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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Special Guest Contributor
Program Director, Political Science at American Public University
George Washington warned of the dangers of political parties in his 1796 farewell address, affirming that: “the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.” Washington was wary of political parties because he was witness to the formation of the first parties in 1796 and believed they were a divisive force in the newly-formed republic.
American political parties have evolved since the time of Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson, in five distinct cycles, known as political party realignments. The causes of each realignment cycle vary, from changing demographics and economic downturns, to the rise of independent voters and a divided political electorate.
There are some influential theories about the evolution of political parties. Dealignment theory, for example, suggests that there is no dominant political party, and that political parties have little influence on the decisions made by the American electorate. Realignment theory, on the other hand, is based on the analysis of the dominance of political parties during particular times in American history.
Realignment has been a leading theory since V.O. Key’s influential article, “A Theory of Critical Elections,” published in the Journal of Politics in 1955. Key was the first political scientist to introduce the resilient theory of political party realignment. His first work examined townships in New England and applied that data to both the 1896 and 1928 presidential elections. Key asserts that critical elections, triggering events, and the weakness of a dominant political party are the three factors in analyzing the political realignment process.
Three criteria must be in place for a political realignment to occur:
1) A critical presidential election in which the electorate changes its voting pattern.
2) A major conflict or issue that divides the electorate.
3) A political party weak enough for either a new party to take control or to reflect a significant change in voter characteristics.
The past five party realigning phases have typically begun when the electorate was torn on a major issue that could not be overlooked. These issues have included economic, cultural, and racial concerns.
In the first party realignment period, the major issue separating the parties was federal funding. Hamilton expressed his plan for a national bank and tax, which split the political parties apart. The Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation (aka the Jay Treaty), facilitated 10 years of peaceful trade between the United States and Britain in the midst of the French Revolutionary Wars. The terms of the treaty were designed primarily by the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and supported by President George Washington. The treaty, however, was hotly contested by the Jeffersonians in each state. This treaty was the triggering event that started the first process of political party realignment.
The presidential election of 1800 was considered critical because the federalist-controlled House of Representatives, after many ballots, chose Thomas Jefferson to be president. The Federalist Party did not last long once Jefferson was elected to the presidency. The fall of the Federalist Party and dominance of the Jeffersonian-Democrats solidified the end of the first party system.
The second party realignment phase occurred in the mid-19th century. In its last election as a national party in 1856, the Whig Party received a majority of the votes in only one state.The Whig Party would never obtain a national nomination again. The Republican Party’s first presidential nominee in 1856 was John C. Fremont, but it only managed 114 electoral votes. Although not enough to carry the election, it was still a significant number for a new political party.
The presidential election of 1860, slavery, and the rise of third parties all met the criteria for the second party realignment. The issue of slavery gave rise to many political parties that pushed the electorate in many different directions. The Republicans, led by Abraham Lincoln, took on the abolishment of slavery, along with a strong stance of no disunion, as their party platform. The unprecedented rise of a third party, the Republican Party, changed the dynamics of politics and forced slavery to become a major electoral issue. The Democratic Party was in turmoil and so weak it could not supply party loyalists with a strong national candidate. This led to dramatic losses in the election of 1860.
The third party realignment occurred toward the end of the 19th century. The Republican Party for the most part dominated American politics from 1860-1896. Unfortunately for the Republicans, a series of unrelated significant events hurt its political fortune including the economic depression in 1873, the scandal of the Grant administration, a decline in agricultural production in 1884, and the economic depression of the 1890s. Due to these major events, Democrats made political gains in the South, specifically in areas in which white Southerners disregarded the Republican Party and African-American Southerners were limited by the Jim Crow Laws.
The 1896 presidential election was the ideal realignment election. The reasons include the fact that during this election, the raising of money was changed and big businesses became an integral part of funding elections; leaders within the political parties changed; and, new social issues arose because the Civil War problems had dissipated. William Jennings Bryan also struck a theme of “populism,” which has come to characterize the Democratic Party ever since. Bryan, a Democrat, was defeated by the Republican William McKinley in both the 1896 and 1900 presidential elections to round out the third party realignment system.
The fourth party realignment was ushered in with the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the election of Franklin Roosevelt as president in the 1932 election.The presidential elections of 1936, 1940, and 1944, all had the same outcome as the 1932 election with almost identical winning percentages.The dominance of the Democratic Party in this realignment was based on the large amount of people who were served with the New Deal policies.
The fifth party realignment took place during the 1960s as a result of the civil rights movement, Roe v Wade and the suburbanization of America. After the 1964 Civil Rights Act, many white, conservative Southern Democrats became Republicans. The South had been mostly Democratic before 1964; it was mostly Republican after that year. Republicans also made some gains among blue-collar Catholics, who were conservative on social issues. Democrats, on the other hand, were able to make gains among Progressive Republicans and Latino voters. The key presidential election was in 1968 when the incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, decided not to run for re-election as a result of the conflict in Vietnam.
Recently, there have been indications of the sixth party realignment. For example, the North, once Republican, is now solidly Democrat. Two out of the three essential criteria necessary for a typical realignment to take place have occurred in just the eight years. The election of Democratic President Barack Obama and the Great Recession of 2008 are two of the necessary events needed to usher in the sixth party realignment.
The 2008 presidential election is assessed as a critical election because of the dominant win Barack Obama secured over Senator John McCain. Obama and the Democrats beat McCain and the Republicans by 192 electoral votes. That margin of victory had not been seen since George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988.
The second important factor in a realignment phase is a triggering event that causes major change in the policies and practices of a new dominant party. The Great Recession of 2008 can be identified as a triggering event, much like the civil rights movement during the fifth party realignment. The massive losses in the 2008 House and Senate elections, along with the Democratic presidential election victory, indicate that the voting population blamed President George W. Bush and the Republicans for the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The rise of a third party has also had an effect on the realignment process, much as it did during the first and second party realignment periods. Around February 2009, the Tea Party emerged as a conservative, anti-government spending, anti-health care reform, anti-Obama force on the extreme right side of the American political spectrum. The Tea Party has influenced many conservative Republicans to move more toward the right. Whether another third party arises in 2016 remains to be seen. There is talk of a third party emerging now that Donald Trump is the presumptive GOP nominee in this year’s election.
The third criterion for a political realignment is a change in the two-party alignment or a party’s characteristics. If the Democrats maintain control of the White House after Obama’s two terms, then this realignment will reflect much of what we witnessed during the fourth party realignment with a Democratic president serving for four terms after a major economic downturn.
About the Author
Dr. Schwalbe, Program Director of Political Science at American Public University, retired from the Air Force in 2007 as a colonel after 30 years of active duty service. He has a Bachelor of Science degree from the Air Force Academy; a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Golden Gate University; a Master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School; a Master’s degree from the Naval War College; and, a PhD from Auburn University in Public Policy.
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