Sixth Party System

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Sixth Party System
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Sixth Party System.svg
United States presidential election results between 1968 and 2016. Blue shaded states usually voted for the Democratic Party, while red shaded states usually voted for the Republican Party.

Experts have debated whether national politics in the United States of America is currently in the era of a Sixth Party System, or whether the Fifth Party System continues in some form to the present. Opinions also differ on when a Sixth Party System may have begun, with suggested dates ranging from the 1960s to the 1990s. Maisel and Brewer (2011) argue that the consensus among specialists is that the Sixth System is underway based on American electoral politics since the 1960s:

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]

The perceived Sixth Party System is characterized by an electoral shift from the electoral coalitions of the Fifth Party System during the New Deal: the Republican Party became the dominant party in the South, rural areas, and suburbs; while the Democratic Party increasingly started to assemble a coalition of African-Americans, Latinos and white urban Progressives. 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][need quotation to verify]

However, no clear disciplinary consensus has emerged pinpointing an electoral event responsible for shifting presidential and congressional control since the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the Fifth Party System emerged. Much of the work published on the subject has come from political scientists explaining the events of their time either as the imminent breakup of the Fifth Party System, and the installation of a new one; or in terms of such transition taking 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 Seventh 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, and also losing a presidential election coinciding with or immediately following (in 1896) the second House election—decisive electoral evidence of political realignment. Such a shift took place between 2006 and 2008 in favor of the Democrats, but the Republicans won the elections of 2010 by their biggest landslide since 1946 and finished the 2014 elections with their greatest number of House seats since 1928.[5]


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.[6][7][8]

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."[9]

The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History dates the start in 1980, with the election of Reagan and a Republican Senate.[10]

Possible dealignment period (1969–1981)[edit]

United States presidential election results between 1968 and 1976.

Dark blue: Voted Democratic 100%
Light blue: Voted Democratic 67%
Purple: Voted Independent, Republican, and Democratic
Light red: Voted Republican 67%
Dark red: Voted Republican 100%
United States presidential election results between 1980 and 2012.

Darkest blue: Voted Democratic 100%
Dark blue: Voted Democratic 89%
Blue: Voted Democratic 78%
Light blue: Voted Democratic 67%
Lightest blue: Voted Democratic 56%
Lightest red: Voted Republican 56%
Light red: Voted Republican 67%
Red: Voted Republican 78%
Dark red: Voted Republican 89%
Darkest red: Voted Republican 100%

One possible explanation for the lack of an agreed upon beginning of the Sixth Party System is that there was a brief period of dealignment immediately preceding it. Dealignment is a trend or process whereby a large portion of the electorate abandons its previous partisan affiliation without developing a new one to replace it.

A period of dealignment would certainly explain the voting patterns of the Southern states during this time period. In 1968, Richard Nixon barely eked out a popular vote victory in the former Confederacy with 35% of the vote. In comparison, George Wallace and Hubert Humphrey received 34% and 31%, respectively. In 1972, Republicans won the South in a landslide, only to see the region swing dramatically back into the Democratic column four years later when native son Jimmy Carter ran for president. It was not until the Reagan Revolution in 1980 that the South became a Republican stronghold on the presidential level, though Democratic Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton had some success in the South in his two election victories.

Assuming the Sixth Party System spanned from 1981 to 2017, it would corroborate and explain a number of items. First, it would fit Walter Dean Burnham's argument for a 36-year "cycle" of realignments[11]. In 1980, George H. W. Bush was first elected to serve as vice-president under Ronald Reagan. The Reagan-Bush ticket was re-elected in a landslide in 1984. Bush went on to win the presidency in his own right in 1988, as did his son, George W. Bush, in 2000 and 2004.

Between the Bushes was the presidency of Bill Clinton, who was elected and re-elected in 1992 and 1996, respectively.

Political history[edit]

With support for the 1960s Civil Rights Movement growing, Richard Nixon devised the so-called "Southern strategy" to win the 1968 elections for himself and other Republican candidates in the South, ending a century of Democratic dominance in the region. Nixon also won the 1972 re-elections in landslide. The Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign, and Jimmy Carter defeated Nixon's Vice President, Gerald Ford, in 1976.

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 took control of the Senate in 1980 and both houses in 1994. It built a strong base in the white South, while losing the Northeastern base of the liberal and moderate Republicans.[12]

Reagan's economic policies (dubbed "Reaganomics") and the implementation of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 called for sharply reduced federal budgets, sharply reduced federal regulation of businesses, and sharp cuts in the federal income tax rates, the latter two of which were partially achieved. The top marginal income tax rate on high incomes was lowered from 70% to 28% over the course of seven years,[13] with regulations on cable communication, shipping, and savings and loan associations being reduced.[citation needed]

The federal fuel tax and Federal Insurance Contributions Act tax were both increased, and the Tax Reform Act of 1986, while reducing income taxes on upper-income individuals, increased taxes on lower-income individuals, capital gains, and corporate income. Regulation of firearms was increased and a federal standard for regulations on Indian gaming was created. Annual federal spending increased from about $1.6 trillion in 1981 to about $2.1 trillion in 1988. Increased federal spending, coupled with major taxation legislation that reduced tax revenue, caused the federal government's public debt to increase from 31.9% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 1981 to 49.8% of GDP in 1988, with a tripling of the federal government's nominal debt during that time period. Following the early 1980s recession, economic growth and inflation maintained an average of about 4% per annum for the remainder of the decade, and the unemployment rate gradually decreased to nearly 5% by the end of the decade.[citation needed]

As the Cold War drew to a close, George H W Bush promised to not increase taxes as he won the 1988 election, but broke his promise in office in the 1990 federal budget. This led to Ross Perot's candidacy in the 1992 and 1996, as a main talking point of his campaign was balancing the federal budget. But Bill Clinton won both the elections, and even managed a surplus towards the end of his second term. However, despite this, Clinton's Vice President Al Gore lost in the disputed 2000 election to George W Bush, losing in the official count of Florida as well as Clinton and Gore's home states of Arkansas and Tennessee. Gore attempted to arrange a recount of the controversial ballot in Florida, but this was ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court.


Some of the characteristics which this era displays are:

  • Increased role of technology by television and later the internet
  • Increased role of the financing of electioneering communications in the electoral process (the issue of money in politics)
  • Seemingly increased partisanship, with heated rhetoric and confrontations, and congressional gridlock
  • Reduced concentration of the Democratic Party on economics or labor as compared to the New Deal or Progressive Era
  • Greater Republican Party emphasis on values than in the previous system
  • Candidates de facto chosen through caucuses and primaries instead of nomination conventions
  • Rise and fall of Ross Perot's Reform Party and the near collapse of the system between 1991 and 2000.


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 environmental defense and in the 1990s gay rights."[14]

Voter coalitions[edit]

New voter coalitions included the emergence of the "religious right"—a combination of right-wing Catholics and Evangelical Protestants united on opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Southern white voters started voting for Republican presidential candidates in the 1960s, and Republican state and local candidates in the 1990s.[15][16]

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 campaign, and this model was followed by most of the candidates for the 2008 election, with Barack Obama the most successful. In 2016, Bernie Sanders also financed his campaign heavily from small-dollar donations generated online. [17]

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. ISBN 9781442207707.
  2. ^ Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008 (2008)
  3. ^ For example, Paulson (2006) argues that a decisive realignment took place in the late 1960s.
  4. ^ Aldrich (1999).
  5. ^ Sean Sullivan. "McSally win gives GOP historic majority in House". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-12-27.
  6. ^ "What is the sixth party system".
  7. ^ "The Sixth Party System in American Politics (1976–2012)".
  8. ^ Alex Copulsky (July 24, 2013). "Perpetual Crisis and the Sixth Party System".
  9. ^ Stephen C. Craig, Broken Contract? Changing Relationships between Americans and Their Government (1996) p. 105
  10. ^ Michael Kazin, et al. eds, The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History (2009) Vol. 2, pg. 288
  11. ^ "Analysis: When political parties realign". UPI. Retrieved 2018-04-30.
  12. ^ Nicol C. Rae, The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans: From 1952 to the Present (1989)
  13. ^ "Effective Federal Tax Rates: 1979–2001". Bureau of Economic Analysis. July 10, 2007.
  14. ^ Richard A. Harris; Daniel J. Tichenor (2009). A History of the U.S. Political System: Ideas, Interests, and Institutions. ABC-CLIO. p. 98. ISBN 9781851097180.
  15. ^ J. David Woodard, The New Southern Politics (2006)
  16. ^ 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. ISBN 9780495899167.
  17. ^ 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
  18. ^ H.W. Brands, The Strange Death of American Liberalism (2003)
  19. ^ William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (1996)
  20. ^ John Ehrman, The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan (2008)
  21. ^ Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, '

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. (1999). "Political Parties in a Critical Era" (abstract page). American Politics Research. 27 (1): 9–32. doi:10.1177/1532673X99027001003. 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. 219–25,
  • 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)
  • Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr., ed. History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008 (2011) 3 vol and 11 vol editions; detailed analysis of each election, with primary documents; online v. 1. 1789-1824 -- v. 2. 1824-1844 -- v. 3. 1848-1868 -- v. 4. 1872-1888 -- v. 5. 1892-1908 -- v. 6. 1912-1924 -- v. 7. 1928-1940 -- v. 8. 1944-1956 -- v. 9. 1960-1968 -- v. 10. 1972-1984 -- v. 11. 1988-2001
  • 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