Fifth Party System

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United States presidential election results between 1932 and 1964. Blue states usually voted for the Democratic Party while red states usually voted for the Republican Party. Note that although 1964 is used as the end date for this map, there is no universally agreed end date of the fifth party system. Click on the map for more information.

The Fifth Party System refers to the era of American national politics that began with the New Deal in 1932 and continued until 1972 or 1980. This era emerged from the realignment of the voting blocs and interest groups supporting the Democratic Party into the New Deal Coalition following the Great Depression. For this reason it is often called the New Deal Party System. It followed the Fourth Party System, usually called the Progressive Era. Experts debate whether it ended in the mid-1960s (as the New Deal coalition did), the early 1980s (when the Moral Majority was formed), the mid-1990s, or possibly continues to the present. The System was heavily Democratic through 1965, and mostly Republican at the presidential level since the political realignment of 1968-72, which by the end of the Vietnam War had transformed US politics into the Sixth Party System.

Still, the border is distinct but porous: The Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, for all but four years between 1930 and 1994 The New Deal's last gasps dying in Bill Clinton's first clumsy year as President, after the last great New Dealer Speech being his introduction to US voters by D-NY Mario Cuomo at the climax of the 1992 Democratic convention (which, along with Clinton's own campaign speech, gained the Democratic ticket a 29-point bump in the polls and, finally, another US President), but Republicans blocked any major programs, Clinton chose a moderate path, and Republicans controlled both houses of Congress firmly, by the next year—with Clinton abandoning any New Deal politics on economics to move to the center and win re-election.

Of the twenty presidential elections since 1932, the Democrats won 7 of the first 9 (through 1964), with Democratic control of Congress as the norm; but after a shift to 'social issues' in politics, the Republicans won 7 of the 12 since 1968, with divided government as the norm in the present Sixth Party System.

With Republicans losing support because of the Great Depression, the four consecutive elections, 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944, of Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the Democrats dominance, though in some issues the conservative coalition generally controlled Congress from 1938 to 1964. The activist New Deal promoted American liberalism, anchored in a New Deal Coalition of specific liberal groups—especially ethno-religious constituencies (Catholics, Jews, African Americans)— Southerners, well-organized labor unions, urban machines, progressive intellectuals, and populist farm groups. The Republican Party was split. A conservative wing, led by Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft and Barry Goldwater, became dominant under Ronald Reagan after 1980. The liberal moderate wing was more successful before 1980; it was led by Northeasterners including Nelson Rockefeller, George W. Romney, William Scranton and Henry Cabot Lodge and Prescott Bush. The moderate GOP wing generally changed form in the 1980s. After 2010 the GOP was split between a business-oriented wing and the Tea Party movement.

Southern Democrats gradually stopped supporting the national party following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.[1] The old argument that it was necessary to vote for the Democrats to block such legislation had collapsed. White Southerners split on economic, cultural and religious issues much like white Northerners. Given the strength of fundamentalist religions in the South, and the weakness of labor unions in the region, conservatives far outnumbered liberals among whites.The Democratic coalition splintered in 1948 and 1968; the latter election allowing the Republican candidate Richard Nixon to take the White House; he was reelected in 1972 with 49 states.[2][3] Nixon's disgrace in the Watergate scandal ruined him and hurt the Republican Party nationwide.[4]

Republicans regained support from the formation of the Reagan coalition in the late 1980s.[5] Democrats kept control of the House of Representatives until the 1994 election.[6] For the next twelve years the GOP was in control with small majorities, until the Democrats recaptured the chamber with the 2006 election and the 110th Congress. The Democrats held the Senate until 1980; after 1980, the two parties traded control of the Senate back and forth with small majorities, until the Democrats briefly held a supermajority in 2009.

In the midterm elections of 2010, the Republican Party gained 63 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, recapturing the majority, and making it the largest seat change since 1948. The GOP regained control of the Senate in 2014.

Current state[edit]

The party system model with its numbering and demarcation of the historical systems was introduced in 1967.[7] 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.[8] The notion of an end to the Fifth Party system was particularly popular in the 1970s, with some specifying a culminating date as early as 1960.[9] However, no clear disciplinary consensus has been forged on an electoral event responsible for shifting presidential and congressional control post the US Great Depression.[10]

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.[9] 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. The Democrats outpolled the Republicans in all the presidential elections since 1992, except for 2004.[11] Barack Obama became the first Minority president in 2008, election held against the backdrop of the collapsing American economy.[12]

Group voting patterns 1948–1964[edit]

The emergence of public opinion polls gave the candidates detailed information about how well they were doing in different constituencies, and historians have relied on them for explaining what swings among voters accounted for the results. Probably the best-known national poll was the Gallup Poll.[13][14]

 % Democratic vote in major groups, presidency 1948–1964
1948 1952 1956 1960 1964
All voters 50 45 42 50 61
White 50 43 41 49 59
Black 50 79 61 68 94
College 22 34 31 39 52
High School 51 45 42 52 62
Grade School 64 52 50 55 66
Professional & Business 19 36 32 42 54
White Collar 47 40 37 48 57
Manual worker 66 55 50 60 71
Farmer 60 33 46 48 53
Union member 76 51 62 77
Not union 42 35 44 56
Protestant 43 37 37 38 55
Catholic 62 56 51 78 76
Republican 8 4 5 20
Independent 35 30 43 56
Democrat 77 85 84 87
East 48 45 40 53 68
Midwest 50 42 41 48 61
West 49 42 43 49 60
South 51+22* 52 49 52 52
  • in 1948, Truman 51%, Thurmond 22%

Source: Gallup Polls in Gallup (1972); Walter Dean Burnham, Voting in American Elections (2009) pp 98–102

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • John H. Aldrich (1999). "Political Parties in a Critical Era" (abstract page). American Politics Research (SAGE Publications) 27 (1): 9–32. doi:10.1177/1532673X99027001003.  speculates on emergence of Seventh Party System
  • Allswang, John M. New Deal and American Politics (1978), statistical analysis of votes
  • Andersen, Kristi. The Creation of a Democratic Majority, 1928–1936 (1979), statistical analysis of polls
  • Bibby, John F. "Party Organizations, 1946–1996," in Byron E. Shafer, ed. Partisan Approaches to Postwar American Politics, (1998)
  • Cantril, Hadley and Mildred Strunk, eds. Public Opinion, 1935–1946 (1951). (A massive compilation of public opinion polls.)
  • Caraley, Demetrios James, “Three Trends Over Eight Presidential Elections, 1980–2008: Toward the Emergence of a Democratic Majority Realignment?,” Political Science Quarterly, 124 (Fall 2009), 423–42
  • Fraser, Steve, and Gary Gerstle, eds. The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980 (1990), essays on broad topics.
  • Gallup, George. The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion, 1935–1971 (3 vol 1972)
  • Geer, John G. "New Deal Issues and the American Electorate, 1952–1988," Political Behavior, 14#1 (Mar., 1992), pp. 45–65 online at JSTOR
  • Gershtenson, Joseph. "Mobilization Strategies of the Democrats and Republicans, 1956–2000," Political Research Quarterly Vol. 56, No. 3 (Sep., 2003), pp. 293–308 in JSTOR
  • Green, John C. and Paul S. Herrnson. "Party Development in the Twentieth Century: Laying the Foundations for Responsible Party Government?" (2000)
  • Hamby, Alonzo. Liberalism and Its Challengers: From F.D.R. to Bush (1992).
  • 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,
  • Ladd Jr., Everett Carll with Charles D. Hadley. Transformations of the American Party System: Political Coalitions from the New Deal to the 1970s 2nd ed. (1978).
  • Leuchtenburg, William E. In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to George W. Bush (2001)
  • Levine, Jeffrey; Carmines, Edward G.; and Huckfeldt, Robert. "The Rise of Ideology in the Post-New Deal Party System, 1972–1992." American Politics Quarterly (1997) 25(1): 19–34. Issn: 0044-7803 Argues that the social basis of the New Deal party system has weakened. The result is ideology shapes partisan support.
  • Manza, Jeff and Clem Brooks; Social Cleavages and Political Change: Voter Alignments and U.S. Party Coalitions, Oxford University Press, 1999
  • Manza, Jeff; "Political Sociological Models of the U.S. New Deal" Annual Review of Sociology, 2000 pp 297+
  • Milkis, Sidney M. and Jerome M. Mileur, eds. The New Deal and the Triumph of Liberalism (2002)
  • Milkis, Sidney M. The President and the Parties: The Transformation of the American Party System Since the New Deal (1993)
  • Paulson, Arthur. Electoral Realignment and the Outlook for American Democracy (2006)
  • Pederson, William D. ed. A Companion to Franklin D. Roosevelt (Blackwell Companions to American History) (2011)
  • Robinson, Edgar Eugene. They Voted for Roosevelt: The Presidential Vote, 1932–1944 (1947) tables of votes by county
  • Shafer, Byron E. and Anthony J. Badger, eds. Contesting Democracy: Substance and Structure in American Political History, 1775–2000 (2001)
  • Sternsher, Bernard. "The New Deal Party System: A Reappraisal," Journal of Interdisciplinary History v.15#1 (Summer, 1984), pp. 53–81 JSTOR
  • Sternsher, Bernard. "The Emergence of the New Deal Party System: A Problem in Historical Analysis of Voter Behavior," Journal of Interdisciplinary History, v.6#1 (Summer, 1975), pp. 127–149 online at JSTOR
  • Sitkoff, Harvard. "Harry Truman and the Election of 1948: The Coming of Age of Civil Rights in American Politics," Journal of Southern History Vol. 37, No. 4 (Nov., 1971), pp. 597–616 in JSTOR
  • Sundquist, James L. Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States, (1983)


  1. ^ Byron E. Shafer, and Richard Johnston, eds., The end of Southern exceptionalism: class, race, and partisan change in the postwar South (Harvard UP, 2009)
  2. ^ Lewis L. Gould, 1968: the election that changed America (2010).
  3. ^ Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The rise of a president and the fracturing of America (2010)
  4. ^ Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014)
  5. ^ Steven F. Hayward, The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980 (2001) and Hayward, The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989 (2010)
  6. ^ Gary C. Jacobson, "The 1994 House elections in perspective." Political Science Quarterly (1996): 203-223. in JSTOR
  7. ^ William N. Chambers and Walter D. Burnham, eds. American Party Systems (1967).
  8. ^ e.g. Paulson (2006) argues that a decisive realignment took place in the late 1960s.
  9. ^ a b Aldrich (1999).
  10. ^ List of elections in the United States
  11. ^ the Republicans nevertheless won the 2000 election because of his majority of the electoral college.
  12. ^ James W. Ceaser, Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics: Post 2010 Election Update (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011)
  13. ^ Charles W. Roll Jr. and Albert H. Cantril, Polls: Their Use and Misuse in Politics (1972)
  14. ^ V. O. Key, Public Opinion and American Democracy (1964)