Samantha Rockhill

Samantha Rockhill

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For the two decades prior to the 1890s, neither the Democrats or Republicans maintained a stable majority; that status would change with the 1896 election of Republican William McKinley.  As historian Marc Horger notes in “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” the election culminated in concerns over the 1893 depression and debates over monetary standards.  The Fourth Party System also called the Progressive Era, spanned from 1896 to 1932. This system is a particularly interesting party system to evaluate in the context of today’s political climate because it began and ended with gradual secular realignments caused by demographic changes and economic concerns.

As a post-reconstruction era, issues of race and ethnicity were highly influential in determining voting coalitions, with Jewish and black voters supporting the Republican party of Lincoln for most of the period. In Politics, Parties and Elections in America, political scientist John Bibby notes that evolving events would shift these coalitions (Chapter 2).  Towards the end of the 1920s these minority voters switched to the Democratic Party, as these marginalized groups had been hit particularly hard by the Depression and supported Roosevelt’s job creation programs – and later, his international fight against the Nazis. The high rate of immigration in the early 20th century was also influential for the fourth party system, and interestingly, newly arrived immigrants tended to vote for the Democratic Party, providing them their largest support outside of the segregated South. Their success was in large part due to the role of party machines in providing jobs and benefits for working-class people in exchange for votes

Anyone who pays attention to the news would note that immigration, racial divisions, and a rapidly changing voting demographics continue to be important in determining the power balance of the parties even today.  Pew Research Center offers a data portrait of current trends in comparison with historical ones.  Instead of the arrival of European immigrants in the early 1900s, we are now seeing an influx of Southern and Central American immigrants, with about half of the current immigrant population arriving from Latin American and the Caribbean.  The result: an increasing number of ethnic and racial minorities compared to white America.  After the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, some believed that these demographic changes were leading to a party system realignment in favor of the Democrats.  However, Aldrich et al describe the 2016 election of Donald Trump as a “realignment of American politics” that “pitt[ed] college-educated whites, minorities, and millennials against blue-collar and evangelical whites” (343).  Whether that outcome represents a trend or not remains to be seen.

Economic depressions were also a major catalyst of both the realignment that led to the Fourth Party Party System and the realignment that ended it. Horger notes that when F.D.R was elected the high unemployment rate (25%) and banking system collapse caused Americans to turn away from the incumbent Republican party, which they viewed as failing them.  The election of President Barack Obama also came at a time of great economic distress, however, unlike the depressions of the Fourth Party System, the Great Recession does not seem to have brought about a realignment, but rather a period of overall political turmoil and change.  Political scientist Morris Fiorina affirms that the political system has been anything but stable over the last few decades. If we are in the midst of a realignment period, it is likely a secular realignment, rather than one which stems from a critical election.

Such a secular realignment would also reflect similarities to the Fourth Party System.  As Bibby notes, that system began after a period in which neither of the two parties had a substantial majority and ended with support for the Democratic party gradually increasing from 28.8  percent in 1924 to 40.8 percent in 1928 (83). However, recent data shows that most people do not yet find the parties representing their views well (17).  Such gradual turnovers of political power from one party to another over issues of economics and demographics echoes some of the concerns and factors we see in the United States right now as neither party has held a majority or consolidated power in my lifetime.  Scholars continue to argue that each new election is initiating a realignment; however, it is not likely until parties can build more stable coalitions.

Sam graduated this May with a major in politics and international relations, as well as a minor in gender studies.


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