1788, always had its political parties--from the Federalists and the Antifederalists to the Democrats and the Republicans. And with political parties come political discourse, opposing views and butting heads that cause standoffs on the floors of the House and the Senate. Take the famed feud between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson as a prime example of early American politics becoming similarly nasty to what they are now. Although the two never served together in Congress, they did serve in George Washington’s cabinet as the Secretary of Treasury and Secretary of State respectively. It was during this time that the two began to argue over everything that came Washington’s way, starting “with fiscal policy, but soon branched out to character assassination,” (Brookhiser 183).

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The two would print anonymous exposes in the papers, slamming the other’s reputation. They could each be characterized as hating the other. But it all came to a head in the election of 1800, when Hamilton endorsed Jefferson over party-mate Aaron Burr because “Jefferson [was] in every view less dangerous than Burr,” (Hamilton). This endorsement ultimately won Jefferson the presidency. Hamilton’s actions were commendable, his endorsement put the person he felt was best for the job in front of the person from his party. It would be ludicrous to say that Jefferson’s contributions as president were not influential, and it all happened because of Hamilton’s fateful endorsement.

As for our current situation of brimming political discourse and polarization, the roots of it began 40 years ago. During a __ year period spent struggling by as the minority, the Republican Party had to adapt or die. Newt Gingrich and his followers spearheaded a campaign to put themselves back on top. Gingrich’s strategy was to undermine the Democratic Party (with Congress itself caught in the crossfire) in an effort to take back the House. The Democratic majority responded “by overreacting, shutting off Republican amendments, and using or misusing the gavel to avoid embarrassment,” (Mann and Ornstein 34). This fearful response from the Democratic side of the aisle made voters wary. If the Democrats were reacting so poorly to the newly fanged Republicans, why should they put their trust in them to cover the monumental duty of proposing and putting into place new laws? Gingrich and his followers took back the House and put the Republicans back into power, but his inflammatory techniques of barbed name-calling and provocative semantics have stayed with our government ever since.

See, for example, Trump’s campaign and following presidency. When referring to Hillary Clinton, his political opponent, he would call her catchy nicknames to discredit her, like “Crooked Clinton” and so on. Semantic use like this was started with the infamous aforementioned Gingrich, whose organization weaponized words when going up against the Democratic party. Words they recommended to be used during speeches referring to their opponents include: “betray, decay, … lie, cheat, radical,” and so on (Mann and Ornstein 39). It has become obvious that these words have, in a way, gotten to the heads of politicians, and they now truly believe that the other party is a threat to the well-being of the country.

Take Pew Research Center’s study on our Political Parties, which has found that 43% of Republicans and 40% of Democrats side with the party they do because “they are against what [the other party] represents,” (“The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider.”). Comparing this to the aforementioned Hamilton and Jefferson feud, we begin to see stark differences between this government and that of our ancestors. Hamilton was willing to put aside partisan differences to endorse someone that he believed better suited to the job. This is no longer the case, the political parties view each other as enemies through-and-through, and are willing to support an inferior candidate because it will put their party in the lead.

For all our problems in the House, there are just as many in the Senate. As a result of our current political discourse, the “slow-moving institution” is at a standstill (Mann and Ornstein 84). With the advent of the Gingrich’s movements in the House, the Senate, too, has adapted. Now, it is nearly impossible to pass bills through, and it is all due to filibusters. Using filibusters effectively in the Senate means that the minority party can delay votes as long as their members hold the attention of the Senate. These kinds of filibusters have changed the Senate’s dynamic entirely. They had once been used to draw attention to important, potentially overlooked issues before a vote, but in the present day are used to postpone votes entirely and sabotage the Senate in such a way that the majority party cannot do anything, and, as a result, discredit them (Mann and Ornstein 87-88). When you step back and look at the state of affairs, it becomes obvious why this would be an issue. Senators are meant to propose and pass laws, not hold them ransom on the floor.

These mentalities among politicians lend themselves to the opinions of regular citizens. The words of a politician will latch itself to the ears of the voters, which can vastly change their opinion of one side or another. It is not enough that the politicians themselves have polarized, but now the citizens have, too. According to the Pew Research Center, “the median Republican is now more conservative than 97% of Democrats, and the median Democrat is more liberal than 95% of Republicans,” (“The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider.”). With this information in mind, the political polarization becomes painfully obvious. The fact that politics have become banned from so many dinner tables because of how worked up people get about it is absurd. How can we expect an educated republic when we are not allowed to talk about it? Furthermore, the ideological gap between the political parties has increased “from 15 percentage points to 36” since 1994 (“The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider.”). Not to mention that “44% of Democrats” and “45% of Republicans” view the opposite party unfavorably (“The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider.”). If even the citizens of our country are becoming polarized, if they cannot find a common ground on which to even speak, how can we say that there is not a problem?

As for fixing our ill-standings with both sides of the aisle, it is going to be a long road to travel, maybe one that no one will be willing to even set foot upon, but one that I believe will be necessary. Our nation cannot survive on the discourse it currently feeds on, after all, we will only manage to tear ourselves apart if we do. Nevertheless, I have a set of suggestions for how to fix it.

In our current post-Gingrich America, career politicians are worrying less about the laws and more about how they will win their next election and either keep their party as the majority or pull their party loose from the bindings of the minority. When that is the lawmakers’ biggest worry, how can we trust them to do their job and put laws in place that will benefit the ordinary citizen? If they are worrying about how their voters see them, how are they meant to make any compromises with the opposing party? Compromise is at the root of all solution when it comes to politics and policies, and that sort of thing is not getting done with our current state of affairs.

What is best for the people is simply no longer being thought of, replaced instead with thoughts of reelection (Davenport). This is a tragedy of our current government, and I believe that one of the best ways this issue can be fixed is by putting term limits on members of Congress. By un-incentivizing the role of Senator or Congressman as a career path and more as a public office to serve the people, Congress would begin to attract the kind of people it desperately needs. The kinds of people who will build relationships with the other party when needed and will make laws that they truly believe will help the United States at large.

Another issue faced by our country is the polarization that quite frankly needs to be mended as quickly as possible. We cannot afford to have such bad blood between the two reigning political parties because bad blood does not facilitate the necessary art of compromise. The two parties simply cannot view each other as an enemy, because it will eventually lead to our collapse. To cure this, we will have to undo the wedge Newt Gingrich placed between the two parties all those years ago when he “set the tone” to how our two political parties viewed each other (Mann and Ornstein 43).

The most obvious solution would be to unite them against a common enemy, but seeing as it would be unethical to start a war for the United States to fight, and the Parties are not going to agree on any common issue, we will have to start thinking outside the box. One really outside the box idea I had was to have congressional events in which both parties are present in a candid discussion which would humanize individuals from the opposing party. I believe that if we can start seeing individual congressmen and senators becoming friends with those across the aisle, we might start to see a real change.

All in all, our country is hurtling toward a collision point based on how our two political parties interact with one another. They each view each other as the villainized version of themselves based on the words that they themselves have weaponized. This rift impacts the American public by further dividing them, as well as by virtue of having a Congress that does very little to carry out their civic duties. Despite how bad things seem to be getting, though, there is a chance that we may be able to fix it, if only we take the right path.

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