Colleen Quinn

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How are the characteristics of the Republican and Democratic parties from nearly a century ago relevant to political parties today? In more ways than one might think at first glance. As the coronavirus sweeps across the country, statistics show that unemployment rates are reaching a high point only seen previously during the Great Depression. Although our current parties have no clear dominance in the government as the Democratic Party previously did, the fifth party system has ultimately shaped the current party system into what it is today, highly divided with clear separations between the two major parties.

On October 29, 1929, the American stock market crashed, leaving the American people in an economic crisis. An event beyond the control of the parties became the primary concern of American voters, thus, electing the candidate who would provide a solution became the focus of the election. The Democratic Party strategized by focusing on a progressive reform and relief platform, and the electorate responded by overwhelmingly supporting the Democratic Party and their candidate, Franklin Roosevelt, in his run for president in the 1932 election.

The realigning election of 1932 marked the commencement of the fifth party system. This system endured from 1933 to 1968 and is marked by a period of the previously inactive Democratic Party coming to power due to a progressive approach to the economic crisis. Never before had the U.S. government intervened so much in its people’s lives. New voter coalitions were formed as a result of the change in the party platform, bringing the Democrats to power and changing the precedents of executive powers and acceptable interaction with American private life and business.

As noted, the principal cause of the realignment to the fifth party system was the voters’ reaction to the stock market crash of 1929 and the economic crisis, better known as the Great Depression. Herbert Hoover, president at the time of the stock market crash, believed it was best for the American economy and electorate if the government took a laissez-faire approach instead of intervening. He thought that the people should ride out the wave of economic crisis and poverty and that the issue would resolve itself over the course of a few months. However, nearly two years passed and the Great Depression was unresolved. During this time, Hoover vetoed numerous bills that would provide relief. Instead, he focused on shaping a conservative reconstructive plan that would focus on financial reform.

After Hoover’s limited intervention showed little sign of improving the crisis, the Democratic Party, previously inactive on the issue, began to take an activist stance on reform and relief in the crisis. The party pandered to the most affected voters by emphasizing their plan of action, as well as promising relief to remedy the economy. Democratic senators and representatives began proposing bills to fund relief programs, all of which were not passed by the Republican majority.

Two-and-a-half years after the Great Depression began, the Democratic National Convention nominated Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt enticed skeptical voters with his New Deal program, which combined social reform and economic recovery, which attracted the attention of the majority of voters from both parties and allowed him to win the presidency.

Support for a change in the status quo drove voters to shift their alignment to the Democratic Party, with the 1932 election at the center of the New Deal Realignment. New coalitions based on class, region, religious affiliation, and race became prevalent during the fifth party system. This system also saw a shift in support for large voter coalitions such as African Americans, who previously voted nearly exclusively Republican, to the Democratic Party. These and other voter coalitions, as well as labor unions, aligned themselves with the growing and changing Democratic Party as its platform began to take shape and become the party of minorities, social rights, urban living, and liberalism.

In addition to voters from the opposing party shifting their political alignment, political scientists theorize that formerly inactive voter coalitions were a greater cause for higher Democratic voting numbers. These non-voters were newly able to vote and sought to encourage the new trend of progressivism in government and expand relief programs. For example, in Chicago, first and second-generation American immigrant families were highly mobilized in the 1936 election, contributing to the growing number of Democratic supporters in the New Deal Realignment Era.

Conversely, conservative voters, particularly coalitions in rural regions and with Protestant ties who previously supported the Democratic Party began to solidly align with the now conservative Republican Party, which opposed the progressive Democratic platform, instead advocating for a laissez-faire approach. These new divisions — or cleavages — dividing the electorate were solidified in the elections after 1932, creating a lasting change in voter support to the two parties, characterizing a period of Democratic favor that would last until 1968.

The shift of dissatisfied conservative Democrats to the Republican Party began an era of polarization and homogenous parties. Conservatives became exclusively Republican, while liberals became exclusively Democrat. As Roosevelt’s progressive Democratic ideals were proposed as bills, conservative voters pushed back against what they believed to be excessive spending as well as the federal government overreach into the private lives of citizens. This push-back revealed itself in the form of the 1938 midterm election, where the Republican Party gained seven seats in the Senate and nearly doubled their numbers in the House of Representatives. These Republican victories were likely a blend of the reaction of independents to the progressive policies of the Roosevelt administration, as well as the delayed response from conservative Democrats shifting party affiliation as they began to feel alienated from the new Democratic Party.

The relevance of the realigning factors of the fifth party system to the modern party system is that they have influenced the way that cleavages divide the current party system. Divisions such as racial, religious, and socioeconomic status are cleavages voters are influenced by in the sixth party system, and these were initially developed in the fifth party system.

According to Pew Research Center, in 2008, voters elected the first African American president, Barack Obama. The electorate in 2008’s presidential election was the most diverse in U.S. history, with nearly one-in-four votes cast by non-whites. As the electorate becomes more racially diverse, parties must acknowledge these new cleavages and react in order to appeal to the electorate and win elections. Although these divisions seem to threaten political stability, cleavages among the electorate do not mean that the democratic system is failing. However, as the electorate enters a time when political parties seem more divided than ever, the division of the electorate is not some new, unprecedented threat. Polarization has existed since the foundation of political parties, and although divisions can cause polarization, those divisions have the capacity to change as voters react to external influences and allow the parties to evolve.

As new issues and divisions arose towards the end of the fifth party system, the cleavages of the fifth party system began to lose prevalence among the electorate and parties. The class-based voter coalitions of the New Deal realignment became somewhat obsolete, and religious groups became divided as moral issues arose in politics during the late 1970s and 1980s. The 1960s brought along a wave of detachment from parties, and during this time, voters were more inclined to vote in elections as individuals than to identify with a party.

Those who did remain attached to their party did not seek out as much voting guidance from the party as in elections past. The 1968 election that heralded the transition from the fifth to sixth party system was characterized by cleavages highlighting geographic location and weak party identification. This shift emphasized a change in Republican mindset towards traditional views, solidified by Regan’s presidency in the 1980s. Meanwhile, the Democrats continued to build their platform of social rights and liberal progressivism. As the parties shifted their platforms gradually over the course of the subsequent elections, voters have reacted to these changes by either switching parties, remaining staunchly loyal, or becoming increasingly independent.

Characterized by cleavages dividing voters by religious affiliation, geographic location, and race, the fifth party system was dominated by the Democratic Party. During this system, the two parties became less diverse, a characteristic that has bled over into the current party system. The 1932 election that marked the realignment to the fifth party system was caused by the voter’s reaction to the Great Depression, and a desire for relief. In the upcoming months leading up to the 2020 presidential election, it will be interesting to see how the government responds to the current widespread unemployment.


Colleen is a rising sophomore in the Politics and International Relations major.


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