A History of Political Parties in the United States
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Political parties in the United States are dominated by two major parties. Since the 1850s, they have been the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. This two-party system is based on laws, party rules and custom. Various small minor parties come and go and occasionally win major offices at the state level. Local offices, however, are often nonpartisan.
The need to win popular support in a republic led to the American invention of voter-based political parties in the 1790s. Americans were especially innovative in devising new campaign techniques that linked public opinion with public policy through the party.
Political scientists and historians have divided the development of America’s two-party system into five eras. The first two-party system consisted of the Federalist Party, who supported the ratification of the Constitution, and the Democratic-Republican Party or the Anti-Administration party (Anti-Federalists), who opposed the powerful central government, among others, that the Constitution established when it took effect in 1789.
The modern two-party system consists of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Several third parties also operate in the U.S., and from time to time elect someone to local office. The largest third party since the 1980s has been the Libertarian Party.
Besides the Constitution, Green, and Libertarian parties, there are many other political parties that receive only minimal support and only appear on the ballot in one or a few states.
Some political candidates, and many voters, choose not to identify with a particular political party. In some states, independents are not allowed to vote in primary elections, but in others, they can vote in any primary election of their choice. Although the term “independent” often is used as a synonym for “moderate,” “centrist,” or “swing voter,” to refer to a politician or voter who holds views that incorporate facets of both liberal and conservative ideologies, most self-described independents consistently support one of the two major parties when it comes time to vote, according to Vox Media.
History and Early Parties
The United States Constitution is silent on the subject of political parties. The Founding Fathers did not originally intend for American politics to be partisan. In Federalist Papers No. 9 and No. 10, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, respectively, wrote specifically about the dangers of domestic political factions. In addition, the first President of the United States, George Washington, was not a member of any political party at the time of his election or throughout his tenure as president. Furthermore, he hoped that political parties would not be formed, fearing conflict and stagnation, as outlined in his Farewell Address.
Nevertheless, the beginnings of the American two-party system emerged from his immediate circle of advisers. Hamilton and Madison, who wrote the aforementioned Federalist Papers against political factions, ended up being the core leaders in this emerging party system. It was the split camps of Federalists, given rise with Hamilton as a leader, and Democratic-Republicans, with Madison and Thomas Jefferson at the helm of this political faction, that created the environment in which partisanship, once distasteful, came to being.
First Party System: 1792–1824
The First Party System of the United States featured the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party (also called “Jeffersonian Republican”). The Federalist Party grew from the national network of Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who favored a strong united central government, close ties to Britain, a centralized banking system, and close links between the government and men of wealth.
The Democratic-Republican Party was founded by Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who strongly opposed Hamilton’s agenda. The Jeffersonians came to power in 1800 and the Federalists were too elitist to compete effectively. The Federalists survived in the Northeast, but their refusal to support the War of 1812 verged on secession and was a devastating blow when the war ended well. The Era of Good Feelings under President James Monroe (1816–1824) marked the end of the First Party System and a brief period in which partisanship was minimal.
Second Party System: 1828–1854
The Second Party System operated from about 1828 to 1854, following the splintering of the Democratic-Republican Party. Two major parties dominated the political landscape: the Whig Party, led by Henry Clay, that grew from the National Republican Party; and the Democratic Party, led by Andrew Jackson. The Democrats supported the primacy of the Presidency over the other branches of government, and opposed both the Bank of the United States as well as modernizing programs that they felt would build up industry at the expense of the taxpayer.
The Whigs, on the other hand, advocated the primacy of Congress over the executive branch as well as policies of modernization and economic protectionism. Central political battles of this era were the Bank War and the Spoils system of federal patronage. The 1850s saw the collapse of the Whig party, largely as a result of decline in its leadership and a major intra-party split over slavery as a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In addition, the fading of old economic issues removed many of the unifying forces holding the party together.
Third Party System: 1854–1890s
The Third Party System stretched from 1854 to the mid-1890s, and was characterized by the emergence of the anti-slavery Republican Party, which adopted many of the economic policies of the Whigs, such as national banks, railroads, high tariffs, homesteads and aid to land grant colleges. The Democratic Party was in large part the opposition party during this period, although it often controlled the Senate or the House of Representatives, or both.
Civil war and Reconstruction issues polarized the parties until the Compromise of 1877, which ended the latter. Thus both parties became broad-based voting coalitions and the race issue pulled newly enfranchised African Americans (Freedmen) into the Republican Party while white southerners (Redeemers) joined the Democratic Party. The Democratic coalition also had conservative pro-business Bourbon Democrats, traditional Democrats in the North (many of them former Copperheads), and Catholic immigrants, among others. The Republican coalition also consisted of businessmen, shop owners, skilled craftsmen, clerks, and professionals who were attracted to the party’s modernization policies.
Fourth Party System: 1896–1932
The Fourth Party System, 1896 to 1932, consisted of the same interest groups as the Third Party System, but saw major shifts in the central issues of debate. This period also corresponded to the Progressive Era, and was dominated by the Republican Party. It began after the Republicans blamed the Democrats for the Panic of 1893, which later resulted in William McKinley’s victory over William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 presidential election.
The central domestic issues changed to government regulation of railroads and large corporations (“trusts”), the protective tariff, the role of labor unions, child labor, the need for a new banking system, corruption in party politics, primary elections, direct election of senators, racial segregation, efficiency in government, women’s suffrage, and control of immigration. Most voting blocs continued unchanged, but some realignment took place, giving Republicans dominance in the industrial Northeast and new strength in the border states. Historians have long debated why no Labor Party emerged in the United States, in contrast to Western Europe.
Fifth and Sixth Party Systems: 1933–Present
The Fifth Party System emerged with the New Deal Coalition beginning in 1933. The Republicans began losing support after the Great Depression, giving rise to Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the activist New Deal. They promoted American liberalism, anchored in a coalition of specific liberal groups, especially ethno-religious constituencies (Catholics, Jews, African Americans), white Southerners, well-organized labor unions, urban machines, progressive intellectuals, and populist farm groups.
Opposition Republicans were split between a conservative wing, led by Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft, and a more successful moderate wing exemplified by the politics of Northeastern leaders such as Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits, and Henry Cabot Lodge. The latter steadily lost influence inside the GOP after 1964.
Experts debate whether this era ended (and a Sixth Party System subsequently emerged) in the mid-1960s when the New Deal coalition died, the early 1980s when the Moral Majority and the Reagan coalition were formed, the early 1990s when Third Way emerged among Democrats, the mid-1990s during the Republican Revolution, or if the Fifth system continues in some form to the present.
Since the 1930s, the Democrats positioned themselves more towards liberalism while conservatives increasingly dominated the GOP. However, new voter coalitions emerged during the latter half of the 20th century, with conservatives and the Republicans becoming dominant in the South, rural areas, and suburbs; while liberals and the Democrats increasingly started to rely on a coalition of African-Americans, Hispanics and white urban progressives.
Minor Parties and Independents
Although American politics have been dominated by the two-party system, several other political parties have also emerged throughout the country’s history. The oldest third party was the Anti-Masonic Party, which was formed in upstate New York in 1828. The party’s creators feared the Freemasons, believing they were a powerful secret society that was attempting to rule the country in defiance of republican principles.
Modern U.S. Party System
The modern political party system in the U.S. is dominated by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. These two parties have won every United States presidential election since 1852 and have controlled the United States Congress to some extent since at least 1856. There are numerous minor, or third parties. The Libertarian, Green, Reform, Independent and other parties have won elections throughout history at different levels, but the success of those parties is sparse.
The Democratic Party is one of two major political parties in the U.S. Founded as the Democratic-Republican Party in 1792 by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, it is the oldest extant voter-based political party in the world.
The Democratic Party at its founding supported a different set of issues than it presently supports. From its founding until the mid-20th century, the Democratic Party was the dominant party among white southerners , and as such, was then the party most associated with the defense of slavery. However, following the Great Society under Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democratic Party became the more progressive party on issues of civil rights, while losing dominance in the Southern states to the Republicans.
The Democratic Party since 1912 has positioned itself as the liberal party on domestic issues. The economic philosophy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which has strongly influenced modern American liberalism, has shaped much of the party’s agenda since 1932. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition controlled the White House until 1968, with the exception of the two terms of President Eisenhower from 1953–1961. Since the mid-20th century, Democrats have generally been in the center-left and currently support social justice, social liberalism, a mixed economy, and the welfare state, although Bill Clinton and other New Democrats have pushed for free trade and neoliberalism, which is seen to have shifted the party rightwards. Democrats are currently strongest in the Northeast and West Coast and in major American urban centers. African-Americans and Latinos tend to be disproportionately Democratic, as do trade unions.
In 2004, it was the largest political party, with 72 million registered voters (42.6% of 169 million registered) claiming affiliation. Although his party lost the election for president in 2004, Barack Obama would later go on to become president in 2009 and continue to be the president until January 2017. Obama was the 15th Democrat to hold the office, and from the 2006 midterm elections until the 2014 midterm elections, the Democratic Party was also the majority party in the United States Senate.
A 2011 USA Today review of state voter rolls indicates that the number of registered Democrats declined in 25 of 28 states (some states do not register voters by party). During this time, Republican registration also declined, as independent or no preference voting was on the rise. But in 2011 Democrats numbers shrank 800,000, and from 2008 they were down by 1.7 million, or 3.9%.
The Republican Party is one of the two major contemporary political parties in the United States of America. Since the 1880s it has been nicknamed (by the media) the “Grand Old Party” or GOP, although it is younger than the Democratic Party.
Founded in 1854 by Northern anti-slavery activists and modernizers, the Republican Party rose to prominence in 1860 with the election of Abraham Lincoln, who used the party machinery to support victory in the American Civil War. The GOP dominated national politics during the Third Party System, from 1854 to 1896, and the Fourth Party System from 1896 to 1932.
Since its founding, the Republican Party has been the more market-oriented of the two American political parties, often favoring policies that aid American business interests. As a party whose power was once based on the voting power of Union Army veterans, this party has traditionally supported more aggressive defense measures and more lavish veterans’ benefits. Today, the Republican Party supports an American conservative platform, with further foundations in economic liberalism, fiscal conservatism, and social conservatism. The Republican Party tends to be strongest in the Southern United States and the “flyover states”, as well as suburban and rural areas in other states. One significant base of support for the Republican Party is Evangelical Christians, who have wielded significant power in the party since the early 1970s.
President Donald Trump is the 18th and the current Republican to be elected to the office of President of the United States. Since the 2010 midterm elections, the Republicans held a majority in the United States House of Representatives until the 2018 midterms where they lost it to the Democratic Party. Additionally, since the 2014 elections, the Republican Party has controlled the Senate.
The United States also has an array of minor parties, the largest of which (on the basis of support for their Presidential candidates in the 2016 election), are the Libertarian, Green, and Constitution parties.
The Libertarian Party was founded on December 11, 1971. It is the largest continuing third party in the United States, claiming well over 500,000 registered voters across all 50 states. As of 2019, they have about 176 elected officials, including 1 state legislator.
The 2012 Libertarian Party nominee for United States President was former New Mexico governor, Gary Johnson. He achieved ballot access in every state except for Michigan (only as a write-in candidate) and Oklahoma. He received over one million votes in the election. In 2016, Johnson ran again, receiving over four million votes, or 3.3% of the popular vote.
The Libertarian Party’s core mission is to reduce the size, influence, and expenditures of all levels of government. To this effect, the party supports minimally regulated markets, a less powerful federal government, strong civil liberties, drug liberalization, separation of church and state, open immigration, non-interventionism and neutrality in diplomatic relations, free trade and free movement to all foreign countries, and a more representative republic. As of 2016, it is the third largest organized political party in the United States.
In the United States, the Green Party has been active as a third party since the 1980s. The party first gained widespread public attention during Ralph Nader’s second presidential run in 2000. Currently, the primary national Green Party organization in the U.S. is the Green Party of the United States, which has eclipsed the earlier Greens/Green Party USA.
The Green Party in the United States has won elected office mostly at the local level; most winners of public office in the United States who are considered Greens have won nonpartisan-ballot elections (that is, elections in which the candidates’ party affiliations were not printed on the ballot). In 2005, the Party had 305,000 registered members in the District of Columbia and 20 states that allow party registration. During the 2006 elections the party had ballot access in 31 states. In 2017, Ralph Chapman, a Representative in the Maine House of Representative switched his association from Unaffiliated to the Green Independent Party.
The United States Green Party generally holds a left-wing ideology on most important issues. Greens emphasize environmentalism, non-hierarchical participatory democracy, social justice, respect for diversity, peace, and nonviolence. As of 2016, it is the fourth largest organized political party in the United States.
The Constitution Party is a small national conservative political party in the United States. It was founded as the U.S. Taxpayers Party in 1992 by Howard Phillips. The party’s official name was changed to the “Constitution Party” in 1999; however, some state affiliate parties are known under different names.
The Constitution Party is strongly pro-life (i.e. opposed to abortion), and supports gun rights, and restrictions on immigration. It calls for protectionist trade policies.
In 2006, Rick Jore of Montana became the first Constitution Party candidate elected to a state-level office, though the Constitution Party of Montana had disaffiliated itself from the national party a short time before the election.
In 2010 former Congressman Tom Tancredo was the Constitution Party candidate for governor of Colorado, coming in second with 617,030 votes, 36.4% and ahead of the Republican candidate, Dan Maes, with 11.1%.
The Constitution Party’s 2012 presidential nominee was former Congressman Virgil Goode of Virginia.
Tennessee Attorney Darrell Castle was the 2016 Constitution Party nominee for President of the United States and Scott Bradley of Utah was the nominee for Vice President.
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Originally published by Wikipedia, 06.19.2003, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.