CONSOLIDATIONS: PROVIDING CLOSURE
FOR REALIGNMENT THEORY
Eric Gregory Mack
B.S., United States Air Force Academy, 1996
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
This thesis for the Master of Arts
Eric Gregory Mack
has been approved
Mack, Eric Gregory (M.A., Political Science)
Consolidations: Providing Closure to Realignment Theory
Thesis directed by Professor Thad Tecza
Literature abounds on the topic of realignment theory and the critical
elections that cause them. This paper looks at the field of realignment theory in an
original fashion. No one has examined in depth the political environment when the
realignment coalition has reached its political goals and is therefore no longer
politically necessary to meet the governing needs of the populace. After examining
the literature on the topics of realignment theory, critical elections, and divided
government, this paper examines the political and electoral environment at the time
when the governing realignment coalition losses its political hegemony, and
governing returns to a state of divided power between the two parties.
Using the realignments of 1896 and 1932 and the reinstatement of 1960, the
paper identifies the characteristics of consolidation elections that mark the end of
realignment periods. Like critical elections, consolidating elections have distinct and
discemable characteristics that identify them as such. After examining these three
realignment periods and identifying the presence of a consolidation within each of
them, this paper illustrates that consolidations are a fundamental and recurring
phenomenon that provides the capstone of the realignment movement.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
I dedicate this thesis to my family and friends for their support and love.
My thanks to my advisor, Thad Tecza, for his patience, his understanding, and his
ability to keep me disciplined. I also wish to thank the staff of the Graduate School
for their support and instruction.
1. INTRODUCTION................................. 1
2. REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE..................... 4
Divided Government.......................... 21
Examinations of Specific Time Periods....... 26
Analysis of the Literature.................. 28
3. REALIGNMENT AND CONSOLIDATION................. 31
Realignment of 1896......................... 37
Consolidation ofl912........................ 43
Realignment of 1932......................... 48
Consolidation of 1948....................... 51
Reinstatement of 1960........................... 56
Consolidation of 1968....................... 59
4. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION OF THE STUDY.......... 64
2.1 Punctual Change and American History: One Suggested Pattern.......... 12
3.1 Illustration of Rate of Policy Change Between 1860-1932 in America. 33
3.2 Punctuated Change and American History: My Suggested Pattern...... 36
3.3 Total and Partisan Turnover on Thirteen Selected Committees, 55th House 42
3.4 Total and Partisan Turnover on Thirteen Selected Committees, 73rd House 50
A great deal has been written concerning critical elections and the political
realignments that they foretell. As a theory that has a life cycle of introduction,
acceptance, criticism, countercriticism and counter-countercriticism, realignment
theory has become an elder statesman of political theories. Like most elder
statesmen, realignment theory is tolerated and even honored, but seldom taken
seriously in the contemporary world. So much has been written, in fact, that many
see the topic as hackneyed. Critical election and realignment theory has fallen out of
favor because of a perception about its lack of ability to live up to its own prophesy
of easily identifiable and repeating electoral phenomena.
However, upon review of the literature, a gap remains that leaves room for
further investigation into the topic and allows yet another researcher to attempt to
give closure to the topic of realignment theory. Ironically, the topic least
investigated concerning political realignments, but one that can lead to a greater
degree of closure on the subject, is what exactly marks the end of the realignment.
The reform-oriented environment of a critical election and the realignment it heralds
does not continue ad infinitum. A specific point is reached at which the public no
longer supports further reform and signals its change of heart in a consolidating
A consolidating election signals the reduction in party-centered voting as its
need/utility fades over time after the realigning crisis has been appropriately dealt
with. The consolidating election is almost a thermidorian repose between the
radicalism of the realignment and the conservatism of our normal political system of
divided government. It is the return to a more stable political arrangement, or more
concisely, the beginning of an improved status quo designed to function over the
long term with the new policies and structural revisions of the realignment period
included. The term consolidation works well because, although some of the
specific policies that are developed during the realignment might be mitigated after
its conclusion, the decision on the major issue that caused the realignment is never
again seriously questioned. Consolidation elections bring together the new direction
chosen by the nation after confronting a national crisis and the long-term status quo
of divided government that results in more limited policy gains. They are the
transition back into a mode of operation that is better suited to handle the varied, and
often conflicting demands of the populace that help define our political system in
America in the absence of crisis.
Consolidating elections have specific defining characteristics, just as critical
elections do. They also have a triggering cause, much like critical elections. This
paper will identify those characteristics in much the same way as the prominent
critical election literature identifies the characteristics of realignments. By
examining the two realignments of the 1890s and 1930s, as well as the reinstatement
of the 1960s, these general trends will be identified.
The elections of 1904-1906, 1946-1948 and 1966-1968 have in common the
themes of ending the rapid change brought on by the Populist, the New Deal, and the
Great Society (re)alignments, and marking the beginning of the return to divided
government, party conflict, and parity. They are consolidating elections. Not all of
these policy programs are traditionally grouped together as realignment movements.
However, the changes that these realigning elections brought to the national political
and social environment and the general policy direction that resulted are very similar
and, therefore, can be grouped together. The consolidation elections that marked
their ends also share remarkable similarities, and this paper will focus on that fact.
Consolidating elections demonstrate the characteristics of our congressional and
electoral environment when the public wishes to hedge the rapid changes that critical
elections/ realignments have wrought on the system, and provide closure to those
periods of change.
There are many books on the subjects of critical elections, realignment
theory, divided government, the elections and policies of American history, and
American governance theory. Those that I present here are an overview of the
foundation of my investigation and are, in my opinion, fundamental to any study
relating to election or realignment theory. The terminology surrounding realignment
theory has also become very confusing. Different authors use similar terms for
different phenomena. I hope that by reviewing the history behind the realignment
and critical election debate I can provide better organization of the topics at hand,
eliminate any misunderstanding of terms, and give a clearer view of where the
argument of this paper fits into the general realignment discussion.
Overall, my review of the literature is focused on three areas. Primarily, I
deal with research on the topic of realignment. These works are germane to my topic
because they form the foundation upon which it rests. In order to familiarize the
reader with my topic, I document the state and direction of contemporary
realignment theory. I show how it is fundamentally laid out and how it operates, and
I illustrate how the realignment periods in American politics are different from the
long-term normal operating procedures of our government. Most importantly, I
show how my argument fits into the literature on the topic and demonstrate that it
fills a void.
The second subject that I provide background for is the nature of American
government when it is not in realignment periods. Since my topic deals with the
transition period between the two political eras, it is important to understand the
theory behind divided government as well as realignment theory. Both are natural
forms our institutions take on, and a great deal can be learned by understanding the
relationship between the two and why each works well at specific points in our
history. It is also important to demonstrate that there is a real difference between the
nature of our system in a realignment period and in a long-term stasis period. During
the realignment period, it is set up to function quickly, and at other times it is set up
to barely act at all. This is a truly remarkable characteristic of our system since the
structure of our institutions does not change in and of itself, but only the people in
positions of power change.
The last group of literature that I use is concerned with the policies produced
during different periods of time. Since I am dealing with the transition period
between realignment and long term political stasis periods, and highlighting the
differences between them, any policy differentiation between them, either in volume
or in content, is quite an important element. Together, the three areas of literature
that I have included in my research form a clear picture of all the elements needed in
The most fundamental of the works written on the topic of realignment is
the seminal article by V.O. Key, Critical Elections, published in 1955. He was the
first to address the idea of realignment in politics. Further attempts to identify
elections using his guidelines for critical elections have led to the current debate over
realignment theory. All other works regarding realignment are built from his
foundation. However, it has branched out a great deal since Key first introduced the
theory as a way to classify elections. Today it is put forward as a theory to explain
partisan change in Congress. He coined the term critical election as an indicator of
preexisting public dissatisfaction with the policy resolutions passed by the people in
power that takes form in long-term election results. He labeled as critical:
The category of elections in which voters are.. .unusually deeply
concerned, in which the extent of electoral involvement is relatively
quite high, and in which the decisive results of the voting reveal a
sharp alternation of the preexisting cleavage within the electorate.
Moreover, and perhaps this is a truly differentiating characteristic of
this sort of election, the realignment made manifest in the voting in
such elections seems to persist for several succeeding elections
(Key, p. 4).
An important note about Keys work is that he uses the idea of critical
elections and the related term realignment as a theory of elections, not of partisan
change in Congress. He examines only one category of critical election (since 1955
several more categories and subcategories have been introduced by other authors),
and he coins the term critical realignment to define the results of that election.
Keys realignment takes place in a short amount of time (a single election).
Although his examples include a partisan shift as a possible indicator of a critical
election, the shift is not the focus of the argument. Instead he focuses on the bigger
picture of what issues cause such a shift, and how exactly the issues play out in the
election. The usurpation of his general theoretical terms to indicate a major shift in
popular party preference appeared in later responses to his initial article. The
importance of his foundation to realignment theory, however, is irrefutable.
The next step in the analysis of critical elections and in explaining general
trends in congressional governance came from Critical Elections and the
Mainsprings of American Politics, by Walter Dean Burnham. His contributions to
the field include giving the best in-depth analysis of the factors that makeup and
identify an election as a realignment election and of the degree to which they do so.
Burnham gives a more advanced, but still vague, definition of critical realignments.
Working from Keys foundation, he states that critical realignments:
are moments of intense comprehensive and periodically recurring
systematic changes in American Politics. These moments will be more
or less protracted depending on the level of development in the
institutional structure which exists at the time of their occurrence.
Periodically recurring, critical realignments are a phenomenon unique
to the American political system, though they have non-recurrent
cognates elsewhere, including their first cousins revolutions. They
have existed in one form or another throughout American political history
from the American Revolution to the present. They occur when and only
a) politically decisive minorities of the politically relevant population of
any given time stop doing what they have traditionally been doing in
politics (including participation and nonparticipation), and rather
suddenly begin doing something different and there after for many
years keep doing it.
b) there are exceptionally important and enduring consequences for the
organization of the political system including at least the following
i) the way the political system as a whole is articulated
ii) the identity and circulation of dominant national elites and the
identification of prime extragovemmental beneficiaries of their
iii) the shape and context of dominant sets of public policy agendas and
outputs, and of the dominant sets of political ideas justifying and
iv) the identity, size, scope, and effective Constitutional role of each
branch of government and the politically relevant population as
well as of dominant and subordinate coalitions within it. (Critical
Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics)
Both Keys and Burnhams definitions are extensive, but they lack the
pragmatic parameters that would illustrate the particular aspects of realignments. It
is hard to picture exactly what they are talking about or what it would look like in the
real world. Luckily, Burnham delves into his definition to give us a better idea of the
realities of critical realignments.
For Burnham, a critical realignment results when there is an inability to make
needed policy adjustments by the current political institutions, and it is the relative
inability of American political institutions to adapt that makes realignments
unavoidable. Burnham argues that critical realignments are a natural element of our
political system and that they do not occur randomly. It is in our political systems
nature to fail and to partially reinvent itself (Campbell and Trilling do an excellent
job of describing this part of the theory, and their work will examined more closely
Burnham states that for a critical realignment to occur, there must be a
perceived danger by a politically active class, region, sex, or other sector or coalition
of sectors (interest groups) in maintaining the status quo (Burnham, Mainsprings).
For example, in the 1930s, a large majority of US voters felt that there was an acute
threat (poverty or even starvation) in maintaining the status quo relationship between
the government and the countrys economic environment. The traditional laissez-
faire nature of the American government was seen as a threat to the people of the
time because it was not helping to end, or at least lessen, the impact of the Great
A realignment results when the status quo fails to meet some new
socioeconomic demand placed on the government by the populace (Burnham,
Mainsprings). The stimulus that causes a critical realignment is a national-level
issue that is not well addressed by the status quo institutions and whose solution
therefore cuts across and redefines partisan lines. Prior to the realignment period,
none of the political parties has an acceptable answer to the new problem that faces
the nation. For example, past critical realignments have resulted from the
controversies over slavery, rural vs. urban oriented economic policies, and economic
The critical realignments themselves are short-lived, intense disruptions
resulting in the reorganization of the coalitional bases of the major parties (Burnham,
Mainspring). The elections are characterized by unusually high voter turnout,
polarized policy positions between the two major parties of the time on the cross-
cutting issue(s), and the probable development of a third-party threat. Third-party
revolts are a clear way of revealing the incapacity of the standard two-party system
to handle the issues (Burnham, Mainspring). According to Burnham, election results
during a critical realignment indicate that between 20 and 30% of the populace shift
party alliance in some fashion. The resulting shift may or may not put a new party in
power. It also may strengthen the minority party, but not enough to put it into the
majority, or it might further strengthen the majority party. The shift in allegiance
may also be wasted on a non-competitive third party. Another characteristic that is
important to Burnhams definition is that the electoral results or the resulting
pluralistic distribution of power is durable. The direction taken during a critical
realignment is continued for roughly ten years (Burnham, Mainspring).
Burnham also introduces the idea that there is more than one type of
realignment. A Type A realignment is a partisan realignment in which the
traditional majority party is defeated and a new party espousing new ideology and
with new ideas is given lasting control over the government. A Type B
realignment is nonpartisan in nature and denotes a punctuated change. The Type
B realignment punctuates a more gradual tendency toward change until some
flipover event that disrupts the status quo for a short period of time (maybe as long
as four to six years), from which a new equilibrium emerges (Burnham, Critical
Realignment). An example Burnham gives of a Type B realignment is 1960,
which he calls a reinstating election. It restarted the New Deal Coalition by putting
an overwhelming majority of Democrats into Congressional office, disrupting the
status quo of divided government set since 1952, but only for a few years. By 1968
the realignment was over and the status quo returned. Burnhams arguments
amending the definition of realignments have brought on great controversy over how
exactly to classify the 1960s era in terms of realignment theory.
Burnham is the only author to attempt to classify the election periods that I
call consolidations. He uses the term midlife crisis to describe what I consider
to be consolidation elections. He views these elections as markers indicating the
beginnings of decay of much longer political eras that encompass the time from the
last Critical Election up until the next (see Table 2.1). I classify them as starting
points for a new status quo that consolidates the lessons and advances of the
realignment period, but is organized in a distinctly different manner from the
Realignment in American Politics: Toward a Theory, edited by Bruce A
Campbell and Richard J. Trilling, adds a great deal to the understanding of the
classification of critical elections. Readings contained in this book build off
Burnhams and Keys analysis and identify the characteristics present in the nation,
and in the election results that are used as indices of critical elections. The authors
also examine the boundaries and utility of realignment theory while also classifying
realignments into either critical realignments or longer and slower secular
realignments. Most importantly, Campbell and Trilling take the reader through the
Table 2.1. Punctual Change and American Political History: One Suggested Pattern (Burnham, p.
Era Approximate System or Electoral Realignment Peak Midlife Crisis
Dating Order Band
Colonial/ 1770-1818 1 1 S^-century 1775-83 1780 1799/1800
neocolonial system (la party
order system, 1793-1816)
Democratized 1816-ca. 2 Democratizing 1820-30 1818
politics (1): 1900/1904 (Jacksonian or 2d (state) 1838
Rural system) 1824-32 1828
3 Civil War System 1854-60 1856 1875
Democratized ca. 1900/04: 4 System of 1896 1893-96 1894 1912/13
politics (2): Industrial 1960s
Order 5 New Deal System 1928-38 1932 1948/52
Postindustrial ca. 1967/68 - 6 Permanent 1964-74 1970 (1990?)
/postparty politics present Campaign System
phases of realignment and show that the policy ramifications of realignment periods
should be the focus of investigation, not the electoral results.
Campbell and Trilling agree with the foundations set by Key and Burnham,
but they shift the conversation to discuss the nature of American governing
institutions that create the crisis that must be resolved through critical realignment.
They argue that in America, citizen control of government exists only in potential
form (Campbell and Trilling, p. 4). Most of the time the government goes about its
business with little or no input from the populace. Even during elections, when the
public has a direct say in who governs and for what purposes, the popular vote
normally only reaffirms the status quo. Campbell and Trilling see realignments as
the translation of that potential citizen control into kinetic form (p.4). They call this
crisis democracy, and the term meshes well with Burnhams contention that
realignments involve people doing something they traditionally dont do...
participate. Our political system flexes its democratic muscles and proves its ability
to function properly as a popular democracy only when faced with a crisis situation
that motivates the masses to participate on a large and coordinated scale.
Campbell and Trilling argue that the characteristics of change in a
realignment era entails three developments, electoral change (mass behavior), elite
change (elite behavior), and policy change (p.1-4). Realignments affect the nature of
government leadership, the realm of appropriate government action, and the
direction of policy output and usually entail a mass change in party support (p. 3).
Campbell and Trillings characteristics of a realignment are similar to Burnhams but
offer a better, more complete picture of the phenomenon:
1. A national social or economic crisis occurs.
2. The crisis intensifies political debate and politicizes society.
3. This change leads to sudden, massive, permanent transformation of the
coalitional bases of party system.
4. All of this change produces an unusually high rate of personnel turnover.
Incumbents lose or retire, and committee membership is shuffled.
5. Government institutions implement policies designed to resolve the crisis
according to a new majority consensus.
In the end, the new policy implementation results from a durable and significant
redistribution of party support that allows time for legislation to be passed in the
direction of needed reforms (p. 4).
Campbell and Trillings definition includes five main concepts. The first
concept is the presence of a stimulus. The stimulus is a crisis at discontinuity with
current policy, which generates a new, more important motive than the previous
impetus to political activity enjoyed by the populace. This results in the second
concept, decompositionor a lack of traditional loyalty to a party. Campbell and
Trilling see three possible results from decomposition. The first is the end of the
party system due to the populaces lack of confidence in the system. This result has
never been seen in America. The second possibility is the return to the status quo
prior to the decomposition after a period of instability. The third is a realignment. A
realignment could be of the conventional sort, with a change in the majority party,
but it could also be a change from a noncompetitive to a competitive minority party,
a internal split of a party, or a consolidation of parties.
In order to cover all of these possibilities, Campbell and Trilling see a
realignment as any change involving some minimum proportion of the electorate
switching affiliation much as Burnham does. However, they do not quantify this
change, while Burnham insists that there must be a 20-30% shift in voter alliance.
Although vague, this difference in opinion does offer some insight into the various
outcomes that are possible, the confusion that can result between the two, and the
reasons why one person sees a realignment and another does not. The final concept
of Campbell and Trilling is issue voting. Issue voting occurs as the previous partys
loyalty declines and issue and candidate-centered campaigns dominate. This is a
curious result, as the other authors focused on the importance of the party message of
reform instead of individual candidates running on policy-reform platforms.
The most important aspect of Campbell and Trillings contribution on the
topic of realignment is the emphasis on policy change. They spend a great deal of
time going through the entire process of a realignment, from the presence of a crisis
to a change in mass behavior, to changes in elite behavior that result in policy
change. The main implement of change in policy direction is personnel change in
the House and on committees in particular. The House remains the focus for
realignment thinkers because of the role it plays in our government. Realignments
deal with internal problems, and it is the foremost role of the House to deal with
domestic policy. Both the Senate and President take their lead from the House on
those issues. Realignment policy initiatives are not possible without the cooperation
of all three branches, but they derive their legitimacy from the most democratic side
of the most democratic branch.
Campbell and Trilling also make the best attempt at differentiating between
the main topics at hand. They define a critical election as an election which
displays clearly in its outcome most or a major portion of the elements of a partisan
realignment. A partisan realignment is a significant and durable change in the
distribution of party support over relevant groups within the electorate.
Realignments are periods of flux in the continuous process of change in party
support, whereas critical elections are demonstrations of that change at specific
times (Campbell and Trilling, pp. 24-27). A realignment is a durable significant
redistribution of party support, a critical realignment takes place within a defined
time limit and a critical election displays the results. They also introduce the term
secular realignment, which describes how party preferences change over time as
attitudes about enduring issues are switched. For example, the switch from a
Democrat to Republican stronghold in the South might be a result of African
American migration to the North over time and the influx of conservative elderly
whites in their place.
David W. Brady takes up the argument where Campbell and Trilling left off
in his book Critical Elections and Congressional Policy Making and his related
segment, Electoral Realignments in the House, in Congress and Policy Change,
edited by Gerald Wright Jr., Leroy N. Rieselbach, and Lawrence C. Dodd. Brady
uses many of the same fundamentals as the earlier authors. He also sees critical
elections as the result of confronting a national cross-cutting issue that reduces the
ordinary localism of political contests. National parties take opposing views on this
issue and mobilize the populace to vote for their policy goals. Brady agrees with
Campbell and Trilling that policy change is a result of a change in attitudes from the
bottom (the people) to the top (committee members in Congress). Stepping out from
Campbell and Trilling, Brady adds to the discussion by arguing that realigning or
critical elections create conditions under which majorities are capable of legislating
clusters of policy changes" (Brady, p. 13).
Taking from both Campbell and Trilling and from Burnham, Brady sees the
problem in the nature of our institutions. Brady argues that the House is noted for its
obstructionism and lack of ability to make decisive policy. In response, a critical
election creates majorities capable of governing efficiently. The election brings in a
large group of new legislators that are in agreement about specific actions that need
to be taken to resolve the crisis at hand. Brady introduces the idea that the populace
votes for the people/party capable of making change and does not vote for specific
policy reforms. It is the perception of individual candidates as reformers which gets
them elected, not the perception of what their party stands for (the party platform).
The newly elected members of the majority party are focused on the national
problem, and have comprehensive policy goals and the unity required to pass laws
that accomplish them. It is party strength that results in policy change.
Critical elections usher in major policy change instead of incrementalism.
They do so through majority party tools such as committee turnover, setting of the
rules, and control of legislation. The most important tool used is the ability to pass
the bills that only a strongly focused majority party can achieve (Brady p. 16). In
order to be effective, the majority party must be large enough to override a filibuster
and cohesive enough to pass legislation over the objections of the minority party and
any sympathizers within their own party.
Departing from the base of Key, Campbell and Trilling, and Brady is James
L. Sunquists book Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment & Realignment of
Political Parities in the United States. Sundquist analyzes every election since 1930,
looking at the causes of every success or failure by both parties. He does not really
define any of the elections as a realignment election or not, nor define what a
realignment election would be. Instead, Sundquists point is that there is a
continuous process of realignment going on over time in American politics that can
not as easily be defined by any single particular moment or event as it could be
readily discerned from policy shifts. This point reinforces the view held by
Campbell and Trilling that policy outcomes are what truly signifies a realignment,
not quantifiable electoral shifts in support.
The Politics of Congressional Elections, by Gary C. Jacobson, focuses on
understanding the pragmatic workings of the Congress and the limits of power in the
institution. Looking at several elections, particularly ones in the 1930s, 1960s,
1980s and 1990s, Jacobson identifies the changing boundaries of power relationships
between the majority and minority parties over time and the parties relative ability
to get policies passed based on their numbers in each house of the legislature. He
concludes that the New Deal, Great Society, and the Conservative Counter-
Revolution were all made possible by a major shift of congressional seats from one
party to another. He looks with particular depth at what caused the Democrats to
lose seats in the 1990 elections.
When Jill the arguments are put together, complete consensus on the topics of
realignment and critical elections is hard to find. Many authors believe that the
theory has lost its utility both to explain electoral results and to predict what the
future holds for our political structure. The End of Realignments: Interpreting
American Electoral Eras, edited by Byron E. Shafer, examines the usefulness of
realignment classifications. Shafer et. al. ask the obvious question: if realignments
are predictable reoccurring events, where was the realignment that was due in the
1960s? Another idea they introduce is the notion that there is actually only a short
history of realignments, raising the question of the universality of the theory to
explain elections in America over time. In his contribution, Joel H. Silbey,
concerned that realignments did not occur prior to 1830 or after 1940, states:
The concept of critical realignments, as an organizing perspective, is
not applicable to many of the changes that have occurred in American
voting behavior since 1789. There have not always been cycles of re-
current change based on repeated triggering of the same mechanisms
and behavior but, rather, quite distinct and separate phenomena
(Silbey, Beyond Realignment^.
Silbey argues that changes in the electoral system itself have made
realignments a moot point. The rise of the independent voter, the advent of
candidate-centered elections, and the lack of significant presidential coattails to ride,
have ended the possibility of another realignment. We will never see another one
using the traditional method of identifying realignments based on swing voting, voter
turnout, party control, and committee turnover.
Shafer looks at realignment theory and sees a mess. There is no
parsimonious way of piecing together all of the parts of theory in order to make it
useful. The introduction of descriptions and analysis of secular, critical, partial,
rolling, aborted, regional, and hollow realignments have clouded the issue and
eliminated the utility of the general theory. These authors also identify the social
pathologies that were present in general terms (slavery, widespread political graft,
and near universal unemployment and poverty) that made American politics
receptive to realignments for a relative short period of time, 1860-1930, and their
relative absence in America before that time or since.
Contemporary authors are quite skeptical about the usefulness of realignment
theory in analyzing politics after the 1940s. For sure, the subject has been beaten to
death by both supporters it and critics. However, there are things that can be added
to the arguments surrounding realignment theory. It still holds a great deal of utility
and is still an excellent descriptor.
Taking a different slant on the realignment debate, Samuel McSeveney
makes a very good point when he states that generalizations run the risk of
obscuring very real differences between realignments (McSeveney, No More
Waiting For Gadot). Over time, the nature of our society has changed, as well as
the nature of its political realignments. There are differing causes of and solutions to
the problems of the times. These changes have resulted in differing political
alignments, the destruction of certain parties, the rise of new parties, the dominance
of parties, and the dawning of a new partisan equilibrium (McSeveney). Using
generalities to describe all these different occurrences is dangerous and can stymie
any attempt at reaching consensus.
When we look at theories questioning the ability of realigned governments to
get new policy passed, the one most often put forward is the idea of the utility of
divided government in the minds of Americans as the best way for our political
system to work. As mentioned before, our government was not designed to move
quickly on any issue. Divided government plays an important role because it
characterizes the long-term status quo of our government. A realignment is a short-
term break in the long-term trend of divided government that changes the standard
functioning of government so as to come to a quick solution to a national crisis. In
order to understand either the critical election that starts the realignment or the
consolidation election that ends it, it is important to have a firm grasp of how our
government normally operates.
The most important works on divided government in America are in the
Federalist Papers, written by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton.
Chapters 10 and 51, written by Madison, give an account of the views and ideas
behind a founding fathers reasons behind the structuring the government. Madison
explains that he sees the purpose of government in controlling and manipulating the
classes in society so as to maintain order. In Federalist 10. Madison states that:
a landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a
monied interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in
civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by
different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and
interfering interests forms the principal task of modem Legislature.
He extols the virtues of having a large republican government that would play the
various interests against one another.
The larger the territory governed the greater the probability that there will
more conflicting interests to be reconciled due to differences in geography, wealth,
needs for defense, trade, etc... Our government was designed to give as equal as
possible, an ear, to all of these interests. Chapter 51 of the Federalist Papers
illustrates how the framers envisioned this process to work through a system of
checks and balances that would not only play the interests of the people against one
another, but also counter the interests of the nations leaders against one another.
To assure the separation of powers among the three branches the founders
had to contrive the structures of government so that the branches, by their mutual
relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places...ambition must
be made to counteract ambition...You must first enable the government to control
the governed; and the next place, oblige it to control itself (Rossiter, p 320-322).
None of the branches has the power to act without the other or remove the other from
power. However, all the branches have the capability to make governing easier or
harder for the other. In addition, the very complexity of the legislative branch, with
its two separate and equal Houses and its large size, makes passing laws very
The size of the country, the checks and balances in the government itself, and
the federal nature of government purposefully create a system that is very
conservative and slow to act. Madison explains the structure of government and the
need for conservatism by stating that:
it is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society
against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society
against the injustice of the other part... if a majority be united by a
common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.
He goes on to state that, in the extended republic of the United States...a
coalition of the majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other
principles than those of justice and the general good (Rossiter, p325). Madison
shows that the American government is designed to protect the weaker and smaller
factions of society from the tyranny of the majority. Inherently, giving voice and
consideration to so many groups and interests makes the entire system run slower.
Only in times of dire need, and only in the name of justice, could the power of a
majority come completely to bear on the workings of government.
The Federalist Papers give concrete support to the notion that the normal
state for American government is to be divided in one manner or another. The
founders did not envision the two-party system we have in place today, but it is
logical to infer that power would be shared nearly equally between two parties that
represent roughly 50% percent of the population each. The papers also support the
idea that at certain times of identified crisis the naturally divided American
republican government will focus on confronting the crisis in the name of the
majority will. The notion of divided government as well as the foundation of
realignment theory lies in The Federalist Papers.
In Divided We Govern David R. Mayhew looks at the workings of a divided
government and contrasts its ability to pass laws to that of unified government and
questions the utility of critical elections theory. He concludes that unified
government (like that found during a realignment) is less likely a cause for important
laws being passed than are the grace period at the start of a term and an activist mood
in the Congress. However, his view of congressional activism does not rule out the
possibility that it derives from the mandate of a political realignment.
John B. Gilmours Strategic Disagreement: Stalemate in the American
Politics is an examination of the modem status quo of divided government. He states
that the two parties put divided government to good use. They both use varied
techniques to avoid reaching a positive policy conclusion in order to achieve political
goals and advantages in relation to each other. Instead of solving problems, the two
parties take political pot shots at one another for any problems that may develop.
Under divided government it might be harder to take credit for positives, but it is
also almost impossible to place blame when policies fail or goals are not reached.
Gilmour concludes that divided government has become the long-term status quo in
America. It functions on a minimalist level, moving policies when necessary, but
avoiding substantial reform. His ideas coincide perfectly with Campbell and
Trillings theory about crisis democracy.
In The Electoral Origins of Divided Government: Competitions in U.S.
House Elections 1946-1988. Gary C. Jacobson gives a very comprehensive
examination of the phenomenon. A continuation of this work is found in
Presidential Responsiveness and Public Policy Making, edited by Jeffrey E. Cohen.
Much like Gilmour, Jacobson thinks that the parties see some utility in divided
government, but Jacobson sticks more to the underlying reasons behind the
continuation of divided government. Instead of depending on utility as his thesis,
Jacobson sees the causes as bad Republican candidates, a decrease in the ability of
presidential coattails to produce votes for party members, the power of Democratic
incumbency, and the rise in ticket splitting.
In his contribution Divided Government and the 1994 Elections, Jacobson
applies his model for divided governments to the Republican takeover of Congress in
conjunction with the new Democratic President. In it, he concludes that the unified
government of the Democrats was doomed because of scandals and failed policies
that reflected squarely on the Democrats. Also, the loss of the Reagan Democrats
and the rest of the middle of the political spectrum in the wake of the health care
debacle, and the Republican nomination of more experienced candidates were to
Examinations of Specific Time Periods
The most important difference between the unified government of a
realignment period and the divided government of the long-term status quo revolves
around the policies produced during each time period. One way to identify whether
the country is in a realignment or not is the number of new policies passed, the
subject those policies deal with, the speed or ease with which those policies are
passed, and the support they receive from the public. There are several sources
available that give an in-depth analysis of the policies passed throughout our history
which document the political atmosphere of the country at specific critical times that
undoubtedly helped to drive the development of policy in Washington.
There are two books that deal with the 1968 elections and the environment in
which they took place, both politically and socially, that are excellent sources to help
in understanding that troubled time. Richard M. Scammens The Real Majority, and
Ben J. Wattenberg and Lewis L. Goulds 1968: The Election That Changed America
illustrate the feelings of opposition to the counterculture movement and the Great
Society programs only four or five years after their inception. Both of these books
highlighted the marked change in the direction of public sympathies with these
programs that in effect ended the renewed progression of the New Deal. Although
these books did not deal with realignment theory per se, they thoroughly analyzed
the election and polling results of the time as well as the qualitative substance of the
policies and public opinion of the time. These books document the specific issues of
the time, the proposed policy conclusions, and the public reaction to those policies
that may possibly indicate the presence of a consolidation.
Two books that call into question the long-term importance of the Republican
revolution of the 1980s and 90s are The Angry American: How Voter Rage is
Changing the Nation and the Tide of Discontent: Electoral and Policy Change and
Realignment or Aberration. Looking at voter turnout and presidential and intra-
congressional relationships of the 80s and 90s, the authors of both books question the
longevity and the mandate of the Republican Party over the last twenty years.
Although they do not directly address the time periods I am interested in, they help
to develop an understanding of the differences between the times, and contribute to
the argument over what constitutes a realignment and when and why they occur.
The final book that I looked at was simply a compilation of the electoral
results since 1946 published by Congressional Quarterly. Although it does not delve
deeply into the reasons for electoral change, it contains the official statistics for
every congressional and presidential election since WWII. It also gives a year by
year comparison and comments on the strength of the parties, their ability to achieve
their policy goals, and the political atmosphere surrounding the elections.
Analysis of the Literature
Some degree of consensus has been reached that there are important criteria
that have to be met for a realignment to be declared. High voter turnout, popular
partisan shifts, party unity, party power, incumbent turnover, and committee turnover
are all examples. There are other factors that indicate a possible realignment that
might be overlooked, or that are viewed by others as disqualifying. The type and
degree of crisis and the policy answers to them might make identification of
realignments more difficult, but a little leniency in regards to the threshold criteria
might shed some light on the failure of a recent realignment to emerge.
A significant change in policy direction, even without a change in partisan
control, is also a significant indicator of a realignment which might be missed but
which is addressed by some authors. Also, changes in the groups that support a party
might indicate a realignment is afoot. A change in the size of the majority is another
indicator that one might miss if only focused on changes in which party holds the
majority or whether the government is unified under one party. The lack of
permanence in the partisan preference also should not be a realignment disqualifier.
Burnham, Campbell and Trilling, and others, have stated that partisan control must
last for seven to ten years. That type of longevity is not necessary; significant policy
clusters can be passed in as little as a four-year period (the Great Society and Civil
Rights policies were pushed through in large part between 1961 and 1965). What is
important is that the policies passed must remain a significant part of our political
culture, not simply the partys preference. Because of the changes in our electoral
system, all of these situations must be taken into consideration when we look at the
contemporary political system for signs of past, present, and future realignments.
The authors reviewed here give a good indication of the areas of the theory that have
been well covered and a consensus reached on the characteristics of realignments.
They also show the gap in research dealing with the conclusion of a period of
Burnham discusses the topic of midterm elections that mark the beginning
of the decline of the realignment coalitions partisan power during the different
political eras in US history. However, his argument is flawed because it does not
take into account the definite policy, electoral, and personnel changes that mark what
I call the consolidation election and long-term status quo (divided government and
partisan equality) that arises from it. He also makes no effort to explain the
circumstances behind them or search for any consistencies between them.
Campbell and Trillings argument that America is a crisis democracy is
also flawed because our political system works both ways, and by nature is capable
of operating under crisis and under everyday circumstances. Our government is set
up initially as a conservative body with split powers and responsibilities. The
pluralistic nature of our society and the competition between the two parties ensure
that not much gets done in Washington in a hurry. However, when the public is
faced with a crisis that unites its varied interests, it is possible for the government to
run very smoothly and efficiently to remedy the situation. Our system is notable in
its ability to work well both ways. It has the capacity to work well over the long-
term with little input from the people, but when the system faces a crisis it corrects
itself fairly easily with concerted inputs from the populace. From what I have seen
in the literature, it is possible to view our political system in a different light from
other authors, and also provide a more detailed account of how political realignments
in America come to an end.
REALIGNMENT AND CONSOLIDATION
Madison et. al. tell us that the natural condition of our institutions is one of
internal conflict caused by the separation of powers between branches, the inherent
checks and balances that each branch has over the other, and the rivalry between
parties. Our government is created to create a level playing field with equal powers
between players, and it sets ambition against ambition. In addition to the internal
strife, action is obstructed by the mechanism of republican democracy that James
Madison so eloquently described in Federalist #10.
The differing and often opposing views of the numerous factions of people
that make up the populace of our large nation pull the government in several
different directions on just about every issue. The structure of the government and
the demands placed upon it by the people mean that the government moves very
slowly and incrementally on any issue. Although there are incessant calls for
quicker and more decisive action on the part of the government, the system works1.
It just cruises along the highway of life like a big old Cadillac.
1 There is considerable disagreement over whether the system of American government really works,
and for whom it works. Alan F. Kays Locating Consensus for Democracy uses rigorous polling
techniques to show that there is a significant disconnect between the views and actions of our
leadership and the people they are supposed to represent. According to Kay, a significant proportion
of the populations views is not represented in the normal day to day actions of the government and
A good way to visualize the cyclical nature of the history of our political
structure is to think of the governing institutions as a car. In a simplistic view, as the
Cadillac of American Government is driving down the highway, it comes upon an
obstruction in the road, either a hill or another car, some kind of crisis in which a
major decision has to be made quickly or the car will crash. The car/govemment
has to switch into passing gear, speed up and pass the car or top the hill, and settle
back into its steady cruising mode. When the government goes into realignment
when faced with a crisis, it is switching gears with a critical election. It is then set up
to make decisions in a more efficient and focused manner. Along these same lines,
when the crisis has passed, the consolidation election shifts the gears of government
out of that high-speed and unstable state and back into the long-term status quo of
divided and conflicted government.
It is very important to switch back into the cruising mode of government as it
is with a car. If left alone, both would accelerate and become increasingly
unmanageable until the engine exploded or the car/country crashed. Particularly, the
government would continue to move down the path of the majority party until the
policies of the ruling party no longer reflected the views and interests of the majority
of the people in the country (See footnote #1 on the work of Alan Kay on this topic).
The consolidation limits that danger, but without democratic elections, the possibility
that this perception of disconnect by the public is very real. It may be that this perception changes
during realignment or consolidation periods. This topic warrants examination in a different forum
focused on defending how one measures and justifies claims of majority consensus.
for extremism increases. It is remarkable that the founders envisioned/stumbled
upon such a system. James Madison states as much in conclusion to Federalist 10.
In the size and shape of the country and its government, we behold a republican
remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government [faction and the
tyranny of the majority]. It is marvelous because it works slowly and carefully
whenever possible, but is also capable of handling great stress and acting quickly
when the people are in rare agreement.
Table 3.1: Illustration of rate of policy change between 1860-1932 in America
Table 3.1 shows a simplified illustration of how the long-term status quo of
constant but incremental change is repeatedly interrupted by the rapid and focused
change of the realignment periods. Just as there is a specific cause for the
realignment to begin (national crisis), there is also a specific but more general cause
for the realignment coalition to come to end. Over time, the crisis is overcome and
as the unifying cause is lifted, the members of the once focused coalition begin to
restratify as they focus more on the number of issues that are important to the various
interests and groups they each represent.
Supporting this notion, Brady agrees with Campbell and Trilling that the
ability and need to enforce party voting decreases over time and a return to the status
quo prior to the realignment coalition results after the crisis is over (Brady p. 16). At
this point, when the party loses its support, what I term a consolidating election
takes place, and a new status quo that incorporates the gains of the realignment with
the prior status quo is initiated, marked by a lack of voter enthusiasm for continued
Although a couple of authors touch on the unsustainability of the realignment
movement, none of them has focused on what characteristics the elections have that
mark the end of realignments. Burnham comes closest, using the term midlife
crisis to describe the change in philosophy that occurs after the vigor of realignment
is lost, but he does not see the consolidating effects of that election as starting a new
political era. Like the critical elections that start realignments, the consolidation
elections that end them have specific, identifiable, and universal characteristics.
Many of the consolidation characteristics are either the same as, or direct opposites
of, the ones that mark a critical election.
As I see it, a consolidation election follows the critical election by about ten
years. It is marked by the following: a popular partisan shift away from the majority
party to the center, a lack of public support for further policy reforms or for
reformers, the return to the status quo political structure prior to the realignment or
the establishment of a new long-term status quo, the loss of, or severe weakening of,
the majority status of the victorious party of the realignment era, and the possible
loss of the presidency by the majority party. The consolidation marks the beginning
of a new status quo that incorporates the reforms of the realignment movement into a
political structure that is stable in the long term and limits further reform by
equalizing political power between the parties.
Eventually, the specific policy gains of the realignment may be curtailed.
However, it is important to note that the decision made in the face of the national
crisis that sparked the realignment is accepted in perpetuity. The methods of
enforcing the decision may change depending on who exactly is leading policy
decisions at any time, but the direction of the nation on the key realignment issues
never falters. For example, after the consolidation following the realignment of 1932
some of the programs dealing with welfare and social security were reformed,
eliminated, or replaced. What has never been seriously questioned is the
acknowledged duty of the government to help support those less fortunate and
unable to help themselves. The same can be said about other realignment issues such
as the decisions to end slavery in the 1860s or to become an industrialized urban
society in the 1890s.
The consolidations at the end of realignments counter the political shifts
brought on by the critical elections that start the realignment. This chapter uses the
issues that brought on the realignments of 1896, 1932,and the reinstatement of 1960
as points of contrast to illustrate the changes in public sentiment and policy direction
that brought on the consolidations of 1912, 1948, and 1968. Table 3.2 is an
illustration of how I see change occurring in American political history. Although it
is based on Walter Dean Burnhams table in chapter two, it contrasts directly with
Burnhams view of how the status quo eras of American history are organized.
3.2 Punctuated Change and American Political History: My suggested Pattern
Era Approximate Dating Crisis Issue Realignment Band Consolidation Band
Democratized Politics (1): Rural Republic 1875-1896 Urban ization/Democracy 1896-1898 1912-1914
Democratized Politics (2): Industrial Order 1912-1932 Social/Economic Wei fere 1932-37 1948-1952
Post War Modem Era 1948-1964 Social and Cultural Values 1960-1964 1966-1968
Postindustrial/ Postparty Politics 1968-present ???? ???? ????
I highlight the importance of the consolidation election as well as the critical election
that starts the realignment, giving a more balanced view of their importance as
ignition and extinction points of rapid change. It is my view that Americas political
eras run from the previous consolidation election to the following realignment. The
realignment years are unaccounted for in the table as the institutions of government
are in flux at those times and they cannot be seen as part of one era or another and
are better left undefined.
Realignment of 1896
The critical elections of the 1890s were the decision points that made it possible for
the United States to push forward as an urban industrial nation, rather than as a rural,
agricultural nation. The economic crisis (depression) of 1893 was the stimulus for
the realigning of Americas political institutions and policies in that direction. The
years between 1877 and the 1890s saw rapid economic growth spurred by the
industrialization brought about through mobilization for the Civil War and the advent
of complex and interdependent urban society (Brady, p. 50). This rapid
industrialization left in its wake the potential for an agrarian realignment as
dislocations and the potential for rural economic hardship increased.
According to Brady, pro-industrial policies built up from 1877 and peaking in
1881, were positive changes in the capitalism category and negative changes in
the...ruralism category from 1875 to 1885 (Brady, p. 51). The federal government
aided industrial interests by encouraging rail and telegraph development, making
land grants to industrial interests (more land was given away by the federal
government between 1865 and 1873 than all the land that had been given away since
1789), adopting tariffs, and keeping states dominated by rural interests from
regulating business interests (Brady 51-52). Up until the 1890s, both parties favored
industrial interests. After the compromise of 1876, ending reconstruction in return
for pro-industrial policy support from the Southern states, neither party successfully
articulated farm and labor interests, thus giving rise to a large unrepresented segment
of the population in the rural West and Midwest. The desire for a greater political
voice encouraged rural voters to start the Grange movement and to found the
From 1877 through the 1890s, Americas business environment was
characterized by the growth of trusts and the rise of corporate America dependent on
the gold standard, a tight money supply (higher interest rates), and selectively high
tariffs that protected weak industries. In 1895, the pro-silver, populist movement
captured the Democratic Party. It was bent on splitting up the large corporations and
trusts, lowering tariffs (lowering consumer prices for goods through increased
competition), and inflating the economy (introducing silver as a basis for the dollar,
and as a result loosening money supply and lowering interest rates).
The uncertainty of the financial crisis of 1893 caused a significant partisan
split on how to confront the economic problems of the nation. The parties platforms
indicate what political solution each thought would end the economic crisis, and they
also show the definite difference regarding in what direction the two parties thought
lay the future of the United States, either industrial or agricultural. The specific
issues that indicate the polar positions taken by the parties were the coinage of silver,
protective vs. free tariffs, Americas role in the world, and the purpose of community
life (Brady, p 53).
The Democrats adopted the Populists main platform planks by being pro-
silver and attacking vested interests, moneylenders, and those that profited at the
expense of the people. They also argued that tariffs should be used only as a source
of revenue and that protective tariffs enrich the few at the expense of the public by
restricting trade. Also, although the party supported the Monroe Doctrine, the party
did not deal with international relations directly. The Democrats advocated putting
Alaska under U.S. law to regulate mining and forestry there, and they also stated that
the U.S. sympathized with the plight of the Cubans but stopped short of advocating
either aid or independence for the island (Brady, p54).
The Republicans remained on the side of big business. They advocated the
gold standard as essential to U.S. growth as a world economic power and saw the
pro-silver movement as an attack on free enterprise. The Republicans also advocated
using tariffs to protect industry, keep wages high, and further nationalistic goals of
building strong, strategic industries. The Republicans also went further in their
support for the Monroe doctrine than did the Democrats. They advocated the
annexation of Hawaii, military and diplomatic measures to help free Cuba, the
building of what would eventually become the Panama Canal, and a bigger navy to
protect U.S. shipping and project U.S. power abroad (Brady, p54).
According to Brady, the differences in the two platforms indicated the
highest degree of party difference since the 1860s (Brady, p56). The Democratic
nominee for President in 1894, William Jennings Bryon, made what became known
as the Cross of Gold Speech at the Democratic National Convention that year. In it
he stated that the Republicans wanted to crucify the country on a cross of gold. In
the end, though, it was the Democrats who were crucified on a cross of silver.
The realignment that developed from the divergent views on the direction for
Americas future erupted from two critical elections, the first in the congressional
elections of 1894, and the second in the Presidential election year of 1896 (Brady
p.58). Both elections had higher than average voter turnout, with distinct regional
support bases becoming evident for each party as is evident in the map showing the
electoral results of the election (see Appendix A). The eleven states of the South
strongly supported the Democrats, while the states of the Northeast, East, and
Midwest all supported the Republicans, leaving only the border states as competitive
(Brady p.61). The parties gained two separate and distinct centers of gravity;
business, labor, and industry went to the Republicans and the rural districts of the
South went to the Democrats. The Western states, dependent on the mining of silver,
also shifted their support to the Democrats. The Electoral College results illustrated
in Appendix B highlight the change in public support of the time.
The results of the 1894 elections indicated that the country was moving away
from the Democratic Party, which they blamed for the depression and which had
shifted away from the ideology of the majority of the population with its alliance
with the Populists. The elections of 1894 and 1896 ushered in sixteen uninterrupted
years of Republican majority in the House and Senate beside a Republican President
that would last until 1910 and 1912 respectively.
Two other indicators of the realignment were the change in membership of
Congress and the change in committee leadership. Although Congress was still a
non-professional organization2 before the 1890s, a fact that could throw off the
accuracy of this indicator, the turnover rate still increased. In the five Houses before
1894, the turnover rate was 38.5%. During the realignment period, that figure rose
to 43.3%, and of those leaving, 75% were defeated incumbents (Brady p.69).
Committee turnover was also unusually high during this time. The committee with
the lowest amount of turnover was 64.7%, with the average committee turning over
80%. The two Congresses prior to 1894 averaged just over 30% turnover rate. In
addition, 55% of the committee leaders during the 55th Congress were not even on
their committees during the 53rd congress (Brady p.71). The committees with low-
seniority chairman are listed in Appendix A.
2 At this time in our history, national politicians were by and large amateurs who had other
obligations in their home state that they were eager to get back to. Their careers in Washington were
therefore brief, and their offices naturally had a high turnover rate compared to later, more
professional, eras in government.
Table 3.3: Total and Partisan Turnover on Thirteen Selected Committees, 55th House, 1897-1899
(Percent new members since 53ld House)_______________________________________________
Committee Total Democrat Republican
Agriculture 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%
Appropriations 64.7 66.6 50.0
Banking and Currency 76.5 88.9 62.5
Commerce 82.4 100.0 71.4
Education 100.0 100.0 100.0
Foreign Affairs 86.7 87.5 85.7
Judiciary 82.4 100.0 62.5
Labor 76.9 85.7 66.7
Merchant Marine 91.7 100.0 83.3
Mines and Mining 84.6 85.7 100.0
Public Lands 86.7 100.0 71.4
Rules 80.0 100.0 50.0
Ways and Means 76.5 88.9 62.5
The inexperience of the committee leaders and the lack of established
committee norms and procedures to pass agendas allowed the party bosses to control
the business and flow of policies. The complete party control of the legislative
agenda was the most effective tool to achieving the goals of the Republican party
during the realignment period. As in other times, the two parties voted along
partisan lines on all major policy issues. On the issues within the party platform, the
Republicans voted 100% along party lines (Brady p. 81). The large majority and the
great loyalty enjoyed by the Republicans allowed them to pass their agenda over the
objections of the Democratic minority. Significant policies that came out of the
realignment period over the opposition of the Democrats were the passing of the
Gold Standard, enactment of the Dingle Tariff, and expansion of the U.S. in world
affairs as seen in U.S. engagement in the Spanish-American War (Brady p 53).
Consolidation of 1912
It is elementary to argue that the realignment of 1896, the system of 1896
as it has become known in contemporary times, ended with the temporary self-
destruction of the Republican Party in 1912. However, there were several other
internal indicators that signaled the end of the realignment status quo, and the
erosion of the Republican Partys power, besides the presidential loss in 1912. The
system of 1896, was primarily the victim, more so than any other political era, of
internal congressional reform that redefined the established political alignment and
created a more balanced system that would effectively manage the nations business
over the long term.
The political alignment that arose from the critical elections of 1894 and
1896 fell to the Progressive movement. The political history of the United States is
marked by its slow evolution into an ever more democratic republic. The
consolidation of 1912 and the return to interparty competition in 1916 was an
indicator of a new status quo created by egalitarian reforms to the system of 1896.
The national parties dominated the political system created by the
realignment of 1896, as they did in the political systems before it. However, the
system set in motion by the events of the mid-1890s was controlled by a very small
group of men in high positions in the legislature who were able to take advantage of,
and gain great personal political power from, the inexperience of the newly placed
committee leadership. In fact, just two men, Speaker Joseph Cannon and Speaker
Thomas Reed, gathered a great deal of power into that position and controlled
virtually every aspect of the legislature.
The rank-and-file Republicans revolted against Uncle Joe Cannon in 1910,
stripping the Speaker of many of his powers that had curtailed individual decision
making and committee leadership since 1896 (Burnham p.107). The development of
a firm set of rules and procedures (e.g., the development of a system of seniority to
distribute committee positions) ended the period of strong party allegiance that
usually is an indicator of a realignment era. It also signaled the beginning of the end
for the Republican Party as the Democrats regained parity with them.
There were other reforms that marked the beginning of the end of the party
machine. During this time, many states had instituted the Australian Ballot, which
made voting the party line more difficult. With the secret ballot, the parties could
no longer easily enforce party discipline among the voters. Universal ballots not
created by the parties made voting a straight ticket more complicated by mixing
all the parties candidates together. In addition, the advent of the direct primary,
direct election of Senators (Constitutional Amendment ratified in 1913), and the rise
of the modem press (not party-dominated press) also contributed to the weakening of
the parties. As early as 1923, polls indicated that a majority of political scientists
conceded that direct primaries had resulted in candidates who were more responsive
to majorities and less to corporations than under the conventional system (Thelen,
p51-52). Many states also initiated immigrant/race-related election reforms. The
early 1900s saw the institution of the poll tax, longer residency requirements, and
biased literacy tests. Combined with the beginnings of womens suffrage in some
states, these reforms diluted the immigrant and urban vote to the point that the
Republican Party lost a great deal of its power base (Burnham 74-79).
The business-oriented policies of the 1890s and early 1900s produced an era
of gross abuse of the publics trust by corporations, business interests, and trusts.
The elections of 1910 and 1912 were marked by issues surrounding business and
banking scandals, cries for anti-trust legislation, and for the reinstatement of the
Sherman Act (Burnham, p. 120). The Democrats ran on the issues of anti-tariff, anti-
morganization, lower railroad rates, and against the suspension of the Sherman
Anti-Trust Act over the steel trusts acquisition of the Tennessee Coal and Iron
Company. The democratic reformers of the Progressive movement were made up of
party-line Democrats as well as a Anti-Probusiness section of the Republicans acting
in protest against Czar Reed, Cannonism, and Aldrichism (Thelen, p51-52).
However, the movement towards democracy and business reform on the part of the
Republicans was, more a protest against corporate control over legislature than
against party discipline (Thelen, p51 -52).
The split in the Republican Party in Congress was an indication of the lack of
unifying issues before them and was the result of an internal revolt over both the
power of the leadership and its failure to live up to its campaign promises regarding
graft and corporate greed. In the eyes of the electorate, the sin of the leadership of
the majority was not that it tried to get all the Republicans to vote alike, but to vote
against the partys 1908 platform plank to lower the tariff duties (Thelen, p51-52).
Many felt that the leaders were more responsive to nonpartisan corporations than to
the partys voters (Thelen, p.52). As is evident from the electoral returns, the
majority of voters thought that the Republicans had gone too far in bending to the
wishes of business and industry. After the mid-term elections in 1910, when Anti-
Cannonism and calls for tariff revision resulted in defeat for the Republicans, the
New York Times declared that voters punished the Republicans, for betrayals of
their interests and disobedience to their will... What a wonderful and quick
regeneration has been wrought in the Democratic Party in this year (Glasser, pi 98).
The loss of party cohesion in the Congress and the election reforms designed
to limit party power were also accompanied by a fracturing of the Republican Partys
presidential vote. Republican ex-President Teddy Roosevelt felt that the party had
become too conservative, and he bolted the party to create the Progressive/Bull
Moose Party. The splintering of party loyalty among the electorate doomed the
Republicans and the Bull Moose to a loss at the hands of the Democrats. In 1912,
the Republicans lost the presidency and both houses of Congress, and the
Progressive movement was well under way in establishing a more egalitarian
political system that could sustain the nation and keep the political process stable for
an extended period of time. The Electoral College results illustrated in Appendix B
highlight the change in public support of the time.
The period between 1911 and 1913 was a consolidation period for the 1890s
realignment. It served as a capstone to the realignment and signaled the end of the
system of 1896. The slow erosion of party cohesion in Congress made possible by
reforming and limiting the power of party leadership also eroded the ability of the
Republican Party to pass legislation to complete its business agenda. In addition, the
internal split of the party regarding its continued support for the business sector also
eroded its legislative power and contributed further to the reform movement. Also,
national and state electoral reforms hedged the Republicans ability to manufacture
meaningful support from the populace. Scandals and widely acknowledged
examples of business overstepping its societal role also helped to erode the public
support for continuing the industry/big business biased agenda of the 1890s but not
to the point of questioning the industrial future of America.
Starting with the mid-term elections in 1910, and continuing until 1916, the
consolidation reestablished a political status quo (divided government) that better
suited the nation for the long term. The power of industry was tempered by electoral
and political reforms that spread political power more evenly throughout both
Congress and the populace. In addition to reforms to the political process, some
examples of policy reforms include the reinstatement of the Sherman Act, creation of
the Federal Reserve Board in 1913, and new rules liberalizing tariff revision. Party
power over individual congressmen was reduced, overall a greater number of people
had a greater say in who was in power, and the parties achieved a long-term parity in
power that would last until the 1930s.
Realignment of 1932
The political system put in place during the consolidation of 1912 worked
well until the end of the 1920s, when the country was faced with an economic
depression of a scale heretofore unheard of. As in the realignment of 1896, the
stimulus of the 1932 realignment was an economic crisis. However, the question
before the populace was an entirely novel one. The nation had already been led
down the industrial path as opposed to agricultural domination; the cross-cutting
issue in 1932 that determined the future of America was whether the government
would actively deal with national economic problems. The results of the 1932
elections were the legitimization of social welfare (economic in nature) and the
lasting notion that it is the governments role to address citizens problems no matter
which party is in power (Milkis p67).
The indicators of the critical nature of the 1932 elections are stereotypical
examples of the tenets of realignment theory. In reaction to the cross-cutting issues
of mass unemployment and poverty, the people were forced to make a lasting
decision on their relationship with the government. The nation could either ride the
ups and downs of the capitalist business cycle, enjoying the booms and enduring the
busts, or it could use government intervention to both stabilize the business cycle and
take care of the disadvantaged. The Republican Party, old time adherents to the
wonders of the free market (at least they were reluctant to regulate trade unless it
helped big business interests), advocated minimizing governments presence in the
daily economic lives of Americans. The Democrats took the opposite stance,
supporting government programs to feed the hungry and provide jobs for those who
were dislocated by the failing economy.
The Democrats won big in 1932 and held the presidency and a majority in
both houses for the next sixteen years. The Democratic party won the presidential
race, gained 93 seats in the House in that year, and gained twelve seats in the Senate.
The significant change in support is illustrated in the Electoral College results in
Appendix B. Those numbers increased over the next two elections, adding twenty
more House and sixteen more Senate seats before those numbers started to decline
(Smith, p.386). During the 1930s the Democrats held three times as many seats as
the Republicans at times, allowing the former to pass legislation at will. Although
party loyalty was still high during this time, with such large majorities the Democrats
could afford a number of defections on policy votes and still push their agenda
through the government.
With such an increase in numbers for one party it is obvious that the turnover
rate was very high, with a large increase in freshmen congressional members and
committee chairmen. Looking at 1930 as a comparison year makes this change easy
to illustrate. In that year Congress was 19% freshmen. In 1932, that number rose to
37.2% and overall, over 50% of Congress had served two years or less and 90% of
those belonged to the new majority party (Brady, p.104-105). Committee turnover
was also very high and on the same scale as in 1896, with committees seeing
between 64 and 95.7% new membership and the average being made up of 80%
novice committee members (Brady, p.105). In comparison, the average committee
turnover during the prealignment Houses was slightly over 20% (Brady, p.193). The
committees with low-seniority chairmen are listed in Appendix A.
Table 3.4: Total and Partisan Turnover on Thirteen Selected Committees, 73rd House, 1933-1935
(Percent new members since the 71s* House)
Committee Total Democrat Republican
Agriculture 85.2% 89.5% 75.0%
Appropriations 74.3 67.0 85.7
Banking and Currency 79.2 81.2 75.0
Commerce 64.0 85.7 62.5
Education 85.7 80.0 100.0
Foreign Affairs 80.0 88.2 62.5
Judiciary 88.0 88.2 87.5
Labor 85.0 85.7 83.3
Merchant Marine 73.9 82.4 50.0
Mines and Mining 95.5 100.0 83.3
Public Lands 95.7 100.0 83.3
Rules 67.0 62.5 75.0
Ways and Means 80.0 93.3 60.0
Facing the scope of the problem before them, with an energetic President
behind them, and armed with large majorities in both houses and highly motivated
new committee members, the new Democrats passed a phenomenal amount of
legislation and new policy. The New Deal programs, as they came to be called,
reshaped and redefined Americas political landscape. Examples of major policies
that came from the 1930s realignment include the creation of Social Security, new
regulations for banks and financial markets, agricultural assistance, publicly insured
homeowners loans, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and many government work
and financial-aid programs.
Because of the well-defined shift in party allegiance, committee and
leadership turnover, and lasting policy outcomes, the critical election of 1932 and the
realignment it announced have become the bar against which all realignments are
judged. The support for the New Deal generated by the turnover of 1932 lasted until
1937-39, when for the first time since 1932 no reform legislation was introduced in
Congress, but the Democrats remained firmly in power until the 83rd Congress in
1953. It was not until 1946 that the Republican Party again had a voice in the policy
making of the United States. In that year the Republicans gained 56 seats in the
House and 13 in the Senate, putting an end to Democratic domination of Congress, at
least for a time (Congressional Quarterly).
Consolidation of 1948
The late 1940s were marked by new political turmoil in America. The
policies and trends pursued by the Democrats were becoming dated and ineffectual
under the new environment of peace and prosperity. The days of deflation and
unemployment and the economic damage they had brought were gone. The country
was in the midst of postwar demobilization, and new threats, both internal and
external, were on the horizon. Inflation was the new catch phrase as the market was
overfilled with products no longer needed for the war effort combined with a
continued paucity of consumer goods. There was also unrest over wartime price
controls and rationing. In 1946 a meat shortage on account of wartime rationing
policies led to protests and strikes filling the streets with people demanding an end to
draconian wartime economic policies (Jacobson, p.126).
At the same time, Truman was trying to extend New Deal policies at the end
of the 1940s. New social welfare programs, such as the Taft-Hartley Labor-
Management Relations Act, proposed to prohibit closed shops, and in 1948 Truman
moved to increase welfare rates, to decrease taxes, and also to extend civil rights
(Congressional Quarterly). The advancement of civil rights is the issue that broke
the New Deal coalition that had lasted since 1932. Trumans plan, the Fair Deal,
was essentially an extension of the New Deal with the addition of a heavy emphasis
on civil rights. When Truman moved to protect the rights of African Americans, his
party split into pieces.
The Democratic Partys left flank supported Henry Wallace, a suspected
communist sympathizer and advocate of vast social changes. The conservative side
of the party, composed of the Dixiecrats (conservative Southerners), opposed even
the most modest civil rights measures and took their political support elsewhere.
They formed a lasting and very powerful coalition with the religious right of the
Republican Party on moral and racial issues known as the conservative coalition
The Democratic majority in the House was lost as Truman tried to pull the
country deeper into the liberal welfare state and push the country towards racial
equality, all while under the threat of the Korean War, global and internal
Communism, and economic turmoil at home. Although still supportive of New Deal
policies, the populace, as reflected by the composition of party supporters, felt that
Trumans Fair Deal programs had moved too fast and further down a road that the
nation was not ready to travel. As early as 1938, Gallup polls indicated that a
majority of the people (66%) wanted more conservative policies from the legislature
(Gasser, pi 23).
The 1948 Democratic platform containing the rudimentary beginnings of
Civil Rights policies was the first shift away from the programs put forth under
Roosevelt. Its liberal posture prompted shifts in voter allegiance and began the era
of the candidate-centered elections and a move away from party candidates riding
presidential coattails (Campbell: Party Decomposition). Joel Silbey agrees with this
assessment, stating that, the years 1948-52 seem to be an appropriate dividing point
because the disintegration of the New Deal party coalition was evident in both
presidential elections, as was the onset of candidate centered elections (Silbey, 16).
The elections of 1946 and 48 put the brakes on progress towards civil rights
and expanding the welfare state. It would not gain momentum again until the 1960s,
although the courts would lead the fight with the Brown v. Board of Education
decision in 1954. The elections were the harbingers of the New Deal consolidation
period. Between 1946 and 1952, election results were mixed. The Republicans
would make major gains in one election, while the Democrats would storm back in
the next. President Truman lost the Democratic congressional majority for the first
time in 1946, only to regain it in the following election. Shifts in House
representation varied from increases of 22 to 75 seats for either party, and variations
in Senate representation left the Democrats down ten seats in 1952 from 1946
(Smith, p.386). In 1950 the Democrats lost four leaders in reelection bids that hurt
their party and help mark the end of their dominance. The majority leader of the
Senate, the majority whip, and the chairmen of the armed services and labor
committees all were defeated in that year. The loss of the presidency to Republican
Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 put a capstone on the consolidation. The Electoral
College results illustrated in Appendix B highlight the change in public support of
The result of the consolidation was a period of weakened party strength and
stagnation on policies improving the condition of the impoverished and those
suffering racial injustice. No new important racial or social policies were enacted
from the mid-1940s until the mid to late-1950s. None of the Fair Deal programs
central to the campaigns of 1948 and 1950, such as the Federal Fair Employment
Practices and universal health care, passed. The Republicans of the time had taken
all but arithmetic control of the Senate due in large part to the large number of
sympathetic Southern Democrats (Busch, p.91). In terms of policy, Harry S.
Trumans Fair Deal was proclaimed dead.
The 1950 midterm election was the final stage of the New Deal majority, and
it foreshadowed the Republicans return to power in 1952. The New York Times
declared that the national trend is, indisputably Republican...The Democratic Fair
Deal has met with a resounding check.. .No good reason remains for the President to
insist upon his oft repeated claim that he has a mandate from the people for such
measures (Busch, p. 198). A shifting of leaders and of issues took place at the time
and the result was a weakening of the Democratic Party and the strengthening of the
Republicans. In effect, the electorate consolidated its gains from the New Deal and
chose to move less quickly on social advancements beyond the minimal scope of
economic welfare by splitting power between the two parties.
The days of unified government moving in concerted effort on specific and
universally accepted policy goals that marked the New Deal realignment were over.
However, the Democratic defeats and policy stagnation that indicated the
consolidation period of the late forties and early fifties did not indicate an end to the
perceived utility of the gains from the New Deal. The Republican Party reluctantly
supported the broad features of Roosevelts legacy, as did the Democrats. The
Republicans never considered dismantling the welfare state created in the New Deal
realignment. The difference in the two parties at the time was in the degree of
enlarging the scope of those projects (Campbell: Party Decomposition). The
Democratic Party itself was unsure of how to proceed, and was split over including
social welfare issues in its platform. Some semblance of parity was achieved when
the conservative Dixiecrats abandoned the Democrats and supported the Republican
Party during the 1940s and 50s. The parity between the parties slowed the reform
movement of the New Deal and consolidated the gains of the 1930s and would last
until the beginnings of the turbulent 1960s.
Reinstatement of 1960
Although the end of the 1940s and the early 1950s saw the end of Democratic
hegemony in the government, the pace of change was only slowed. In the late 1950s
and early 60s it picked up again. The Great Society programs fostered by the
Democrats and President Johnson were designed to feed and house the rural poor,
and were aimed as well at desegregation and greater civil equality taking off where
the New Deal had ended. The creation of Medicare in 1964 and the enactment of the
Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 signaled renewed energy
on the part of government not just in economic welfare but in social welfare as well.
The support needed to pass such vast programs was made possible by a dramatic
increase in the size of the majority enjoyed by the Democrats in both houses of the
The Democratic increase in seats during the early 1960s is not considered a
true realignment but is instead called a reinstatement by Burnham (Burnham,
Critical Realignment). This fact that the partisan shift seen during the 1960-64
elections does not truly meet the requirements of a realignment makes them an
interesting case of the consolidation paradigm The plausibility of using the 1960s as
examples of either realignment theory or consolidation theory opens both up to a
great deal of ambiguity and possible overuse.
The differentiating factors that make the 1960s a reinstatement instead of a
realignment are considerable. To start, the increase in seats was not a result of any
crisis or cross-cutting issue. Between 1960 and 1964 there was no one single issue
that confronted the nation and threatened to split it in half. Instead, what can be seen
is the beginnings of overwhelming support for the Democratic Party among African
American voters (one among many other factors), as voting restrictions in the form
of Jim Crow laws were lifted throughout the South. Also, the scope of differences
between the two parties positions was not on a scale with what occurred in either
1896 or 1932 (Burnham, Critical Elections and the Mainsprings!.
Another factor that questions the presence of a realignment was the lack of
turnover among the committees and the leadership. Going into the 1960s the
Democrats already had a majority in both Houses. In 1959, during Eisenhowers last
term, the reinstatement began when the Democrats gained just under 50 seats in the
House and 15 in the Senate, adding to their majorities (Smith, 384). Even with the
introduction of scores of new members, the leaders of the majority party remained
firmly entrenched in their positions. All of these indicators point to a phenomenon
other than a partisan realignment.
What did occur when Kennedy and Johnson took office in 1960 was the
reunification of the government under the Democratic Party. Energized by the
activist messages of both of these Presidents, the Democrats, enjoying a huge margin
of majority, were able to push through a great deal of legislation that in times of
greater parity between the two parties would have been stymied3. The large majority
of Democrats made it possible to pass policies that changed the political and social
landscape of America in a very short time. It did so by enabling the party to act
without the support of the conservative southern Democrats (Dixiecrats) who
opposed the partys efforts in the area of civil rights. The result was not unlike what
is seen after a critical election in a realignment. The unified government and the
large majority made it possible for the party to achieve the greater part of its agenda
and pass the great civil rights and economic welfare laws of the 1960s.
I am heavily in favor or adjusting the definition of realignment periods to
give greater credence to the degree of change brought on by the policies of the time,
versus the quantitative indicators that other authors, like Burnham, favor. However,
3 In The Elections of 1996. Michael Nelson examines many of the historical political situations that I
do, but focuses on the President versus my focus on Congress. He also uses the term, consolidation,
one I claim to have coined, but as a point in the political cycle and as one possible descriptor of a
Presidents ability to pass policy. He classifies Kennedys and Johnsons administrations as ones of
preparation and of achievement respectively. Although looking at the situation from a different
angle, as well as focusing on its bearing on the elections of 1996, he draws many of the same
conclusions that I do. We also identify complimentary traits in their elections: 1) promises of reform,
2) election by strong majority, and 3) victory accompanied by large party gains in Congress.
I defend Burnhams classification of the 1960s as a reinstatement period because the
political coalition that was created, and the policies they proposed, were a
continuation, if not identical in many respects, to those proposed in the late 1940s,at
the end of the 1932 realignment. In respect to the volume and impact of the policies
on the direction of the country I see the 1960s as a realignment period, but I think the
term reinstatement better identifies the historical political realities. If it is easier,
one can think of the two terms as interchangeable, understanding that a reinstatement
period is a possible sub-classification of a realignment period.
Consolidation of 1968
The 1960s picked up where Truman had failed. The nation was finally ready
for movement towards greater racial and economic equality. Large strides were
made toward these goals. However, after passage of the Great Society programs,
notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the tide
turned against continued Democratic empowerment. The public had questions about
the conduct of the Vietnam War and the waves of social, political, and racial unrest
that were occurring at the time.
In the mid-1960s the Democrats held between a 59 and 68% majority in
Congress (Jacobson: Politics of Congressional Elections). In 1966 the Democrats
lost 47 House seats to Republicans and 13 Senate seats as well. The trend continued
in 1968 when the Republicans picked up 5 more seats in the House and 6 more in the
Senate. Although the Republicans were still in the minority, the Democratic super-
majority, with the ability to pass a bill over filibuster and internal dissent, was
eliminated. The Democrats comfortable 68% majority was reduced to 55% by
1968, and they lost the presidency in that year as well (Jacobson, Politics).
The 1966 and 1968 elections were in a effect a referendum on how liberal
the United States would be in the future. The outcome was an acknowledgement that
the Democrats had lost touch with the majority of the population. The Democratic
members of Congress themselves acknowledge that the results of the 1966 elections
were a move towards the center as a result of the belief that LBJ was moving too fast
(Busch, p. 123). The New York Times commented after the 1966 elections that, the
Republican Party has achieved a decisive victory... [which] can only be interpreted
as a serious setback for [LBJ]. The nation has, in effect, flashed a Caution-Go
Slow signal to the Johnson Administration (Busch, pi23). Further advancements
along the lines of equality would have to wait until the public could accept the
changes that were occurring within society and the violence that accompanied the
changes had been brought under control. In 1968 the civil rights gains of the
reinstatement of the New Deal coalition entered into a consolidation period during
which further gains were limited but the strides taken were not lost.
What had been widespread consensus support only four years before, became
a lack of confidence in the direction of the majority party. The Democrats had
discovered too late that they had gone too far on the issues of civil rights in light of
the difficulties at home and with the war. The public became disillusioned by
economic hardships brought on by enacting the Great Society programs and fighting
the Vietnam War at the same time. The war itself was unpopular, and the protesting
both against the war and for equal rights alienated many whites who were concerned
with civil order. Lewis Gould notes in his book 1968: The Election That Changed
America. In district after district and city after city they [the Democrats] found an
undercurrent of resentment concerning civil order and gains made by the Negro
population (Gould, 1968). Emmet Hughes of Newsweek noted that there was a
tension in society and a stress among men, not known since the 30s (Gould, 1968).
The riots of 1968, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin L. King,
illustrated the loss of control of the government to the majority of whites in the
nation. Order was being lost, lawlessness was becoming rampant on the streets and
in the schools, and there was an increasing lack of respect for the institutions and the
people that led the country. The very foundations of society were being shaken
In the elections of 1968, all the blame for the troubles of the late 1960s fell
straight onto the shoulders of the Democratic Party. The Democrats were
indisputably the party in power, and there was no doubt in the minds of the majority
of the electorate that they were to blame for the mess. By the 1960s the New Deal
Coalition had become the liberal-labor-negro coalition, and it had, to paraphrase the
Postmaster General at the time, to a greater or lesser extent, lost contact with the
voters (Gould, 1968). In 1966 and 1968 the voters decided that the nation had gone
too far and perhaps given the blacks too much too quickly. Even traditional
Democratic Party supporters like union members deserted liberal candidates for one
reason only: in protest against their advocacy of civil rights (Gould, 1968k In fact,
under Nixon, the Republicans introduced the first Affirmative Action plans at this
time in order to split further the support groups of the Democrats.
In 1968, the public consolidated the gains of the civil rights movement until
order could be brought back to the streets. The major issues of the late 1960s were
race and violence (Jacobson, Politics!. To many, the two issues seemed to be
connected. White voters could not understand the level of violence in the streets
after they had already capitulated and given in to the demands for greater racial
equality. The violence on the campuses and even at the Democratic convention all
indicated the inability of the Democrats in power to keep the nation under control.
The voters moved towards the Republican platform filled with promises of returning
public order, removal of troops from Vietnam, and a more conservative social
Since the 1968 election, neither party has enjoyed an extended stay under a
unified government or has even held a large majority in Congress. For over thirty
years government has been marked by division and lack of consensus: the programs
and liberal influence of the New Deal and the Great Society have continued but at a
much slower pace. The gains of the 60s were consolidated, and a new status quo
was established after 1968. We entered a new era of divided government,
independent voters, and candidate-centered elections which would limit the
flexibility of either party to drive the country towards change (Shafer: Realignment.
SUMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The topic of realignments in American politics has been well investigated by
a plethora of authors. However, a review of the literature concerning realignments
leaves scholars with an unfinished picture of the phenomenon. Much has been
written, and the thoughts minutely refined, on the characteristics of the critical
elections that are found at the beginning of a realignment period and the personnel
and policy changes that mark the heart of a political realignment. However, this
paper has focused on the ending of realignment periods, and the return of a lasting
status quo of divided government that arises from what I call consolidation elections.
This is a topic in which others have only scratched the surface. As mentioned
before, Burnham organizes his argument in a different fashion. He defines my
consolidation elections as midlife crisis of longer political eras instead of
starting points for a new status quo that consolidates the lessons and advances of the
The presence of a consolidating election has a large impact on realignment
theory. It shows that there is a specific transition point between the radical change of
the realignment period and the return to the normal conservative nature of American
government similar to the critical election that marks the start of the realignment.
The presence of this second specific transition point has not been recognized until
now. Also, this paper acknowledges and explains the relationship between the
activist nature of realignments with the conservative nature of divided government.
Finally, by changing the focus to the end of the realignments, this paper moves the
theory closer to completion by shifting the focus away from the hackneyed topics of
critical elections and the general characteristics (and their presence or absence in any
one election) of the realignment phenomenon.
Consolidation elections are the capstones of realignment periods. They mark
the end of partisan unification and policy activism and the beginnings of shared
government and policy stalemate that define the long-term stable relationship of the
two-party system in America. Like the critical election that starts them, and the
realignments themselves, consolidations have particular defining characteristics that
I have identified. These characteristics reverse the partisan changes that occur to our
political structure in a critical election and set the stage for the return to divided
The first characteristic of a consolidation election is the lack of public of
support for further reform along the lines of the stimulus, or cross-cutting issue, that
caused the realignment. The second is the movement of electoral support away from
the majority party and towards the center of the political spectrum or towards the
opposite party. This shift in electoral support either ends the majority status of the
leading party or significantly erodes it to the point at which the majority can no
longer pass its policies without compromising with the minority party. The shift in
support could also manifest itself in the loss of the presidency to the minority party.
The third characteristic of a consolidation is that the result of this shift is divided or
shared government between the two parties that lasts for about twenty years, which
is the norm for the stable periods of time in the history of political change in
America. The fourth characteristic is the end of policy activism due to the sharing of
political power between the two parties. From the consolidation on, the two parties
are unable to force their agenda straight into law. The compromise and conflict that
are inherent in divided government limit the governments ability to continue to
reform as quickly as was possible during the period of unified government in the
realignment. The fifth and final characteristic is the stable nature of the governing
structures that arise at the consolidation stage. The sharing of power between the
two parties becomes the new status quo and continues for roughly twenty years until
another politically cross-cutting crisis hails the need for a new political alignment.
The characteristics of these capstone elections are shared by all realignments
and constitute the basis of the argument for the existence of the consolidation
phenomenon. This paper showed that the realignments of 1896 and 1932 both were
completed by a consolidation election. In addition, the rise of unified government
under the Democrats in the early 1960s, which reinstated the New Deal alignment
and began the activism of the Great Society programs and civil rights initiatives, also
shared with the realignment periods the presence of a consolidation election at its
What remains unanswered is the applicability of realignment theory to
contemporary political situations. As stated before, since there has been no clear
example of a realignment in the last 60-70 years (and for sure in the last 40), many
authors believe that the contemporary political environment has ended the
need/ability for the system to realign itself. General apathy, elections revolving
around individual candidates on permanent campaigns, coupled with the continued
weakening of the two major parties are all sited as examples of obstacles to a future
realignment. I disagree with this pessimistic assessment. The nature of our large
republican government has not changed from when Madison and the other founders
laid it out. If we still live in a republic where the voices of an ever growing number
of factions representing the people still have a somewhat equal voice in how the
government makes it decisions4, and that these factions stymie each other on a daily
basis, but can also act in concert when presented with a unifying threat, then you
acknowledge the possibility that a realignment could still occur. Some argue that
this is no longer the case, but the truth is that we have not had the opportunity to test
the theory that the people lack, or have lost, the will to change the system.
4This not a certainty if you acknowledge the growing influence of corporate and monied interests in
our government. See also footnote # 1 concerning the work of Alan Kay and questions regarding who
the public thinks controls the government.
The most important thing to consider when discussing realignments is not the
affects it has on the partisan makeup of Congress. Going back to Keys initial work
on the subject, the focus of realignment theory is the presence of an issue that creates
a political crisis, a cross-cutting issue that in turn creates the impetus for partisan
change. The stimulus is not the political parties that form to answer the issue. The
partisan change found during a realignment is a symptom of how the people seek to
resolve the crisis that they face. None of the changes in our contemporary electoral
environment that have been mentioned present any type of preventative measure to
the possible creation of an issue that is outside the current framework of our
It must also be remembered that the realignments in American history were
the result of major flaws in our political systems ability to follow through on the
basic promises of life, liberty, and happiness. The issues of slavery, greater
democracy, industrialization, and equal economic and political opportunity were
huge obstacles and distinct decision points in America finally beginning to fulfill its
promise to itself. Luckily our nation has not been faced with such hard choices since
at least the 1960s and maybe even since the 1930s. It may be that we have reached
a point at which the American political system satisfactorily (not perfectly or
completely to be sure) meets the political needs of the populace, and we no longer
need to realign our system.
That is not to say, however, it is not foreseeable that at some time in the
future, the nation will not be faced with another crucial decision that will bring about
the next realignment. For example, although the role of our political system at home
has been fairly secured, the next crisis could come in deciding the US role in the
world. Economic, security, ecological, and technology issues cloud the international
horizon. The role the US plays in all these areas could be challenged by a new
generation of Americans with its own view of the responsibilities of their country to
It seems every generation must find a way to deal with an issue with a
solution that is at an inconsistency with how business was taken care of in the past.
Will world capitalism led by America survive in the face global economic injustice
and ecological disaster? Will the US fulfill its defense commitments to Korea,
Taiwan, and Japan in the face of nuclear war with China and the possible loss of
millions of American lives? Will intellectual property rights survive in the internet
age? Will American socialism survive a bankrupt Social Security and Medicare
system, or will we develop universal healthcare as a result of economic hardships?
These are all issues that could possibly result in realignment and in the rebirth of
our political parties as they struggle to find solutions. The alignments of the
twentieth century have not given us a political system that can answer all crisis that
might arise in the twenty-first. It is impossible to say that another realignment will
happen, but it is a better bet that one will happen than one wont in the face of the
rapid social and economic changes that face our society in the 21st century.
Tables of Low Seniority Committee Chairman 55th and 73rd Houses
Committees with Low Seniority Committee Chairmen, 55th House
Accounts Invalid Pensions
Alcohol, Liquor, Traffic Judiciary
Claims Levees on Mississippi
District of Columbia Merchant Marine
Election of President Mines and Mining
Expenditures, Agriculture Pacific Railroads
Expenditures, Interior Patents
Expenditures, Justice Private Land Claims
Expenditures, Navy Public Buildings
Expenditures, Post Office Reform in Civil Service
Expenditures, Public Buildings Revision of Laws
Expenditures, State Department Rivers and Harbors
Expenditures, Treasury Territories
Expenditures, War Dept. War Claims
Immigration and Naturalization Ways and Means
Note: An Asterisk indicates the Chairman was not on the committee in the 70 House. The other
committees have chairmen that were below the median seniority on their committees in that House.
Committees with Low Seniority Committee Chairmen, 55th House
Accounts Irrigation and Reclamation
District of Columbia Library
Election of President Military Affairs
Elections-1 Mines and Mining
Enrolled Bills Public Lands
Expenditures in Executive Revision of Laws
Foreign Affairs Territories
Insular Affairs Ways and Means
Note: An Asterisk indicates the Chairman was not on the committee in the 53rd House. The other
committees have chairmen that were below the median seniority on their committees in that House.
Electoral College Results Maps for Selected Elections Demonstrating Shifting
Political Partisan Support During Critical and Consolidation Election Time Periods
Gray : Democrats Black : Republicans Other : Various Third Parties
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