This was originally supposed to be one post, but seems to have morphed into three. Oh well. More reading value for your internet dollar!
There are many lessons one can draw from the history of American political parties and the Party Systems they create, but the key one for my purposes here is that they are historical events. They have a history, which means that there was a time before they existed and there will be a time when they no longer exist.
Once you step into History, death is inevitable.
The question, of course, is how this will happen. And, related to that, when. Because the mere fact that parties and party systems will eventually go away does not speak to those issues at all.
It does not speak to timing. These things could disappear tomorrow. They could last for decades or even centuries. The First Party System lasted maybe 25 years, depending on how you count. The Second lasted about that long. The Third has lasted for a century and a half, give or take, but the parties that it rests on have changed shapes and platforms often enough that its creators would neither recognize nor approve of what the Third Party System is today, even if that System could somehow be made functional. Perhaps it would be better to discuss the Third Party System as a series of subsets, which would only complicate the timing question further.
Nor does the inevitable death of party systems speak to the issue of mechanics. How do these things end? On the macro level that’s an easy question – party systems end when one or more of the parties making them up collapse or die out. This just moves the question down one level, however – how then do those parties die out?
One of the things that you notice if you examine the ends of parties is that they generally come about from a combination of two things: external crisis and internal weakness.
Most of the time, when a party collapses it does so at a point where it has arrived at a crisis in the world – a situation where questions that have been put off can no longer put off, or where issues of great importance shove themselves into prominence in a way that forces parties to have to deal with them.
Of course, this sort of thing happens all the time without killing parties. Paradigms shift, crises happen, and such is the nature of the world. A well-run, cohesive and functional party exists in part to deal with just such things and can handle them with relative ease. The mere fact of crisis is not in itself sufficient to destroy a political party.
The more important issue is internal weakness. A party that is at war with itself, a party that is structurally weak, divided, intellectually drained or at odds with the clear direction of the country as a whole cannot survive the inevitable crises that are the way of the world and eventually it will find itself in the midst of a crisis that it cannot resolve, that highlights precisely its greatest weakness, drives through that hole and makes the party collapse from the inside. Outside events create context, but self-inflicted wounds are what leads to political change.
The Federalists were done in by a combination of their refusal to acknowledge the ideological shift of the new nation away from their foundational views and their phenomenally poor handling of the War of 1812, particularly the Hartford Convention of 1814.
They had been fading since the re-election of Thomas Jefferson in 1804, as the new United States moved away from their Broad Construction, active federal government ideas and toward the more limited ideas of federal government power that would define most of the nineteenth century. Jefferson and Madison’s mishandling of the run-up to the War of 1812 gave them some energy, however. They tried to parlay that into a revival of their fortunes but overplayed their hands at the Hartford Convention.
Strongest in New England, a region that was bitterly opposed to the War of 1812, the Federalists went into that convention loudly protesting the war and threatening to secede from the Union to form a new and more Anglophile nation if the US did not immediately withdraw from the war on whatever terms necessary. They backed off from that position during the actual convention, but between the pre-convention publicity and the stunning news of Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans (which actually happened after the peace treaty had been signed, but nobody on this side of the Atlantic knew that yet), the Federalists came out of Hartford looking like traitors to the glorious American victory over Britain.
The fact that the War of 1812 was a disaster for the US, one that decisively proved both the necessity of central banking and the uselessness of citizen militias for offensive warfare, was secondary. The fact that the British could easily have destroyed the US had they not been preoccupied with Napoleon and that the US made peace as quickly as they could once the Napoleonic Wars were over wasn’t even discussed. The Federalists were simply out of step, tarred with treason, left without much of a platform, and shattered. They were never a national force again, and by 1820 they were essentially dead.
The Whigs are an even more clear-cut example of this phenomenon, wiping themselves off the map over the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and their own internal sectional divisions over slavery.
The Second Party System was based on the Missouri Compromise of 1820 – without that agreement, however flawed it may have been, the Second Party System could not have survived, because the Missouri Compromise allowed political leaders to declare the issue of slavery in the western territories solved and sweep further questions about it under the rug. This was a conscious decision, not an accident. Second Party System leaders understood that the sectional issue of slavery in the territories would tear the Union apart – indeed, if you have to pick one single issue that caused the Civil War it would be that one – and the only way to prevent this was to build a political system based on things that crossed sectional lines. By keeping the Second Party System focused on national issues – tariffs, banks, internal improvements, and so on – leaders could bridge sectional differences and hold the Union together.
When political divisions line up with geographic divisions, nothing good will come of it.
The Mexican War of the late 1840s re-opened this question. A war of naked aggression designed to appropriate as much of Mexico as the South wanted in order to give slavery room to expand, it is the classic example of the old line, “Beware of what you wish for; you just might get it.” Northerners – content to let slavery be in the South – did not want to see it expand into the West. Southerners – adamant that slavery had to expand or die and willing to force it down the throats of unwilling Westerners in order to get their way – insisted that it had to expand.
The Compromise of 1850 did nothing to settle this issue, and as sectional loyalties began to trump political loyalties, the Whigs found themselves stretched to their breaking point. When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 essentially repealed the Missouri Compromise in favor of “popular sovereignty” – of letting Westerners decide for themselves whether to have slavery or not – they were doomed. Southern Whigs voted almost unanimously for the Act. Not a single Northern Whig did. The party could not survive the sectional split within its own ranks, and it quickly spiraled into acrimony, accusations, and decay. By 1856 they were gone. Northern Whigs would form the core of the new Republican Party. Southern Whigs were left largely on their own for a few years, until the Civil War hit.
The current state of the Third Party System is worrisome if you look at it in this light.