How have our political parties evolved

As election season begins, I always seem to hear the same question pop up, “How did we get the political parties that we have today?” I thought I would seek out the answer to this question. Below is an exert from Political Parties and Elections: Good Citizens Acting Irrationally. This passage explains how and why all our parties (yes, we’ve had more then two!) came into being. I hope this sheds some light on that question that keeps coming up again and again!


Right after the new government under the new Constitution took office in 1789, we had no organized political parties, just as the Founders hoped. That situation did not last for long. During the first Washington administration, two sides within the administration began to emerge, those favoring strengthening the national government and having it promote commerce and those wanting a weaker national government and favoring the interests of small farmers who wanted most matters left to the states. The Washington administration also split over what role the nation should take in the war that was occurring between Great Britain and France.

On one side, led by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and supported by Vice President John Adams, was a group that kept the name Federalists, the same name that they had used when they had promoted the federal union that was central to the new Constitution. They favored a strong and active national government and staying neutral in the war by negotiating the Jay Treaty with Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson, Washington’s Secretary of State, along with his close friend, James Madison, who was a leader in the House of Representatives, found themselves opposing Hamilton’s ideas and were much more sympathetic to the French side in the war. They were initially called Jeffersonians because of their association with Jefferson, and then they chose the name Republicans. Opponents attached the name Democrats to the label, making them Democratic-Republicans. One story is that the label Democrat was attached to suggest that the party favored mob rule by the ignorant many. Jefferson and his supporters preferred the term Republican. A variety of names were used until middle 1830s when the name Democratic Party was accepted. But I am getting ahead of the story.

 With the passing of both Hamilton (shot dead by Aaron Burr in a dual in 1804) and John Adams, the Federalist Party lacked leadership and began to decline. Following the War of 1812, the nation united under the Democratic-Republicans and President James Monroe, who had no effective opposition.

 The Second Party System: Whigs and Democrats

 By the 1820s we had only one party. But again, this situation did not last for long. The Democratic-Republicans split over the personalities and ambitions of presidential contenders Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams. In terms of group support, the split was along familiar lines. Adams had the support of the commercial and banking interests  while Jackson was the candidate of small farmers and western settlers.

 By 1832 all of Jackson’s enemies organized themselves into a party called the Whigs. With the adoption of the name Democratic Party byJackson’s supporters, we had two new major parties that competed with each other for the next two decades. 

 The Third Party System: Republicans and Democrats

 The issue of the abolition of slavery ultimately destroyed the Whig/Democrat party system. Many Northern Democrats who opposed enslavement joined the new party that was forming around the cause for abolition, the Republican Party. Southern Democrats defended human enslavement and threatened secession. The Whigs also split along regional lines. In the South many Whigs joined the Democrats even though they disagreed with Democrats on many economic issues. In short, issues surrounding race and preserving the union trumped economic issues.

 When Lincoln was elected as the first Republican president, the South chose to rebel rather than to accept the election results. So the Southern states declared independence—secession—and the North went to war to force them back into the Union. Party allegiances hardened in the highly emotional atmosphere of war. Many Northern workers and farmers who had Democratic sympathy saw the Democratic Party as the party of treason and rebellion. These feelings greatly weakened the Democrats in the North. Most of the Democrats’ remaining support in the North came from urban political machines founded on immigrant groups, like the Irish support for the Tammany Hall machine in New York City, headed by William “Boss” Tweed.

 Following the war was a short period of Reconstruction when Republicans had political power in the South. But then Southern whites forcibly regained control over southern state governments, took the vote away from black Republicans and sent segregationist Democrats to Washington. The Republican Party dominated the North and most of the new states joining the nation in the West. The result was a regional basis for the political parties with Republican domination of the national government. For several decades resentments and anger over the Civil War dominated economic issues that might have made the two parties more competitive in all parts of the nation. In the South the issue of race and the role that African Americans should play in politics dominated all other issues for more than a century.

 Realignments in the Third Party System

 1. Rise and Fall of the Populist Challenge

By the late 1880s, economic hardships for farmers and workers, who suffered greatly under the economic and political power of railroads and large corporations during the industrial revolution, created the potential for change. As noted earlier in our discussion about the things that political parties do, parties could provide an outlet for all this discontent. Many middle class reformers were attracted to the Progressive movement, which operated both as a political party in the Midwest and as a faction within the Republican Party. Significant numbers of workers and farmers across the nation, including in the South, were attracted to another new political party, the Populist Party, which tried to represent the economic interests of the have-nots. 

 The Populists elected some members to Congress and ran presidential candidates, but failed to get much beyond this. The failure can be attributed to several things, including the split along racial lines in the South that prevented white Populists from seeking black votes that might have allowed them to win elections. Again, racial issues trumped economic concerns. The defeat of their 1896 and 1900 presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who was also the Democratic candidate in those elections, ended the Populist challenge to the two major parties.

  Southern white Populist supporters either went back to the all-white Democratic Party, whose major purpose was to maintain white supremacy, or they dropped out of politics altogether. Voting rates dropped dramatically in the South following the Populist defeat. Few African Americans voted in the South.

 In the North African Americans were loyal to the party of emancipation, the Republicans. Workers in the North split between both major parties, but the Republican Party had the clear edge.

 The regional basis for the two parties that had existed before the Populist challenge was reinforced. The Democrats were the only viable party in the South, but the Republicans dominated the North and the West and the nation as a whole.

 The only Democrat to be elected president between 1896 and the 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt was Woodrow Wilson in 1912. He won only because the Republicans were splintered by the third party candidacy of Teddy Roosevelt, who took many progressive Republicans with him into his Bull Moose Party.

 2. The New Deal Realignment

 Political scientists have long observed that great crises can lead to realignments in who supports the different political parties. And these shifts can create new parties and new majorities within existing parties. We saw that in the 1850s with the crisis surrounding abolition and the rise of the Republican Party. As we saw, the economic crises in the late 1800s almost but did not quite lead to a major shift. But the economic crisis of the Great Depression did lead to a major realignment.

 Republican President Hoover took some action to address the economic crisis of the Great Depression, but not enough to turn things around. Unemployment grew to the range of 25%. Hoover’s greatest failure was his belief that private charity should and could be the way to help people who had lost everything. He rejected the idea that the government should help very much.

 Voters rejected Hoover in the 1932 election. The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt was more a rejection of Hoover than a vote of confidence in Roosevelt and his vague plans or promises. What happened after FDR’s election made all the difference. His New Deal plan was enacted in the famous “100 days” after the election by the huge Democratic majorities in Congress, also elected in 1932. The New Deal provided many unemployed with jobs in massive public works projects. The plan and FDR’s personal style gave average people hope. They flocked to the Democratic Party, creating the New Deal realignment.

 The new Democratic majority in the New Deal realignment included most Northern workers, especially those in unions, rural Americans across the nation who were subsisting on small farms, and Southerners who remained in the party for reasons of race but now had economic reasons as well. In addition, significant numbers of African Americans began to migrate to the party for economic reasons, though that shift would not be complete till the 1960s when the Democratic Party became the party of civil rights. The Republicans remained the party of small businesses and corporations. As FDR and the Democrats created more and more social programs, like Social Security, the Republicans began to view Democrats as taking the nation down a path to socialism. In short, the parties became realigned along economic lines more than regional lines.

While the election of 1932 was a rejection of Hoover, the election of 1936 was a referendum on the New Deal, and FDR and his party won by a landslide. The new Democratic majority would last for decades as parents passed their identifications on to their children.

 3. Dealignment and Regional Realignment—Civil Rights and Social Conservatives, Red States and Blue States

 The New Deal Democratic majority began to erode as new crises arose and as generations passed away. Children sometimes went their own way, so the intergenerational transfer of party identification was less than perfect. Over several generations this made a difference. In another sense the New Deal was a victim of its own success. As living conditions improved for average people, they had less self-interest in helping those who were still at the bottom. More people began to see themselves as paying taxes to help others rather than being the beneficiaries of programs paid for by others.

 The civil rights revolution had a major impact on the Democratic majority in the South. After John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson supported civil rights and after the Republican Party started to oppose the passage and enforcement of civil rights laws, white southerners began to abandon the Democratic Party. New African American voters supported the party of civil rights and offset some of this loss. But what had been the solid Democratic South changed to a two party competitive region and then to a strongly Republican region. Political scientists see this as a regional realignment.

 A range of social and moral issues reinforced the movement of the South to the Republican Party. Conservative white Christians in the South rejected liberal positions taken by the national Democratic Party on such issues as women’s equality, gay rights, prayer in school, and abortion.

 Foreign policy also eroded the Democratic majority created by the New Deal. Until the 1960s most citizens saw the Republicans as the party of isolationism, rejecting military action to promote American interests. The triumph of Americain WWII was also a triumph for the Democrats led by Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt.

 But then the Korean War went badly. The first Republican President since Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, came to the rescue. He was able to win a truce, using the threat of nuclear weapons.

 Presidents Kennedy and Johnson deepened our commitment to a military adventure in Vietnam in the 1960s that also went badly. Americans turned to another Republican to find “peace with honor,” to use Richard Nixon’s own words. Democrats had turned against the war. Nixon prolonged the war, and in the process gained the support of Americans who supported strong military action. Vietnam flipped the images of the two parties. Citizens began to see the Republicans as the party supporting strong military actions to promote American interests.

 Americans who favored military actions against nations that we saw as threats moved to the Republican Party. This helped Republicans in the South, where many military bases are located and where many military veterans retire. Ronald Reagan’s build-up of the military in the 1980s and George W. Bush’s strong military response after 9/11 continued to reinforce these trends.

 Together these forces shifted the political balance of power. Democrats still had more identifiers than Republicans, but the margin of difference was close enough so that short term issues and personalities could win or lose the elections for either party. Republicans were strongest in the South and in some of the rural mountain states that had a lot of land but few people. Democrats were strongest in the Northeastern seaboard and the Pacific coast. You may have seen maps of Democratic blue states and Republican red states. The two parties were reflecting cultural differences among the regions of the nation. Whichever party won border states that had more cultural diversity (Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Florida—sometimes called purple states) usually won national elections.

 E. Future Changes?

 Current trends and unknown future crises will certainly make a difference in the American party system. The percentage of people who do not associate themselves with either major party, the independents, is significantly higher than a few decades ago. They may remain independents, but some crisis could move them to one party or the other.

 Political scientists have been looking for a new realignment for decades now. We may have come close in the early 1970s when Nixon was extremely popular, but his misdeeds in the Watergate scandal did great damage to the Republican Party. One could say the same for the Democrats in the late 1990s.Clintonmaintained the peace and brought prosperity, but was undone by personal failures rather than political failures. Democratic candidates across the nation suffered as a result. Bush’s failure to successfully address the crises of 9/11 by overextending the American military and the economic recession of 2008 squandered another opportunity for realignment. President Obama had that same opportunity handed off to him. 

 Changing demographics in the nation might have a long term effect in favor of the Democratic Party. Minority groups have tended to be more Democratic in identification over the last half century, and minority groups, especially Hispanics, are growing in their proportion of the population. Assuming current trends continue, Hispanics along with other minorities as well a growing number of people who consider themselves multi-ethnic, will create in the years to come a nation that is comprised of a majority of minorities. Single working females, who tend to identify more with and vote more for Democrats than Republicans (creating something called the gender gap), are a growing part of the population. Whites, who tend toward Republican identifications, will become a minority. According to U.S. Census projections, “non-Hispanic whites,” who are currently about three fourths of the population, will fall to about half of the population. In short, Republicans cannot count on winning national elections with only white votes in the not too distant future.

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