The United States and the Six Party Systems


By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D.George Mason University

One of the key characteristics of the sixth party system is its near-perfect alignment between ideology and political parties. In other words, Democrats are liberals and Republicans are conservatives. But, this is not how they started. Let’s take a look back to see how it all began.

Franklin Roosevelt speaking at a political gathering with African American leaders sitting beside him.
Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition included public intellectuals, Jews, Catholics, and African Americans in the northern states. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The Party System

The history of America’s political parties can be broken down into six periods or ‘party systems’.

The first party system existed from 1789, when the Constitution was ratified, until 1820. At this time, political parties were incredibly weak. The two major coalitions were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.

The Federalists were led by founders, such as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who believed in a strong central authority. They were largely led by the elite and wealthy men and believed in policies that benefited commercial development and manufacturing. Despite being revolutionaries, they also aligned with the British.

They were led by Thomas Jefferson. This party coalition was built around states’ rights and protecting agrarian interests. They were more outward-looking and sought to develop diplomatic relations with other nations, particularly France. They were anti-elitist and, under Jefferson, they were known as Jeffersonian Republicans. But, toward the 1820s, the coalition began being called simply Democrats.

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Whigs and the Jacksonian Democrats

The second party system began when the Federalist party died out and many voters realigned their allegiance. The second party system existed from about 1824 until 1860, on the eve of the Civil War. During this time, the two major parties were the Whigs and the Jacksonian Democrats.

The Jacksonian Democrats were led by presidents like Andrew Johnson and Martin Van Buren and had a northern and a southern wing to the party. The Whigs included many former Federalist Party members and held many of its tenants. They were pro-commercialism and manufacturing but were strongly anti-monarchy. Unfortunately, the ideas that brought them together were weak and the party did not last very long.

Political Machines

The United States entered a third party system (1860–1896) during the Civil War and the period of national Reconstruction that followed it. During this time, the two major parties were Republicans, who replaced the Whigs, and Democrats.

The third party system is notable because it was the era of political machines. Headed up by someone known as a ‘party boss’, a political machine was a specific type of organization designed to exert control over local government entities and the political parties that served them.

They operated in areas where only one party was powerful. In cities with strong machine politics, it wasn’t possible to differentiate the political party and its leadership from the city government and its leadership.

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Civil War

A sharp economic depression, combined with rapid demographic change and awareness about political corruption, led to the creation of the fourth party system, from 1896 until 1932. It was led by Republicans and Democrats, but these were not the same as those during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Richard Nixon addressing a White House conference.
Richard Nixon developed the ‘southern strategy’ to woo southern conservatives to the Republican coalition. (Image: Marion Doss/Public domain)

During this time, America had experienced the Industrial Revolution and the rapid expansion of advances in transportation and communication technology, which were strongly favored by the Republicans.

In sharp contrast, the Democratic Party suffered losses during the Civil War and remained weak. They furthered the interests of farmers and sought ways to rebuild the party and challenge Republicans on a national scale once again.

End of Political Machines

The fourth party system saw the end of political machines., which was brought about by the progressive reformers. The reformers advocated for changes to basic election laws and government structures in ways that would improve government and reduce corruption.

They, firstly, advocated for the adoption of an Australian ballot. The Australian ballot was a way of printing ballots that allowed candidates to directly compete with one another. It allowed a voter to easily select between two competing candidates or parties.

Secondly, they advocated for elections to stymie corruption. In areas where the party bosses decided which candidates would stand for election, now, voters could use primary elections to help select the candidate. This was a powerful blow to the hold that the political machines had on elections.

Lastly, they advocated for the creation of a professional civil service. Rather than doling out government jobs on the basis of party loyalty, reformers argued that government jobs should be given to those with skill and merit for the positions. This system of a merit-based government civil service is still in place today.

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New Deal Coalition

Political party coalitions changed again with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The fifth party system, (1932–1968) was characterized by two robust political parties, Democrats and Republicans.

During this time, the economically-centered Republican party took more blame than the Democrats for the Great Depression and America’s slow recovery. So, whereas Republicans were the dominant party during the third and fourth party systems, Democrats emerged as more dominant during the fifth party system.

The Democrats were anchored by a New Deal coalition, put in place by Roosevelt that included organized labor, public intellectuals, professional elites, Jews, Catholics, and African Americans in the northern states. However, the Democrats in this party system still retained some of its identities from the previous two-party systems, in that the party was concentrated in the southern part of the United States.

Southern Strategy

Despite the passage of Reconstruction constitutional amendments during the third party system that were meant to enfranchise African Americans in the south, a system of Jim Crow laws and segregation policies prevented most African Americans in the deep south from obtaining voting rights. The Democratic Party helped to reinforce these injustices and eventually fragmented over these issues in the 1960s.

An African American man drinking water from the tap that says for 'colored' people.
Segregation policies prevented most African Americans in the deep south from obtaining voting rights. (Image: Russell Lee/Public domain)

In their weakened position, Republicans regrouped under Richard Nixon.  He used the fracture over civil rights in the Democratic Party as an opportunity and developed the ‘southern strategy’.

It was a concerted effort to woo southern conservatives out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican coalition. Ultimately successful, it set up a realignment of voters that produced the sixth party system, where America finds itself today.

The Sixth Party System

The sixth party system continues into the beginning of the 21st century. It is characterized by Democratic and Republican coalitions that look almost nothing like those of the time of the Civil War.

Today, the Democratic coalition centers around issues like social, racial, and economic justice, emphasizing equality and civil rights. The Democratic coalition largely includes activists such as advocates for women’s rights, gay rights or those of the LGBTQ community, and environmentalists—a far cry from where this party started.

Common Questions about the United States and the Sixth Party System

Q: What made the third party system notable?

The third party system was notable because of the political machines.

Q: When and who brought the end of political machines?

The fourth party system saw the end of political machines brought about by the progressive reformers.

Q: When and who introduced the New Deal coalition?

In the fifth party system, Democrats were anchored by a New Deal coalition, put in place by Roosevelt.

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