What America’s Five Party Systems can Teach us about Politics?

The United States has had five party systems since the beginning of the Republic.

Each of these systems has defined politics in a different era of American history and shaped our nation. Understanding the five party systems can help us understand American politics and show us what direction our nation could take in the future.

Studying the party systems can help us understand America because each party system ushers in a new age in American history. Perhaps a new party system could mark the beginning of a new America.

In my analysis the five party systems are: the First Party System (1796-1812), Second Party System (1828-1852), Third Party System (1868-1912), Fourth Party System (1916-1968), and Fifth Party System (1980-?). Note most observers list four American party systems, however, I think there are five because a new party system emerged after 1968.

It is a good time to examine America’s Five Party Systems because we could on the verge of a new party system. If we want to see how the Sixth American System could work, we need to examine the Five American Party Systems that preceded..

The Five American Party Systems

The First Party System

Years in existence: 1796-1812

Parties: Federalists and Republicans (AKA Jeffersonian Republicans/Jeffersonian Republicans).

Definitive Figures: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, James Madison.

Issues: the Constitution, nature of government, expansion, militarism, relations with France and Britain, regional politics, individual rights.

The first party system began at the Constitutional Convention. At the Convention, the Founders confronted and refused to confront several issues that shaped political discourse over the next three decades.

In particular, the Conventional Convention refused to deal with the prickly issue of individual rights. For instance, there was no Bill of Rights in the Constitution.

The absence of codified rights horrified Thomas Jefferson and many ordinary Americas who remembered the excesses of British colonialism. It was Jefferson’s battle for such rights that gave rise to the first Republican Party.

An even greater conflict was over the nature of America’s government and America itself. Essentially, the Federalists wanted America to be a capitalist meritocracy with a powerful central government and a professional military establishment. The Republicans wanted America to be a democracy with a weak central government, few laws, and no military establishment.

The Federalists led by Hamilton dominated the Constitutional Convention. At the convention they wrote a blueprint for a strong central government led by the nation’s hero George Washington.  

The Republicans, led by Jefferson, did not participate in the Constitutional Convention. During the Convention Jefferson was out of the country serving as America’s ambassador to France. Consequently, many Republicans viewed the Constitution as an elitist conspiracy against ordinary people.

Foreign policy played a role in the dispute. The Federalists admired the British Empire and wanted to emulate its mercantilism. The Republicans admired the French Revolution and wanted to emulate its populism.

The Federalists and Republicans had more in common than either party wanted to admit. Both parties were led by educated upper-class elitists. In addition, both parties were informal amateur organizations. The parties were Loose alliances of regional political organizations rather than centralized entities.

The informality led to catastrophe because there was no authority to choose candidates or set policy. In particular, the Republicans almost collapsed in 1800 when they had rival presidential candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.

Neither candidate received enough Electoral Votes to win, so it threw the race into the House of Representatives, where Burr almost won. That created a worse mess with Burr serving as Jefferson’s vice president. Consequently, they rewrote the Constitution to elect the president and vice president on one ticket.

Ultimately, the Federalists failed because they could unable to communicate with ordinary people and build a sustainable political movement. However, the Republicans failed because their political program proved unrealistic.

The only Federalist President John Adams (Massachusetts) turned the public against him with oppressive measures such as the Alien and Sedition Acts and his pro-British foreign policy. Eventually, Jefferson became President, but he found his political program unworkable.

For example, the militia of armed citizens proved incapable of waging war. Hence, Jefferson had to expand the professional military and even founded West Point to educate officers. Similarly, Jefferson expanded the American Empire through the Louisiana Purchase and used the Navy to American power overseas.

Oddly, Jefferson left the Federalist system intact and expanded it. By 1812, the Republicans had become the only political party. The catastrophic War of 1812 which was a Republican conflict that destroyed the Federalists.

 By 1812, the Republicans had become the only political party. The catastrophic War of 1812 which was a Republican conflict that destroyed the Federalists.

To explain, the Federalists destroyed their credibility by siding with secessionists in New England who wanted a separate peace with Great Britain. Hence, many Americans viewed the Federalists as traitors in wartime.

Even though the War of 1812 ended with no satisfying conclusion, the Republicans became America’s only political party. This led to the so-called Era of Good Feelings and America’s Second Party System.

The Second Party System

Years in Existence: 1828-1852

Parties: Democrats, Whigs, Free Soil, Liberty

Definitive Figures: Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Martin Van Buren, Stephen A. Douglas, James K. Polk, John Quincy Adams.

Issues: slavery, expansion of slavery, the tariff, Bank of the United States, Indian relocation, Texas annexation, war with Mexico.

The Second Party System grew out of the catastrophic election of 1824. In 1824 there was one political party; the Republicans, but no central party organization. Without a party organization, there was no way to stop several candidates from claiming to be the standard bearer.

That’s exactly happened in 1824. Four men; Andrew Jackson (R-Tennessee), John Quincy Adams (R-Massachusetts), William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay (R-Kentucky) claimed to be the Republican Presidential candidate. No candidate won enough Electoral College votes to win, but Jackson received a clear majority of the popular vote.

They threw the race into the U.S. House of Representatives. That prompted the Speaker of the House Clay to make a backroom deal with Adams. Clay supported Adams for President in exchange for an appointment as Secretary of State. In 1824, politicians saw Secretary of State as a stepping stone to the presidency.

The so-called Corrupt Bargain outraged Jackson’s supporters. In response, Jackson and his followers left the Republicans and formed a new political party the Democrats.

The Democrats were the first modern political party. They had a centralized organization that chose candidates and ran on a nationwide. That allowed the Democrats to take advantage of the first mass elections. Moreover, the Democrats were the first political party to appeal directly to ordinary voters.

The key differences between the first and second party systems were the appearance of organized parties and the emergence of professional politicians. The leaders of the First Party System were amateur politicians, gentlemen farmers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who left their plantations to serve in government.

The leaders of the Second Party System were professional politicians, self-made men who made their living in politics. Unlike the Aristocrats of the First Party System, many of the Second Party System’s leaders came from middle and working-class backgrounds. Jackson was the son of Scotch-Irish immigrant dirt farmers, for example, and Martin Van Buren was the son of a tavern owner.

Another difference was that the new politicians claimed to represent the average person and the will of the people. Jackson was the first president who used government power to demolish elite institutions such as the Bank of the United States, the central bank.

As president between 1829 and 1837, Jackson was such a divisive figure they organized an entire political party to oppose him. The party was the Whigs, the term Whig came from the British anti-monarchist party of the 18th Century. The Whigs’ critique was that Jackson was King Andrew a monarch.

A final development in the Second Party System was that leaders blatantly distributed patronage, mostly government jobs to supporters. This was the spoils systems, which included federal jobs. One reason for the spoils system was that many of the new professional politicians had no other jobs.

The Second Party System collapsed because its leaders refused to acknowledge the nation’s greatest problem: slavery. One fatal flaw of the First Party System that survived into the second was the refusal to discuss slavery.

However, several developments made slavery the key issue in the country. An organized abolitionist movement backed by a growing free black population kept the issue in the public eye. The Industrial Revolution’s insatiable demand for Cotton enriched slave owners and made many Americans afraid of the growing Slave Power.

Jackson made the situation worse with his clumsy efforts to ban abolitionist materials from the mails. Likewise, Democrats tried to ban the discussion of slavery in Congress. Consequently, many white Americans viewed the Slave Power as a threat to their freedom.

Geography led to the last explosion. Around 1840, Southerners realized the North was free to expand all the way to Pacific. Meanwhile, Southerners could not expand behind by the Texas or Mexican borders.

President James K. Polk (D-Tennessee) tried to rectify that situation by conquering the Southwest in the Mexican War. Polk’s War was successful but after the Gold Rush, California filled with Northerners and entered the Union as a free state. By 1850, Southerners realized all they had gotten from the Mexican War was Texas.

After 1850, the conflict over slavery kept growing and tore both political parties apart. The Whigs collapsed between 1852 and 1856 while the Democrats split in 1860. By then, many free soil Democrats had fled to the Republican Party.

Ultimately, the Second Party System was a political settlement for the crisis of 1824. The idea was to give the people representation, which it did. It was the system’s inability to address the political crisis of the 1850s that led to the Civil War. Essentially, Southerners feared they had lost political representation, so they pulled out of the system.

The Third Party System

Years in Existence: 1868-1912

Parties: Democrats, Republicans, Populists, Socialists, Progressives

Definitive Figures: Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, William Jennings Bryan, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Eugene Debs, William Howard Taft.

Issues: Capitalism, Industrialism, the Tariff, the Gold Standard, Free Silver, reform, Socialism, the income tax, trust busting, unionization, wages, reform, machine politics.

The Third Party System arose from the massive changes to the political system after the Civil War. One great flaw of the Second Party System was that it not extend to the South.

To explain, the Second Party System gave mass representation to the male population of the North, Midwest, and West, but not the South. Instead, a small cadre of wealthy planters and lawyers backed by the Slave Power controlled the South’s politics.

By smashing the Slave Power the Union Army cleared the way for mass democracy in the South. Hence, some of the biggest beneficiaries of the Civil War were middle and working class white men who got political power for the first time.

One result of this was a powerful Democratic Party capable of winning national elections. Another was Jim Crow, a system of oppression Southern Democratic politicians implemented to keep blacks from voting and Republicans out of office.

The Compromise of 1877 formalized this system when Republicans agreed to withdraw Union troops from the South in exchange for the Presidency. To explain, to explain, Samuel Tilden (D-New York) won a clear majority of the popular vote in the 1876 presidential election.

However, a series of shady tricks gave Republicans a slim majority in the Electoral Congress. Democrats agreed not to contest the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes (R-Ohio) if federal troops left the South. Without federal troops, Southern blacks were defenseless against white terrorism.

Essentially, Republicans agreed to disenfranchise blacks, in exchange, for Southern participation in the Third Party System. Hence, the Third Party System was born in treason and betrayal.

Predictably, the Third Party System was full of corruption on all levels of government. Both parties relied on corrupt political machines which used bribery, blatant fraud, voter suppression, and thuggery to win elections.

Democrats needed the support of New York’s Tammany Hall and its legions of Irish gangsters to win the Presidency, for instance. In the South, racist thugs terrorized anybody who tried to vote Republican. Republicans had similar alliances with less colorful but equally violent political machines.

The Third Party System was the first time Wall Street and Big Business took a major role in national politics. Railroads owned the Republican Party, while Wall Street led by bankers such as August Belmont Sr., the Rothschilds’ man in America, financed the Democrats.

One hallmark of the Third Party System was a constant revolt against the elite by third parties and reformers. Several anti-establishment parties emerged and played important roles. Those parties included the Green Backs, Populists, Socialists, and Progressives.

The nature of capitalism was the major issue of the Third Party System. Conservatives such as President Grover Cleveland (D-New York) and President William McKinley (R-Ohio) won office by defending capitalism.

Reformers such as William Jennings Bryan (D-Nebraska), Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York), William Howard Taft (R-Ohio) and Eugene Debs (S-Indiana) wanted to reform or demolish capitalism. One reason for the clash was the rise of Big Business.

Ordinary people; including farmers and small business owners, found themselves incapable of competing with large corporations. Corporate power manifested itself in forms ranging from the blatant bribery of Congressmen and state legislators to railroad rate fixing.

The ultimate symbol of corporate power was the railroads which dominated the lives of millions of Americas. During the late 19th Century, railroads were the only practical transportation available to most Americans.

The ultimate symbol of corporate power was the railroads which dominated the lives of millions of Americas. During the late 19th Century, railroads were the only practical transportation available to most Americans.

Predictably, regulating and controlling big business became the major political issue. Both progressives who wanted to regulate business and socialists who wanted to nationalize business became popular.

An equally disruptive issue was industrial wages. Corporations had the power to cut the wages of millions of workers’ wages in an instant. Such cuts led to labor unrest, strikes, unionization and violence.

An equally disruptive issue was industrial wages. Corporations had the power to cut the wages of millions of workers’ wages in an instant. Such cuts led to labor unrest, strikes, unionization and violence.

The Third Party System collapsed because of a revolt by a rising middle class. The excesses of the robber barons, corporate power, political corruption, changing mores, and rising immigrant groups scared and offended the middle class. Reforming politicians such as Bryan and Roosevelt won votes by posing as champions of the middle class and its traditional values against the changes in society.

Bryan championed the small-town middle class with a mixture of fundamentalist Protestantism, white supremacy, and Jacksonian democracy. Roosevelt appealed to the urban middle classes with a mixture of nationalism, reform, law and order, imperialism, and technocracy.

The end for the Third Party System came in 1912 when Corporate Republicans successfully blocked Roosevelt’s road to a third term. Roosevelt left the Grand Old Party (GOP) and mounted a third party challenge on the Progressive (Bull Moose) Ticket that attracted more votes than incumbent President William Howard Taft (R-Ohio).

Democrats won the 1912 presidential election with Governor Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey). Wilson was a progressive intellectual, a Southerner, a devout Christian, a reformer, and a racist, so he appealed to all wings of the party. For good measure, Wilson appointed William Jennings Bryan to the meaningless job of Secretary of State.

The Fourth Party System

Years in Existence: 1916-1968

Parties: Democrats and Republicans, plus Progressives and Dixiecrats

Definitive Figures: Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Robert Taft, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon.

Issues: World War I, Prohibition, Women’s Rights, Immigration, the New Deal, Social Security, Unions, the Depression, Nazism, World War II, Communism, Cold War, Civil Rights, Medicare, Vietnam.

The Fourth Party System began with a massive structural change to America’s political system. The 17th Amendment; passed in 1913, mandated the popular election of US Senators. Before 1913, state legislatures elected US Senators in in most states.

The 17th Amendment destroyed state and city political machines’ ability to influence national politics by taking away their ability to appoint Senators. Professional politicians who had to appeal all the states’ voters replaced the Millionaires’ Club of the early 20th Century.

One result of the 17th Amendment was that Congress began taking a serious interest in issues such as welfare, race relations, education, civil rights, and labor relations. Hence, Congress became a national debate platform over those issues. Consequently, the Fourth Party System was the first time Congress began functioning as a national legislature.

The Fourth Party System was the first time since the First Party System that foreign policy took center stage in American politics. The debate over World War I, which featured blatant British interference in American political discourse, was the first major foreign policy dispute in Congress since John Adams’ day.

By the 1930s, debates over lynching, race relations, labor relations, and other local issues became commonplace in Congress. Similarly, the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the World War II mobilization put the federal government in charge of large swaths of the national economy.

One key feature of the New Deal was the emergence of a massive federal bureaucracy with the ability to interfere and intervene in many areas of the economy. That increased Congress’s power and influence by giving business more pretext to donate money and lobby.

Another development was the rise of many businesses which had the federal government as an important customer. For instance, weapons manufacturers, construction companies, defense contractors, vehicle manufacturers, and some consumer products businesses. By 1961, outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower (R-Kansas) was complaining about a military industrial complex that drove US foreign policy for profit.

The Fourth Party System featured two powerful national political parties centered in Washington DC. One result of the Fourth Party System was that US Representatives and Senators became independent of political machines for the first time.

Another development was the appearance of Congressional leaders who served as their states’ political bosses. The most influential of these people was US Senator Harry F. Byrd (D-Virginia). Byrd controlled Virginia’s politics and represented the Old Dominion in the Senate for 32 years.

The Fourth Party System gave America its first truly national politics. During that period, state and city politics became a sideshow. One reason for this was the rise of national media in the form of newspaper chains ( the Hearst Press) mass-circulation national magazines (the Luce Press), radio, and television.

The national media focused on Washington and ignored state politics unless something crazy such as Huey Long’s assassination or George Wallace’s antics occurred. Moreover, the national media was corporate; and not dependent on political parties for revenues, so it often ignored politics. Instead, the corporate media depended on Madison Avenue which was nonpolitical for advertising revenue.

The cultural conflicts of the 1960s; which included the lingering disputes over race and a growing revolt against corporate media, destroyed the Fourth Party System. The conflicts began with intellectual revolts against the national consensus on the left and the right. For example, right-wing intellectuals revived such as popular but formerly verboten notions such as abolition of the income tax.

Then spread to politics to with the rise of insurgent political figures such as US Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona) and Governor George Wallace (D-Alabama). Wallace and Goldwater disrupted national politics by criticizing Civil Rights and voicing open skepticism of the new national order.

Civil Rights proved to be one of the more disruptive issues because a large portion of whites, particularly working-class whites, were in open disagreement with the elite consensus that America needed racial equality.  The South split from the Democratic Party over race, meanwhile Republicans made inroads among working and middle-class whites with the racial issue. Often by adopting Wallace’s tactic of disguising race baiting as concern for “law and order.”

The Vietnam War provided the last nail in the Fourth Party System’s coffin by creating widespread and well-deserved distrust of the elite consensus and national party bosses. Working-class Americans began wondering why their sons were being drafted to wage a war the elites were fighting over. Others doubted the wisdom of blowing up a developing nation to fight Communism.

The Fifth Party System

Years in Existence: 1976-?

Parties: Republicans and Democrats

Issues: Culture War, Abortion, Gay Rights, Civil Rights, Race (disguised as crime), War on Drugs, Cold War, War on Terror, Trade, Taxes, Technological Unemployment, Climate Change.

The Fifth Party System arose because of an almost unnoticed change in America elections. Primary elections replaced conventions and party leaders as the means of choosing most political party candidates.

They made this change because of the 1968 Democratic presidential primary. Going into 1968, most observers expected no serious Democratic primary battles because of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s (D-Texas) popularity.

However, antiwar activists talked US Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minnesota); who hated Johnson, into challenging the president. McCarthy made an unexpectedly strong showing in the primaries. Nearly defeating Johnson in New Hampshire, for instance.

McCarthy’s success prompted the opportunist US Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-New York) to enter the race and Johnson to drop out. The primaries ended with no clear winner because of Kennedy’s assassination after winning California.

At the 1968 Democratic Convention, party leaders gave the nomination to Vice President Hubert Humphrey (D-Minnesota). McCarthy supporters became enraged because Humphrey had not run in the primaries. Rioting between left-wing activists and police marred the convention. Humphrey went onto lose the election.

Fearing a party split, the Democratic National Committee created the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection or McGovern-Fraser Commission. The Commission recommended that the party use primary elections to select delegates for its national convention. Hence, primary voters would select the presidential candidate.

Before McGovern-Fraser, state conventions chose two-thirds of Democratic Convention delegates who selected the presidential nominee. After McGovern-Fraser, primaries selected 80% of the delegates.

Both parties and most states followed McGovern-Fraser’s recommendations by moving to primary systems. Hence, the primary system that selects our presidential candidates and a large percentage of US Senators and Representatives was born.

It took awhile, until the 1976 presidential election, when the obscure Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter captured the Democratic nomination through primaries, for the change to set in. Tellingly, Carter went onto beat the Republican establishment’s man; President Gerald R. Ford (R-Michigan), in the presidential election.

However, by 1980, primary voters had replaced traditional leaders as the dominant force in both political parties. In 1980, conservative Ronald Reagan (R-California) captured the Republican nomination despite vehement opposition from traditional party leaders.

However, by 1980, primary voters had replaced traditional leaders as the dominant force in both political parties. In 1980, conservative Ronald Reagan (R-California) captured the Republican nomination despite vehement opposition from traditional party leaders.

Formerly irrelevant but well-organized groups became major players in party politics. For example, so-called conservative Christians and gun rights activists in the Republican Party and gay rights activists and African American Christians in the Democrats.

Causes that were once niche issues such as gay rights, opposition to abortion, and gun rights became national political issues. To explain, the small minorities that cared about those issues were able to affect the outcome of primaries.

Meanwhile, some once powerful groups including unions and farmers found themselves sidelined in the new politics. Hence, economic issues took a back seat to cultural causes and the never-ending culture wars began.

Big business and wealthy donors took on a larger role in politics because primary elections are expensive. Additionally, donors realized they could get more bang for their buck in primary elections. For instance, donors could threaten to back a more ideologically pure primary challenger if a Representative or Senator failed to follow the party line.

By the 1990s, a new politics designed to appeal to primary voters emerged. Talk radio superstar Rush Limbaugh; who spoke directly to GOP primary voters, became a Republican kingmaker. Both Republican and Democratic politicians found themselves beholden to so-called cable news personalities whose shows became must-see TV for political junkies.

One result of the unfamiliar landscape was a disappearance of the massive game changing legislation common place in the Fourth Party system. There was nothing similar to the New Deal, the Federal Reserve, Johnson’s Great Society, or Eisenhower’s interstate system.

Instead, a Democrat, President Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas) cut welfare with the help of conservative ideologue; US Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia). Infrastructure fell apart while half-hearted measures such as George W. Bush’s (R-Texas) prescription drug benefit and Obamacare were all Congress could accomplish.

Today, the Fifth Party System faces a crisis similar to the one that destroyed the Third. Growing income inequality, widespread corruption, and government’s failure to address economic concerns has triggered a widespread populist revolt on both the right and left.

Meanwhile, government’s failure to achieve anything is driving violence and political unrest to levels unseen since the 1890s. For instance, mobs pillaging the centers of major cities and another mob storming into the Capitol and threatening to lynch Congressional leaders.

Meanwhile, government’s failure to achieve anything is driving violence and political unrest to levels unseen since the 1890s. For instance, mobs pillaging the centers of major cities and another mob storming into the Capitol and threatening to lynch Congressional leaders.

Notably, no effort is being made to fire the intelligence officials, military commanders, and law enforcement officials who failed to detect or respond to the 6 January 2021 Capitol attack. Nor is a serious effort being made to prosecute those responsible, including former President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida).

History teaches that inaction only emboldens extremists and makes them more violent. I predict our leaders’ inaction will lead to more and bloodier mob violence in Washington.

The Sixth Party System

Thus, a political crisis that could lead to a Sixth Party System is at hand. Yet, there is no guarantee such a system will emerge. Our political leaders seem more inflexible and resistant to change than ever before.

One reason for this is as that modern medical care keeps effective old political leaders alive for many more years.

However, history suggests there are circumstances that could lead to a Sixth Party System. Those circumstances can include:

Major structural changes to the electoral system

For example, the Second Party System arose after the widespread adoption of mass elections in the 1820s. The Third Party System ended after the 17th Amendment created an elected Senate. The Fifth Party System arose after primary elections became the principle means of choosing candidates.

Conversely, major structural change is hard to discern in today’s system. Yet the widespread adoption of mail in voting and automatic voter registration could be the basis of a sixth party system. Other changes that could create a Sixth Party System include abolition of the Electoral College.

A Disruptive Political Crisis that destroys Popular Faith in the System

The textbook example of such a Crisis is the Corrupt Bargain of 1824, which discredited the First Party System and its leaders. Another kind of crisis was the Vietnam War which discredited the Fourth Party System,

It is hard to discern such a crisis today, however, the election of former President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) who did not receive a majority of the popular vote could be it. Trump’s clumsy efforts to discredit the election of President Joseph R. Biden (D-Delaware) could trigger such a crisis.

A Popular but Divisive Leader who Disrupts the system with his or her actions

Examples of such leaders include Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy in 1968, and Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams in 1824.

In 1824 and 1912, leaders’ refusal to accept the process results discredited and disrupted the system. In 1968, McCarthy and Kennedy’s refusal to play by accepted rules, running in primaries instead of bowing to party leaders, destroyed the system.

Trump could be that leader today, but there are others. A potentially destructive development is the growing number of political opportunists willing to support and defend Trump’s ridiculous actions for personal gain. What happens if those clowns totally discredit the Republican Party?

History shows America is on the verge of a Sixth Party System. Hopefully, that system will work better than the Fifth Party System.