The evolution of the political spectrum in the United States: from the origins to the present day

Aggiornato il: 14 nov 2020

(By Giacomo Forges)


1. Origins and defunct political parties


While the US Constitution never mentions political parties, they are present on the political stage since George Washington’s presidency (first US President).

The founding father “par excellence” is the only independent American President, not only because he never represented a political party during his entire term[1], but also because until the end of his presidency, he always expressed his reservations towards the role of the parties – they risked favoring foreign interference and creating further divisions inside the young Nation[2].

However, even during Washington’s presidency, the newly born political class started to organize itself in different political affiliations. Indeed, Vice-President John Adams (who later became the second American President) was a member of the Federalist Party, founded by Alexander Hamilton, first Treasure Secretary of the United States and today portrayed on the ten-dollar bill[3].

Later, in the first quarter of the XIX century, many different political movements started to proliferate. From 1801 to 1828, the main party was the Democratic-Republican Party. The party championed the protection of the interests of the agricultural industry, key sector for the country economy. They managed to elect four consecutive candidates as presidents: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams[4], (third, fourth, fifth and sixth President, respectively).

Between 1829 and the outburst of the Civil War in 1861, the political scene was dominated by the contrast between the Democratic Partyfounded in 1828 by Andrew Jackson (seventh President) – that gathered the supporters of the Democratic-Republican Party, and the Whig Party[5].

Instead, the supporters of the Whig Party championed federalist ideas and economic nationalism, in stark contrast to the policies of President A. Jackson. The Whigs managed to elect four presidents: William H. Harrison, John Tyler[6], Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore (ninth, tenth, twelfth, thirteenth President, respectively).

After the end of Fillmore’s presidency, the Whig Party disbanded in 1854. Later, M. Fillmore himself ran again for President in 1856[7] with the anti-Catholic, xenophobic, and “nativist” movement Know Nothing[8], whose supporters feared that the massive immigration of catholic Irish of the time could be a threat to American values[9].


2. Historically significant parties


Other parties and candidates that deserve a mention because they reached a significant result in presidential elections are, chronologically:


  • The National Republican Party, close to the ideas of the Whigs, in the 1828 election, candidate John Q. Adams (already sixth President) won 83 electoral votes, and in the 1832 election, Henry Clay won 49 electoral votes.

  • The Nullifier Party, close to the positions of the Democratic-Republicans, still in the 1832 election, the party obtained 11 electoral votes with candidate John Floyd.

  • The Free Soil Party is an antislavery party and in the 1848 election, it did not win any electoral votes, but candidate John Floyd won more than 10% of the popular vote.

  • The Southern Democratic Party, pro-slavery and close to the interests of the Southern Democrats; in the 1860 election, the party won 72 electoral votes with candidate John C. Breckinridge.

  • The Constitutional Union Party, constitutionalist and conservative party close to the demands of the South and mainly formed by ex-Whigs, in the 1860 election, candidate John Bell won 39 electoral votes.

  • The Liberal Republican Party, centrist and close to the positions of classical liberalism, in the 1872 election, candidate Horace Greely ran for President, but he died right after the election, so the 3 electoral votes he had obtained in Georgia were never assigned to him[10]. In that occasion, his candidacy had also received the support of the Democratic Party and he obtained more than 43% of the popular vote.

  • The Populist Party, a leftist party close to the positions of agrarian populism, in the 1892 election, Candidate James B. Weaver obtained 22 electoral votes.

  • The Progressive Party, a progressive and populist party, in the 1912 election, it obtained 88 electoral votes with candidate Theodore Roosevelt (already twenty-sixth President) and in the 1924 election, it obtained 13 electoral votes with candidate Robert M. La Follette Sr. (supported by the socialists and the Farmer-Labor Party[11]).

  • The Socialist Party of America promoted the ideals of democratic socialism, in the 1912 election, the party did not win any electoral votes, but it obtained 6% of the votes with candidate Strom Thurmond.

  • The States' Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrats) was a segregationist and Southern nationalist party; in the 1948 election, it won 39 electoral votes with candidate Strom Thurmond.

  • The American Independent Party was a segregationist and paleoconservative party; in the 1968 election, it obtained 46 electoral votes with candidate George Wallace.


3. The Democratic Party

Despite this varied political offer, form 1852 on, the winning candidates of the presidential election in the United States have always been Democrats or Republicans.

During the election campaign of 1828, a “democratic coalition” – mainly formed by former members of the Democratic-Republican Party – was created in support of the candidacy of Andrew Jackson[12]. One of the leading figures was Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s lieutenant, that later became his successor and the co‑creator of the organization of the newly born Democratic Party[13].

Between 1828 and 1829, the political scenario of the United States was marked by the emerging of mass politics – a trend that firstly appeared in the US and only later in Europe. In the election campaign of 1828, political merchandise started to spread and campaign speeches to discredit the opponent began to transcend the personal sphere, giving way to a tendency that is still widespread nowadays[14]. People involvement reached its symbolic pic during the celebrations for the inauguration of President Jackson when a crowd of supporters forced its way into the White House[15].

The “democratic” ideology of the time were rooted mainly in anti-elitist beliefs and in the idea of curbing the federal power – both the ideas derived from Thomas Jefferson’s legacy and the experience of the Democratic‑Republican Party. The Democratic Party focused on protecting agrarian interests, it became the prominent political group in the South, in opposition to the economic and industrial elites of the North represented by the Whigs[16].

This link with the southern white electorate in favor of slavery was strengthened over time, and after resisting the turmoil of the Civil War, between 1877 (reconstruction) and 1965 (approval of the Voting Right Acts) it created the so-called Solid South – a group of States that at the time were historically Democrats. This electoral bloc included Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, D.C., West Virginia, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.

After the civil rights protests of the sixties, Lyndon B. Johnson (thirty-sixth President) signed the Voting Rights Act, which banned racial discriminations in voting[17]. In this way, the implementation of voting rights – enshrined in the Constitution – was guaranteed also for Afro-American citizens living in the region. Since at a national level all the leaders of the Democratic Party started to champion civil rights, from that moment on, there has been a sort of – gradual – inversion of the voter base: Afro-Americans[18] became mainly Democrats and white conservatives of the South shifted to the Republican Party.

Nowadays, the Democratic Party is a political faction that mainly gains consensus in big cities and industrialized areas. In foreign politics, the last two democratic administrations led by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (forty-second and forty-forth Presidents) tried to opt for a multilateral approach. The traditional color of the Democratic Party is blue[19] and its symbol is the donkey. The most important figure of the Democratic Party is generally considered to be Franklin Delano Roosevelt (thirty-second President); the only President in American history to have won four times in a row the presidential election[20].


Figure I: "The Democratic Club" by Andy Thomas.

4. The Republican Party

On the other side, the natural heir of the Whig Party, the Free Soil party and other antislavery movements was the Republican Party[21], founded in 1854. At the time, the party mainly included industrialists and farmers of the North that wanted to fight the spread of slavery in the West. Indeed, besides the ideological principle, slave labor was a great competitive edge for southern landowners. Therefore, for a long time the Grand Old Party (GOP) was the political reference point for northerner interests, inspired by classical liberalism and the work of Abraham Lincoln (sixteenth President, and first Republican President).

Even before the outburst of Civil Rights protests in the sixties, during the presidential election of 1912, former republican President Theodore Roosevelt, who had ran with the Progressive Party, stole many votes from the Republican Party[32]. From that moment on, the GOP, with the presidencies of Warren G. Harding, John C. Coolidge e Herbert C. Hoover (twenty-ninth, thirtieth and thirty-first Presidents) started to adopt more conservative positions regarding internal affairs and more isolationist ones in foreign politics. The Republican opposition to the ratification of the Convention of the League of Nation is an emblematic decision in this regard.

The effects of the 1929 Great Depression weakened Republican consensus and they fueled the great success of the New Deal Coalition chaired by F. D. Roosevelt, which would lead the country until the sixties.

Instead, an important reorganization of the GOP took place in the eighties with Ronald Reagan (fortieth President) and his policies to boost the economy (Reaganomics) that aimed at curbing the role of the State, cutting red tape and reducing taxes. At the same time, he adopted a muscular approach in foreign policy that would become the hallmark of the four last Republican presidencies: Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush and Donald Trump (fortieth, forty-first, forty-third and forty-fifth President, respectively).

Nowadays, the Republican Party is a center-right political faction close to conservative ideologies; from the nineties it mainly gather consensus in Southern States, Mountain States, in the Great Planes and in rural areas in general. The traditional color of the GOP is red and the symbol of the Party is the elephant. In the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan can be considered a true all-time champion when it comes to political consensus – in the 1984 election, he won a record 525 electoral votes total (of 538 possible) and he carried 49 of the 50 States[23].


Figure II: "The Republican Club" by Andy Thomas.

5. The Libertarian Party and the Green Party

In today’s American political scene, there are two other political groups:

  • The Libertarian Party – operating since 1971 – promotes economic and ethic liberalism. Currently, it is the third largest party in the US by number of registered voters[24] and it has one member in Congress, Representative Justin Amash of Michigan.

  • The Green Party of the United Sates – officially recognized by the Federal Election Commission in 2001 – is a federation of all the environmentalist parties of the country. In the presidential election of 2000, the party won 2.7% of the popular vote and according to some, it stole some votes from the Democratic Party and this played a key role in the loss of Al Gore, who was not elected as President.

6. Future perspectives


The current geographic consensus gap between Republicans (rural areas) and Democrats (big cities) is very clear looking at the map of the 2016 election results of each district. Therefore, rural depopulation of some areas could penalize the Grand Old Party. Recently, this process, that has already taken place in California, seems to have affected Texas – historically, it has always been a Republican stronghold, but nowadays it is a real battleground state[25].


Figure III: 2016 presidential election results by district (Ryne Rhola/Decision Desk HQ)

Despite the solid bipolar system of the American political stage – upheld by a rooted historical tradition, the crushing consensus that prevents other parties to emerge and the significant Democratic and Republican presence in the media and in institutions – even recently there have been some small surprises. In the last presidential election of November 2016, a peculiar case occurred: independent candidate Evan McMullin managed to win more than 21% of the votes in Utah, his State of origin.

Intermittently, there have been both signs of discontinuity in the hegemony of the two main parties – such as the victory of Donald Trump as an outsider in the Primary election of 2016 – and signs of regularity – such as this year nomination of Joe Biden a pro-establishment candidate.

Taking into consideration Trump’s victory in 2016 and the good result of McMullin in Utah it is possible to envisage more chances of success for independent candidates or outsiders.

Therefore, in the future, it is reasonable to believe that candidatures of anti-establishment figures will be more popular in both parties and even outside of them. However, at the same time, Donald Trump (or his political heir) could steal the spotlight to radical positions and catalyze protest votes, probably preventing other non-conventional and radical political figures to emerge. In light of the above considerations, an alternative scenario to bipolarity is still unlikely.

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References [1] The only other exception is John Tyler (tenth President), in 1841, in the capacity of Vice-president he succeeded William H. Harrison (ninth President) who died prematurely of pneumonia. J. Tyler was elected with the Whig Party, but he became independent right after becoming President due to his positions in favour of States autonomy inside the Union. [2] George Washington, “Farewell Address to the People of the United States,” September 19, 1796. [3] Only non-President portrayed on common bills, together with Benjamin Franklin ($100 bill). [4] Son of second American President John Adams. [5] The name of the party stems from the British political party that in the XVII century opposed the absolute monarchy. [6] In reality, just partially Whig, supra note 1. [7] Won by Democrat James Buchan (fifteenth President) [8] The terms seems to come from the semi-secret origins of the organization. “I know nothing” was supposedly the standard answer of the members when asked about their activities. [9] Tyler Anbinder, “Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850’s,” 1992.

[10] United States Congress, Senate Journal, 42nd Congress, 3rd Session, February 12 1873. pp. 335. Retrieved March 23, 2006. [11] Left-wing party close to the ideologies of populists and social democracy.

[12] Y. Eyal, The Young America Movement and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, 1828–1861, Cambridge University Press, p. 23, august 20, 2007. [13] G. Borgognone, Storia degli Stati Uniti: La democrazia americana dalla fondazione all’era globale, Storia Universale Economica Feltrinelli, p. 71, 2013. [14] The Democrats accused President in office J. Q. Adams of wasting money and the supporters of the National Republican Party accused Jackson’s wife of bigamy. [15] G. Borgognone, op. cit., p. 70. [16] G. Borgognone, op. cit., p. 69, 70. [17] P. E. Joseph, The Civil Rights Act Was a Turning Point in Our Nation’s Racial History, in The Root, 7 February, 2014. [18] During history, also Afro-Americans played their role in both of the main parties. After the Civil War, the majority of black people living in the North were Republicans. In some surveys of 2016, at least 70% of Afro-American voters said to be closer to the positions of the Democratic Party. [19] Since the presidential election of 2000, because of a television agreement, Democratic States are represented in blue and Republican States in red. S. Battaglio, When red meant Democratic and blue was Republican. A brief history of TV electoral maps, in Los Angeles Times, 3 November, 2016. [20] Nowadays, after the ratification of the XXII amendment, completed in 1951, the President of the United States can only serve two terms.

[21] Also referred to as GOP (Grand Old Party). [22] Redazione, The Ol' Switcheroo. Theodore Roosevelt, 1912, in Time, 29 April 2009. [23] Democratic candidate Walter Mondale won only in Minnesota (his State of origin) and Washington D.C.

[24] According to the surveys of October 2018, registered voter are divided into: Democratic 44,780,772 (39.82%), Republican 32,854,496 (29.22%), Independent 32,322,402 (28.74%), Libertarian 548,399 (.49%), Green 249,260 (.22%), other parties 1.821.623 (2.08%).

[25] California and Texas have the greatest number of electoral votes, 55 and 38, respectively. Democrats have won in California since 1992 and Republicans have won in Texas since 1980.


Bibliography

T. Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850's, 1992.

S. Battaglio, When red meant Democratic and blue was Republican. A brief history of TV electoral maps, in Los Angeles Times, November 3, 2016.

G. Borgognone, Storia degli Stati Uniti: La democrazia americana dalla fondazione all’era globale, Storia Universale Economica Feltrinelli, 2013.

Y. Eyal, The Young America Movement and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, 1828–1861, Cambridge University Press, August 20, 2007.

P. E. Joseph, The Civil Rights Act Was a Turning Point in Our Nation’s Racial History, in The Root, 7 febbraio 2014.

Redazione, The Ol' Switcheroo. Theodore Roosevelt, 1912, in Time, April 29, 2009.

United States Congress, Senate Journal, 42° Congress, III Session, February 12, 1873. Retrieved March 23, 2006.

G. Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796.

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