The Collapse of the Democratic Presidential Majority: Realignment, Dealignment, and Electoral Change from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton

By David G. Lawrence | Go to book overview

Preface

I began graduate study at the University of Chicago in 1969, in the extraordinarily stimulating and supportive environment created by people like Norman Nie, Sidney Verba, Kenneth Prewitt, Paul Peterson, and J. David Greenstone, and in the golden age of realignment theory. It was an era in which the dynamics of system-level electoral change was being explained as a function of the tension between stable mass partisan loyalties and constantly changing underlying social and economic conditions. Realignment theory essentially argues that party loyalties are sufficiently powerful to prevent these changed circumstances from altering voting behavior for extended periods of time, allowing the stable patterns of electoral outcomes that have characterized periods like 1896-1930 and 1932-1966; but the accumulation of tensions over time caused by the inevitable emergence of new issues and accompanied by generational replacement of those whose party loyalties were forged in past realignment crises means that the natural life-span of such party systems was limited to approximately forty years. Sometime around the forty-year mark, some systemic crisis would cause the tension between long-standing partisan loyalties and new political circumstances to become unbearable, causing citizens to adjust their party loyalties to make them consistent with new highly-salient issues and causing the sudden sharp change knows as realignment. This new party/issue nexus, forged in systemic crisis, would provide the stable equilibrium of political attitudes that could underlie a new era of stable electoral outcomes likely to last for another forty years.

Around the time I arrived at Fordham, in 1973, the conventional wisdom was that the United States was on the verge of such a realignment: forty years after Franklin Roosevelt's election as president, the passing of the New Deal generation and emergence of new issues like race, crime, and Vietnam that would undermine Democratic domination and make the Republican Party the national majority. By the early 1980s, it was clear that such a classic realignment had not occurred: the Republicans had of course won most of the recent presidential elections, but it had failed to gain in sub-presidential elections or in the partisan loyalties of ordinary citizens that realignment theory predicted. A new and competing theory of dealignment was gaining adherents: dealignment essentially argued that weakening of parties and of party loyalties had created a world in which stable party systems could no longer exist and in which realignment could no longer occur.

-xiii-

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