One result was the emergence of a significant third party in the South and west, the Populist, or People’s Party. They advocated inflationary economic policies, government regulation of big businesses, and a restoration of commodity producers to the center of American political identity. They fielded a Presidential candidate in 1892, earning 8.5% of the popular vote and 22 electoral votes from western states. In their areas of greatest strength, they functioned temporarily as the de facto second party, displacing the atrophying Republicans in the South and Democrats in the west.

In 1896, one of their main issues – free coinage of silver currency, which would have inflated the money supply significantly – was co-opted by the Democratic Presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan barnstormed the country, attacking the growing cultural influence of cities and comparing the gold standard to the crucifixion of Christ.

After a series of Presidential election cycles focused on re-fighting the Civil War, the election of 1896 turned into a referendum on what should or should not function as money, and whose sense of cultural identity money should serve.

The resulting Republican victory looked deceptively similar on the map to their wins from the 1880s. But they won an outright majority of the popular vote for the first time since 1872 and gained majority control of Congress. These gains turned out to be structural, and lasting. No Democrat won a majority of the Presidential popular vote again until 1932, and Republicans failed to control Congress for only eight of the intervening years.

The 1890s also saw the systematic disfranchisement of African-Americans in the former Confederacy through a series of discriminatory voter registration restrictions and “Jim Crow” laws rigorously segregating public life on the basis of race.

Democrats championed these restrictions in the name of white supremacy, and were rewarded with political domination of the region for over half a century. With the exception of parts of the upper South, the former Confederacy functioned as something close to a one-party state-within-a-state until well after World War II. Voter turnout dropped significantly. This was the Democratic “Solid South.”

The fourth party system can therefore seem even more obviously the consequence of the long, long tail of the Civil War than the third. The Republicans dominated the former Union, except for urban areas in which effective Democratic machines organized working-class and immigrant voters.

The Protestant-Catholic divide remained highly predictive outside the South, as did attitudes toward Prohibition. Inside the South, no prediction was necessary. In some areas, the Democratic primary functioned as the “real” election.

Unless this balance of power was ruptured by an unforeseen event, the result was a national Republican victory.

Of course, the fourth party period happened to contain one of the most charismatic and entertaining unforeseen events in American history: Theodore Roosevelt. The split he created in the Republican coalition between 1910 and 1916 corresponds with the only period of Democratic political success during the fourth party period.

Roosevelt became President in 1901 upon the assassination of William McKinley. In 1904, he was comfortably re-elected. In 1908, he engineered the nomination of William Howard Taft as his successor.

Taft had held a series of appointed positions, including Governor-General of the Philippines and Secretary of War, but he had never stood for election in his life. He nevertheless won the same 51% of the vote that McKinley had won in 1896 and 1900 (and against the same opponent, William Jennings Bryan).

Roosevelt was measurably more popular than other Republicans of the period. His 1904 re-election margin, for example, was about five percentage points larger than the McKinley-Taft totals. His vigorous support of Progressive regulatory reform, however, cut across the ethnocultural coalitions of the fourth party system.

Roosevelt’s choice of Taft as a successor had been based in the assumption that Taft was also a Progressive, but by 1910 Roosevelt and his allies were so convinced that they had made a mistake that Roosevelt re-entered national politics. The split cost the Republicans control of the House in 1910.

At the 1912 Republican National Convention, Roosevelt attempted to wrest the nomination from the sitting President he himself had anointed. When he failed, he walked out of the convention and ran for President anyway.

The Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, coasted to victory despite winning less than 42% of the popular vote. Congressional majorities came with him. Roosevelt came in second, and the incumbent President came in third, with only 8 electoral votes.

1912 remains the paradigmatic example of a third-party candidate altering the outcome of an election by dividing a potentially winning coalition.

Such was the long-term resilience of the ethnocultural coalitions of the fourth party system, however, that the Roosevelt fiasco did not realign national politics in the Democrats’ favor. Wilson narrowly won re-election in a two-way race in 1916, but he failed to clear 50% of the popular vote, and the Democrats nearly lost control of the House.

In 1918, the Republicans regained Congress. In 1920, Warren Harding coasted to a Republican victory more convincing, and more obviously based in the regional isolation of the Democratic Party, than any before. Harding’s campaign call for a return to “normalcy” was intended as a reference to American involvement in World War I, but he also had the political science right.

The fate of the Democratic Party during the 1920s is the kind of worst-case scenario contemporary pundits have in mind when they speculate about irreconcilable party coalitions and long periods of irrelevance. The Democratic nadir came in the 1924 and 1928 cycles.

By then, the Democratic Party contained two centers of gravity: big-city political machines and the racially segregated Solid South. They agreed on very little.

At the 1924 Democratic National Convention, they spent days arguing about whether the Ku Klux Klan should be condemned or affirmed, as millions listened on the radio. The Klan won. In 1928, the urban wing prevailed, nominating Al Smith, Governor of New York and the first Roman Catholic to head a major party ticket. They lost both elections by wide margins.

Fear Itself: The New Deal Coalition

The Democratic Party was saved by the Great Depression. The fifth party system (1932-1964), which historians sometimes refer to as the New Deal coalition, was characterized by a new majority alignment within the Democratic Party generated by Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the international economic crisis.

Roosevelt took office at the very bottom of the crisis. The American unemployment rate was 25% and the banking system was near collapse. Roosevelt responded with a series of unprecedented Federal interventions in the private economy.

New Deal legislation established multiple flavors of work relief; regulation of private capital markets; farm subsidies; real estate subsidies; regional economic planning; disability and retirement insurance; and significant changes in Federal labor law favoring union organization.

The political result was a new Democratic coalition representing a clear majority of the electorate. Existing Democratic advantages among urban, Catholic, immigrant, and working-class voters grew stronger. The Solid South remained solid.

To these were added unionized workers; farmers who benefitted from price supports; self-conscious “liberals” who supported regulation of business and use of Federal resources on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged; and African-Americans.

Union loyalty to the Democrats proved particularly lasting, as the major manufacturing unions became important long-term sources of Democratic financial and organizational support as well as a key voting bloc.

The shift of African-American voters out of the party of Lincoln and into the party of the white supremacist South was partly a product of their shift out of the South itself. African-Americans moved to northern cities in large numbers during first half of the twentieth century, where they encountered significantly less voter discrimination than in the former Confederacy. They became an important component of a winning Democratic vote total in key industrial states like Illinois, Ohio, and New York.

This coalition may have been more contradictory than the rump Democratic Party of the 1920s. It only functioned as a majority if questions of race and civil rights could be kept out of national electoral politics. The Democrats largely managed this before World War II. Southern Congressmen controlled key committees through which any important legislation passed. Most New Deal programs were segregated and/or discriminatory, though work relief did reach some African-Americans.

These issues could not be kept off the table after the war, however.

The 1948 Democratic convention prefigured what might happen to the New Deal coalition if forced to deal directly with racial justice. Northern liberals, led by Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, demanded a strong pro-civil rights plank in the platform. Southern segregationists threatened to walk out of the convention if liberals prevailed.

President Truman, who had ordered the desegregation of the armed forces the previous year, sided with the liberals, and the segregationists kept their promise. South Carolina governor J. Strom Thurmond mounted a third-party “Dixiecrat” campaign, depriving Truman of 39 electoral votes.

Truman survived, barely, but the Democrats spent the 1950s dancing awkwardly around the fact that their coalition contained the Americans both most likely and least likely to support civil rights. The 1952, 1956, and 1960 Democratic tickets were “balanced” between Northerners widely believed to support robust action on civil rights and Southerners widely believed not to.

The postwar Republican coalition contained a similar, though less severe, division between northeastern moderates and western and midwestern conservatives. Political analysts in the 1950s occasionally spoke of a “conservative coalition” of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans as the real center of national political gravity. Legislation during this period could be moved, or blocked, by a variety of unusual coalitions.

The Long Goodbye

The current party alignment is clearly different from the New Deal order. It is less clear, however, when the realignment moment between the fifth and sixth systems took place.

In fact, some of the assumptions about “bipartisanship,” “independents,” and “undecided voters” commonly made by contemporary pundits might be explained by the fact that this realignment process was unusually long, and that many Americans spent most of their political lives inside it.

The shift clearly began in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson committed the Democratic Party to civil rights at the national level by signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Support for this legislation tracked more closely with region than with party; many northern Republicans supported it.

But when arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, who voted against the Act as a Senator from Arizona, captured the Republican Presidential nomination, the shift of conservative Southern whites out of the Democratic Party began. Goldwater was wiped out nationally, but he carried the deep South. African-Americans voted for Johnson by about 9 to 1, and have remained aligned with the Democrats at or near this level ever since.

The permanent shift of Southern conservatives to the Republican Party didn’t happen overnight, however. As two-party competition returned to the former Confederacy, Southern politics were volatile and unpredictable for a while.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally enfranchised African-Americans throughout the South. Some opponents of civil rights switched parties; some remained Democrats for a few more election cycles; some Democrats accommodated the changes and began competing for black votes.

Southern Republicanism returned, particularly in the rapidly growing suburbs. While Richard Nixon’s campaigns of 1968 and 1972 were more moderate than Goldwater’s had been, they nevertheless introduced the so-called “Southern strategy” of appealing to disgruntled Southern whites on cultural issues while rejecting overt segregationism.

As the civil rights movement turned north in the late 1960s and began addressing issues of real estate discrimination and “white flight” to the suburbs, these techniques began to attract northern voters as well.

Meanwhile, the Democratic landslide of 1964 proved to be an outlier rather than a realignment. Johnson used his victory to pass a package of transformative “Great Society” legislation – Medicare and Medicaid, immigration reform, anti-poverty and anti-discrimination legislation, health and safety regulation, and the Voting Rights Act. He also sent half a million combat troops to Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court issued a series of decisions that rendered racial segregation unconstitutional, strengthened First Amendment protections against religious establishment, strengthened due process rights for accused criminals, re-drew legislative districts, and reshaped the legality and constitutionality of reproductive freedom.

The short-term political response was Republican recovery in the 1966 midterms, national division over Vietnam, and the chaos of the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Examine the preceding paragraph closely, however, and a realignment does emerge. But it emerged in 1980, in the Republican Party, around Ronald Reagan, in opposition. It took additional spurs to achieve, such as Roe v. Wade, which gradually united conservative Catholics and white evangelicals, the decline of industrial unionism, and the anti-tax revolts of the 1970s.

Complete realignment in Congress took even longer, perhaps until 1994. Today’s “movement conservative,” however, can be identified fairly efficiently by gauging the intensity of their opposition to the Warren Court and the Great Society. Did the cause of human liberty advance during the 1960s? Bill Clinton and Rick Santorum approach that question differently.

The long timeframe of this realignment helps explain the unpredictable coalitions, split-ticket voting, volatile landslides, and apparent decline in partisanship characteristic of national politics between 1964 and 2000.

Jimmy Carter’s 1976 electoral map, for example, seems particularly difficult to characterize, especially given that it came between the Nixon landslide and the Reagan landslides. So-called “Reagan Democrats” voted the new coalition at the top of the ticket and the old coalition down-ballot. Self-reported partisanship declined.

If this period is your frame of reference for “normal” politics – if you are, say, a Baby Boomer – the Red State-Blue State polarity of the 2000s seems unusual and counter-productive in its partisanship. But as with so much else in American life, the Boomer experience may be the outlier, not the norm.

Can I Finish? Or, the Myth of the Independent Voter

Before 1992, the vast majority of significant third-party candidates in American history came from disgruntled portions of the existing party alignment.

Three of them – Martin Van Buren in 1848, Milliard Fillmore in 1856, and Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 – were former Presidents. Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968 unabashedly represented the fear that white supremacy was insufficiently respected inside the New Deal coalition.

But H. Ross Perot seemed to parachute in from the moon, and, to the extent that he had a strategy at all, he attempted to position himself as the very absence of politics. His support proved to be remarkably uniform nationally, and his supporters difficult to generalize about. He won almost 20 million popular votes in 1992, but no electoral votes; his presence in the race allowed Bill Clinton to win an electoral college majority with only 43% of the popular vote.

After a second, less successful run in 1996, he disappeared again. Perhaps he is back on the moon.

What was H. Ross Perot?

Some political scientists believe he had real impact on party realignment, despite his non-partisan public stance. His signature issue – the immorality of government indebtedness – is now a conservative Republican talking point, and Congressional districts in which he over-performed were disproportionally likely to swing into the Republican column during the 1994 Congressional realignment. Others disagree; one has called him a “voter-supported ego trip” of little long-term consequence.

The Perot type, however – non-partisan, socially moderate and fiscally conservative, allegedly speaking to a presumed angry, presumed non-partisan, alleged middle – has remained a surprisingly popular fantasy figure among pundits and commentators.

Another member of this genus is Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York. The similarity in their backgrounds, in fact, is striking. They both grew preposterously wealthy by founding companies that organized information in innovative ways; they both grew convinced that their wealth insulated them from the corrupting effects of political fundraising and that their “problem-solving” experience made them ideal non-partisan executives.

Bloomberg, it turns out, has been able to combine executive success with real personal popularity and serial contempt for the partisan identifier behind his name. A few other figures have had similar success as non-partisan parachute candidates at the state level, such as Jesse Ventura in Minnesota and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California.

But pundits are probably wrong about there being a large, untapped market for such non-partisan candidates in the national electorate. Political scientists are deeply suspicious of the idea that the current electorate contains large numbers of genuinely persuadable “independents” smack-dab in the middle.

Most self-described independents, when actually in the booth, vote in predictably partisan ways. Nor are they necessarily all moderate. Since 2008, a significant percentage of “independents” appear to be conservatives declining to identify with the Republican brand name.

Old Identities, New Issues

Which brings us back to the present: how stable is today’s Republican coalition?

Despite the current infighting, the odds of a catastrophic coalition fracture during the 2016 cycle are probably quite low. One reason to discount the possibility of a real Republican crack-up is the likelihood of electoral success in 2014. The out-party tends to make gains during midterm elections, an effect likely to be enhanced by the fact that midterm electorates tend to be older and more politically engaged.

Both these dynamics favor Republicans, who are therefore likely to go into the 2016 cycle with more confidence than they have now. The same phenomenon played out in the 2010 midterms.

Furthermore, the current systems of party nomination and ballot access make a 1912-style, late-game, kamikaze third-party run very unlikely. Robust third-party challenges are hard to mount at the last minute in a fit of pique, thanks to candidacy-filing deadlines and other barriers to ballot access.

Since Watergate, party nominees have been chosen in a fashion that minimizes the likelihood of producing a candidate wildly unacceptable to major coalition partners, as could occasionally happen before the nominations were openly contested nation-wide in primaries and caucuses.

That is not to say that realignment is out of the question. But party identities at the moment are much stickier than the myth of the “independent” voter suggests.

Transformative realignment is more likely to come from the emergence of new issues not presently central to either coalition identity than from the movement of “independents,” or from older fault lines.

For instance, the recent fight over the Stop Online Piracy Act produced pro- and anti- coalitions wildly at odds with partisan identification. Drone warfare, domestic surveillance, and online privacy issues hold similar potential.

The current party alignment was not constructed with reference to American attitudes toward ones and zeroes any more than the third party alignment was constructed with reference to American attitudes toward industrialization. How long will that last?

Younger voters skew Democratic, socially libertarian, and hostile to the old culture wars. They have also never lived in a world without near-universal access to everything ever digitized – or a world without a corporate tracking device in every pocket.

Rand Paul, for one, thinks he has something new to say to these voters. We are likely to find out if he is right.