Models of American Electoral Politics: 1. Party Systems

This is the first in a three-part series of blogs looking at various models of periodisation of American electoral politics and their applicability to the contemporary United States’ political context. The second part can be read here and the third can be read here.

In this blog we will look at the concept of a party system.  Of course party systems aren’t solely applicable to the US context. Party systems exist in many countries around the world, but having a handle on party systems provides a useful tool for studying how the country’s politics has evolved.

The most well-known definition of a party system is Sartori’s. He described it as: “The system of interactions resulting from inter-party competition.” But I find this tautological, doing little to help us ascertain the taxonomy/nomenclature of a party system. Others have gone further. Duverger, for example, argues that a party system is defined by the relationship between a number of characteristics of political parties: “Respective sizes, alliances, geographical localisation, political distribution and so on.” From this, it’s logical to infer that the issues of the day and party ideology are key parts of a party system – both factors which change over time. Therefore, party systems are a way of periodising US politics. Each system or period is characterised by distinct party ideologies, support for these parties, and the geographic concentration of that support. A party system can be thought of as a length of time as much as anything else: labels for electoral epochs.

For instance, the issues of slavery and reconstruction dominated US politics between the 1850s and the turn of the century, when the progressive movement began to take root. After 1900, the Republicans – who had once orchestrated an ambitious expansion of federal power – cemented themselves as the party of big business, while the Democrats – who had opposed those government reforms – slowly transitioned into the increasingly liberal party that implemented Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ policies in the 1930s. Both of these periods can be considered distinct party systems. Further, the fact that Southern states had been staunchly democratic prior to the Civil Rights Act, when they began becoming Republican bulwarks, can also help classify party systems.

The general consensus is that there have been six such systems since the republic’s founding in 1788 (e.g. Hershey). In the following maps – each denoting a party system – the strength of each colour represents the number of times the corresponding party won that state in Presidential elections between the dates shown.

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The first party system is an obvious outlier. Here, lime green represents the Democratic-Republicans while orange represents the Federalists. These organisations were far more informal than the political parties we know today, and they (mostly the Democratic-Republicans) dominated politics for the first 36 years of the country’s history.

By 1828, the Federalist Party had collapsed and the Democratic-Republicans had divided into supporters of President Andrew Jackson, and his opponents. These would go on to become the Democrats (blue) and the Whigs (yellow), respectively, who presided over the second party system. By 1856, the issue of slavery had come to the fore. The Whigs were divided on the issue, and former supporters ultimately coalesced into the Republican Party (red). Though the Republicans contested this year’s election, their status as a political force was evident with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, truly cementing the existence of a new (the third) party system. Since then, the Democrats and Republicans have traded off control of the Presidency, but their respective ideologies and the geography of their support have also changed.

Although there is widespread academic acceptance of the party system model (e.g. Parties and Elections in America) it’s important that we don’t accept this blindly, and continue to challenge it. A significant inconsistency between party systems is their length. The first, third and fourth party systems each lasted between 34-38 years – approximately 8 or 9 presidential elections. The second, on the other hand, lasted 26 years – only 6 or 7 elections. This discrepancy can be attributed to the collapse of the Whigs and the issue of slavery, although it does point to flaws in the party system model.

There is also some ambiguity over when the fifth party system ended and the sixth party system began. Some have put this date at 1968, 1972, or the 1980s (when both parties’ contemporary identities first emerged). Still others have argued that it was as late as the 90s! If we assume the fifth party system was extended by ~10 years due to the Great Depression and FDR’s two extra terms, then this puts its end year at 1976 (where most academic suggestions average out), and so the start of the sixth party system, could be considered to be the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

As shown, despite several flaws, the party system model has nonetheless proved broadly accurate for classifying different eras of US politics – each is distinct, in terms of active parties and the geography of their support. Furthermore, it could be argued that the brevity of one party system or ambiguity as to when a particular system started are not material criticisms in the first place. We are describing human events after all, and human activity rarely compartmentalises as neatly as we might like. Overall, due to the general academic acceptance of the model and that the minor flaws that can be explained away I believe that the model is useful and applicable to the modern US political context.

This was the first in a three-part series of blogs looking at various models of periodisation of American electoral politics and their applicability to the contemporary United States’ political context. The second part can be read here and the third can be read here.

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