Social Cleavages and Political Change: Voter Alignments and U.S. Party Coalitions

By Jeff Manza; Clem Brooks | Go to book overview
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Introduction

The impact of social divisions on political life has long been a central concern of political sociology. For much of the formative decades of the field, research on social movements, party systems, public opinion, and voting behavior examined the social bases of political life. The reasons for this interest are not hard to discern. In capitalist democracies, politics, like other arenas of social life, is shaped by inequalities in the amount of power and status enjoyed by different groups. How such factors affect political contests and outcomes tells us much about the nature of democratic polities in specific national contexts.

In recent years, however, there have been numerous claims in the social science literatures on political behavior that postindustrial economic, social, and cultural trends have reduced the import of social factors. In this book we investigate this claim. More specifically, we consider the role of social group divisions on voting behavior and party coalitions produced by the distribution of votes in national elections in America since the 1950s. While our empirical focus is on the United States, the general approach we develop could readily be applied to other countries.

A central assumption that motivates much of the sociological research on political behavior, including our own, is that the structure of electoral coalitions ultimately--if indirectly--has an impact on both the policy agendas and electoral strategies pursued by major political parties. Interpretations of major electoral change--such as the Republican triumph of 1896, the New Deal era Democratic sweeps of the 1930s, or even Richard Nixon's capture of the presidency for the Republicans in 1968 (which began a period of Republican dominance at the presidential level)--often focus on underlying shifts in the group bases of the party coalitions. Where the votes come from, why, and with what impact are central questions in the scholarly analysis of historical and contemporary political behavior.

Interest in the social bases of U.S. electoral coalitions is, of course, not limited to professional social scientists. Candidates for political

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