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

Upon observing the 161st birthday of the founding of the Republican Party in Ripon, Wisconsin in 1864, I outline the six historical phases that America’s political parties have gone through in the nation’s history, and wonder if we are overdue for a major realignment.

  • 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.
  • 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. Congress 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. After just two years in office, Barack Obama lost his Democratic majority in Congress in 2010.
  • What’s Next? If the previous systems lasted a minimum of 26 years and a maximum of 42 years, we may be due for a major realignment.  With white males and conservative evangelicals representing a declining number of voters, the Republican Party will clearly have to build new coalitions if it hopes to win national elections in the future. This means, in order to survive as a national party, it will have to reach a compromise on immigration and strengthen appeals to Hispanics, African Americans and female voters. Democrats may, on the surface, seem to have more reliable voting coalitions of women and minority voters. But identity politics — voting on the basis of gender, ethnicity and race — may not prove to be sustainable in elections if Republicans can put forth female candidates to neutralize women’s issues, and minority candidates to neutralize immigration and racial voting.
  • In short, I project that the Democratic coalition could prevail for one more presidential cycle, 2016. Given the gerrymandering that has taken place in congressional districts, it’s unlikely the Democrats can take back Congress until districts are redrawn after the 2020 census.
  • I will make two predictions: 1) Democrats will win the presidency in 2016, but still face a Republican Congress, leading to frustration with a Democratic president, who will then lose in 2020, and also lose Democrats’ chance of retaking Congress. Republicans could then win both Congress and the presidency in 2020. Or, 2) Republicans will win the presidency in 2016 by dropping their opposition to immigration reform and downplaying opposition to abortion. A new Republican era could be ushered in.  Depending on the health of the economy and whether voters feel prosperity is widely shared, Democrats could come roaring back in 2018 and 2020, winning both the presidency and a congressional majority if not the presidency again in 2020.
  • As I predicted earlier, America is ripe for a one-term presidency. We haven’t had one for 24 years (1988-1992), the longest period in presidential history.
  • Democrats have a weak bench — no logical replacements for Hillary Clinton as a substantive presidential candidate among Democratic governors or senators. Republicans have a strong bench — lots of eager leaders as governors and senators.

Drill Deeper:

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