The Sixth Party System that prevails in the United States today, during the administration of President Joe Biden, has been with us for more than half a century. It is profoundly different from the party systems that formed the backdrop of what George Will called “the world’s noblest political career, Lincoln’s.” Abraham Lincoln was a product of the Second Party System and played a vital role in the creation of the Third.
The Second Party System, during which Lincoln first won elective office, began during the administration of Andrew Jackson, as the once-dominant Democratic-Republican party founded by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison split into factions that soon solidified into new parties. The Whig party, to which Lincoln allied himself, had an expansive view of the role of government, supporting “internal improvements” (public works such as canal and road building) to stimulate commerce and trade. They also believed in congressional dominance over the executive. The Democrats believed in limited government, low taxes and free trade, and (somewhat paradoxically), a strong executive. Whigs received much of their support from aspiring entrepreneurs, professionals, Protestants, and social reformers, whereas the core Democratic constituencies were laborers, Southern planters, immigrants, and Catholics.
But it was during the Third-Party System that Lincoln was twice elected president, saved the Union, and freed the slaves. The sectional tensions of the 1850s, as the issue of slavery deepened detachments between north and south, divided the Whigs and the Democrats. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise that had excluded slavery from the western territories, brought the issue of human bondage to a roiling boil, and as Lincoln later wrote of himself, “aroused him as he had never been before.” Thus, was born a new political cause: the restriction of the expansion of slavery, and its eventual destruction through its confinement to the states where it already existed. In a tiny schoolhouse in Wisconsin in 1854 was born the new Republican party, a fusion of Whigs, antislavery Democrats, and members of the nativist American party (the Know-Nothings). This new party would first contest the presidency in 1856 with John C. Fremont as its candidate; four years later, Lincoln would win the White House.
The Sixth and current party system is generally agreed to have begun in 1968, with the shifting of allegiance of Southern conservatives from the Democratic party to the Republicans under Richard Nixon, a development that along with others sharpened the ideological divisions between the parties. The “liberal Republican” and “conservative Democrat” officeholders began their gradual decline, and in the last several years have gone virtually extinct.
This more ideological form of politics, along with other factors such as geographic sorting, social media, and partisan cable news, have led to deep divisions that make millions of Americans feel profoundly alienated from their fellow citizens. The intensity of current political rhetoric uncomfortably echoes the sectional crisis of the 1850s, but current divisions do not break down along neat sectional lines. Rather than along north-south lines, the political fault lines run within many states, whether between cities and rural areas or coastal and inland regions. Any future “civil war” would be not only a national tragedy, but also geographically awkward.
It remains to be seen whether a Seventh Party System is now taking shape, but it is clear the constituencies of the two major parties have shifted. Until relatively recently the Republican party won majority support among the highly educated and upwardly mobile; now, the Democrats do. The core Republican constituency is now the socially conservative working class, many of whom feel left behind in an age of globalization. The two parties seem to find each other mutually incomprehensible, but our future depends upon their cooperation as challenges such as racial division, the rise of China, and climate change loom.
Michael F. Bishop is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.