GRE General Test: RC-992798 GRE Reading Comprehension

Political parties today are consciously non-ideological, but in the 1840s and 1850s ideology made its way into the heart of the political system. Political sociologists have 丨 pointed out that the stable functioning of a political democracy requires a setting in which parties represent broad coalitions of varying interests, and that the peaceful resolution of social conflict takes place most easily when the major parties share fundamental values. Such a view implies that the peaceful operation of the political system is the highest social value, an implication which, under certain circumstances, may be justly questioned. But it does contain important insights about the normal functioning of the American polity. Government by majority rule, Carl Becker observed many years ago, works best when political issues involve superficial problems, rather than deep social divisions. The minority can accept the victory of the majority at the polls, because both share many basic values, and electoral defeat does not imply "a fatal surrender of ... vital interests."

Before the 1850s, the second American party system conformed to this pattern—largely because sectional ideologies and issues were consciously kept out of politics. In this sense, the party system had a certain artificial quality. Its divisions rarely corresponded to the basic sectional divisions which were daily becoming more and more pronounced. The two decades before the Civil War witnessed the development of conflicting sectional ideologies, each viewing its own society as fundamentally well-ordered, and the other as both a negation of its most cherished values and a threat to its existence.

The development of the two ideologies was in many ways interrelated; each grew in part as a response to the growth of the other. Thus, as southerners were coming more and more consciously to insist on slavery as the very basis of civilized life, and to reject the materialism and lack of cohesion in northern society, northerners came to view slavery as the antithesis of the good society, as well as a threat to their own fundamental values and interests. The existing political system could not contain these two irreconcilable ideologies, and in the 1850s each national party—Whigs, Know-Nothings, and finally Democrats—disintegrated. And in the end the South seceded from the Union rather than accept the victory of a political party whose ideology threatened everything Southerners most valued.

At the center of the Republican ideology was the notion of "free labor." This concept involved not merely an attitude toward work, but a justification of antebellum northern society, and it led northern Republicans to an extensive critique of southern society, which appeared both different from and inferior to their own. Republicans also believed in the existence of a conspiratorial "slave power” which had seized control of the federal government. Two profoundly different and antagonistic civilizations, Republicans thus believed, had developed within the nation, and were competing for control of the political system.
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The primary purpose of the passage is to