Analysis: When political parties realign

January 17, 2002 | By James Chapin

Although the cyclical pattern of American politics, with its regular 36-year turns, suggests that America should be due for a realignment in 2004, I recently argued that the events of Sept. 11 were not the kind that precipitate realignment.

Realignments come from division, not from unity. At least one of the two parties either crumbles and is replaced (the 19th century model) or is taken over by a new group with very different ideas (the 20th century model). That new or changed party either wins, as happened four times (Jackson, although he had to “win” twice before he was elected once, Lincoln, FDR and Nixon), or loses, as happened once (Bryan in 1896).

Although most people remain in the same party, there are shifts of important population groups and major political figures from one party to the other. Most former Federalists became Whigs, but prominent ones such as Roger Taney and James Buchanan joined the Jacksonians, while Henry Clay, the House leader of the Democratic-Republicans, became the best-known leader of the Whig Party. Similar shifts took place in every later realignment.

With the one notable and unique exception of the Civil War, which both grew out of and influenced all American politics before and since, wars have not generally affected American politics permanently.

That the Civil War alignment still carries weight can be demonstrated simply: Abraham Lincoln carried all 18 free states and lost all 15 slave states in the election of 1860. In the election of 2000, Al Gore carried all but three of the states Lincoln carried, and lost all but two of the states he lost.

By contrast, America’s foreign wars have affected elections, but their effects have been impermanent. The Federalists swept the elections of 1798 from the surge of patriotism during the undeclared war with France, but lost everything just two years later after the war was over. Their gains during the War of 1812 showed a worse pattern, as they collapsed altogether within a few years of the peace. Whigs won the elections of 1848 by running a Mexican War general and opposing the war at the same time, but they, too, vanished just seven years later.

William Jennings Bryan ran as the peace candidate instead of the free silver candidate in 1900, but the results weren’t very different from those of 1896. Woodrow Wilson won the election of 1916 in part by keeping us “out of war” and then his party was belabored in the next two elections (1918 and 1920) for getting us into World War I, but they still did well in the 1922 elections.

World War II, the greatest struggle in history, drew German-Americans and British-Americans in opposite directions in 1940, but after the war ended, they voted Republican together in 1946 and then Democratic together in 1948. The Korean War helped Dwight Eisenhower and the Republicans win in 1952 but they lost Congress again two years later.

Vietnam is often seen as a major cause of the realignment of 1968, but as William T. Miller pointed out many years ago, its major effect was to divide the liberal side at a time when the civil rights struggle was reshaping the political system. The anti-war Democrats took a shellacking in 1972, but won big just two years later.

The example of Bush 41’s meteoric rise and fall in the polls during and after the Kuwait War is, of course, a central concern of Bush 43.

Wars usually don’t help the parties in power when they start, and after they are over, the party in power usually takes a beating. But foreign wars don’t reshape politics permanently.

If not wars, then what brings on realignments? One obvious candidate is “the economy, stupid.” Walter Dean Burnham argued that the “realignment cycle” reflects the jerky and late adjustments of American politics to changing economic circumstances.

Every one of the cyclical depressions of the 19th century (1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893) had a major effect on the politics of the United States, as did, of course, the only great depression of the 20th century, in 1929.

The depression of 1819 started the western revolt against eastern bankers that led to Jacksonianism, the often-overlooked depression of 1857 surely helped bring Lincoln to power, the depression of 1893 destroyed the Cleveland administration, leaving his party under the command of the Bryanites, and the effects of 1929 on Hoover are very well known. The two “off-cycle depressions” of 1837 and 1873 did not alter the party systems, but did bring the minority party in the system into close balance with the majority party.

But there has been only one major depression in the last 109 years, and it would be a bit much to expect another to pop up just in time to affect the elections of 2004. Admittedly, voters now react very sensitively to economic decline: the first Bush lost 16 percentage points between 1988 and 1992 because of a 1 percent decline in gross domestic product for one year, while Hoover lost the same amount between 1928 and 1932 with a 25 percent decline over four years!

New issues often break up old party systems. The Bank of the United States, the question of what to do about slavery in the trans-Mississippi region, industrialization, the “new immigration,” censorship, civil rights, feminism, each have had their impact on political systems organized around different issues.

This gives a negative clue about any coming realignment—it will not be about the by now dreary struggles over the issues of 1968: it won’t be about black-white relations, it won’t be about the “social issue complex” or tax cuts and so on. That’s not to say that these issues will cease to matter, just that there’s nothing about these issues that will change the voting patterns of either “Gen X” or its “Gen Y” successor. They’ve heard all the arguments from boomers on both sides of these issues, and they, mostly, don’t care.

Population change is another obvious way to explain the realignment cycle. The first, most obvious, is the sort of generational change outlined by William Strauss and Neil Howe in “Generations” and “The Fourth Turning.”

Generations do indeed have different experiences—it tells us something when we learn that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day. Strauss and Howe would, in effect, argue that the coming realignment would, like those of 1932 and 1860, be a “secular realignment” driven by outside forces, rather than a “cultural” one, like those of 1824, 1896 and 1968, driven by internal ones.

A second form of population change has been shifts within the continent. Certainly the 19th-century trek to the West led to continuous sectional conflict across the dimensions of North-South, East-West. The growth of the cities dominated early 20th-century politics, and the growth of the Sunbelt dominated late 20th-century politics.

A final source of political change has been ethnic shifts caused by foreign or domestic migration: the Irish, the Germans, Scandinavians, Italians, Jews, and the internal movements of Yankees and Southerners to the west, blacks to the North, and then whites to the South. There’s usually been a lag time, but every one of these changes has produced major changes in the political system down the road.

The fact of Mexican immigration, in particular, is going to shift American politics dramatically over time. The children of those immigrants are most likely going to take over one party or the other—the Democrats most likely—and if things don’t change, there will be Latino majorities in America’s three most populous states within only a few years.

Down the road, if nothing changes, America will be a country of 500 million people, only a minority “Anglo” whites by 2050, and of nearly 1 billion with a Latino majority by 2100. Both history and a look at those numbers tell us that many things are likely to change, however.

Similar immigrations have taken over the Democrats in years past—whether Irish or black, for example. What tends to happen is that the opposition party collects majorities of all the voters who don’t belong to the powerful new group. These may well contain many immigrants themselves, immigrants from smaller groups.

But immigration events themselves rarely act as the “trigger” of a new system, and the two major parties rarely admit to being vehicles of ethnic struggle.

So what can we expect? It remains unclear what might set off a realignment, and exactly what factions it might bring together, and what issues (besides largely unspoken ethnic ones) might define the two parties.

If the Republican Party were to continue to be, as it has been, the expression of “old-stock Americans” and “insiders,” it’s going to have to change its positions on a host of issues in order to unify those Americans—it can’t continue to be anti-environmentalist, for example.

The same could be said of the Democrats—if they are to hold the aspirations of “new Americans” or “outsiders” they will have to move their social positions closer to those actually held by new immigrants. And attitudes toward black Americans are going to cease to be the center of the political system.

It’s hard to envisage any of these happening soon, but these are exactly the sort of changes that precipitate realignment and bring it on.

This survey alone seems to demonstrate that if the Bush administration is to play any role in realignment it is the negative one of being its target. This administration is sticking too closely to the 1968 playbook to attract support on new issues. But, then, so is the Democratic opposition, counting on demographic change to bring it into supremacy without any strong issue thrust.

“If we learn anything from history, it is that we learn nothing from history.” It will require a bigger event than Sept. 11 to bring this system down, but it is showing all the signs of age and vulnerability—which will make it vulnerable to the next hammer blow, whatever form that may take.