Elise Robinson

Elise Robinson

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Spanning from 1860- 1896, the 3rd Party System initiated the still-enduring reign of the two-party system consisting of the Democratic and Republican parties. Although the platforms of these parties have substantially shifted since this time frame, the longevity of the parties themselves is a sign of successful shifts to represent the evolving concerns of the public. While the 3rd Party System encompassed the Civil War Era, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and the initial years of the Progressive Era, the dominant parties were initially defined by the single cleavage of abolition. Maintaining this sole division allowed the parties to endure the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras, however, once the expansion of slavery ceased to be the most prominent issue amongst voters during the 2nd Industrial Revolution, the parties had to adapt to reflect the public’s shifting economic and social concerns.

The contemporary Republican and Democratic parties have fallen into a similar disconnect from the American public. Parties serve as vehicles for the public interest to be represented in government. Therefore, as the parties responded to the voters’ shift away from the polarizing issue of slavery in the 3rd Party System, contemporary parties must similarly realign to match the sentiments of the growing centrist and moderate voters.

Civil War pressures established the initial platforms of the two major parties, with the Republicans advocating and the Democrats opposing abolition. Therefore, as Richard McCormick notes in The Party Period and Public Policy: American Politics from the Age of Jackson to the Progressive Era, individuals who supported the abolition movement, largely Northerners and western farmers, joined the voting coalition of the Republican Party whereas those opposed to abolition, mostly white Southerners, joined the Democratic Party. However, the 2nd Industrial Revolution sparked massive shifts toward industrialization and urbanization disturbing this regional divide and creating entirely new social groups for the parties to consider, namely the large industry owners and the urban immigrant working class. The Republican Party shifted to cater to business goliaths like the railway industry, and the Democratic Party, since it already held the support of immigrants who opposed the xenophobic (anti-foreigner) sentiment within the Republican platform, evolved to adopt the support of the urban working class.

The Republican Party faced internal fractures during this time period. McCormick points out that, with the addition of the monopoly owners to the Republican voting coalition, the economic desires of the northern and western farming communities that had supported the abolitionist platform during the Civil War were being overpowered by the big business’ interests. In 1873, Congress enacted legislation to shift from a silver-backed currency to a gold-backed currency on the justification that gold-backed money was “sound money” and better for international trade. The public was strongly divided over this issue, creating a new cleavage that pitted big business owners against the farming community. Business owners favored the transition to gold because of the promising international trade prospects; however, the farmers felt that this shift would be quite detrimental to their livelihoods since gold-backed currency would make it more costly to pay off the mortgages the farmers, specifically the newly established farmers in the West, had accumulated. The conflicting responses to this movement revealed that the starkly different economic needs between the small farmers and the big businesses could not be sustained by the same party.

As big business owners pressed for the gold-backed currency in pursuit of international trade, the Republican Party responded to this desire and adopted a clearly pro-gold stance. McCormick shares that, in establishing such a position, the Republican Party lost the support of small farming communities. However, as the Democratic Party remained divided over the bimetallism debate, the farmers were left without a party to voice their concerns. Lacking a party, the displeased farming community began to form advocacy groups like the Farmers’ Alliance to promote policies that would benefit the agrarian population, culminating in the formation of an influential third party, the Populists. Drawing support away from both the Democratic and Republican voter bases, the Populists and their “Free Silver Movement” substantially disrupted the 3rd Party System, previewing the impending realignment. [Consequentially, the Democratic Party attempted to utilize the Populist Party in 1896 by making the strategic maneuver to nominate Populist William Jennings Bryan as its presidential nominee.]

As the Populists continued to gain support and pull from the ranks of both the Democratic and Republican parties, McCormick’s research reveals that the public simultaneously developed a growing suspicion and lack of faith in the major parties. The Republican Party was widely suspected of federal corruption and the Democratic Party faced opposition on account of state and local level corruption. To escape an economic depression, the “Panic of 1893,” Republican President Cleveland reached an agreement with the affluent monopoly owners Morgan and Rothschild.  After the government was bailed out by these monopoly owners, infamously regarded as “Robber Barons,” accusations of collusion flew, and the Republican Party became further typified as a “big-business” party that did not care not only about the concerns of the farming community but the concerns of the average citizen as well.

While the Democratic Party did not have the reputation of secretly catering to the wealthy business elites, voters lost faith in the democratic legitimacy (responsiveness to citizens) of the party because of the practices of the local urban party machines. Using tactics such as political patronage and the spoils system, party machines like the infamous Tammany Hall commandeered elections to impose their own agendas rather than catering to the interests of voters. McCormick characterizes the individuals placed in office by these machines as “untrailed men who did the public’s business haphazardly and inefficiently,” acting merely as puppets under the party leader’s authority.

Eventually, the public became exasperated with both major parties’ lack of responsiveness to their needs and reform parties like the “Mugwumps” formed. McCormick states that the principle aim of these independents was to enact civil service reforms to end the corrupt, undemocratic practices of party machines and sever the suspicious bonds between the government and the wealthy. The growing discontent and movement for greater transparency and democracy was a precursor to the impending Progressive movement that would gain tremendous momentum in the following party system. (For further information concerning the Gilded Age, visit https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/gilded-age)

So why does this history matter? Contemporary parties are suffering from a voter disconnect very similar to the estrangement from mainstream Americans that ended the 3rd Party System. According to political scientist Morris Fiorina, “A process of sorting during the past several decades has resulted in a Democratic Party that is clearly liberal and a Republican Party that is clearly conservative.” On the ideological spectrum, ranging from extreme liberalism to extreme conservatism, most Americans fall somewhere toward the middle. However, Fiorina’s work reveals that rather than shifting to represent the increasingly prevalent centrist dispositions of the public, both the Republican and Democratic parties are adopting extreme, polarized positions that cater to the hyper-partisan minorities.

In order to usher in the much-needed realignment and establish truly representative parties, contemporary citizens must follow the example of the Populists’ and Mugwumps’ activism and express their dissatisfaction. Reviving civic engagement across the nation will force the parties to either shift and amend the disconnect, attracting the diverse sentiments and recognizing the nuanced desires of voters, or cease to be a relevant political entity altogether.



Elise is a sophomore Politics major, who also studies English.



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