Monday, March 28, 2011

Realigning Elections

The Founding Fathers of the United States did not envision that the politics of the new nation would fall naturally into a two-party system.[1] However, a two-party system is an inevitable outcome of the concept that every person should have one vote.[2] This, in turn, leads to parties which devote most of their attention to courting centrist voters in order to defeat the opposition during elections. As party ideals move to the center of the political spectrum, eventually the party rank-and-file become dissatisfied with the party leadership.[3] This leads either to the formation of a third party which eventually displaces one of the original parties or to the reinvention of an existing party. This is known as a realigning election.[4] There have only been a handful in the history of the United States.

The first realigning election in the United States ended what is known as the First Party System. The two parties were the Federalists (typified by Alexander Hamilton and George Washington) and the Democratic–Republicans (typified by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison). The Federalists sought to strengthen the federal government and adopted a loose interpretation of the Constitution. The Democratic–Republicans favored states' rights and adopted a strict interpretation of the Constitution.[5] Eventually Democratic–Republicans began adopting Federalist principles (e.g. the Louisiana Purchase and the creation of the Second National Bank). The Democratic–Republicans split into the Democratic Party and the National Republican Party, which later became the Whig Party.[6] The Federalist Party faded away and many of its members joined the National Republican Party.

The second realigning election in the United States ended what is known as the Second Party System. The two parties were the Democratic Party (typified by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren) and the Whig Party (typified by Henry Clay). Jacksonian Democrats supported a strong presidency while opposing the Second National Bank and government programs that benefited industry at the expense of the taxpayer. Whigs preferred a strong legislature over a strong executive and favored economic protectionism. The unwillingness of the Whig Party to take a stance on the issue of slavery eventually led to its demise.

The third realigning election in the United States ended what is known as the Third Party System. The two parties were the Democratic Party (typified by Stephen Douglas) and the Republican Party (typified by Abraham Lincoln). The Democratic Party favored states' rights (including rights of secession and allowing states to decide the slavery issue) and opposed using taxes to sponsor a national bank and railroads. The Republican Party absorbed the Whig Party and favored national supremacy (including denial of secession and abolition of slavery) and supported a national bank and federally sponsored railroads. The issue of states' rights became the ultimate cause [7] of the Civil War, which severely crippled the Democratic Party. From this point on the parties have reinvented themselves rather than being displaced by an ascendant third party.

The fourth realigning election in the United States ended what is known as the Fourth Party System or the Progressive Era. The two parties were the Republican Party (typified by William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt) and the Democratic Party (typified by William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson). The Republican Party supported prohibition and states' rights, while opposing the creation of the Federal Reserve, labor unions, and heavy regulation of business by the government. The Democratic Party opposed prohibition and favored measures which strengthened the national government [8], while supporting the creation of the Federal Reserve and labor unions, and sought greater government oversight of businesses. Following the Great Depression the Democratic Party reinvented itself.

The fifth realigning election in the United States ended what is known as the Fifth Party System. The two parties were the Democratic Party (typified by Franklin D. Roosevelt) and the Republican Party. The defining issue was the  social programs of the New Deal (which included the issues of the Federal Reserve, labor unions, and diminution of states' rights). While the Democrats wooed ethnic minorities and working-class Northerners away from the Republican Party [9], the Republican Party itself split between a conservative faction (led by Robert A. Taft) and a liberal faction (led by Nelson Rockefeller), which blunted their ability to oppose the Democrats. All three Republican presidents during this time (Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford) were Rockefeller Republicans. Dissatisfaction with the big-government approach to politics led to the reinvention of the Republican Party.

We currently find ourselves in the Sixth Party System.[10] The two parties are the Republican Party (typified by Ronald Reagan) and the Democratic Party. The Republican Party supported states' rights, moral values while opposing labor unions, multiculturalism, and entitlement programs. The Democratic Party embraced growth of the federal government and tolerance/moral relativism and supported labor unions, multiculturalism, and entitlement programs. The Republicans were able to recover the votes of working-class Northerners and conservative Southern whites away from the Democratic Party.

Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party has slowly drifted back towards the center. The last two Republican presidents (George H. W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush, as well as 2008 nominee John McCain)  have been liberal republicans, increasing the size and scope of the federal government at the expense of the states and the citizens. Rather than oppose entitlement programs such as bailouts and universal health care, establishment Republicans have either gone along (e.g. TARP) or offered alternatives that were essentially the same as the Democratic proposals (e.g. the Wyden–Bennett Act). This dissatisfaction with the Republican Party establishment and the elitism and extremism of the Democratic Party [11] led to the formation of the Tea Party movement.

It is too early to tell, yet, whether the Tea Party movement will result in a political realignment that will usher in the Seventh Party System, though political cartoonists have hinted at it.[12] As usual, some of the perennial political issues are still at the center of the debate: a national bank (i.e. the Federal Reserve) and states' rights vs. expansion of the federal government (particularly in the matters of lemon socialism and universal health care). Unfortunately the historical trend seems to be not in the favor of conservatism. We apply the brakes but don't often turn the steering wheel.


[1] This should not have been surprising since there were two parties during the Revolution: the Whigs (Rebels) versus the Tories (Loyalists).

[2] It is also an outcome of the winner-takes-all approach to elections. This is known as Duverger's Law. Voting rules that would allow people to cast multiple votes or that assigned seats to parties  (rather than candidates) based on the percentage of votes that they won would result in a multi-party system. However, to pass legislation in multi-party systems, parties have to band together into coalitions, which usually results in two-coalition systems, which aren't much different in practice from two-party systems. In essence it just gives smaller parties the power to blackmail larger parties (e.g. if you want us to help you reach a majority and pass legislation x, then you have to help us pass legislation y). The concept of one person, one vote was enshrined by the Warren court in three (deplorable) cases in the 1960s: Baker v. Carr (1962), Reynolds v. Sims (1964), and Wesberry v. Sanders (1964).

[3] In other words, the electorate becomes polarized over an issue while in-power politicians of both parties run together.

[4] See election.

[5] Thomas Jefferson had this to say about the two parties: "Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves." In a letter to Henry Lee, 1824; quoted in A. Koch and W. Pedon (eds.), The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, New York, NY: Modern Library, p. 715. ISBN 9780375752186.

[6] See Party (United States).

[7] The proximate cause was slavery. To understand the difference between proximate and ultimate causes, see and ultimate causation.

[8] It was during this time that (with the help of the Progressive Party, which split off from the Republican Party) the  16th (income tax) and 17th (direct election of Senators) Amendments to the US Constitution were passed. Both helped considerably to undermine federalism and states' rights.

[9] See 526879.html.

[10] This is subject to debate. Some political historians believe that we're still in the Fifth Party System.

[11] Consider that while Republican Presidential candidates have been drifting to the left, so have the Democratic Presidential candidates. Al Gore, John Kerry, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. If you check the ADA liberal ratings and the ACU conservative ratings, they consistently scored as some of the most liberal/least conservative representatives in the national government during their tenures.

[12] See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here (though I'm sure there are more).

Image attributions:

Declaration of Independence was painted by John Trumbull (1756–1843), available at independence.jpg.

The Battle of New Orleans was painted by Edward Percy Moran (1862–1935), available at of New Orleans.jpg.

Fall of the Alamo was painted by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk (1852–1917), available at

Battle of Antietam—Army of the Potomac was painted by General George B. McClellan (1826–1885), available at of Antietam.png.

Gassed was painted by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), available at

D-Day Landing at Omaha Beach was photographed by Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard, available at NormandyLST.jpg.

"Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall!" was photographed by the White House Photographic Office, available at

Firefighter Standing Alone in the Ruins of the Twin Towers was photographed by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Jim Watson, available at 14 2001 Ground Zero 02.jpg.

Unveiling of the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World was painted by Edward Moran (1829–1901), available at

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