Building Democracy 2.0: How Political Parties Turned Conflict into a Productive Force

This is part 5 in a multi-part series examining ways to build an inclusive democracy for the 21st century.


As noted, the second innovation of democracy revolved around the transformation of conflict from a force of oppression to one of innovation.  The Founding Fathers understood this task was essential to the success of the new republic.  Madison articulated a system of checks and balances as a cornerstone for the United States.  He suggested that if power could be distributed in different branches of government as well as throughout the broad interests in society, tyranny by powerful groups could be avoided.  How this would work in practice remained unknown.  While the constitution gave force to a separation of power among the judiciary, legislative and executive branches, it was harder to see how a free-for-all among competing interests – geographic, economic and ideological – would translate into political action.

Political parties emerged as an antidote to that free-for-all.  They provided an organizational structure to ensure conflict occurred horizontally through soft competition and without threatening the stability within government.  These practices quickly took hold over the course of the first few election cycles of Congress.  By the election of 1800, political parties were well established as a force within government.  Although parties within the broader electorate would take several decades to form, parties quickly gave structure to competition among political leaders within government.  This initial step ensured the United States found stable footing to launch. This essay will look at the actions of the Founding Fathers during the first few cycles of Congress to understand why political parties arose and how they came to stabilize democracy.  It will also describe the leading theories of party formation.

A New Outlook

After ratification of the Constitution in 1788, the United States held its first national election.  At this time, the only popular election at the federal level related to the U.S. House in Congress.  Article I of the Constitution apportioned one U.S. House seat for every 30,000 inhabitants in a state.  The President was chosen by presidential electors at the state level.  State legislators selected members of the U.S. Senate.  Less than 2% of the U.S. population voted in this election.  In other words, participants in the first election represented a small fraction of society, trending toward wealthy landowners who ran in similar social circles.

Nevertheless, those who found themselves at the reigns of the new government saw their role as public officials in a fundamentally new way.  Their position of authority did not result from fealty to a central power.  Instead, political leaders owed their position to the support of peers in an election.  And they would stand for election again in two short years.  Their “success” would depend on continued support from their constituents.  And the newly elected officials came to office with a range of perspectives, reflecting the diversity of views throughout the nation.  Some had opposed the U.S. Constitution.  Others supported it but had very different positions on how much power federal government should have.

Madison’s evolution as a politician reflects the new mindset taking place among leaders operating in a representative democracy.  When advocating for adoption of the Constitution, he opposed a Bill of Rights as a distraction to the task at hand.  However, when campaigning for his first term in Congress in an Anti-Federalist district in Virginia, he committed to support such a document.  Once in office, he worked vigorously to deliver on his promise, drafting and shepherding the Bill of Rights through Congress.  Did his evolving views reflect a deeper appreciation for the need to amend the Constitution or simply a desire to get re-elected in a district specifically drawn for an Anti-Federalist? What’s clear is that Madison, like any other successful politician, demonstrated through action an increased alignment with his constituents.

The other dominant figures in U.S. politics at this time would feel similar pressures in the new government.  Washington was now president, John Adams, vice president, Hamilton, treasury secretary, and Jefferson, secretary of state.  While they did not have to face the voters directly like Madison, their continued viability in public life would depend on support from peers in the electoral college or from state legislators who did face election.  These key figures brought with them a vision for this nation.  Living in northern, urban centers, Adams and Hamilton saw the future through a prism of emerging industries, shop keepers and a merchant class.  Living in the South, Jefferson and Madison viewed the nation’s future grounded in small towns and agriculture.  Despite their personal wealth, built largely through inheritance and the labor of enslaved people, Madison and Jefferson espoused policies that supported the interests of small farmers, planters and “common folk,” including expanded suffrage (for white men).  Even if these leaders did not have to stand for reelection, they knew their ideas would not advance without public support.

Unstable Majority

In his landmark book, Why Parties?, John Aldrich describes the formation and rationale for parties.  After relaying a number of theories to explain the utility of political parties, he provides several examples from history to illustrate these theories.  He focuses on the first three terms of Congress to demonstrate why political parties solve fundamental problems facing officials within government.  Essentially, political parties brought coherence to policy debates and a framework to decision making by individual lawmakers.  While this process heightened conflict, it also channeled such conflict into action that produced tangible outcomes.

As seen with the debate over the Bill of Rights, the Founding Fathers were split on the question of how powerful the new federal government should be.  Aldrich terms this question as “the Great Principle” because it shaped so many of the key policy decisions in the early years.  The stakes on these policies were particularly high because the framers understood the outcome of these debates would serve as important precedent for future leaders.  Some matters related directly to this principle and others did not. Nevertheless, members of Congress would increasingly see every issue as a contest over the Great Principle, particularly as political parties took shape.

Apart from the Bill of Rights, Hamilton drove the policy agenda during the first few terms of Congress.  Hamilton advocated the creation of a national bank and high tariffs to protect fledging domestic industries.  He also advanced a plan for the federal government to assume state debts, knowing that it would give bondholders a stake in the new nation and would weaken the role of states.  These issues would frame the policy debates facing the newly elected leaders.  Although there were no political parties at this time, a majority in Congress could be identified as having Federalist sentiments.  Therefore, Hamilton had the potential for a working majority in the First Congress.

An analysis of the first two terms of Congress reveals significant instability in voting blocs.  Votes reflected a variety of different alignments, including sectionalism, pro- and anti-administration views and issue specific sentiment.  In other words, votes in the first two Congresses did not follow set patterns.  Despite Hamilton’s majority coalition, the votes did not reflect such as majority.  The votes on assumption of state debts reflects the chaotic voting patterns early on.  The first vote on assumption failed in April 1790 by two votes.  There were 14 different vote counts recorded at different times.  A number of members switched votes.  Few state delegations voted in lock step on this issue even though many of the delegations shared common views on policy.

Aldrich describes a meeting in June 1790 during the First Congress.  Madison, Jefferson and Hamilton met for dinner.  Congress had reached an impasse on Hamilton’s fiscal plan as well as the location of the new capital.  They agreed to trade votes to break the impasse.  Jefferson and Madison would support the assumption of debt in return for Hamilton’s agreement to situate the new capital on the banks of the Potomac.  Two months later, Congress approved measures largely along the lines agreed to that evening.  The impasse was broken.

Before those votes, many began to worry whether the fledgling nation could muster sufficient unity to move forward on important issues.  The lack of predictability and structure for making decisions remained a large question mark.  Anyone who serves in office or works with elected bodies understands that vote trading is a last resort.  It marks a failure of process because officials forego principle for expediency.  Instead of reaching consensus through compromise, officials suspend their beliefs in return for opponents who do likewise.  Vote trading is a betrayal to those who supported them based on principle.  That Madison, Jefferson and Hamilton agreed to such a deal underscores the instability of votes in Congress prior to political parties.  Aldrich writes this is “what one would expect to happen in a government without stability-enhancing institutions, facing problems that many or all care deeply about and foundering on the absence of equilibrium.”

Searching for Equilibrium

Coming into the Second Congress, most members could be labeled as either a Federalist or Anti-Federalist (the latter taking shape as “Jeffersonian-Republicans”).  After nearly losing the vote on assumption, Hamilton approached this session determined to turn his majority into consistent votes.  Although Hamilton could not enter the chamber’s floor, he could observe from the gallery and had lieutenants who would caucus with him and coordinate votes.  When asked to provide a report to Congress on the economy, Hamilton used the opportunity to advance a significant policy agenda, including a system of taxation, a mint and a national bank. The mint passed easily, but the bank prompted a showdown between Madison and Hamilton with President Washington siding with Hamilton.

By the end of the second session of Congress, Jefferson and Madison realized they needed more like-minded members if they were to prevail on legislative matters.  Therefore, they began working on a strategy to win seats in the Third Congress.  Madison and Jefferson traveled to New York during the summer of 1792.  They met with Aaron Burr and George Clinton, both foes of Hamilton.  Some speculate they discussed an alliance of agrarian interests in the South and disaffected groups in the North.  Separately, Madison provided financial support to a friend so that he could retain his position as editor of the “National Gazette,” a partisan newspaper supporting the Republicans.  Through “committees of correspondence,” the Republicans organized a coordinated campaign and managed to win a majority of seats in the Third Congress.

To understand how party formation impacted the behavior of members in Congress, Aldrich and others have analyzed roll call votes during the first three congresses.  Of course, party affiliation remains the subject of debate.  Nevertheless, researchers can discern clear patterns in voting among individual members.  They defined a “party vote” as one where a majority of one party opposed a majority of the other party on that vote.  They found in the First Congress that two out of ten key votes were party votes.  By the Third Congress, eight of ten key votes were party votes.  Aldrich concludes:

“… it is reasonable to conclude that parties arose out of the step-by-step strengthening of factions into political parties as a means of avoiding the consequences of voting disequilibrium and, in particular, setting a clear pattern of precedents on the revealed power and energy of the new national government.  That is, parties emerged out of disequilibrium to resolve ambiguity inherent in the new constitutional order and to win on the great principle.”

In other words, political parties brought cohesion to various factions.  They provided clarity to Madison’s concept of checks and balances.  The free-for-all among a multitude of interests would be channeled into constructive political action through the creation of enduring institutions committed to broad principles and guaranteed by the loyalty by their members.

Given the critical role played by parties in managing conflict a productive fashion, many conclude democracy cannot exist without multiple parties.  A no-party state or a one-party state is by-definition undemocratic. V.O. Key’s landmark 1949 book, Southern Politics in State and Nation, makes that point.  Some contend the intraparty factions within the Democratic Party in the South prevalent up until the 1970s connected government policies to citizen interests.  Key disagreed.  He argued the lack of continuity in identity and leadership prevented these intraparty factions from being held accountable by voters.  They simply lacked the “collective spirit” and sense of “joint responsibility” required to advance a sustained agenda.  In sum, competitive political parties are a necessary condition for a healthy democracy.

Political Party as Social Organism

Theories abound to explain the formation of political parties.  One of the more popular lines of inquiry applies economic theory in the name of Social Choice Theory.  This theory looks at how preferences are translated into outcomes.  Kenneth Arrow, a Nobel Prize winning economist, posited his “impossibility theorem” in 1951, the same year Maurice Duverger published his empirical study, Political Parties.  Arrow’s theorem says no method of choosing can guarantee that collective preferences reflect the summation of individual preferences.  Political scientists have applied this theorem to individual legislators seeking a legislative outcome within the context of a majority voting procedure.  The problem lies at the individual level. When A and B join forces to support outcome X, C can always make a better offer to A through an alliance to achieve outcome Y.

This phenomenon injects an element of chaos into coalitions among individuals who are focused on a single issue.  Such coalitions or alliances remain subject to re-trading.  To overcome this centrifugal pull, theorists point to “structure-induced equilibriums.”  One such example is a “long coalition.” In this case, A and B agree to vote together on a range of issues over the long haul.  Even though C may offer A a better deal on a particular issue, A is better off over the long-term by remaining loyal to B.  In this way, political parties solve the instability of individual behavior operating in a majority voting system.  I raise this theory to share an important perspective on the formation of political parties, but also because it has relevance later in the discussion of electoral systems.

While economic models can shed light on human behavior, we can get to the same result through insights into social adaptation.  As noted, democracy arose at a time when humans understood the benefits accruing to society by distributing decision making away from central authorities.  These distributed systems created a market for new social organizations.  Adam Smith described this transformation in social behavior in Wealth of Nations.  Joint enterprises, including political parties, arise in response to the decisions of individuals in a marketplace. The call and response between consumer and producer create an efficient distribution of resources and goods to meet the demand of the market.

The new system of government adopted with ratification of the constitution created a demand for actions responsive to the electorate – even one as small as that in 1789.  In this case, action would take the form of legislation addressing economic, foreign policy and other needs.  Those carried into office by direct election and appointment responded to this new environment.  Certain individuals emerged as leaders, including Hamilton and Madison, and advanced policies to address needs expressed by the electorate. These policies revealed – sometimes remotely and sometimes directly – philosophical differences in how strong a federal government this nation should have.  Within a few short election cycles, these leaders realized that by cooperating with like-minded colleagues through an enduring organization they had a better chance of realizing their agenda.  Group competition formed quickly to meet market demand as expressed by the electorate.


It is easy to understand why political parties get a bad rap.  The image of a lawmaker acting on her conscience to arrive at “the right answer” is powerful.  Washington certainly hoped the new republic would operate that way.  Parties by nature provoke conflict – often in uncomfortable and ugly ways.  Nevertheless, political parties provide a means to crystallize issues, principles and distinctions.  Within a legislative setting, they offer a framework for holding members accountable on votes that lead to outcomes.  This behavior prompted by parties honors the sentiment of voters even if it means at times ceding control to another group considered abhorrent.  It is of little consolation, but consolation nonetheless, to know that the opposing group is situated within a framework of abiding commitment to the nation as embodied in the U.S. Constitution.

In this way, political parties provide a stabilizing force for those in government.  Parties helped the country avoid fragmentation that likely would have resulted in despotism – the fate that befell prior efforts at democracy.  As importantly, political parties generated legislation that allowed this nation to coalesce and prosper while resolving important differences over principle.  That’s not to say political parties perform this same role in a toxic environment.  As mentioned previously, parties can cross into hard competition under certain circumstances and destroy democracy.  Those circumstances will be addressed later.  The next essay will examine how political parties solved an important problem related to the first innovation of democracy:  how do you capture the collective intelligence of individuals when they have little to gain personally from participation in elections?

Mack Paul is a member of the state advisory board of Common Cause NC and a founding partner of Morningstar Law Group.

Parts in this series:

Introduction: Building Democracy 2.0

Part 1: What Is Democracy and Why Is It Important?

Part 2: How the Idea of Freedom Makes the First Innovation Possible

Part 3: The Second Innovation that Gave Rise to Modern Democracy

Part 4: The Rise and Function of Political Parties – Setting the Record Straight

Part 5: How Political Parties Turned Conflict into a Productive Force

Part 6: Parties and the Challenge of Voter Engagement

Part 7: The Progressive Movement and the Decline of Parties in America

Part 8: Rousseau and ‘the Will of the People’

Part 9: The Dark Secret of Majority Voting

Part 10: The Promise of Proportional Voting

Part 11: Majorities, Minorities and Innovation in Electoral Design

Part 12: The Misdirected Attempts at Electoral Reform in the U.S.

Part 13: Building Democracy 2.0: The Uses and Abuses of Redistricting in American Democracy

See More: Voting & Elections