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Party system

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Party system is a term of art used by political scientists to describe a relatively durable system of political party and voter alignments, electoral rules, and policy priorities that dominate a democratic political system's electoral process for some delimited period of time. The "system" reveals how political parties control the government, how they mobilize a base of voters, and how they handle funding, information, and selection of candidates and office holders. In one country, two party systems are separated by a critical election that transforms major parts of the old system and creates a new one. In the United States, political scientists number the party systems, starting with the First Party System, which lasted from the 1790s until about 1824. A similar numbering practice is followed in Canada and Japan.

Origin of the term

The concept of a party system was introduced by James Bryce in The American Commonwealth (1888).

Party systems in comparative politics

Sartori (2005) explores the classification and functions of political parties using the central concept of the organizational network, which goes beyond the party itself to include the space that the party occupies. Historical types and sequences of party organization and organizational development can be differentiated, and also the central concept of the "mass party." Finally, while many different functions can be ascribed to parties, the functions that are central to the notion of party, and essentially irreplaceable, are those of participation, electioneering, and expression.

Caramani (2005) describes the electoral participation and voting patterns for European political parties, as well as their evolution since the mid-19th century from highly territorialized politics to nationwide functional alignments. Caramani gives an empirical analysis through time, across countries, and among parties. Through the inclusion of all of the most important social and political cleavages (class, state-church, rural-urban, ethnolinguistic, and religious), Caramani assesses the homogenizing impact of the Left-Right dimension that emerged from the national and industrial revolutions and the resistance of preindustrial cultural and center-periphery factors to national integration.

Students of presidential regimes claim that while the combination of plurality rule for presidential elections and concurrent electoral cycles favors bipartism, majority rule for electing presidents favors multipartism. A reverse causality also affects the relationship between party systems and electoral systems. Using a bargaining model of institutional change, Negretto (2006) shows that while dominant and large parties are likely to choose plurality rule and concurrent elections, small parties are likely to choose majority rule. Military rulers and military-civilian coalitions tend to follow the logic of electoral choice of small parties. These hypotheses are supported by Negretto (2006) in a statistical analysis of the determinants of electoral choice in 49 cases of constitutional change in Latin America during the 20th century.

In 1970, Richard Rose and Derek Urwin published a seminal piece on the stability of party support in Western democracies, "Persistence and Change in Western Party Systems Since 1945." Everywhere they looked, established parties seemed to reflect stability rather than change, lending credence to the notion that party systems were frozen. Numerous subsequent studies, however, have produced mixed results. Part of what seems to be fueling this debate lies in the disparate measures researchers use to gauge stability. Drummond (2006) is an update of Rose and Urwin's study, and addresses the issue of comparable results by maintaining the same data source and methods they used to gauge the stability of party support, extending the study. The results indicate that party system instability has been on the rise throughout much of the West since 1970, with statistically significant increases seen in Scandinavia and across all regions combined. Furthermore, the parties that seem to be experiencing the most change are not only the newest parties - as the frozen cleavages thesis might predict - but also those parties formed during the interwar period, the large majority of which showed much greater stability in 1970.

Democracy issues

The problem of parties as an enemy of democracy was raised by German sociologist Robert Michels (1876-1936). Michels argued that an institutionalized political party or labor union gets captured by its bureaucracy--the local and regional full-time officials, who choose each other and are motivated to maintain the perquisites of office, power, and high status, and therefore develop ways of thinking and policy positions which are different from those of the party's rank-and-file. This was Michels' "iron law of oligarchy," and it especially affected labor parties. In the U.S., the Progressive Movement included systematic efforts to break the party's internal system and give more power to the voters. Thus candidates were selected by primary elections open to all voters rather than small groups meeting in party caucuses. California in particular drastically weakened the internal structure of parties, 1910-1970.

Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950), an American economist, argued in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942) that democracy in complex polities can exist, but only as a system in which the populace, the electorate, can choose between alternative candidates for office, i.e. among parties competing for office.

North America

U.S. Models

American Party Systems was a major textbook by Charles Merriam in the 1920s. In 1967 the most important single breakthrough appeared, The American Party Systems. Stages of Political Development, edited by William Nisbet Chambers and Walter Dean Burnham. It brought together historians and political scientists who agreed on a common framework and numbering system. Thus Chambers published the book The First Party System in 1972. Burnham published numerous articles and books. The model appears in most political science textbooks and many history textbooks, and is included in the AP tests in history and government that 300,000 high school students take every year.

Closely related is the concept of critical elections (introduced by V. O. Key in 1955), and "realignments." U.S. political history has been divided into five periods of party systems.

First Party System

In American history, the First Party System saw the creation of the world's first popular parties.[1] All Americans were committed to the same set of republican values, but gtheir interpretation varies. Alexander Hamilton started them with the creation of a party that was (later) called the Federalist Party in 1790-92, as he created a nationwide network of supporters to stand up for his policies. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison opposed Hamilton's policies and created what they called the Republican party about 1792-93 (historians a century later called it the "Democratic-Republican Party"). Soon the political system in each state was polarized along the same lines. The new parties created the "rules of the game"[2] involving techniques to arouse and maintain the interest of citizens and their permanent loyalty to the party. The Federalists took the lead in creating party newspapers in every major city. State and local organizations were created. The Republicans selected their candidates for national office by a caucus of Congressman (the last time it worked was 1816). The Federalists had the first national convention, but lagged far behind in organizing skills. The peaceful transfer of power from Federalists to Republicans in 1800 set the standard. In terms of issues, the Federalists stood for a strong financial system (headed by a national bank), folding state debts into the national debt (so that bondholders would be onterested in the success of the national government), and a strong army and navy. The Republicans opposed all these points, and instead emphasized state's rights and a weak federal government. Foreign policy was a central concern. With Britain and France at war from 1793 to 1815, the Federalists favored Britain and denounced the French Revolution. The Republicans favored the French until Napoleon became dictator in 1799; they always opposed and feared the British. The Fedralists collapsed after 1816 and the Republicans lost their cohesion, breaking into four facgtions in 1824.

Second Party System

The Second Party System (1828-1854) revolved around the Democratic party founded by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, opposing the Whig Party founded and led by Henry Clay. Major issues included Jacksonian opposition to banks and modernization. New rules of the game included the extension of the franchise to nearly all white men (including many immigrants), the spoils system (the winning party gets the offices), and more democracy in state and local government, such as election of judges and local officials.

Third Party System

The Third Party System (1854-1896) was dominated by the new Republican party. The central issues involved slavery, union, Civil War, emancipation, Reconstruction. and civil rights for Freedmen (the freed slaves). Economic issues involved the modernizing programs of the GOP, such as national banks, high protective tariffs, land grants to railroads, and federal aid to education. Also of importance were corruption issues and civil service, and (at the state level) prohibition of alcohol. It was an era of high immigration, especially from Germany, Britain and Scandinavia, with a consensus that Chinese immigration should be ended and a growing debate regarding German-language private schools. New rules included suffrage for Freedmen but not for women; the women responded with a suffragist movement. The System collapsed in the Panic of 1893, a severe nationwide depression that was blamed on the conservative "Bourbon Democrats" led by President Grover Cleveland.

Fourth Party System

For more information, see: Fourth Party System.

The political regime from the 1890s to the 1930s is called the Progressive Era by historians, who focus more on social and cultural issues, as well as state and local politics. Political scientists focus more on national party structures, Constitutional amendments (especially woman suffrage and the direct election of senators), primary election laws, and turnout patterns. Everyone agrees that the system collapsed when the Republican party took the blame for the Great Depression, and that Franklin D. Roosevelt replaced it with his New Deal Coalition, or Fifth Party System.

Major rules changes include the disfranchisement of blacks in the South, the enfranchisement of women (first in the western states, then nationally in 1920), the direct election of senators which took the choice away from state legislatures, federal election finance laws, and (in many states), the weakening of parties through the direct primary, voter registration laws, and (to a lesser extent), the initiative, referendum and recall. Many cities set up bureaus of municipal research to apply the Efficient Movement to the running of local government. In Wisconsin, the "Wisconsin Plan" of Charles McCarthy made university experts government consultants.

Other changes in the rules included the decline of partisan newspapers in the wake of Yellow Journalism. Big city papers now made their profits from advertising, which depended on the number of readers. By dropping a strict party affiliation, newspaper barons like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer could double their potential circulation. The theme of corruption was used by Muckraking journalists to expose bad conditions in the cities, and their cover-up by political machines.

Fifth Party System

For more information, see: Fifth Party System.


The First Party System (1867-1917) collapsed in the wartime conscription crisis. In the Second Party System (1921-57), dominated by the Liberals under Mackenzie King, a series of new party formations resulted, including the Unionists in 1917, farmer and left-wing parties in the Prairies, and a French party in Quebec. The Third Party System (1957-1984) was more Conservative. A Fourth Party System, mostly Liberal, has existed since 1984. [3]


Institutionalization of African party systems has not occurred over an extended period, but rather, institutionalized party system configurations have been stable from the onset of multiparty elections. The institutionalization-cum-stabilization of a party system is thus an important aspect of making democracy work. Using several indicators of party system stability, Africa's 21 electoral democracies can be classified as fluid (eight countries), de-stabilized (two countries), or stable party systems (11 countries), and that eight out of 11 stable systems are one-party dominant.[4]



Since World War II, Japan has had two party systems: the First Party System began in 1955, the Second in 1993. [5]


Before the European Union, European parliamentary democracies have had their own rich party systems, of varying stability.

European Union

The rich array of party systems evident in the European Union (EU) became even more diverse with the accession of ten new member states with their own party systems in May 2004. Among the new players in the "Europolity," there are several Communist successor parties. These parties have undertaken a variety of reform processes dependent on, among other things, the nature of the transition that their societies have undergone. They have therefore taken up different places in their respective national party systems. Subsequently, they have adopted different attitudes toward issues of European integration. The Polish, Czech, Slovak, and East German successor parties have encountered different experiences in this regard. While the German Party of Democratic Socialism (heir to the former Communist ruling party, the Socialist Unity Party) is already well integrated into the Europolity and has developed its own positions on most European policies, the defining issue for the three other parties has been the question of accession and membership. The attitudes of these three parties toward the EU's most significant policy areas are most often shaped by national policy preferences rather than by any acceptance of broader European goals.[6]


  1. There were "parties" or groupings in the British Parliament, which had little connection to voters.
  2. A term coined by Frank Kent in the 1920s.
  3. James Bickerton and Alain-G. Gagnon, eds. Canadian Politics (4th ed 2004) p 247-9
  4. Staffan I. Lindberg, "Institutionalization of Party Systems? Stability and Fluidity among Legislative Parties in Africa's Democracies," Government and Opposition (March 2007), 42#2 pp 215-241, in Blackwell-Synergy
  5. Hrebenar (2000)
  6. Michael Dauderstädt, "The Communist Successor Parties of Eastern and Central Europe and European Integration." Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 2005 21(1): 48-66. Issn: 1352-3279 Fulltext: Ebsco