Here’s a personal project that I’ve been collecting the data for since seeing and being inspired by the hot Broadway musical Hamilton a couple months ago. It made me interested in learning the history of political parties in the US, and in this heated political environment we’re in, it seemed crazy timely to get a better understanding of the roots and evolution of each party’s ideologies.
There were many ways to approach this graphic, but I settled on illustrating the dichotomy of centralized versus decentralized government to show how the parties have basically flipped on this issue. (A very brief and generic description of how I’m using those terms: believers in centralized government feel that the nation as a whole should work together to support its citizens while believers in decentralized government promote the belief that individuals and/or states should care for themselves, limiting the role of federal government.)
I’ve also worked up a brief summary for each System. It’s a guide to help explain behind the scenes what was happening, but as with most write-ups, probably contains lots of inferences and generalizations, so consider it a jumping off point, not a treatise (this can be found below the infographic in this post). Many thanks to Wikipedia for all the information I gathered, as well as this one really helpful infographic designed by someone at the University of North Carolina that successfully shows the many roots and off shoots of the parties over history, focusing on which persons from which parties ran in each election. Credit also to this amazing infographic that, while beautiful and also full of too much information, tells the story of which parties were in power over the course of history. Unfortunately, neither of these fine pieces showed a history of ideologies, which was the main thing I wanted to tackle in my own design.
A note about the Fifth Party System: there is no consensus that the Fifth Party System has actually ended, or if so, when it ended and the Sixth Party System started. For the purpose of this piece, and based on my own analysis about what seemed like changes in the politics, I made the call that the Fifth Party System ended at the beginning of the 1980’s. I just want to be super clear though: this is currently just my opinion and grains of salt should be taken.
A note about the language used to describe politics, I found in my research that the terms liberal and conservative start popping up in the Progressive Era (post Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency), and reference to right-wing and left-wing seem to come into use even more recently. I designed the infographic to reflect our modern interpretations of right and left so as to emphasize how each party aligns with those ideologies, though I think it’s important to note that the history before 1900 really doesn’t seem to identify with that terminology.
Additionally, it’s much harder to see through the weeds in contemporary politics, so I found there were a lot of new things and loose ends that have yet to be tied up so it gets more complicated and undetermined at the bottom of the infographic. Maybe I can go back in 10 years and clean it up once I have the benefit of hindsight. I also make a note in my write up about how it was relatively easy to size up the political parties based on the dichotomy of which side of the argument for or against centralized government they fell, but as we get into the 1990’s, a whole new axis seems to be forming, where third parties are aligning and fracturing based on their approach to fiscal and social issues. Meaning that some parties may identify with being fiscally conservative (i.e., believing in limiting government-based trade restrictions) but might be ok with a variety of government-based regulations on social issues (i.e., gun control or reproductive rights issues). Just an interesting note for what lies ahead.
Purely nerding out, and definitely information overload, but if you’re into that kind of thing, I hope you enjoy it! Feel free to contact me if you want to talk about my research or interpretation of this information. (click on the image to zoom in, so you can see the fine print).
History of Political Parties in the United States
Over the course of U.S. history, various issues have split people into different factions by political party, but the fight for and against centralized government has been constant since the very beginning.
First Party System
The Founding Fathers did not originally intend for American politics to be partisan, but disputes arose and factions formed. The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, were ardent supporters of centralizing the government, consolidating debt on the federal level, and creating a central bank. Federalists were also keen to maintain good relations with Britain for trading purposes.
The Democratic-Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, believed strongly in individual liberty, sovereignty of individuals and states, and limited government. They were concerned that a national bank would lead to corruption and monarchism. Democratic-Republicans also felt loyal to the French, who had come to the aid of the American Revolutionaries, but were now fighting with England and struggling through their own tumultuous revolution.
Era of Good Feelings
The issue of whether to side with France or England dissipated at the end of the War of 1812, leading to the Era of Good Feelings, where the two parties were more or less united on issues, especially after Madison agreed to establish a national bank in 1816.
Second Party System
The election of 1824 had four men running, all calling themselves Democratic-Republicans. Andrew Jackson won the most votes, but not the majority of electoral votes, so the final decision went to the house of Representatives, which chose John Quincy Adams.
Jackson in turn formed the Democratic Party, whose ideology embodied the strong Jeffersonian beliefs of small government, free trade, and hard money. Adams’ Party, the National Republican and then Whig Party, followed closer to the Federalists, arguing for stronger central government, infrastructure building, and high tariffs, all to promote commerce. Within the Whig Party, an anti-masonic group formed in opposition to Jackson who they were distrustful of because of his membership in the secret society, as well as a xenophobic party with an anti-Catholic agenda, in response to new immigrants coming from non-Protestant countries.
This period was dominated by the dispute over slavery, staunchly supported by the Southern-dominated Democrats. The Whig Party was not unified on the issue, which eventually led to its dissolution.
The Republican Party was formed from the remains of the Whig, Know-Nothing, and Free Soil Parties, which were all against the expansion of slavery, plus Democrats who were against secession. Abraham Lincoln, leader of the Republican Party, won the election of 1860, prompting the secession of seven southern states, and shortly thereafter the beginning of the Civil War.
Third Party System
In the election of 1864, Lincoln renamed the Republican Party the National Union Party. The temporary name was used to attract those who would not vote for a Republican. He ran with Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, hoping to prove his seriousness in working with southern states to reunify after the war. This proved to be a fateful decision as Lincoln was assassinated just over a month into his second term, and only 5 days after the South surrendered, leaving the Democratic Johnson as President during the critical early years of Reconstruction.
Johnson’s views did not align with those of the Republicans who held a majority in Congress. He opposed granting freedmen many civil liberties that Republicans had intended, including property rights and citizenship. He vetoed the Civil Rights Act, but the veto was then overturned by Congress, making this the first major bill to become law over presidential veto. Johnson was impeached, but was saved from removal by one vote. In 1868, General Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, won the presidency. He built up the Republican Party in the South, but over the course of Reconstruction, corruption ran rampant as “carpetbaggers” (northerners who had come south) took advantage of their power. At the same time, groups like the Ku Klux Klan used intimidation and violence to run Republicans out of office and repress voting by blacks, leading to white Democrats regaining power of Congress.
The remainder of the period’s politics focused primarily on economic issues. Republicans continued to support high tariffs and protectionism to build the economy and to support federal programs like education, while Democrats argued for fewer restrictions, free trade, and fiscal conservatism. They also clashed on international policies, with Republicans supporting an active foreign policy while Democrats maintained an anti-imperialist stance.
One Republican principle that has been in place since the end of the Civil War is the strong support of military spending, stemming primarily from the desire to provide for the veterans of that war.
Fourth Party System
The Fourth Party System began after Grover Cleveland’s second term, coinciding with an economic depression due to the abundance of silver coinage then in circulation.
Labor unions began to gain influence and power and a Populist Party formed. Additionally, a small faction of the Democratic Party that was against silver ran candidates in the 1896 election, which helped turn the vote in favor of Republican McKinley. McKinley continued high tariff policies, was pro-business, and used “interventionism” to justify the Spanish-American War, gaining the colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and Cuba.
When McKinley was assassinated, his young Vice President Theodore Roosevelt took the helm and chartered in a new “progressive” era, promising fairness, breaking of trusts, regulation of railroads, and regulation of food and drugs. He also prioritized conservation, establishing a myriad of national parks, forests, and monuments. His successor, Taft, tended towards a more conservative agenda, favoring big business. Roosevelt challenged Taft in the 1912 election by creating his own Progressive Party (nicknamed the “Bull-Moose” Party). This split in the Republican votes ensured the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson did continue a more progressive agenda by passing such legislation as the Federal Reserve Act (central banking), Federal Trade Commission Act (anti-trust and anti-monopoly) and other consumer protection policies, as well as reintroducing income tax, increasing regulation in the labor sector, and signing off on the 19th Amendment, opening up the vote to women, a decision that went against his party. The US entered WWI, and following armistice, Wilson issued his “Fourteen Points” that promoted an international approach to the progressive domestic policies that were being pushed at home. This was the beginning of “Wilsonian Idealism” – an infusion of morality into internationalism that promoted global democracy.
After the war, there was a desire to return to “normalcy” – how life was before war. A more conservative Republican leadership came into power. Calvin Coolidge was an adherent of the laissez-faire ideology, believing in the states’ power to manage themselves, which up until this point had been a primarily Democratic ideology. The economy boomed during the “roaring 20’s,” resulting in decreased union activity and declining federal regulation. The Market Crash of 1929 began the Great Depression, which brought with it a major political shift and end of the Fourth Party System.
Fifth Party System
At the beginning of the Fifth Party system, the country was deep in the middle of the Great Depression, which wreaked havoc on the economy and left 1 in 4 people unemployed. Under Hoover’s lead, the federal government increased tariffs in hopes of promoting the purchase of American goods, but this only exacerbated the depression world-wide. He promoted the notion that private business would volunteer not to lower wages or reduce their workforce, but that was not sustainable.
Hoover was voted out in favor of the young Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, in 1932. Roosevelt sought to restructure the economy and to use the federal funding to create demand. FDR’s first “New Deal” included the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the FDIC, and the National Recovery Administration, which forced private industries to work with the federal government to set price minimums, reduce production in order to raise prices, and allow unions to establish labor standards and competitive conditions. The second “New Deal” created Social Security, the Works Progress Administration, and a stimulus to grow labor unions. In 1938, a bipartisan conservative coalition formed to stop further expansion of the New Deal, afraid that the country was turning into a socialist state. When unemployment dropped to 2% in the early 1940s, most of the New Deal programs were disbanded, except Social Security.
The New Deal splintered the Democratic Party, with Southern white conservatives (Dixiecrats) joining forces with the conservative Republicans to form the Conservative Coalition, which promoted an anti-socialist and anti-integration agenda. Once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, Southern Democrats abandoned the Democratic party entirely, becoming Republicans instead. At the same time, a liberal faction of the Republican Party continued to support Social Security and other social programs, but this faction slowly faded out. By the end of the Fifth Party system only the Conservative side of the Republican Party remained. From that, a far-right splinter group, the American Independent Party, formed in the 1960’s that began to heavily influence the Republican Party.
The Fifth Party System saw a transition in the demographics of each party. The traditionally Southern-held Democratic Party became the party of liberal-minded constituencies, such as Jews, African-Americans, labor unions, progressive intellectuals, and populist farm groups. Republicans lost the African-American vote and gained evangelical Southerners. Republicans began to promote stronger states’ rights over federal jurisdiction and sought economic deregulation.
Sixth Party System
While there is no official transition from the Fifth to Sixth Party System cited yet, some historians argue that the Sixth Party system began in the 1980’s. The Republicans held more conservative viewpoints while Democrats pursued more liberal agendas. Unlike the preceding systems, the two major parties’ positions are more polarized and extreme in this era, with a corresponding rise in partisanship and congressional gridlock.
The Republican Party of this era is pro-business, anti-regulation, and believes in the reduction of spending and tax cuts for the wealthiest in order to promote the economy. Republicans have also taken on more socially conservative agendas such as anti-abortion and anti-gay rights. Reagan won due in part to the support of “Reagan Democrats” who were attracted to his socially conservative policies. The “Christian Right,” not a specific party but a faction of the Republican Party, gained strength and drew the whole party farther to the right. Another group, called the Tea Party, emerged in response to a perception that mainstream Republicans were insufficiently conservative.
Democrats continued to support social programs such as healthcare reform and believed in increasing taxes in order to support and promote the economy. They also believed in reducing taxes on the poorest, and increasing for the richest to balance the budget. In light of the success of Reagan’s landslide victory, a part of the Democratic Party created the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and began to take an economic liberalism approach to fiscal issues that allowed for more power of the individual in business and promoted free trade, but allowed for certain amounts of government intervention such as regulating monopolies.
Parties focused on very specific issues gained traction in this System, highlighting issues such as the peace and the environment (Green Party), Reducing National Debt (Reform Party), and Reduction in Government Spending and general decrease in size of Federal Government (Libertarian Party). These third parties sometimes do not align directly along the dichotomy of centralized versus decentralized government, sometimes swinging in opposite directions on fiscal issues versus social issues; a whole new axis of dichotomies to start tracking.
Here’s an at-a-glance view of the infographic, to get a better feel for the spin offs, merges, and switches that happen:
*Update to post. I’m including a couple bits of my research source material as has been requested. It’s not comprehensive, and anyone who is suspicious of my research or sources is entitled to be. I am not an academic and have been very frank that this is an overly simplified interpretation of a very complicated and easily biased topic. Feel free to take from it what you like, or don’t take it at all. Also feel free to create your own interpretation of your own research. I’d be curious to see what you come up with. I did mostly scour wikipedia for my details, creating an incomplete wireframe of dates and basics info in this excel spreadsheet. Once I was able to glean the general pattern from this pared down data, I dove into more detail in the infographic itself. As I mentioned in my intro paragraph, I also used a number of visual aids that I thought illustrated well some of the transitions and switches. I’ll include a link (again) to all of those visual aids here as well. I don’t imagine this will make everyone happy, but it is my hope that anyone who reads this and finds some value in my interpretation of the data I found and understands that it is imperfect but well-intentioned. I’d rather put my efforts out into the world and have a debate rather than be afraid of the imperfection and never share or create anything that might be controversial.