Broken Contract? Changing Relationships between Americans and Their Government

By Stephen C. Craig | Go to book overview

5
The Sixth American Party System:
Electoral Change, 1952-1992

JOHN H. ALDRICH

RICHARD G.NIEMI

Over the more than 200 years of U.S. history, there have been dramatic changes in the patterns of electoral politics. During most of the nineteenth century, for example, voters went to the polls in much higher proportions than at any time during the twentieth century; attachments to political parties were much stronger than they are today; and voters rarely split their tickets, partly because of their strong party feelings but also because -- prior to 1890 -- the parties themselves controlled voting procedures and made it difficult if not impossible to cast votes for candidates from more than one party.

In order to make sense of the changes that have occurred, historians and political scientists often speak of "party systems," referring to periods of a generation or more in which electoral politics differ distinctly from the periods before and after. A standard interpretation (e.g., Chambers and Burnham 1975) is that there have been five American party systems, the first beginning around 1796 with the emergence of two-party competition between the Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans, and the last starting in the early 1930s with the rise to majority status of New Deal Democrats. 1 We demonstrate in this chapter that, in fact, a new party system -- the sixth party system -- emerged in the 1960s and has now existed for a quarter -- century. We justify our conclusions by documenting a wide variety of changes that took place as the fifth party system ended and the sixth one began.

The "critical era" between the fifth and sixth systems is unique in that it is the first transition period for which we have public opinion survey data to help us understand how attitudes and behaviors were altered. 2 For earlier cases, including the 1930s, we must rely on so-called aggregate data such as how various states, cities, or wards voted, or on the recollections of people interviewed long after the fact. Both of these techniques are useful and have given us some insight into the kinds of transformations that occurred during the New Deal realignment of the 1930s ( Andersen 1979; Gamm 1989). They obviously cannot, however, provide

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