Welcome to From The Field!  This blog series will feature student posts from the field of Political Science, during their “fieldwork” in their Politics classes and experiences at Messiah.

From the Field Spring 2020

This spring, From the Field will highlight student posts that share findings from their research on US party system realignment, including its present-day relevance, in the department’s Parties and Elections class, which ran last fall. Each month the series will feature a post on one of the historical party eras in America.

Under its relatively new constitution, the United States spawned one of the earliest modern party systems, with party labels first appearing on the ballot in the election of 1800.  Over the course of history, the American political system has had six party systems that have generally been dominated by two key competitors in each era, which centered on issues and groups in the electorate that fed the pattern of competition. (Though political scientists do quibble about the exact beginning and end of some the eras.)

 

System Period Parties
First 1800-1828 Democratic-Republican & Federalist
Second 1828-1860 Democratic & Whig
Third 1860-1896 Democratic & Republican
Fourth 1896-1932 Democratic & Republican
Fifth 1932-1968 Democratic & Republican
Sixth 1968-? Democratic & Republican

 

Often, people ask why, in comparison to other longstanding democracies, the United States has fewer parties.  The electoral system – or the decision rule for determining how elections are decided – makes a difference.

Maurice Duverger[1], a French political scientist, made the claim that the type of electoral system (means for making decisions based on votes) impacts the number of parties that effectively gain office and influence policy.  Single-member systems – also known as “first past the post” – give constituents the vote for one representative that serves a specific group of citizens; unless parties have concentrations in different regions of a system, the top two parties tend to get the votes.  Without votes, and thus seats, smaller parties do not get to be part of the formal lawmaking process.  Proportional representation systems, in which the percentage of votes translates into a percentage of legislative seats for parties meeting a certain minimum threshold of the vote, tend to produce a greater variety of parties; the result sometimes requires parties to form a coalition to have a majority for passing legislation.

The United States has a single-member system for its national and state legislatures.  With a single-member system – in which most contests are often decided by candidates gaining a plurality of (the most) votes – it can be difficult for additional parties to gain enough support to win office, especially at the national level.  Although other factors can also influence outcomes, this element has a significant influence.  In addition, the way that major parties respond to newer and smaller parties also inhibits the chance for multiple parties to win office.

As chronicled in James Sundquist’s influential work Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties, when third parties have sprung up – such as the Farmer or Populist parties in the late 1800s – they have not been able to gain enough traction to win office.  Sometimes these parties agreed to be part of a fusion ticket with major parties, in which both party names appeared for the candidates, which ultimately benefited the major part.  In other cases, the major parties saw the value of some or all of the minor party’s platform and co-opted it, taking the steam out of the support for the alternate group; however, those parties still play a role in shifting the focus of the larger system.  The last time a new party came on the scene and had a national impact by winning seats in Congress, the Republican Party simply displaced the Whigs as the second contender in the system.  But the lack of shifting parties does not mean that the system stays stagnant.

As Sundquist and others note, realignments in party systems occur when there is a change in the parties regularly competing for and winning office.  This change can result from several factors.  Most obviously, realignment occurs when one party replaces another.  However, realignment can also occur, as it has since 1860, by changes in the parties’ issue stances, or in the groups of voters that align with the parties.  Moreover, the change can focus on a specific election – a “critical election” such as 1932 – or happen more gradually in a “secular” realignment.  This spring’s arc of From the Field will explore not only the contours of the American party systems but also their insights for the current state of party politics.

Looking at the timeline, it is clear that the current party system, which launched in the late 60s, before suffering a decline in the 80s and then a resurgence in the 90s, has been the longest-lived; but one might wonder whether it has outlived its effectiveness.  As scholar Morris Fiorina, one of the most influential American electoral scholars has noted in his writings, neither party has been able to gain and sustain a majority over the last 25 years.  (For further details on electoral trends, Change and Continuity in the 2016 and 2018 Elections, as well as editions for prior elections, offers a wealth of data and analysis.)

The parties have compounded their problems by legislating towards their base, despite the fact that marginal supporters/independents and moderates compose at least as large, if not a greater, portion of the public than those groups that solidly support one of the two major parties.  This “overreach” – as Fiorina calls it – has resulted in a lot more instability of voting blocs within the public.  Fiorina sketches the reasons for this trend in this video from PolicyEd, a series produced by the Hoover Institute at Stanford University,

With a two-party system, in order to represent enough of the public in order to govern with legitimacy, parties typically must be what Otto Kirchheimer[2] called “catch-all parties” that appeal to broader groups.  If they fail to do so, not only can it produce political instability, but also seriously undermine the representative function of political parties, which, in turn, can lead more and more voters to question the legitimacy of the system.  However, as noted by historian David Moss in this episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, situations such as these can end constructively.   How – and to what extent – does examining realignments of past systems help us understand the possible developments of the present? Read on and see…

 

About the From the Field blog editor (Dr. Robin Lauermann):  I currently serve as a Professor of Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations, which hosts this blog site. I have specific expertise in two sub-fields.  Within American politics, I teach and research on topics related to political institutions, public policy, and political behavior, with special consideration as to how they impact the functioning of our political system.  Within Comparative Politics, I look at many of the same themes, but within the regional areas of Latin America and Europe.  Above all, my passion and work focus on empowering people – students, colleagues, and citizens – to be able to better understand our political system in order to navigate it and evaluate it constructively.  With this series, I hope to provide such a forum, which can serve as a resource for citizens in evaluating policy, candidates and our system.

[1] Duverger, Maurice. Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State. Methuen, 1959.

[2] Kirchheimer, Otto. “The Transformation of the Western European Party Systems.” Political Parties and Political Development 6 (1966): 177-200.

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