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Boom, bust and Harper Add to ...

There is an interesting speculative piece out by CTV today musing if we are witnessing the end of the Conservative era in Canadian politics and comparing it to the waning of the Sixth Party System many political scientists are claiming is currently occurring in the United States.

There is certainly the potential for transformative change in the electoral dynamic at present. But the matter is much more complex than the "end of the Conservative era."

The main conclusion to be drawn from the history of the Canadian party systems remains this: Since 1896, the Conservatives do not have eras in government; they are typically the boom and bust punctuation between Liberal eras.

To demonstrate my contention, a little political science lecture is in order…

A popular method of analysis of American electoral history is to divide it into a number of eras or "party systems." These are periods of time in which the fundamental electoral dynamic remained stable. Typically, this is also joined by a general public policy consensus or a moving toward a consensus on the major division of the times.

There is significant debate over what constitutes a party system and which elections are the realignments. The theory started with V.O. Key's work on critical elections and since spawned a truckload of literature.

The basic argument in U.S. politics divides the electoral history of the country into three to seven eras, punctuated by realigning elections. These realigning elections are the obvious electoral catastrophes that remake the political map permanently and dramatically. In the United States, these are widely agreed to include the elections of Adams, Lincoln and FDR; less commonly the elections of Andrew Jackson, William McKinley and Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan.

Some see the cycle as changing every 50 to 60 years, with the complete turnover of the lifetime of voters. Others see the change occurring every 30 to 36 years, as a more common generational turnover effect.

This 30 year cycle starts with the First Party System of the Federalists of Adams and Hamilton fighting the Democratic Republicans of Jefferson, Monroe and Madison. The basic cleavages were about the role of the federal state, and was decisively won by the decentralist Democratic-Republicans to the point that no one opposed them for the Presidency for several elections.

The Second Party System is ushered in by the election of Andrew Jackson and his Democrats, who is opposed by the Whigs. It lasted from 1828 to 1854. It was a period of intense and bitter personal rivalry, with policy divides secondary to personal ambitions and the spoils system. Election turnout was huge at this time, because votes were bought and the consequences were immediate and certain.

The Third Party System saw the rise of a dominant Republican Party. The era was marked by the climax of the national debate over slavery and the repercussions of the Civil War. The South became fixedly Democrat and the North reliably Republican, but both parties were pro-business. The system finally collapsed when William Jennings Bryan shattered the standoff with his play to roll up all of the disadvantaged, and forced the Republicans to become the party of business against the Democrats as the party of the common folk.

Beginning in 1896, the Fourth Party System continued Republican dominance, but the era was marked by a series of progressive legislative reforms authored by the Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt. Over time, the Republicans became less progressive and activist and more conservative and do-nothing until they were ideologically incapable of dealing with the chaos of the Depression.

The Fifth Party System saw the Democrats finally return to dominance, with FDR and Truman. While the New Deal coalition fractured at times, and Eisenhower was able to win the White House, the Democrats rarely lost control of Congress and maintained momentum behind progressive legislation on everything from the Tennessee Valley Authority to the G.I. Bill to the Civil Rights Act.

Arguably, the Sixth Party System was born in 1968 with the election of Richard Nixon, although others point to the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. Whatever the start date, political scientists are suspecting it is now over.

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