Sixth Party System

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The Sixth Party System is the era in United States politics following the Fifth Party System. Opinions differ on when the Sixth Party System may have begun, with suggested dates ranging from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Scholarly perspectives[edit]

In Parties and Elections in America: The Electoral Process (2011), authors L. Sandy Maisel and Mark D. Brewer argue that the consensus among experts 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 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 of the 1980s and beyond.[2][3]

According to the 2017 edition of The Logic of American Politics, "a sixth party system is now in place." Although the precise starting date is a matter of debate, "the most salient difference between the current and New Deal party systems is the Republican Party's increased strength, exemplified by 20 majorities in the house and senate in six straight elections (1994-2004), unprecedented since the fourth party system, [its] retaking of the House and 2010 and the Senate in 2014...and its sweeping national victory in 2016."[4]

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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]


Opinions on when the Sixth Party System began include the following: The elections of 1966 to 1968; the election of 1972; the 1980s, when both parties began to become more unified and partisan; and the 1990s, due to cultural divisions.[8][9][10][11]

Political scientist Stephen C. 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."[11]

The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History dates the start in 1980, with the election of Reagan and a Republican Senate.[12] Arthur Paulson argues, "Whether electoral change since the 1960s is called “realignment” or not, the “sixth party system” emerged between 1964 and 1972."[13]

Possible dealignment period[edit]

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. Ronald Inglehart and Avram Hochstein identify the time period of the American dealignment as 1958 to 1968.[14] Although the dealignment interpretation remains the consensus view among scholars, a few political scientists argue that partisanship remained so powerful that dealignment was much exaggerated.[15]


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."[16]

New voter coalitions included the emergence of the "religious right"—a combination of traditionalist Roman 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.[17][18]

Campaign finance[edit]

The Sixth Party System saw major new rule changes involved campaign financing, which allowed very large sums to be raised. Citizens United v. FEC (2010) was a major Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates for large-scale spending on politics by corporations, labor unions and very rich individuals using "Super PACS". Two years before the decision, the presidential election of 2008 saw spending independent of the parties of $144 million. Two years after that in the presidential election of 2012, independent spending had soared to over $1 billion.[19] At the state level, the 21st century saw a new electoral arena, with heavy fundraising and spending on advertising in campaigns for justices of state supreme courts.[20] In 2016, Bernie Sanders also financed his campaign heavily from small-dollar donations generated online.[21]

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. ^ The Reagan presidency, "produced a political transformation that altered substantially the terms of debate in American politics and public life." Robert M. Collins (2009). Transforming America: Politics and Culture During the Reagan Years. Columbia UP. p. 57.
  4. ^ Samuel Kernell; Gary C. Jacobson; Thad Kousser; Lynn Vavreck (2017). The Logic of American Politics, 8th edition. SAGE Publications. p. 21.
  5. ^ For example, Paulson (2006) argues that a decisive realignment took place in the late 1960s.
  6. ^ Aldrich (1999).
  7. ^ Sean Sullivan. "McSally win gives GOP historic majority in House". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-12-27.
  8. ^ "What is the sixth party system".
  9. ^ "The Sixth Party System in American Politics (1976–2012)".
  10. ^ Alex Copulsky (July 24, 2013). "Perpetual Crisis and the Sixth Party System".
  11. ^ a b Stephen C. Craig, Broken Contract? Changing Relationships between Americans and Their Government (1996) p. 105
  12. ^ Michael Kazin, et al. eds, The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History (2009) Vol. 2, pg. 288
  13. ^ Arthur Paulson, "Party change and the shifting dynamics in presidential nominations: The Lessons of 2008." Polity 41.3 (2009): 312-330, quoting page 314.
  14. ^ Inglehart, Ronald, and Avram Hochstein. "Alignment and Dealignment of the Electorate in France and the United States." Comparative Political Studies 5.3 (1972): 343-372.
  15. ^ Russell J. Dalton (2013). The Apartisan American: Dealignment and Changing Electoral Politics. CQ Press. p. 1.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ J. David Woodard, The New Southern Politics (2006)
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Wendy L. Hansen, et al. "The effects of Citizens United on corporate spending in the 2012 presidential election." Journal of Politics 77.2 (2015): 535-545. online
  20. ^ Chris W. Bonneau, "Patterns of campaign spending and electoral competition in state supreme court elections." Justice System Journal 25.1 (2004): 21-38.
  21. ^ 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

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)
  • Niemi, Richard G., and John H. Aldrich. "The sixth American party system: Electoral change, 1952–1992." in Broken Contract? (Routledge, 2018) pp. 87-109.