Study Guide

Political Parties - The Fifth Party System

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The Fifth Party System

  • Democrats vs. Republicans, 1930s-?
  • President Franklin Roosevelt built new Democratic voter coalition of union workers, southerners, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, urbanites, and intellectuals
  • Republicans became more strongly identified as the party of business and the wealthy
  • Democrats dominated national politics into 1960s
  • Republicans gained upper hand in national politics after 1960s; scholars disagree over whether or not to call the Republican-dominated recent period the Sixth Party System

During the 1930s, the Democrats' identity as the party of the people would crystallize under President Franklin Roosevelt, who would also lead the party to a dominant position in national politics for the first time in a century. The combination of voters that elected Roosevelt president four times included union members, immigrants, minority and low-income voters, Catholics, Jews, Southerners, urbanites, and intellectuals. This "New Deal Coalition" would mostly vote Democrat for the next forty years.

Franklin Roosevelt brought more to the Democratic Party than a coalition of voters; he also charted its philosophical and policy course for the next several decades. His response to the Great Depression was the New Deal, an ambitious collection of government programs designed to generate jobs and provide direct relief for the unemployed. He dramatically increased the size of the federal government, leading to unprecedented levels of government spending. In short, he redefined the role of the federal government in American life. And his democratic successors have followed his lead. John Kennedy's War on Poverty and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society were grounded in Roosevelt's vision of a federal government that aggressively confronted America's social and economic challenges.

Since the 1970s, the Democratic Party has slightly altered its political vision. "New Democrats" argue that government activism must be balanced by fiscal responsibility. In doing so, they are responding to the revitalization of the Republican party under Ronald Reagan. Reagan won election to the presidency in 1980 with a pledge to restore American power abroad and reduce the size of government at home. Arguing that since the Vietnam War, Americans had lost sight of their nation's greatness and had lost confidence in their ability to be a force for good in the world, he rapidly increased American military spending. Complaining that government regulations inhibited economic development and that too many assistance programs were dulling the American spirit, Reagan worked to reduce government regulations and to shrink the size of the federal bureaucracy.

In the decades since, Democrats and Republicans have passed the presidency back and forth. The swings in the electorate and the content of the presidential campaigns speak to the very nature of America's two-party system. American political life continues to be dominated by a broad ideological consensus; the electorate continues to hover near the center of the political spectrum, and the parties, in order to remain competitive, generally move toward the center in order to attract voters. Bill Clinton won office in 1992 by promising that Democrats, not just Republicans, could practice fiscal responsibility. George W. Bush was elected in 2000 calling for "compassionate conservatism"—a reminder that Democrats did not have a monopoly on social concern. And the amazingly close elections in 2000 and 2004 suggest that this fusion, this reconstitution of the ideological consensus, is where Americans want their politicians to reside.

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