The American Political Nation, 1838-1893

By Joel H. Silbey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ELEVEN
"Talk Not of Regularity and Party Associations": Challengers in the American Political Nation, 1838-1893

THE COMMONPLACE CORE OF American political life after 1838 was its partisanship. The ideology and organization of party shaped and dominated the behavior of those who participated in politics, from legislators, other officeholders, and campaign activists, to the thousands of voters who turned out each election day, usually to vote a straight ticket. Yet, despite the strength of the partisan imperative, there were regular challenges to its central tenets: persistent constituencies of discontent; people ever impatient with, or continually frustrated by, the national parties and the partisan norms they imposed throughout the system. Dissent from a society's central political truths exists in any nation. What is interesting and instructive to a political analysis is the particular form such challenges take ideologically and organizationally, and the potency they achieve at different times in different places.

In the American political era after 1838, as we have seen, these challenges were twice disruptive and realigning: in the 1850's and again in the 1890's, in the first case because one major party replaced another, in the second, because there was a fundamental shift in the competitive nexus of the electoral system itself, a shift that ultimately had extraordinary consequences for the political nation as it entered the twentieth century. 1 Most of the time, however, nonconformist political movements played little role electorally or in policy making in a culture textured by the partisan imperative. The usually successful drive to impose discipline, once the major parties had made their policy and electoral decisions, and the intense popular loyalty to parties undercut the potential for significant accomplishment by those advocating alternative policies, certainly in terms of offices won and legislation achieved, no matter how fervently they pushed or how right they believed themselves to be. Nevertheless, repeated political failure rarely stopped these challengers. They were, as a result, always an in

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