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.
1932 election: Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeats Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover.
And there the consensus breaks down.
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.
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