The left side of the American political-entertainment complex has passed the time since the 2012 election watching the Republican Party with a bowl of popcorn in one hand and a bourbon in the other, listening for the sounds of a cracking foundation.

Karl-Rove-vs.-Tea-Party smackdown! Intra-party moneyfights! Dueling State of the Union rebuttals! The Rand Paul Drone Filibuster and John McCain Peevish Response!

The divisions are sufficiently deep, sufficiently ideological, and sufficiently entertaining to generate speculation about the future of the party itself. How much longer can the Republicans remain old and white in a younger, browner country? How much longer can John Boehner control the superconservatives on his back bench? Science, or quackery? Immigration reform, or border fence? Whither the Republican coalition?

Some of this speculation is rooted in the pure entertainment value a fragmenting political coalition provides; assuming the coalition in question isn’t yours. Democrats are giddy about the potential long-term advantages they sense in the changing demography of the electorate, and political junkies of all types love to spin fantasies of brokered conventions, coalition realignments, and third-party challenges.

But pundits and professional liberals aren’t the only ones discussing the possibility of coalition fracture on the right. Even sober-minded Republican observers recognize real long-term problems for their political brand in the 2012 returns.

Is this just normal, post-defeat soul-searching on the part of the losing party, or do the Republicans really face a crisis? How likely is a long stretch of time in which one of the two major coalitions fails to hold the reins of national power? How likely is a serious third-party challenge from within the current political alignment? How stable is the current party system?

A brief tour of national political history suggests two insights on this question, one obvious, one significantly under-appreciated.

American party politics at the national level has been predominantly, resiliently binary. But this has not always meant a simultaneous even polarity, coalitional uniformity, and party-line discipline we associate with the post-2000 “Red States” and “Blue States” alignment.

National political coalitions have actually been internally fractured, ideologically incoherent, and contradictory almost as often as they have been coherent and unified. This includes coalitions which managed, for long periods of time, to win victories at the polls. Identity, not ideology, held them together.

The centrality of personal identity to partisan behavior, and vice-versa, is an oft ignored aspect of American politics. Narrative historians and political journalists tend to present each individual election as a fresh referendum on the issues of the day. “Undecided voters” are presumed to decide, based on the “issues” put before them. Party loyalty in the overall electorate, however, has been stickier than that, and has been based on experiences behind the voters as often as on information in front of them.

The Party Systems

Historians and political scientists generally identify six major eras of national party alignment, or “party systems,” in the United States.

The first party system – Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans, c. 1792-1816 – emerged as the centralizing economic and tax policies of the Washington administration, especially the chartering of a national bank, generated significant opposition in the Tidewater South and parts of the mid-Atlantic, as well as among those who had opposed ratifying the Constitution in the first place. This opposition gradually coalesced around Thomas Jefferson, Washington’s first Secretary of State.

This broad description fails to capture the white-hot intensity of the era’s politics, however, due to two factors.

The first is that the founding generation distrusted political parties in and of themselves, and viewed their emergence as a dangerous threat to the survival of the new national government.

The architects of the Constitution tried to design a system of national government that would discourage party formation and minimize its effects. The dangers of “faction,” and the capacity of the new national government to mitigate them, had been one of the main public arguments made in favor of ratification, most cleanly expressed by James Madison in Federalist #10.

The Federalists, in fact, were very reluctant to think in terms of party at all, preferring to see themselves as duly elected public servants of no particular partisan identity and see the Jeffersonians as a destabilizing faction in the Madisonian sense. (Madison himself was a prominent figure in the new opposition.)

Jeffersonians returned the favor, blasting the Federalists as closet aristocrats and monarchists who sought to upend American liberty. Both sides believed the American republican experiment to be threatened by the mere existence of the other faction, irrespective of their differences on policy.

The second factor is that these emerging partisan identities were just that – identities, in which voters’ perceived economic interests overlapped strongly with their personal prejudices and worldviews.

Among the best predictors of partisan identity in the 1790s was one’s attitude toward the French Revolution. Was it an expression of the inevitable triumph of global liberty, or a monstrous attack on all forms of social order? Francophiles were strongly Jeffersonian, as was Jefferson himself; many Federalists viewed this pro-revolutionary attitude as prelude to Terror in the United States.

Such attitudes overlapped further into foreign policy, as Federalists believed in the commercial necessity of a stable, peaceful relationship with Great Britain, while Jeffersonians were much more likely to stoke the powerful Anglophobia left over from the revolution.

On the frontier, anti-British attitudes overlapped seamlessly with anti-Native American attitudes, on the grounds that British Canada supplied the northwestern tribes with guns so as to prevent American expansion. Hence, few Federalists on the frontier.

Despite its intensity, the first party system was only nationally competitive for two Presidential cycles, 1796 and 1800, after which time Federalist strength atrophied significantly. Federalists remained competitive regionally, in New England and in a few coastal cities, through the 1810s.

But after 1800, they never controlled Congress, and only once more came close to electing a President, in 1812, when opposition to the war with England held James Madison to just over 50% of the national vote. Their candidate, DeWitt Clinton, was actually a rogue Jeffersonian the Federalists agreed to endorse. After the war, which most Federalists opposed, the party died out.

Historians sometimes describe the national politics of the 1820s as the “Era of Good Feelings” due to the absence of any national competition for the Republicans – although politics remained vibrant and divisive at the local level, particularly in cities.

Party qua Party

The second party system – Jacksonian Democrats and Whigs, c. 1830s-1854 – also emerged out of national disagreement regarding the wisdom of a strong executive. But it was different in two important ways.

First of all, by the 1830s most states had either significantly lowered or entirely abolished economic tests for voter eligibility. This significantly altered the nature of political identity. The percentage of the population eligible to vote, and the percentage of the eligible population that voted, both increased dramatically.

Political citizenship was now defined, literally, as the state of being an adult white male. Participation in politics therefore became a powerful public assertion of masculine identity. That identity was now severed from economic status, but linked more tightly than ever before to race and gender.

The second party system was therefore characterized by high rates of voter turnout, strong partisan identification, and an intensely boisterous public political culture, not necessarily excluding violence.

The second party system was also characterized by the belief that political parties were not only necessary, but good, in and of themselves. They were not destabilizing factions, but important democratic institutions.

The Jacksonian Democrats and Whigs therefore built up national political organizations unashamedly, and viewed maintenance of those organizations, through distribution of patronage and spoils, as one of the basic purposes of winning an election in the first place.

Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren were ideal political partners in this new environment, and they built the Jacksonian Democratic coalition around themselves.

Jackson, the military hero of the War of 1812 and a flamboyantly self-made, violent, masculine public figure, had won a 41% plurality of the popular vote in a four-way election for President in 1824, but fallen short of a majority in the Electoral College. The election was thrown into the House of Representatives, where the combined supporters of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay made Adams President.

The 1828 campaign began more or less immediately, and Jackson’s easy triumph began a re-organization of American politics around, basically, whether Andrew Jackson was a good idea or a bad idea as a national leader of a democratic polity.

Van Buren, Jackson’s closest political ally, second Vice-President, and eventual successor, had constructed one of the first fully functional political patronage machines in New York state. He applied the same techniques at the national level.

The two Jackson administrations combined systematic use of patronage to reward supporters and punish enemies; public policies that were strongly nationalist, anti-elitist, and white supremacist; and robust public campaigns of ballyhoo and mass promotion. By 1836, the result was a stable, functional national political coalition which lasted almost until the Civil War.

Efforts to generalize about “Jacksonian Democracy,” however, flounder on how complex and internally inconsistent this coalition was.

Its most salient feature was that it was national in scope. It combined pro-slavery Southerners; northerners opposed to the expansion of slavery; northerners opposed to limiting the expansion of slavery; anti-bank ideologues and other economic egalitarians; western expansionists; the urban working class; and recent immigrants to maritime cities, particularly Irish Catholics.

Other than an aggressively expansionist foreign policy – eventually labeled “manifest destiny” – and anti-elitist rhetoric, these disparate groups shared only a common affection for the image of Jackson, the party founder, and a common interest in the spoils of victory.

The Whig opposition was even less internally coherent, if such a thing is possible.

They were very close to a pure opposition coalition, made up of anyone opposed to any significant portion of the Jacksonian coalition. The Whig core consisted of advocates of government support for internal improvements, economic development, and centralized banking, such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.

But the party also contained New England and midwestern pietists, groups likely to be hostile to the expansion of slavery, and to Catholics; Southern cotton planters; northern business interests willing to support slavery in the name of national economic development; and anti-immigration nativists. Their political rhetoric and campaign techniques borrowed freely from the Jacksonian playbook of partisan identity, party discipline, and demonstrative nationalism.

During the mature period of the second party system, from roughly 1840 to 1852, both coalitions were very evenly matched at the national level and locally competitive in virtually all areas of the country. This placed a huge premium on holding the coalitions together on election day, emphasizing party identity, and maximizing turnout. They achieved these ends by organizational efficiency, and by avoiding, rather than dealing with, potentially divisive national issues that could cause their coalitions to splinter.

Both parties were nonetheless susceptible to party fracture and third-party challenge.

In an era when parties printed their own ballots, one only had to print them, and have the organization necessary to distribute them, in order to stand for election. Third parties did not have to win very many votes, if they won them in the wrong places, to throw the election to the other side.

Nor were “real” political issues, like slavery or immigration, the only possible sources of splintering. Party patronage factions had to be kept happy.

Historians and political scientists once built entire careers out of keeping straight the various sub-factions of the second party system – Hunkers and Barnburners, Locofocos, Doughfaces, Simon Pure and Silver Grey Whigs, Fire-Eaters and Free-Soilers – any of which might have tipped an election under the right circumstances.

More importantly, the issue of slavery in the territories could not be avoided forever, particularly since the Democrats successfully pursued an expansionist national policy in the 1840s under James K. Polk.

As the sectional crisis worsened in the 1850s, it became more and more difficult to be a Southern Whig or a Northern Democrat. The Whigs cracked first, in 1854, over the crisis in Kansas. In the short term, the Democrats benefitted, as no national coalition immediately took the Whigs’ place.

But in 1860, a new party, the Republicans, managed to elect a President by winning the electoral votes of all the free states, and none of the slave states. The results were Civil War and a new party system.

Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion

In 1874, the Democratic Party, most of which had either seceded from the Union during the Civil War or opposed some portion of the war against the Rebellion, regained majority control of the House of Representatives. This political achievement is more remarkable than usually realized. Less than a decade after Appomattox, the United States was back to an evenly balanced, national two-party alignment, with both parties attempting to compete in all sections of the country.

During the era of the third party system (c. 1856-1896), coalitions revolved around ethnocultural identifications rooted in the Civil War. This remained true long after the war was over, as a quick look at any electoral map from the period confirms.

Republicans continued to position themselves as saviors of the Union and stewards of the centralized national power that crushed the rebellion. They also emphasized other cultural issues of interest to their coalition, particularly opposition to Roman Catholicism.

The Democrats rebuilt themselves as a national coalition by emphasizing tolerance of immigration and religious diversity in the North and white supremacy in opposition to “black Republicans” in the South.

Voter preference depended much more on ethnic, cultural, and religious identification than on economic or other policy differences. This was especially true in the South, where questions of race and citizenship persisted well into the 1890s.

The third party system in the South was defined by the Republican attempt to enfranchise, and the Democratic attempt to suppress, African-American men as voters. Democrats eventually won this battle, but not until the turn of the century.

In the meantime, Republicans established themselves as the “party of Lincoln” among African-American voters, and competed for white voters in parts of the region that had opposed secession and/or resented the pre-war power of the large planters. Democrats responded with assertions of white supremacy and, particularly in areas with substantial black populations, voter intimidation and manipulation.

Even the national issue which seemed the most based in economic policy – a high tariff to protect domestic manufacturing, versus a low tariff to keep imported goods inexpensive – dovetailed with the extended ethnocultural Civil War. Southern Democrats viewed the high tariff as a regionally biased tax, as it made Southern goods more expensive in order to subsidize Yankee industry. Republicans spent the resulting budget surplus on disability pensions for Union war veterans.

This alignment of the third party system was even more finely balanced on a knife-edge than the second, particularly between 1874 and 1896. No presidential candidate won 50% of the popular vote between 1880 and 1892. Grover Cleveland won three popular votes in a row, but it only made him president twice, non-consecutively.

The same party controlled the all three branches of government for only two Congressional sessions, the Republicans the 51st (1891-93) and the Democrats the 53rd (1893-95). A few large, evenly-divided swing states, especially New York, Ohio, and Indiana, held the balance of power.

As with the second party system, third-party issues or splintering party factions could cost either party an election. Upper-class Republicans in favor of a professionalized civil service, as against Federal patronage as pure spoils, were a swing group with outsized influence.

Opposition to alcohol also proved a problematic issue for Republicans. Most natural Republicans supported the emerging Prohibition movement, but the issue cost valuable votes in swing states like Ohio, which contained “drys” in the Western Reserve and beer-drinking German Republicans in Cincinnati.

An injudicious supporter of James Blaine, the 1884 Republican Presidential nominee, caused controversy, and perhaps cost Blaine the election, by labeling the Democrats the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” at a Republican rally a week before election day.

The strength of these cultural identities is not surprising, given the conflation of citizenship, race, masculinity, and identity throughout the nineteenth century. But these coalitions bore little relationship to the emerging economic issues generated by the explosive industrial growth of the late nineteenth century, and new economic issues – particularly those related to credit, debt, commodity prices, and deflation – began to cut across the old coalitions in the 1890s.

Go Ahead, Throw Your Vote Away! Third Parties, Realignment, and the Solid South

No major American political party has been removed from the battlefield completely since the Whigs in the 1850s. But the long-term balance of power between Democrats and Republicans has shifted several times, and the makeup of their coalitions has changed, sometimes significantly. Some of these realignments have led to long stretches during which one of the major parties had very little hope of capturing a national majority without some sort of unusual intervening event.

One of these realignments took place in the mid-1890s, creating a fourth party system (1890s-1932) during which the Republican coalition held a structural advantage in national politics.

A major depression, beginning in 1893, punctuated a period of economic development during which American manufacturing grew rapidly, large business enterprises consolidated power, and commodity prices fell.