Are We Seeing the Emergence of a Political Realignment: A Seventh Party System in the USA?
There have been six major cycles of American political history (with smaller epicycles within them: The Eisenhower epicycle, the Carter presidency, the Clinton years). Each has brought about major political realignments (with two major dominant political parties) for periods of between 15 and 50 years–shifts that have defined the shape of political debate and elections for some time to come. After the ’08 election, many asked if we were seeing a new political realignment, or just a hickup in the long Reagan era. I argued at the time that one could not know until the next election cycle: 2010 seemed to suggest that ’08 was a fluke, a hickup, but I believe that ’10 midterms were the result of two forces: 1) Understandable frustration with the pace of recovery and the promise of the out of power GOP to focus on “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs,” (a promise they immediately broke–as they focused on EVERYTHING ELSE BUT JOBS!) and 2) the emerging coalition that elected Obama had not yet learned to vote in non-presidential years, leading to a ’10 electorate that was older, whiter, more rural, and more conservative than the nation as a whole. In the presidential election of 2012, we have seen that 2008 was not a fluke. I think it safe to say that it was a realigning election and that this election is consolidating the basic shape of a new political alignment, and a new cycle of political history. The long Reagan Era has drawn to a close. (So, GOP presidential candidates can finally stop arguing over which of them is most like the sainted, mythical, Ronald Reagan–a myth not much like the actual Ronald Reagan.)
First Party System: George Washington, the first U.S. President after the adoption of the Constitution of 1789, thought there should be no “factions,” or political parties. But within his great unity government, there emerged two such factions, centered around 2 rival political visions or governing philosophies. Alexander Hamilton and his followers wanted a strong central government, complete with a national bank and a deliberate strategy to become an industrial society. They became the Federalist Party. Thomas Jefferson led a group that distrusted centralized power–worried that this would erode the republic and bring back something like the monarchy we had just fled. Jefferson’s “Democratic-Republicans” wanted a smaller, weaker, central government and stressed “states’ rights,” and a nation of farmers, both the landed gentry of slave plantations and the smaller farms of freeholders. After the election of 1800, the Democratic-Republicans gained dominance for the next 20 years and the Federalists slowly died off.
The Second Party System: One party rule is unhealthy and eventually leads to splits within the party that cannot be contained. The Democratic-Republicans could not contain the major issues of the day, especially the growing conflict over slavery, within themselves. The new system was a contest between the Whig Party and the Democratic Party. This was Henry Clay’s “American System.” The rich tended to support the Whigs and the poorer voters tended to support the Democrats–who had evolved from the Democratic-Republicans during the Era of Andrew Jackson, the first “populist” president. The Whig Party began to fracture over many pressing social issues, particularly slavery which was becoming ever-more contentious as the Abolitionist Movement grew. This Second Party System–era lasted until 1860, just before the Civil War.
The Third Party System: The end of the Whigs led to the emergence of several smaller parties: The Liberty Party, The Free Soil Party,–mostly focused on ending slavery–with tensions over the details. In this era, the national differences began to split geographically. The North and East, becoming more industrial and urban, and increasingly seeing slavery as a national sin that was greatly at odds with the national identity as a democratic republic, began to identify with the new Republican Party: forged of the merger of the Free Soil, and Liberty parties, leftover Whigs, and the like. Southern and more rural Democrats pushed to keep slavery and to expand it westward while Republicans supporting ending it. This cycle lasted from the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln and the beginning of the Civil War until 1896, a time not only of war and conflict, but of rapid industrial and economic expansion.
The Fourth Party System: After the Civil War, the Republican Party became a coalition of pro-business types, former slaves, and reformers (often at odds with each other). During Reconstruction, the old Federalist vision of a strong central government, was given new life in the Republican party of the North, which also attracted Progressivists. The South and West supported Democrats. Both sides courted immigrants. This era lasted from 1896 until 1932. With brief exceptions, it was dominated by Republican presidencies. It had been a time of several “boom and bust” economic cycles, Progressivist Reforms (and the birth of the Social Gospel) in clash with industrial “robber barons,” the “Gospel of Wealth,” clashes over American Imperialism (as the U.S. began to rival other world powers) , the long struggle for women’s suffrage, the first grassroots peace movements, and the disillusionment of the aftermath of the Great War (World War I). The beginning of the end of the Fourth System was the election of 1928: Industrialist J. Edgar Hoover, a Quaker, a self-made millionaire, and Republican had been a philanthropic hero during World War I (feeding masses displaced in Europe) and in the aftermath of the Great Flood of 1924 (when he once more organized volunteer philanthropists to rescue victims and help with the aftermath). But Hoover, who had always been the can-do guy, proved completely unable to deal with the Crash of ’29 and the Great Depression. Republicans, like the Federalists and Whigs before them, had always argued for a strong central government–but it wasn’t to play an active role in economics!
The Fifth Party System: Shaped by Franklind D. Roosevelt and the New Deal Coalition. The election of 1932 was a realigning one. Republican dominance since the end of the Civil War came to an end. In response to the Great Depression and the New Deal, the Democratic Party stopped referring to “states’ rights” and pushed the use of the federal government to create social justice. It now attracted the Labor movement and its concerns for workers’ rights, various minorities, Jews, reformers, and, for the first time, large numbers of African-Americans, who had previously been nearly 100% Republican since it was the “Party of Lincoln.” (In the South, many African-Americans continued to be Republican during this period because the South, dominated by Democrats, still strictly enforced racial segregation.) This system, briefly interrupted by the Eisenhower years, lasted from 1933 until approximately 1968.
The Sixth Party System: In the 1960s, the Democratic Party rejected the Southern segregationists fully–ironically during the presidency of Texan Lyndon B. Johnson. Yet his Great Society fell apart due to social unrest in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the War on Poverty, the Vietnam War and the movement to end it, the women’s movement and the youth movement. In 1968, Richard B. Nixon, former VP to Eisenhower, mapped out the “Southern strategy” to attract Southern and working class whites, especially less educated white men, threatened by the the Democratic Party’s championing of “hippies, African-Americans, and feminists (and, later, gays). Now the Republican Party revived the old language of “states’ rights,” (which it had long opposed) to attack New Deal and Great Society programs and as a code word for “supporting soft segregation,” and opposing “affirmative action.” Interrupted briefly by the Carter years and the Clinton years, the Sixth Party System initiated by Nixon was fully cemented by Ronald Reagan in the election of 1980. It ended Democratic dominance in the South (between 1980 and 2000, a 20 year period, Republicans completely replaced Democrats as the dominant political party in the South). Nixon and Reagan created a new GOP governing coalition of Economic Conservatives (Libertarians and big business-types, united in their hatred for Labor), Military/Foreign Policy Conservatives (nationalists and neo-conservatives), and Social/Religious Conservatives (the Religious Right coalition of groups opposing mixed marriages, feminism, abortion, contraception, gay rights, etc.).
It seems that 2008 may have been the beginning of the end of this Sixth Party System: the Nixon-Reagan-Bush Era. 2012 seems to confirm that we are seeing a new political alignment. The Obama coalition (youth, women, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and other minorities) shows that Democrats now begin presidential races with a large block of states in the Northeast, West, mountain, midwest, and Southeastern states that, at least, lean Democratic. Demographics are growing the Democratic dominance. The Republican Party is dominant only with white men and married white women. It is older, rural, less educated, more traditionally religious. But it lives in a world where Millenials (18-29 year olds) are comfortable with pluralism, have international and multi-cultural experiences, are highly educated (even if also highly in debt because of it), techno-savvy, and urban. If I am right, we are entering an era where the Democratic Party begins each presidential cycle with increasing electoral advantages. The Republican Party is reaping the rewards of the Southern strategy: As Mitt Romney proved, it is now possible to win 60% of the white vote and still lose an election badly. The exact shape of the realignment is not yet clear. Republicans maintained control of the House, but Democrats had the House all during the Reagan years and Reagan still drove the agenda. A governing philosophy based on constant tax cuts, ever higher military expansion, disgregard for the environment, anti-labor, and anti-government help is no longer a winning one. The new alignment may not be a 21st C. New Deal/Great Society (this is not yet clear), but it is one that has a definite role for government to play in helping ordinary people. The Reagan era is over. What will the new era be?
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