Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States

By James L. Sundquist | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
Major Realignment Averted: The Progressive Era

THE PERIOD between the Spanish-American War and the First World War was a time of great political turmoil. One of the most dynamic reform movements of the country's history, the progressive movement, took form, gained strength, accomplished fundamental change in many of the country's basic institutions, then declined as national attention turned to preparedness and war. During that period, the strongest third party the nation had known since the emergence of the Republicans-- the Theodore Roosevelt Progressive party--had its brief career. Reform movements, third parties, turmoil--these in the nineteenth century had been the heralds of major party realignments. Yet the Progressive Era came and went without any such upheaval. The distribution of party strength when the era closed did not differ radically from the pattern established in the 1890s.

Examination of the reasons for a nonevent, it has been frequently remarked, can sometimes be as informative as analysis of an event. So a powerful and effective protest movement that did not result in significant realignment deserves at least a brief consideration.

If the Progressive Era is examined from the standpoint of the propositions set forth in chapter 3, it seems clear that major realignment was averted because (1) the major parties responded to the demands for reform, and (2) they responded at about the same time and to about the same degree, so that no sharp distinction could be drawn between them. Events thus followed the course of scenario 1 in chapter 2, in which realignment did not occur. The Progressive Era has no parallel in American history in the extent to which the two parties vied with one another as agents of reform--not at all times and in all places and on all matters, to be sure, and often better in rhetoric than in performance, but nevertheless responding to the grievances of the time rather than resisting change.

The nonevent can be analyzed in terms of several of the variables listed in chapter 3--the nature of the grievances and the remedies and their capacity to polarize the country, the division of the forces of reform

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