Models of American Electoral Politics: 3. The Contemporary Context

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

In this blog post we’ll consider how two models – the party system model and Leybovich’s model – can help us understand the modern US political context: What predictions do these models make about the future? Did their predictions about the recent past come true? And if so, does that mean they can be trusted looking forward?

Party system model

The significance of this model lies more in the start and end dates of each party system than the actual content of each. If the model holds water, the beginning of the 6th party system will directly influence whether we should expect any significant changes to be happening today. Party systems one, three and four (discarding the second as an outlier) each lasted an average of 36 years. If we assume the fifth party system (which started in 1930) was extended by ~10 years due to the Great Depression and FDR’s two extra terms (for a total of 46 years), then its end date is 1976, and the sixth party system started with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Therefore, 34-38 years after 1980 is some time around, well… now. Brewer and Maisel argue that the Democratic and Republican re-alignments following Trump’s 2016 victory may well constitute a seventh party system: how exciting! Short of a dramatic overhaul of the US electoral system, I’d be very surprised if we saw any real change from the way states have been voting in 2024 onwards; it’s been pretty consistent since the nineties – high levels of partisanship have shored up historical ‘lean’ states, with only ten or so casting the decisive electoral votes. But it’s not about the content of each party system; it’s about their timings.

It could be construed that Joe Biden’s victory has come at the same time as the start of a new party system. Is this consistent with other periods of history? Well… yes. New party systems tends to emerge as a result of political re-alignment. This re-alignment results in the rejection of one party (usually the one that dominated the previous party system) in favour of the other, just as we saw in 2020: the Republicans (who dominated the sixth party system) were rejected in favour of the Democrats.

Leybovich model

Leybovich’s model backs this up. Reagan was the transformer – he reshaped the GOP and spearheaded the modern conservative movement. His VP, George H. W. Bush, then took over and continued many of Reagan’s policies. Clinton was the triangulator – a more moderate Democrat in response to the conservative environment. George W. Bush was the reimaginer, Obama was the precursor, and Trump was the ender. Trump fits the role of ender well, offering an outdated impression of Reaganism. Biden, the incoming transformer then, should reshape the political environment. Will he be a great unifier? A transformational progressive? Will he finally tackle the climate crisis?

There’s been a sentiment for some years now that Democrats and Republicans are the same: they’re both fundamentally capitalist, statist, and only really differ on their limited definitions of freedom. This is how both parties can claim the same essential values, while still repeatedly squabbling. Although this concept is rather stale at this point in time, America stood before a great precipice in November 2020: the choice voters faced couldn’t have been more stark. The Democratic Party has become increasingly left-wing over recent years, while the Republican Party has gone “from a moderately conservative party to a very conservative party to something else entirely,” culminating in the storming of the United States’ Capitol building in January 2021.

Platitude aside, Joe Biden is to contend with the highest levels of polarisation within the American electorate since the days of the civil war. This has been especially true amongst Republicans – increasingly untrusting of their leaders, it’s no wonder a divisive, anti-establishment figure like Donald Trump has so successfully reshaped the GOP. So how is Joe Biden to bridge this divide and repair this fractured nation? Even before the Capitol Hill riots, it was claimed that deepening partisanship was threatening he stability of the US. Others have argued that racial divisions, climate change and the COVID crisis among a raft of other issues have broken the US. Biden’s first weeks as president may be previewing a much more progressive direction for the Democratic Party. And this might just be what the USA needs in order to be fixed.

Read the earlier blogs to understand more about the party system model and the Leybovich model.

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