America’s political parties have undergone at least six phases or realignments in the nation’s history. Political scientists suggest the nation is overdue for another realignment as demographics and voting patterns change.
- The First Political Party System — consisting of the Federalists, created by Alexander Hamilton of New York, and the Democratic-Republican Party, created by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison of Virginia — lasted from 1792 to 1824 (36 years).
- The Second Political Party System — consisting of the Democratic Party, led by Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, and the Whig Party, assembled by Henry Clay — lasted from just 1828 until 1854 (26 years).
- The Third Political Party System — consisting of the anti-slavery Republican Party of the North and the segregationist Democratic Party of the South, lasted from 1856 to 1890s (34-36 years).
- The Fourth Political Party System, from the 1890s to 1932 (42 years), was dominated on the national level by the Republican Party, except for when Teddy Roosevelt split the Republicans in 1912 with his Bull Moose Party, leading to the election of Woodrow Wilson that year and in 1916. This era paralleled the progressive era.
- The Fifth Political Party System, from 1932 to 1968 (36 years), was dominated on the national level by the Democratic Party New Deal Coalition, except for the election of the non-partisan national hero, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, in 1952 and 1956, combined with closely contested Congressional elections until the Democratic landslide of 1958.
- Political scientists disagree on when the Sixth Political Party System or realignment solidified. The consistently solid Democratic South was shattered in 1964, when Deep South states voted for Republican Barry Goldwater, though he lost in a landslide. This broke up the New Deal Coalition of white working-class voters and minorities. The “solid South” was no longer reliably Democratic.
- The period 1968-1976 was transitional. The third-party campaign of segregationist George Wallace won 12 percent of the vote in 1968 appealing to disaffected racist Democrats, or Dixiecrats. Richard Nixon eked out a victory with 42 percent of the vote against Minnesota Democrat Hubert Humphrey, but still faced large Democratic majorities in Congress. Nixon adopted what today would be called a progressive Democratic agenda, including creating the Environmental Protection Agency; expanding social security; wage and price controls. He proposed a guaranteed annual income and health care reform very similar to Obamacare. To placate the right, he adopted a “Southern Strategy” to appeal to Wallace voters in the midterm election of 1970 and the presidential election of 1972. He won a huge landslide in 1972. But the “breach of faith” of the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation in 1974 gave Democrats a chance to rebuild FDR’s old Solid South coalition, without the racism, which they did by winning overwhelming congressional victories in 1974. They nominated Jimmy Carter for president in 1976 by appealing to white Christians, especially in the Bible Belt, and African Americans. Carter in 1976 was the first Southerner (aside from Lyndon Johnson of Texas and Harry Truman of Missouri) to run successfully for president while repudiating segregation and racism, building a coalition with the African American heirs of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.
- But Carter’s presidency was characterized by stagflation — high unemployment and high inflation — leading to the perception that he was powerless and ineffectual, providing an opening for Republican Ronald Reagan to usher in a transformation in political party voting patterns. In 1980. he shattered FDR’s “New Deal Coalition,” put together a coalition of religious fundamentalists, white evangelicals, rural voters, military veterans, cold warriors, and Reagan Democrats. by appealing to “traditional values” in the culture wars against “modern values” or “San Francisco values.”
- Deep South and Midwestern states voted consistently Republican for president from 1980 to 2020, winning swing voters or what political scientists called Reagan Democrats. A realignment occurred with a majority of white males and evangelicals consistently choosing Republican presidential candidates, and minorities consistently choosing Democratic presidential candidates.
- Another political party realignment may have begun in 2020, with Georgia and Arizona voting for Biden-Harris, due in part to the increase in minority voters and the arrival of newcomers from other states. Demographers are predicting similar changes in North Carolina, Texas, and even South Carolina . If minority populations increase in states like Georgia and Texas, those states could shift to the Democratic column. Anti-immigrant sentiment expressed by Republicans in California led to across-the-ballot losses in that state. But if Democratic Party dominance in California is blamed for high taxes and unaffordable real estate, the state could shift back to the Republican column in the next decade.
- Few states have engaged in one-party rule since their founding. Their allegiance to political parties changes over time.