Sixth Party System

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Experts have debated whether American national politics is currently in the era of Sixth Party System, or the Fifth Party System continues in some form to the present. Maisel and Brewer (2011) argue that the consensus among specialists is that the Sixth System, which stated in the late 1960s, is underway:

Although most in the field now believe we are in a sixth party system, there is a fair amount of disagreement about how exactly we arrived at this new system and about its particular contours. Scholars do, however, agree that there has been significant change in American electoral politics since the 1960s.[1]

A critical factor was the major transformation of the political system in the Reagan Era or "Age of Reagan" of the 1980s and beyond led by Ronald Reagan.[2]

However, no clear disciplinary consensus has been forged on an electoral event responsible for shifting presidential and congressional control since the Great Depression, when the Fifth Party System emerged. Much of the work published on the subject has been by political scientists explaining the events of their time as either the imminent breakup of the Fifth Party System, and the installation of a new one or that this transition took place some time ago.[3] Other current writing on the Fifth Party System expresses admiration of its longevity: the first four systems lasted about 30 to 40 years each, which would have implied that the early twenty-first century should see a Sixth Party System.[4] It is also possible, as argued in (Jensen 1981) and elsewhere, that the party system has given way, not to a new party system, but to a period of dealignment in politics. Previous party systems ended with the dominant party losing two consecutive House elections by large margins, with a presidential election coinciding with or immediately following (in 1896) the second house election—decisive electoral evidence of political realignment. This took place in 2006–8 in favor of the Democrats, but the Republicans won the elections of 2010 by their biggest landslide since 1946.


Opinions differ on when the Sixth Party System began, varying from elections of 1966-68 or the 1980s when both parties began to become more unified and partisan, to the 1990s over cultural divisions.[5][6][7]

Craig argues for the 1972 elections, when Richard Nixon won a 49-state landslide. He notes that, "There seems to be consensus on the appropriate name for the sixth party system.... Changes that occurred during the 1960s were so great and so pervasive that they cry out to be called a critical-election period. The new system of candidate-centered parties is so distinct and so portentous that one can no longer deny its existence or its character."[8]

The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History dates the start in 1980, with the election of Reagan and a Republican Senate.[9]

Political history[edit]

Richard Nixon produced Southern Strategy with his Republican Party, which helped him win the 1968 elections. This election also ended a century of rule by the Democrats in Southern United States. Nixon also won the 1972 re-elections in landslide.

Ronald Reagan produced a major realignment with his 1980 and 1984 landslide elections. The Democrats had control of Congress with two breaks since 1932. The Republican Party (GOP) took control of the Senate in 1980 and the House in 1994. It built a strong base in the white South, while losing the Northeastern base of the liberal and moderate Republicans.[10]

Reagan's economic policies (dubbed "Reaganomics") and the implementation of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 called for sharply reduced federal budgets (he only partly achieved), sharply reduced federal regulation of business (which he achieved), and sharp cuts in the federal income tax rates (which he achieved). He lowered the top income tax rate on high incomes from 70% to 28% over the course of seven years.[11] Reagan continued to downsize government taxation and regulation.[12] The US experienced a recession in 1982, but the negative indicators reversed, with the inflation rate decreasing from 11% to 2%, the unemployment rate decreasing from 10.8% in December 1982 to 7.5% in November 1984,[13] and the economic growth rate increasing from 4.5% to 7.2%.[14]


Some of the characteristics for this era displays are:

  • Increased role of technology by television and later the internet
  • Increased unity of control as each party and partisans eliminate moderates or differing opinions within their party
  • Increased partisanship, with heated rhetoric and contrived confrontations, and congressional gridlock


Harris and Tichenor argue:

At the level of issues, the sixth party system was characterized by clashes over what rights to extend to various groups in society. The initial manifestations of these clashes were race-based school desegregation and affirmative action, but women's issues, especially abortion rights, soon gained equal billing....To these were added in the 1980s and in the 1990s gay rights."[15]

Voter coalitions[edit]

New voter coalitions included the emergence of the "religious right"—a combination of Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants united on opposition to abortion and gay rights. Southern white voters started voting for Republican presidential candidates in the 1960s, and Republican state and local candidates in the 1990s.[16][17]

Democrats augmented their coalition with well educated voters, gays, and non-religious seculars. The Hispanic population grew very rapidly, reaching 15% of the population, but turnout was so low they were not a major factor in voting, except in California. Although George W. Bush made a special effort to reach Hispanics, their negative reaction to Republican nativism on the issue of immigration strengthened the Democratic affiliations of those Hispanics who voted.

Rules of the game[edit]

New rule changes involved campaign financing, as very large sums were raised and candidates spent much of their energy focused on raising money behind the scenes. New campaign technologies involved the Internet, but television advertising continued to grow in importance, overshadowing the Internet as a campaign tool. Howard Dean in 2004 demonstrated that the Internet could be used to organize and finance a crusade, and this model was followed by most of the candidates for the 2008 election, with Barack Obama and Ron Paul the most successful.[18]

Key events[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ L. Sandy Maisel; Mark D. Brewer (2011). Parties and Elections in America: The Electoral Process (6th ed.). Rowman & Littlefield. p. 42. 
  2. ^ Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (2008)
  3. ^ e.g. Paulson (2006) argues that a decisive realignment took place in the late 1960s.
  4. ^ Aldrich (1999).
  5. ^ "What is the sixth party system". 
  6. ^ "The Sixth Party System in American Politics (1976-2012)". 
  7. ^ Alex Copulsky (24 July 2013). "Perpetual Crisis and the Sixth Party System". 
  8. ^ Stephen C. Craig, Broken Contract? Changing Relationships between Americans and Their Government (1996) p 105
  9. ^ Michael Kazin, et al. eds, The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History (2009) Vol. 2 p 288
  10. ^ Nicol C. Rae, The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans: From 1952 to the Present (1989)
  11. ^ "Effective Federal Tax Rates: 1979–2001". Bureau of Economic Analysis. July 10, 2007. 
  12. ^ Wilentz 2008, pp. 140–141
  13. ^ "The United States Unemployment Rate". November 8, 2008. Retrieved January 31, 2010. 
  14. ^ Wilentz 2008, p. 170
  15. ^ Richard A. Harris; Daniel J. Tichenor (2009). A History of the U.S. Political System: Ideas, Interests, and Institutions. ABC-CLIO. p. 98. 
  16. ^ J. David Woodard, The New Southern Politics (2006)
  17. ^ For a graph of the movement of Southern white voters see Brian F. Schaffner (2010). Politics, Parties, and Elections in America (7th ed.). Cengage Learning. p. 31. 
  18. ^ Anthony Corrado and Molly Corbett, “Rewriting the Playbook on Presidential Campaign Financing,” in Campaigning for President, 2008, edited by Dennis W. Johnson (Routledge, 2009) pp 126-46
  19. ^ H.W. Brands, The Strange Death of American Liberalism (2003)
  20. ^ William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (1996)
  21. ^ John Ehrman, The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan (2008)
  22. ^ Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (2012)

Further reading[edit]

  • Aberbach, Joel D., and Gillian Peele, eds. Crisis of Conservatism?: The Republican Party, the Conservative Movement, and American Politics After Bush (2011) excerpt and text search
  • Aldrich, John H. "Political Parties in a Critical Era," American Politics Research, vol 27#1 (1999); speculates on emergence of Seventh Party System
  • Alterman, Eric, and Kevin Mattson. The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama (2012) biographical approach by liberal experts; excerpt and text search
  • Bibby, John F. "Party Organizations, 1946-1996," in Byron E. Shafer, ed. Partisan Approaches to Postwar American Politics (1998)
  • Brands, H.W. The Strange Death of American Liberalism (2003); a liberal view
  • Collins, Robert M. Transforming America: Politics and Culture During the Reagan Years, (2007).
  • Critchlow, Donald T. The Conservative Ascendancy: How the Republican Right Rose to Power in Modern America (2nd ed. 2011); a conservative view
  • Ehrman, John. The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan (2008); a conservative view
  • Hayward, Steven F. The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order: 1964-1980 (2009), a conservative interpretation
  • Hayward, Steven F. The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980–1989 (2009) excerpt and text search
  • Jensen, Richard. "The Last Party System: Decay of Consensus, 1932–1980," in The Evolution of American Electoral Systems (Paul Kleppner et al. eds.) (1981) pp 219–225,
  • Kabaservice, Geoffrey. Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (2012) scholarly history favorable to moderates excerpt and text search
  • Martin, William. With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, (1996)
  • Paulson, Arthur. Electoral Realignment and the Outlook for American Democracy (2006)
  • Shafer, Byron E. "Where Are We in History? Political Orders and Political Eras in the Postwar U.S.," The Forum (2007) Vol. 5#3, Article 4. online edition
  • Wilentz, Sean. The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008 (2008), by a leading liberal.
  • Zernike, Kate. Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America (2010), by a New York Times reporter