“Gee, you seem pretty confident there, Luke” – I am! The closeness of the election certainly helps; confidence in the polls tends to grow as election day nears, and FiveThirtyEight currently puts Biden’s chances at 89%. I don’t quite agree with the – somewhat trite – sentiment that Democrats and Republicans are the same: the choice facing voters at this election couldn’t be more stark. The Democratic Party has become increasingly left-wing over the last forty years, while the Republican Party has gone “from a moderately conservative party … to something else entirely.” Their presidential nominee has downplayed the significance of one of the biggest health crises in modern history and promoted wild conspiracy theories that the election will be rigged against him. This is no longer just about left and right: it’s about what Americans want their country to be.
Platitudes aside, polarisation within the American electorate has skyrocketed since 1994 – exacerbated by the debate over mail ballots this year – especially amongst Republicans. Increasingly untrusting of their leaders, it’s no wonder a divisive, anti-establishment figure like Donald Trump has been so successful. There have, obviously, been divisive presidents before: Andrew Jackson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush. But none have proven quite as divisive as Trump. I’ve never studied US politics through any other lens than this – having completed my first year of A-level study in 2017 – and I’ve always wondered how America got here. What decisions have taken the country from a great (hmm) leader like Reagan to the brink of authoritarianism under Trump? My research unearthed patterns in both the country’s Presidential and electoral history, stretching back to the eighteenth century – patterns that tell us a lot about the future.
We begin with the concept of a party system. This notion isn’t solely applicable to the US, but it’s a great way of visualising the country’s political shifts over time. The folks over at Wikipedia have identified six such systems since the republic’s founding in 1788.
It’s simple enough to understand: the strength of each colour denotes the number of times the corresponding party won that state in Presidential elections between the dates shown. The First Party System sticks out like a sore thumb: here, lime green represents the Democratic-Republicans while burnt orange represents the Federalists. These were far more informal than the political parties we know today, and they (mostly the former) dominated politics for the first 36 years of the republic. By 1828 the Federalist Party had collapsed and the Democratic-Republicans had divided into supporters of President Andrew Jackson (Jacksonians) and his opponents (anti-Jacksonians). These would go on to become the Democrats (blue) and the Whigs (yellow), respectively, who presided over the Second Party System. By 1856, the issue of slavery came to the fore; the Whigs were divided on the issue, and former supporters ultimately coalesced into the Republican Party (red), kicking off the Third Party System. Since then, the Democrats and Republicans have traded off power, and have undergone their own fair share of transformations – particularly during the Fourth Party System, but we’ll get to that later. As a quick aside, the dark green for Idaho and North Dakota in the Third Party System Denotes a win for the populist party in 1892 – the only election in this era that these states participated in.
But what exactly is a party system? The most well-known definition is Sartori’s, “The system of interactions resulting from inter-party competition,” but this is a bit vague: the use of the coloured maps perhaps gives a bit of a distorted image of what a party system actually is. Duverger argues that they’re defined by the relationship between a number of characteristics: “respective sizes, alliances, geographical localisation, political distribution and so on.” From this, it’s logical to infer that key issues of the day and party ideology form part of a party system. For instance, the issues of slavery and reconstruction dominated US politics from the 1850s until the turn of the century, when the progressive movement began to take root – this, in part, helps stratify the Third and Forth Party Systems. The same re-alignment cemented the Republicans – who had orchestrated an ambitious expansion of federal power in the 1860s – as the party of big business, while the Democrats – who had opposed these government reforms – slowly liberalised until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal Coalition’ in the 1930s. This oscillation of party ideology also helps determine each party system, but the reasons for this switch are something to discuss another time.
Looking at the dates, the first four party systems lasted an average of 34 years – or eight presidential elections. However, there’s some vagueness over the start of the Sixth Party System (circled). Opinions on when the Sixth Party System began include 1968, 1972 (Kazin: 288), the 1980s – when both parties’ contemporary identities first emerged – and others have argued that it was as late as the 1990s! If we assume the Fifth Party System was extended by ~10 years due to the Great Depression and FDR’s two extra terms, that puts its end year at 1976 (where most academic suggestions average out), and the start of the Sixth Party System in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. By the same token, we should be seeing a new party system emerging some time around, well… now. Brewer and Maisel argue that the Democratic and Republican parties’ response to Trump’s victory may well constitute a Seventh Party System. How exciting! I’d be surprised if we saw any real change in the way states have been voting tomorrow; it’s been pretty consistent since 1992/2000 – that polarisation thing I was on about has shored up historical ‘lean’ states, with only ten or so casting the decisive electoral votes – but both major parties are currently experiencing deep internal tensions from re-aligning coalitions.
So does a new party system mean we’ll necessarily see a new President? Well… yes. As discussed, new party systems tends to emerge as a result of political re-alignment: of issues and ideas. This re-alignment results in the rejection of one party (usually the one who dominated the party system) and embracement of the other. If we are truly entering the Seventh Party System, then the 2020 election should see the Republicans rejected in favour of the Democrats, accompanied by a new president: Joe Biden. This is corroborated by Misha Leybovich’s research. According to his theory, the archetypes of presidents cycle every 30-40 years, represented by a transformational leader at the start of each. As Leybovich notes, “[They] defined the political conversation for the next several decades.” This distinction is important, I feel; not only did these Presidents transform politics in their own time, but left a legacy that sustained its influence years after they left office. I’ve transcribed Leybovich’s spreadsheet and made a few tweaks for ease of understanding, but the idea is the same.
Each new era begins with a ‘Transformer’ – a figure ascendent at a time of major political re-alignment. They’re followed by a ‘Continuer’ – their sidekick, who carries on their legacy with similar policies. The ‘Triangulator’ comes as a response from the opposing party to the re-alignment. A ‘Re-imaginer’ then… re-imagines the Transformer’s original ideas. They’re followed by a ‘Precursor’ – they can’t quite bring about any transformational change, but they foreshadow the outlook of the next era. The ‘Ender’ then presents an expired impression of the Transformer’s ideas, to lose re-election to the incoming Transformer. As you can probably see, this theory can also help explain why the political re-alignment that causes distinct party systems tends to occur over the same timescale – after all, there’s no rule that re-alignments should happen so regularly.
Trump fits the mould as an Ender pretty well, offering an out-dated notion of Reaganism. If the theory holds, he’ll lose to Biden tomorrow night, which would make Biden a ‘Transformer’. Will he be a great unifier? A transformational progressive? Will he finally tackle the climate crisis? Within Leybovich’s framework, Obama was a ‘precursor’ president. As, arguably, one of the US’ most left-wing presidents, this might foreshadow Biden as the prophesied ‘transformational progressive’. Nonetheless, the left-wing of the Democratic Party tend to argue that Biden isn’t capable of the radical change needed in modern America – and I sympathise. In this case, perhaps his moderate stance will work to society’s favour, acting as the common ground between the increasingly divided parties.