Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Decentralization, Banking and the Two Party System

The American party system has changed four times, and three of the changes were linked to money and banking. Moreover, three of the changes were linked to the issue of decentralization and states' rights. The current tremors surrounding monetary policy and the Federal Reserve Bank coincide with increasing questioning of why the Democrats and Republicans have failed to question the subsidization of investment and commercial banks and the recent Federal Reserve Bank inflation of the monetary base. One key difference between the current crisis in the American party system and past crises is the absence of a competent press or media. These were central to political debate in America until the 1930s. However, the transition from passive to active electronic media has reinvented, downsized and in a sense traditionalized the press from the centralized mainstream media that was prevalent in the 1950s to websites and blogs that are reminiscent of early newspapers.

The changes in the American party system were as follows. First, the establishment of the Federalist and Democratic Republican parties in response to Alexander Hamilton's advocacy of the First Bank and federal subsidies to manufacturing. Second, the split between the National Republicans and the Democratic Republicans, which became the split between the Whigs and the Democrats in 1836 specifically in response to Andrew Jackson's removal of federal assets from the Second Bank and his veto of the Second Bank. Note that decentralization played a role both in the Federalist-Democratic division in the 1790s and the Whig-Democratic division of 1836. Both the Federalists and the Whigs were elitist centralizers and the Democrats were decentralizers, pale copiers of the earlier anti-Federalists.

The third party formation was of course in the 1850s, the formation of the Republican Party, the centralizing party that inherited Whig elitism but reformulated its ideology to combine (a) surface advocacy of laissez faire, in imitation of Jackson with (b) the traditional Whig advocacy of centralization. The Civil War was fought not over banking but slavery. It was here that the centralization issue came to the fore.

The fourth party formation occurred in 1896, when William Jennings Bryan reinvented the Democratic Party as the party of inflation and free silver. Many of the subsequent centralizing ideas of Franklin D. Roosevelt were included in Bryan's philosophy. In 1896 the debate between centralizers and decentralizers died. Although the southern Democrats continued to advocate decentralization, the majority of the two major parties became committed to reform on a centralized basis.

This transformation was reinforced in the 1930s, when Roosevelt accelerated the Democrats' insistence on centralization.

Of the four changes, only the establishment of the Republican Party did not involve banking. However, the Republicans' insistence on intensification of centralization, not only concerning the Union but also the National Banking Act, led to establishment of the Federal Reserve Bank five decades later.

The development of American politics, then, has been toward centralization. But in management, business, economics and political theory, centralization was increasingly shown to be an inferior solution during the past eight decades.

One of the pivotal moments in American politics was Andrew Jackson's formulation of the Democratic Party. Until then, parties barely existed in America. Jackson identified the special interest of privilege linked to paper money and held that the formation of an organized party of common Americans was necessary to forestall privilege and banking interests. He was not certain that the average American was capable of withstanding the onslaught of paper money advocacy and privilege associated with central banking. The power of Jackson's vision was great, and the powerful party organization of the nineteenth century and the public's commitment to sound money permitted survival of the Jacksonian system for nearly eight decades.

However, the ideas of Fabian socialism, Bismarck's social democracy and Progressivism provided American elites with new ammunition that the Jacksonian model could not contemplate. These included the use of pretense of supporting the common man in the name of elite privilege as a tool to wrest control of banking and money in favor of economic elites. This was accomplished in the context of modest reform in areas such as workers' compensation and then in the 1930s minimum wages and social security, all with dubious value to the average American.

Nor was Jacksonian democracy itself free of special interest characteristics. There have been wrinkles and overlap in all of the American party formulations. The Jacksonian Democrats were cruel racists. Jackson oversaw the Trail of Tears march and the insistent American racism traces its resonance to Jacksonian Democracy. Jacksonian Democracy itself was a form of special interest formulation, of the common white male identifying himself as superior to blacks and native Americans.

As Louis Hartz correctly points out, the brilliance of the Whigs was the use of the Lockean imagery in the interest of mercantilist philosophy. This has been the artifice of the Republicans since the Civil War. But all of American party ideologies have been self-contradictory, and the Republican is as well. Jackson claimed to be a democrat, yet he forestalled South Carolinian nullification. He claim to be for states' rights, yet he created rigid national party organization.

Today, the Republicans claim to be for free markets yet institute socialism. Much like the Democratic Republicans in 1836, the Republicans are at the breaking point.

1 comment:

graciela said...

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