What is Political Realignment?

An annotated collection of resources from the Bunk archive that help explain the shifting sands of American politics.

Political journalism often takes a narrow scope that frames every event as a struggle for parties to appease their allies. What do Biden and Pelosi need to do to keep the progressive wing of the Democratic party happy? How will working-class Trump voters in Ohio react to the latest piece of legislation? Demographic groups become shorthand for party affiliation, with African Americans and recent immigrants on one pole, evangelicals and midwestern farmers on the other, and “the Latino vote” still up for grabs. It is easy to forget that this particular arrangement of voters, and the issues that draw them to one party or the other, is of relatively recent origin. You wouldn’t know it from listening to some partisans, but party platforms and coalitions of voters are constantly shifting over time.

Party realignment, of course, has not been a simple matter of the two main parties flipping positions on the political spectrum. Understanding the nuances of the change requires us to examine the shifting dynamics within each party over time. 

The Founders did not anticipate or desire political parties, and actively feared the prospect of factions. Some of the first major debates in our nation’s history, over ratification of the constitution, were not contests between parties at all. The Federalists and Anti-Federalists were not rivals within a system; rather, they were fighting over what the system itself was going to be. The peaceful transfer of power in the election of 1800 heralded the true beginning of the first party system in the U.S., between the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republicans.

The ways in which American political parties align and realign is specific to the nation’s adversarial political system, and its winner-take-all elections. Unlike parliamentary systems, where narrowly defined parties from across the political spectrum form coalitions with one another, parties in the U.S. became umbrella groupings that incorporated diverse opinions within them. The evolution of the second party system, in which power was split between the Democrats and Whigs, provides a useful lens for understanding realignment. Over the course of about 15 years, the Federalist Party failed to expand their appeal, Jackson succeeded in expanding the electorate to men who did not own property, and the Whigs were challenged by popular single-issue third parties including the nativist Know-Nothings, the Free Soil Party, and its successor, the Republicans.

Change can also happen when the clusters of issues in parties’ platforms no longer match up with the coalitions of constituents in their ranks. In the 1850s, the expansion of slavery became such an important and intractable issue that it could not be solved within the party system. The parties split along sectional lines, and as with constitutional ratification debates, Americans fought not simply over a policy but over the rules of the political system itself. A new media culture, characterized by wide circulation of cheap printed materials including newspapers and pamphlets, allowed abolitionists to reach voters directly, ensuring that party leaders could no longer control the narrative about popular opinion or their own legislative compromises on the issue. Abolitionists and the nascent Republican party challenged the political norms of the “gag rule” that forbade Congressional debate about slavery’s expansion and of the compromises that kept delaying legislative action on the issue. By 1860, this resulted in the collapse of the second party system.

The Civil War and Reconstruction ultimately contributed to realignment by adding a new group of voters, African American freedmen, who overwhelmingly supported Republicans. But even the Civil War’s consequences were limited: Democratic party affiliation was already so entrenched that Lincoln only narrowly won the election of 1864, and in ensuing years, Democrats enacted Jim Crow laws that had profound consequences for generations. Both parties also angled for advantage in the second half of the 19th century  by expanding –– and  contracting –– the electorate itself. 

Changing ideas about the federal government have also contributed to realignment. In the wake of the Civil War, Republicans increased voter expectations of what government could and should do, particularly in the arena of civil rights and economic policy. The Populist Party, with strongholds in the west, emerged out of demands for regulations that favored agriculture and laborers over industry. And around the turn of the 20th century, a new movement for an expanded federal government swept the nation, crossing party lines. Economic progressives found a home in the Democratic party, while social progressives gravitated to the Republican party, before breaking off into their own Progressive Party when they found Republicans insufficiently supportive of regulation. 

Specific policy moves have also led to party realignment. One example is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decisions in response to the unprecedented crisis of the Great Depression. To the horror of wealthy conservatives and small-government Southerners in his party, Roosevelt made progressive economic policies, Keynesian economic theories, and an active administrative state the central tenets of the Democratic party. His decisive action ushered in a new coalition. In addition to the existing base of Southerners, immigrants, and white working-class laborers, the New Deal’s promise of social and economic benefits for the working class attracted African Americans away from the Republicans. This realignment was nurtured along by policy decisions in subsequent Democratic administrations, from Harry Truman’s integration of the armed forces through Lyndon Johnson’s support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When advisors warned that prioritizing civil rights would cost them the support of the segregationists in their base, Johnson replied “What the hell’s the presidency for?” Still, the civil rights legislation that could only have been achieved by mobilizing the coalition that Roosevelt had forged ended up destroying that coalition in the process. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson told an aide, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.” Indeed, from the 1940s through the 1960s, southern conservatives left the Democratic Party for a new home on the Republican side of the aisle.

The “neoliberal order” characterized by privatization, deregulation, and scaling back domestic the social safety net, has defined American politics in the post-civil rights era, prompting both major parties to move to the right. A new Republican coalition attracted white ethnic Europeans (like Irish and Italian Americans) in the 1970s, evangelical Christians in the 1980s, and rural working-class whites in the 1990s. While political analysis and public discourse often take the present demographic lineup as natural, not only is it historically contingent, but such a simplistic framework may actually impede our understanding of the political process.

Another promising avenue for understanding party realignment runs through specific policies themselves. Several issues have moved from one party to the other through the 20th century as the parties adjusted their stances in response to their changing constituencies.

How might our political discourse change if we better accounted for the history of party realignment? Would we make different demands of our leaders if we acknowledged that party platforms and the constituent groups that support those platforms shift – and that bold action by a party can trigger that? Are political philosophies de-aligning from political parties? Is party realignment even the right framework to understand what the media frames as polarization, or the politicization of the Supreme Court, or the right’s turn toward authoritarian leanings? If we are in another moment in which many debates are not about party politics at all, but rather what the system itself should be, then the opposing models cannot co-exist. Those who oppose antidemocratic principles are likely to fail if they continue to frame the conflicts as party rivalries. If they respond in kind, and put forth changes to the system that would create the future they think is best, history suggests that the outcome could look different. The resources in Bunk may not provide any answers to these questions, but they can certainly start a conversation.