Party System Theory and a Seventh Party System

A party system is a concept in comparative political science concerning the system of government by political parties in a democratic country. The idea is that political parties have basic similarities: they control the government, have a stable base of mass popular support, and create internal mechanisms for controlling funding, information and nominations.


There have been six party systems during US history. The current (or possibly prior) one started sometime between 1960 to 1986. In this sixth party system the Republican Party became the dominant party in most southern states, rural areas, and many suburbs. White working class voters grew in influence as many left the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party increasingly started to assemble a coalition of African-Americans, Latinos and white urban progressives. A critical factor was the major transformation during the Reagan Era of the 1980s.

The average duration of a party system in the US is 36 years. If the sixth party system began with Reagan’s 1980 election that would make the sixth party system 40 years old. Party systems don’t have a clear cut shelf life, and the end of one and the beginning of another seems to be identified only in hindsight.

Several writers have theorized that we’re in a seventh party system right now.

Chris Vance, former Chair of the Washington State Republican Party theorizes that the national Republican Party is at a dead end and that 2020 could result in a broad and wide coalition of Democrats nationwide. He argues that “2020 could be a realigning election like 1860, 1896, and 1932: an election that ushers in a new era of one-party dominance.”

Some have speculated that a new third party could arise if the Democratic Party becomes dominated by the Democratic Socialist wing of that Party. But election laws, how parties and campaigns are financed and how the insiders hold their coalitions together makes the rise of a new major party unlikely.

Assuming Democrats dominate the federal government in 2020 through a realignment election, and no new third party arises, what would that mean to State politics? It could mean a system where single parties dominate a State and those dominant parties are more moderate than they are today. Here’s how

According to a Gallup poll, in 1989 when the sixth party system had taken hold, voters were largely evenly split between Republican, Democratic and Independent.

That ratio remained relatively unchanged until about 2005, at which time more voters began disaffiliating from the Democratic and Republican Parties started to self identify as Independent. That’s not to say these voters didn’t lean towards one of the two parties. Independents are practical and one of the dominant parties is going to be closer to their ideology. It just meant that those voters who had weak bonds with the two parties no longer identified as party members, but were not ready to join another party. Yet.

Given the election rules that protect the two party dominance in States – such as first past the post voting and gerrymandering- the tribal strategies of operatives and the power of large donors and narrow special interests in party politics, 38 of the States are now dominated by one party and hold “trifectas” controlling the State House, Senate and Executive.


Because of the one party dominance within States independent voters won’t find satisfaction by remaining outside the two party system. At some point they will realize that if they want reform and if they want their vote to really count, and if there is no realistic third party option, they will need to rejoin one of the two major parties.

With no or only weak bonds to any political party, independent voters who decide to join a party should logically join the party within their state that dominates state politics. In that way, they can fully participate in the primary process that will be governing their State. Once that starts to happen the number moderate voters within the dominant parties will increase, thereby moderating the government policies. Meanwhile the less dominant party, which doesn’t get an influx of formerly moderate independent voters, will remain ideologically more rigid and more extreme. That will assure that these non dominant State parties never threaten the dominant party.

The seventh party system will remain nationally with just two parties but increasingly secure one party States where the dominant party grows more moderate and the less dominant party remains weak and ideologically rigid.

Make no mistake, the current political operatives, the donor base and the narrow special interests that now have substantial power within the two parties will act to protect their most cherished policies. But over time as each State sorts into a super dominant party made up of a broader base of moderate voters primaries will be where those battles are played out.

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