Is the U.S. on the cusp of a Sixth, or Seventh, political party system?

Since about 1967, American historians, by general consensus, have divided the political party system in the U.S. into periods, punctuated by realigning (presidential) elections:

First Party System: 1792-1824. Federalists (Adams, Hamilton; for strong national government and commercial interests) vs. Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson; decentralist, populist, agrarian). Encompasses the War of 1812.

1800 election: Rise of Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans to dominance, power shift from New England to the South. Period encompasses the Louisiana Purchase.

Era of Good Feelings: 1817-1825. Democratic-Republican hegemony, Federalists reduced to isolated strongholds. Ended with the “Corrupt Bargain” of 1824, which gave the presidency to John Quincy Adams of the National Republican faction.

1828 election: Andrew Jackson (having been balked four years previously) wins the presidency.

Second Party System: 1828-1854. Factions of the Democratic-Republicans in effect split into two parties, the Democrats (Jackson; populist, agrarian, hostile to a national bank) and the Whigs (Henry Clay; favored industry, modernization, a protective tariff, a national bank, federal funding for “internal improvements” such as canals, highways, railroads; ultimately split over the question whether to allow or forbid expansion of slavery to the territories). Period encompasses the Mexican-American War, acquisition of the West.

1860 election: Election of Lincoln, the first Republican POTUS; first presidential election to break down along purely sectional lines (Lincoln won without the electoral votes of a single slave state). Provoked the Civil War.

Third Party System: 1854 to the mid-1890s. Republicans (formed in 1854 out of Free-Soilers, “Conscience Whigs,” and disaffected Democrats) vs. the Democrats. Encompassed the Civil War, Reconstruction the Gilded Age, settlement of the West and the “end of the frontier” (i.e., the final end of the Indian nations as independent military powers). The Republicans evolve from a radical anti-racist party, to the party of the “free, white, working man,” to the party of big-business interests.

1896 election: Republican McKinley defeated Democrat/Populist/“Silver Republican” nominee William Jennings Bryan. Defeat also of the economic-populist, pro-inflationary Free Silver movement.

Fourth Party System: 1896-1932: Republicans dominant, Democrats in minority. A prosperous period encompassing the Progressive Era, World War I, and the beginning of the Great Depression.

1932 election: Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeats Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover.

Fifth Party System: 1933 - ???. Democrats dominant. Rise of the New Deal Coalition. Encompasses the New Deal and World War II, and (at least) the beginning of the Cold War.

And there the consensus breaks down.

The elections of 1964, 1968, 1980, 1994 (Congressional), 2006 (Congressional), and 2008 all have been suggested as “realigning elections” by some historians.

I would argue we are now at the beginning of the Seventh party system. The Fifth ended, and the Sixth began, with the election of Ronal Reagan in 1980.

This, I believe, is the essential narrative:

From 1933, the Democratic Party’s dominance was based on the New Deal Coalition:

Meanwhile: In 1952, the Republican Party was split between its Northeastern moderate faction, which supported Eisenhower, and its Midwestern conservative faction, represented by Senator Robert Taft. The essential difference between them was that the Eisenhower faction accepted the New Deal and the Taft faction did not and wanted to roll it back. Eisenhower got the nomination; but the Taft faction was resurgent in the 1964 Goldwater campaign – which lost, but which kick-started the modern Conservative Movement. You can read the story in Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, by Rick Perlstein.

In the social, cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s, the Democrats finally and solidly established themselves as the party of civil rights. Henceforth they would get practically all the black vote, despite the Pubs’ history as the “Party of Lincoln,” but could no longer rely on the “Solid South.” When LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he remarked, “We [the Democrats] have just lost the South for a generation.”

Nixon, really a moderate “Rockefeller Republican” like Eisenhower, was mainly interested in foreign policy, which he regarded as a POTUS’ real job. Civil rights was a domestic issue. By habit and personality Nixon was a racist of the most vulgar sort, but he really had no emotional investment on either side of the civil rights struggle. But he readily seized the opportunity to position himself against it and win the votes of white social conservatives, especially in the South. This was the Southern Strategy. He defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey in a three-way race with white Southern independent George Wallace. In 1972, Nixon won every Southern state that had gone for Wallace in '68. You can read the story in Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, also by Perlstein.

On the Dem side, the New Deal coalition was broken up by the ascendancy of the New Politics faction represented by George McGovern. This alienated conservative white Southerners, as well as white urban Catholic working-class “ethnics.” The Dems’ traditional class-based politics were abandoned for “identity politics,” defined by the interests of “communities” – African-Americans, Latinos, women/feminists, gays, etc. The Democratic Party became an “hourglass” coalition of '60s counterculturalists and intellectuals, affluent liberals, and poor and working-poor nonwhites – with declining white middle-class and working-class support.

The end of Nixon’s career in Watergate did not end the “Southern Strategy.” Over the course of the 1970s, the GOP rebuilt itself around “movement conservatism” (the Taft-Goldwater faction) and made massive inroads among conservative white Southerners. There was, in fact, a massive exchange of constituencies between the Democratic and Republican parties, many liberal or “Rockefeller Republicans” switching over to the Dems. For the first time in modern history, the Democrats and Republicans became truly ideological parties – each still a broad big-tent coalition of viewpoints and interests, to be sure, but on either side of a definite “liberal-conservative” dividing line. So it remains to this day.

This culminated in the realigning election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, establishing the Sixth Party System, Republicans/conservatives dominant. During this period there was only one Dem POTUS, Clinton; and, like Eisenhower and Nixon, he succeeded only by largely accommodating to the dominant party’s views and narrative.



This was the period in which the Republican Party was dominated by “movement conservatism,” as described in The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by conservative British journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge:

During this period, however, cultural, generational, and demographic changes continued. Gradually, American liberals grew to outnumber conservatives. See The Emerging Democratic Majority, by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira. See also the Pew Research Center for the People & Press study of “Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2007”; and the Center for American Progress Study, “State of American Political Ideology, 2009”.

The geographic division today between Dems and Pubs, liberals and conservatives, is not North-South, East-West, or Coasts-Heartland, but City-Countryside. The supposed “red-state-blue-state-divide” oversimplifies the picture. See this map, which breaks the vote down by county, and shades along a spectrum from solid red to purple to solid blue. In Ruy and Teixeiras’ terms, the cities and exurbs are “ideopolises.”

These trends reached a tipping-point and culminated in the election of Obama in 2008 and what I believe is the beginning of the Seventh Party System. For the foreseeable future, the Democrats/liberals will be dominant. Now, as we have seen in the “tea party” protests and “town hall” meetings, the Pubs/conservatives certainly are not going away. There might even be another Pub POTUS or two in the coming era – but only of a moderate, Eisenhower/Nixon sort.

As Sam Tanenhaus, author of the new book The Death of Conservatism, noted in this recent Newsweek interview:

Now and for the foreseeable future, the GOP is the “moon party.” The Democratic Party is the “sun party” and all the important issues of the day will be threshed out within its ranks.


The ultra-radicalism of the Neocon Right, & the bad example of terrorism may lead to large scale political violence.

Or so I greatly fear.

Can’t win the race? Wreck your car by ramming the crowd.

I like your blaming Abraham Lincoln for provoking the Civil War.
Slavery today, slavery tomorrow, slavery forever!

After that in your opening post, you expect serious comments here?
Go back and play with your white sheets.

:confused: What?! No, Lincoln’s election provoked the Civil War. Up to that time, the slaveholding-landowning elite that dominated the governments of the Southern states had had one overriding political goal: To protect slavery from political threats. Within the South, abolitionists were routinely lynched. Nationally, the Southerners sought to keep a balance between the number of slave and free states that was one of the principal reasons they backed the Mexican-American War – in hopes of carving out new slave states in the Southwest. When Lincoln – not an abolitionist, only a free-soiler, but still radical by Southern standards – was elected without any slave-state electoral votes, it became clear that their efforts were irreversibly doomed, and that is why they chose that time to declare secession. Practically all historians will agree on these points.

Neither relevant to the thread nor appropriate in GD.

Knock it off.

[ /Moderating ]

I’d agree that the conditions are about right now for the emergence of a new party system. The question is, Which will be the two parties? Because there pretty well always have been two parties, and since 1860 they have been labelled as “Democratic” and “Republican”. The Republican Party was the last third party to emerge victorious out of a presidential election – Abe Lincoln in 1860 – and the closest anyone has come since then was Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose Party in 1912.

So will it be a new party, or will it be a re-alignment of the Republican Party away from the Southern Strategy? (I doubt if the Dems will split: they are too successful at present, and the Clinton and Obama wings are working quite well with each other). Frankly, I can’t see either happening at present, but who knows over the next 3 to 7 years.

Thing is, that strategy represents a massive vote base that is still there and, while always a minority and now declining in numbers, still will be there and still will be massive for some time to come. If the Pubs don’t represent them, who will?

There’s another vote base that’s less powerful than the reactionary Southern white base, and that’s the one to the left of the Dems, which currently is split between voting Green because that’s the only really progressive party and voting Dem because that’s the best you’re going to get (and as a bonus Obama is African American). That base (represented in Congress by a few like Dennis Kucinich) will always criticise Democrat leaders like Obama and Clinton for not doing enough, but most of it is realistic enough to know that they are only going to have a protest vote (voting Green) or a vote for the lesser of two evils (voting for whoever wins the Dem primaries). Unless the Dem leadership goes completely DINO (like Senator Lieberman), that faction is not going to split off seriously.

But if a moderate leader (like McCain, or possibly Jeb Bush) ever took over the Republicans, I can see the right of the GOP splitting off into their fantasy land. But the right of the GOP has such tight control these days that I don’t see how a real moderate could get up again.

Look, as I’ve said many times, the notion of radical left party splitting from the Democrats, or a radical right party splitting from the Republicans, is nonsense.

It isn’t going to happen. Neither is a centrist faction going to split from either party.

And there’s no way the Republicans can “jettison” the conservative south. Conservative southerners vote. They may vote in ways you don’t like, that doesn’t mean they aren’t entitled to vote. Up until Nixon, conservative southerners voted Democrat, even into the 80s southern conservative voters might vote for Reagan for president but still elected Democrats locally.

And this is why we have the strange spectacle of today’s Republican party. On the one hand you have a populist rural working class party that the Republican party is turning into. On the other hand you have a corporatist pro-business party that the Republican party used to be. The synthesis from this tension is that the corporatists are going to leave the Republicans. Big Business is happy to work with someone like Obama, they aren’t afraid of high taxes or regulations. In fact Big Business loves regulation, because regulation is the enemy of the free market, and the last thing Big Business wants is a free market, that’s too much like work. They prefer a rent-seeking model.

And since the populist wing of the Republican party isn’t very big on capitalism anyway–they don’t trust the Eastern Bankers (you know who they mean), they don’t trust the “elites”, and so on. Sure, they hate taxes, but pretty soon they’re going to decide that the rich are all liberals. The days of the corporatist wing leading the populist wing around by the nose are over. So there will be no opposition on their part to another round of expansion of the regulatory state.

So I think we’ll probably see a Big Government, Big Business Democratic party, run along Obama’s managerial style. And a rural populist identity-politics white Republican party, run along Sarah Palin’s demogogic style. Sure, there’s no way that a Sarah Palin type can win the presidency, but her ilk are dominating the congressional republicans. So they’ll remain an opposition party.

Note that I hope I’m wrong about this, since that essentially leaves no room for a small-l libertarian. I suppose the cycle ends when the populist Republicans lose and lose and lose, and eventually get tired of losing.

Well, so does every conceivable scenario that does not include pro-multipartisan electoral-system reforms.

And? What happens then?

The Republicans were not a third party in 1860, they were the second party. Fremont came in second in 1856, and he was only 60 electoral votes short of Buchanan.

Beats the hell out of me, I’m pretty tentative just on my prediction that the Republicans double-down on the Palinism. How the heck am I supposed to predict what will happen in 20 years of so when Palinism has been beaten into the ground?

If you’re looking at a 20-year time scale, it’s not unlikely that by then most Americans who now think that way will be dead or retired, and not replaced by a like-minded younger generation.

This may just be a matter of terminology, but the Republican Party moved from being founded to 1854 to winning the election in 1860. So I guess that you might say they were a third party before the 1856 election, became the second party in 1856 because the Whigs disappeared, and became the first party in 1860 because the Democrats split. They were the last party to move from third-party status to winning the election, and they did so over the six-year period 1854 to 1860.

I’d guess that means that in present-day terms, a centre-right party could form next year (2010), could push the Republican Party out so that it became the second party in 2012, and could win the election in 2016. As the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics, and almost anything could happen in six years.

I would say that Johnson election and signing of the Civil Rights Act changed eras. There had been a shift between conservatives and liberals that began from about the time of the Civil Rights Movement that Johnson crystallized with his legislation. Suddenly, Dems were the liberals and Reps were the conservatives. This era lasted a few years until Roe vs. Wade when the extreme right wing decided to get into the act of politicizing everything, and they got their dog in the yard with the election of Reagan. I see the rise of the fringe right into the mainstream coinciding with the creation of Fox News. Perhaps violence is next, I sure hope not though

There certainly seems to be some thinking along those lines, but I’m holding out hope it’s all talk and bluster.

While I would agree that the Republican party was the last party to go from being a third party to winning, I would maintain that it most recently happened at the beginning of the 1900s, not with Lincoln. Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Mooses did better than the Republicans in 1912, leading to his faction essentially taking over the Republican party. They continued to call themselves Republican, but the party that resulted owed its descent to Roosevelt, not Taft. In other words, the third-party Progressives became the second party, and in the process changed its name to “Republican”.

I could see something similar happening now: Some prominent Republican leader (who, I don’t know specifically) could announce the formation of a new party, with a platform different from the current Republican party on at least some points. The new party does better than the old one in the next election, and as a result we end up with a party calling itself “Republican”, but with those new planks.

<ahem-ahem-ahem> Ralph Nader<ahem-ahem-ahem>

In this scenario, is the short-lived-but-ultimately-successful third party to the right or to the left of what is currently the GOP’s center-of-gravity?