The Six, Maybe Seven Phases of American Political Party Systems and What’s Next

America’s political parties are overdue for a major realignment. They have undergone six historical phases in the nation’s history.

    • The First Political Party System — consisting of the Federalists, created by Alexander Hamilton of New York, and the Democratic-Republican Party, created by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison of Virginia — lasted from 1792 to 1824 (36 years).
    • The Second Political Party System — consisting of the Democratic Party, led by Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, and the Whig Party, assembled by Henry Clay — lasted from just 1828 until 1854 (26 years).
    • The Third Political Party System — consisting of the anti-slavery Republican Party of the North and the segregationist Democratic Party of the South, lasted from 1856 to 1890s (34-36 years).
    • The Fourth Political Party System, from the 1890s to 1932 (42 years), was dominated on the national level by the Republican Party, except for when Teddy Roosevelt split the Republicans in 1912 with his Bull Moose Party, leading to the election of Woodrow Wilson that year and in 1916. This era paralleled the progressive era.
    • The Fifth Political Party System, from 1932 to 1968 (36 years), was dominated on the national level by the Democratic Party New Deal Coalition, except for the election of the non-partisan national hero, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, in 1952 and 1956, combined with closely contested Congressional elections until the Democratic landslide of 1958.
    • Political scientists disagree on when the Sixth Political Party System or realignment solidified. The consistently solid Democratic South was shattered in 1964, when Deep South states voted for Republican Barry Goldwater, though he lost in a landslide. This broke up the New Deal Coalition of white working-class voters and minorities. Deep South states have voted consistently Republican since 1980. At the least, a realignment has occurred with a majority of white males consistently choosing Republican presidential candidates and minorities consistently choosing Democratic presidential candidates.
    • An Era of Divided Government (1968-2016, or 48 years): Despite a succession of Republican presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43),  none had the coattails to bring fully Republican Congresses to power with them. The House of Representatives remained in solidly Democratic hands until 1994. Then, following the narrow election of Democrat Bill Clinton, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1946. Bush 43 endured an almost evenly divided Congress. Then, in 2006, Democrats swept congressional elections and took full control of both the House and the Senate. This Democratic congressional dominance continued for four years, through the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, allowing him to achieve major accomplishments in his first two years. Then, in a backlash against the Obama presidency, in 2010, his party lost 63 seats in the House in 2010, and their majority, and barely maintained a 51-seat majority in the Senate. Four years later, in 2014, Republicans made sweeping gains in both the House and the Senate, controlling both chambers.
    • Exceptions to Divided Government Create Backlash: Actions of the majority party during unified one-party government — from 1976-1980, when Jimmy Carter was president; 1992-1994, when Bill Clinton was president; and 2008-2010 when Barack Obama was president, created a passionate backlash from Republicans and the loss of at least one congressional chamber by Democrats. Will 2018 continue this 38-year pattern? If so, President Trump and the Republicans can expect to lose control of at least one congressional chamber, probably the US House.
    • What’s Next? If the previous systems lasted a minimum of 26 years and a maximum of 42 years, we are due for a major party realignment.  With white males and conservative evangelicals representing declining blocks of voters, the Republican Party will clearly have to build new coalitions if it hopes to win national elections in the future. This could mean, in order to survive as a national party, it will have to reach a compromise on immigration and strengthen appeals to Hispanics, African Americans, non-religious and female voters. In the short run, this could infuriate their white male base, who feel abandoned and resentful of new cultural norms. Democrats may be able to win a national election or two with appeals to identity politics — voting on the basis of gender, ethnicity and race — but it is probably not a sustainable strategy if Republicans recognize they must put forth female candidates (such as Nikki Haley) to neutralize women’s issues, and minority candidates to neutralize immigration and racial voting. Identity politics eventually create resentments because Americans like to judge people as individuals. Identity politics eventually produces the non-partisan retort, “I’m not opposed to women or African American leaders, I’m just opposed to this woman (Hillary Clinton/Nikki Haley) or this African American (Barack Obama/Ben Carson).”
    • 2016 was a year of political transition. Despite controlling both Houses of Congress 2017-18, Republicans have little to show the voters in terms of legislative accomplishments. If Democrats had won the presidency in 2016, they would also have little to show voters in terms of legislative accomplishment because they still faced a Republican Congress.
    • Republican governing coalition is fragile. Since Republicans won both the presidency and the Congress in 2016, but with a minority of the popular vote, their governing coalition is fragile. Donald Trump’s base of support is less than 40 percent of the electorate.
    • America is ripe for a one-term presidency. We haven’t had one for 24 years (1988-1992), the longest period in presidential history.

 

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