Amid the strange twists and turns of the 2016 presidential election, historically-minded observers keep coming back to a big question: Will this year produce a party realignment? As The Economist summarized things: “Academics reckon that in 219 years America has seen just six different party systems… Donald Trump’s idea of turning the Republican Party, long the ally of big business, into a ‘workers’ party’ may yet force a seventh.” Even political scientists have gotten in on this. Lee Drutman, at Vox’s Polyarchy blog, wrote “Eventually, the Democrats will become the party of urban cosmopolitan business liberalism, and the Republicans will become the party of suburban and rural nationalist populism.”
But what does realignment really mean? Where does the idea come from? Is a realignment really all that likely? In fact, there are reasons to believe that the 2016 election won’t result in realignment. The issues that motivate voters may change — in particular, the Republican Party appears more driven by cultural conservatism and grievance than small government philosophy. But new issues could sort voters into the same parties as before.
Electoral realignment is an idea that comes out of a body of mid-20th century political science scholarship. V.O. Key Jr. set out the major criteria for a realigning election in a 1955 article, “A Theory of Critical Elections”: The election results suggest a “sharp alteration of the pre-existing cleavage within the electorate” — in layman’s terms: The groups supporting each party change, and that change persists over several subsequent elections. Walter Dean Burnham, picking up on Key’s ideas, argued that these realignments occur on a cyclical schedule in American politics — about every 30 or 40 years — because the U.S. political system is otherwise structured not to be very responsive to changing demands in the electorate. After several decades, the political system reaches a “boiling point,” resulting in higher voter turnout, third party movements, turmoil within the parties and ultimately a “new normal.”
The other major implication of realignment theory is that American political history can be, as The Economist quote above suggests, divided into several distinct “party systems.” The standard contemporary view is that there have been six:
- The loose Jeffersonian-Democratic and Federalist proto-parties in the early republic, which lasted until about 1820.
- The Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs, leading up to the Civil War.
- The third party system, usually dated between 1852 and 1894, consisted of the newly formed Republicans and the same old Democrats, but with geographic and social bases of support that was different from before the war.
- The fourth party system is referred to by Burnham as the “system of 1896” — a realignment of party positions and constituencies around a northeastern, industrial Republican Party and a western, southern, agrarian and populist Democratic Party.
- Then comes the New Deal system, in which, the story goes, a coalition of labor, various religious and ethnic minorities, white southern farmers, intellectuals and northern African-American voters formed a new dominant coalition starting around 1932.
- More recently, scholars who buy into the party system view have acknowledged a sixth system starting sometime between 1968 and 1980, with a renewed Republican Party and a stark racial cleavage emerging between the two parties.
Party systems, in these accounts, are distinguished by two factors: which party dominates the electoral scene, and which issues drive the conflict between parties. The main issues that define political conflict determine which constituencies align with each party.
Conventional accounts of party systems argue that issues of governing philosophy and the country’s relationship with England informed the first party system. The second was driven by different visions of executive power, the proper role of the federal government in “internal improvements” (building and regulating roads and other infrastructure), and central banking. The transition from second to third party system is especially notable in this regard: The Jacksonian Democrats and Whigs were both competitive throughout the North and South, and both parties carried a range of viewpoints about slavery. In the third party system, the two parties became much more clearly sorted by geography (though this was not the only flashpoint). The fourth party system saw new issues emerge in response to industrialization, with Democratic platforms revised around populism and currency. The fifth, “New Deal” system built up a new Democratic majority around a new, more active approach to governing the economy. The civil rights era brought about a permanent change in the parties’ coalitions around race issues.
If this sounds too neat to you, you’re not alone. Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics has written, “it’s like looking for Jesus in your grilled cheese sandwich. If you stare long enough and hard enough, you will eventually find what you are looking for.” Distinguished political scientist David Mayhew1 found little evidence for most of the central claims of the realignment literature. Mayhew concludes that long-term electoral change of the kind that realignment theory describes is quite uncommon. Cyclical theories of party politics also neglect the importance of what scholars like to call “contingent events” (I think normal people just call them “events”) — scandals, economic fluctuations, wars — that drive the issue agenda and shape politics in the long and short term. But despite these critiques, the idea of realignment remains powerful.
So why do people think it’s going to happen this year? First and foremost: Trump. The GOP nominee has forced us to revisit much of what we thought we knew about Republican voters. Beyond Trump, a summer of violentconfrontations, a prime-time convention speaker who refused to endorse the party nominee, and two intense, competitive primary seasons all make 2016 feel like something is fundamentally different from the recent past.
But feelings are not always reliable guides. In fact, there remains little room for new issues to emerge and change the contours of party affiliation. Political scientists Thomas Carsey and Geoffrey Layman call this “conflict extension” and note that the Republicans and Democrats are divided on a wide range of issues including race and social welfare, and cultural questions such as abortion and LGBTQ rights. Trump may be emphasizing issues different from those of past GOP nominees, but the electorate sorts into the Democratic and Republican camps on those issues no differently than on the policy questions that dominated past campaigns.
This is especially relevant when we think about the prominence of policing and race in the speeches at the party conventions in July. These themes received more attention than in the past — but the parties are already divided on these questions, with Democrats reporting more favorable views of the Black Lives Matter movement, and Republicans emphasising law and order — a decades-old theme within the party. Trump’s near-nonexistent support from minority voters provides material for pithy online commentary, but this general pattern has existed for years. The same is true of the gender gap — women have leaned Democratic while men have leaned Republican for severaldecades. In this regard, Trump’s candidacy represents a deepening of the status quo, not a change in direction.
Moreover, elections characterized as realigning often demonstrate some shift in the electoral map. But the 2016 map looks very similar to 2012’s. Any shift — the possibility of a blue Georgia, for example — will probably be the result of continuing demographic trends — more minority voters in Georgia — not a realignment. Similarly, there’s been talk of Utah as a possibly competitive state. But defection from the Republican Party among Mormons (and other religious groups) is just as likely to be a temporary reaction to this candidate as it is to be a durable shift in partisan loyalties.
Another issue that might prompt realignment talk is trade. It’s true that this stands out among issues that are less neatly divided among partisans. Both presidential candidates have been critical of trade policies such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This represents Hillary Clinton moving more in line with congressional Democrats and Trump breaking from congressional Republican leadership. But the case for a permanent shift in the parties’ coalitions based on the issue of trade is shaky. With Clinton coming out against TPP — and embracing a number of conventional Democratic positions such as higher taxes on the wealthy — it’s hard to imagine that the business constituencies that have traditionally aligned with the Republicans will drift into the Democratic coalition. Without major change in the parties’ economic stances, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a new party alignment that pits business interests against a populist coalition composed of various groups of “have-nots.”
What kinds of issues and changes could lead to a durable party shift? As Marc Hetherington and I wrote in a recent piece comparing 2016 to 1896, if populism becomes a permanent element of the Republican Party, then things could change. We also observed that splits within parties can spur party transformation. Early in 2016, both parties looked ripe for this. At the end of the summer, there’s evidence that things are returning to normal, at least as far as patterns in the electorate go.
The more likely outcome is that American party politics will experience a recalibration, with new issues gaining prominence, but little change in the two parties’ major constituencies. Despite dissatisfaction with the two parties and the 2016 candidates, the roots of group alignment with parties appear deep and strong. A party system divided along racial, ethnic and cultural lines is probably not sustainable, but it may take more than Trump to disrupt its foundations. Whatever frustrations voters may have with their own parties, the potential for permanently shifting alliances looks quite limited in the short term.