The number of American voters choosing to register as unaffiliated is growing, and most observers see this as a sign of growing discontent with both the Democrat and Republican parties. It remains to be seen how this trend will affect the future of our political party system, but looking at the history of the two-party system in the U.S. shows that big changes might be coming.
When the U.S. Constitution was signed in 1787, it contained nothing about political parties because no voter-based political parties existed in any nation of the world at that time. But the need to win popular support led to the invention of our voter-based political parties in the 1790s as American politicians began campaigns that tied public opinion to public policy.
The first attempt at a two-party system lasted from about 1792 until 1824. It consisted of the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican (or anti-Federalist) Party. The Federalists were led by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and favored a strong central government, close ties to Britain, a centralized banking system, and close links between the government and men of wealth. The opposing party was led by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Federalists were considered elitists, and their opposition to the War of 1812 led to their downfall and a period of bipartisanship in America.
From about 1828 to 1854 two parties dominated the political landscape: the Whig Party led by Henry Clay and the Democratic Party led by Andrew Jackson. The Democrats supported the primacy of the presidency over the other branches of government and opposed modernizing programs that they felt favored industry over taxpayers. The Whigs advocated the primacy of Congress and policies of modernization and economic protectionism. The Whig Party collapsed in the 1850s after the party split over the issue of slavery.
From 1854 to about 1895 the two major parties were the Democratic Party and the newly formed anti-slavery Republican Party, which adopted many of the economic policies of the Whigs, such as national banks, high tariffs, and aid to land grant colleges. After the Civil War newly enfranchised African Americans joined the Republican Party’s businessmen, skilled craftsmen, and professionals who were attracted to the party’s modernization policies. White southerners joined the Democratic Party, which included conservative pro-business traditional Democrats in the North and a growing Catholic immigrant population.
From 1896 to 1932 the political party names remained the same, but both saw major shifts in the central issues as the Progressive Era ushered in challenges such as child labor, racial segregation, and women’s rights. Most voting blocs were unchanged although some realignment took place and created Republican dominance in the industrial Northeast and strength in the new border states.
In 1933 Republicans began losing support due to the Great Depression. This led to the election of Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal, a set of Depression-remedying reforms, including regulation of financial institutions, founding of welfare and pension programs, and infrastructure development. Roosevelt won in a landslide against Republican Alf Landon, who opposed any expansion of federal government.
Since the 1930s, Democrats have increasingly promoted liberalism while conservatives have increasingly dominated the GOP. New voter coalitions emerged during the latter half of the 20th century, with conservatives and Republicans becoming dominant in the South and rural areas and liberals and Democrats increasingly becoming a coalition of racial minorities and white progressives.
So between 1860 and 1936 the Democratic Party of small government shifted and became the party of big government, and the Republican Party of big government became committed to curbing federal power and growth. Many political observers wonder if the two parties might be undergoing a similar transition again.
A Republican president and Congress recently passed the largest federal budget in history, one that is projected to add $10 trillion to the national debt over the course of the budget. Republicans are also actively enacting laws that create federal oversight of some aspects of our private lives such as sexuality, reproductive rights, and family planning while decreasing laws that protect individual consumers and our land and favor large industries and the very wealthy. Protectionist policies such as trade tariffs once favored by Democrats are now popular among Republicans instead, and the Republican Party that once claimed to be the party of morality and family values has instead become the party of Trump. Democrats have become the champions of environmental and consumer protections, public education, health care, and social programs originally favored by Republicans.
It remains to be seen if our current political parties will retain their names for the next 160 years, but there is little doubt that their platforms will change dramatically as voters look for options that more closely reflect their own political agendas.