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
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The Collapse of the Democratic Presidential Majority*

Few concepts in the social science literature have aroused as much interest and controversy in recent years as electoral realignment. The term conjures up images of dramatic change in the nature of political conflict: upsurge in mass political involvement and participation, large-scale and lasting shifts in the balance of party forces, sharp alteration in content of the political agenda and in the nature of political outputs. Realignment attracted attention because it was thought to be highly topical as well: Walter Dean Burnham's elegant argument ( 1970) about its periodicity suggested that the United States was "due" for realignment in the 1960s, precisely at a time at which many of its warning signs were becoming obvious.

Symptoms of impending realignment of the New Deal party system in the mid- 1960s were in fact quite numerous: the national issue agenda clearly changed, with emergence of new issues of race, social order, and foreign affairs that altered the clear issue landscape of class-based economic conflict that had dominated the previous forty years; increased intra-party conflict demonstrated the inability of the existing cleavage system to successfully contain a newly invigorated ideological debate; party coalitions shifted in response to the new issues, with intra-party debate often spilling over into third-parties movements that could constitute the classic way-stations of voters en route from one major party loyalty to another. Most importantly, the party that had dominated presidential elections from 1932 through 1964 clearly became the minority party at the presidential level, winning only one of the next six contests and only once exceeding 46.5% of the popular vote.

At the same time, there are substantial aspects of the realignment package that have not fallen into their expected places. The increased levels of mass political involvement thought characteristic of realigning eras never occurred: voter turnout fell consistently between 1960 and 1988, the period in which the most important of these changes took place. Two more important problems are the failure of Republican dominance at the presidential level to be translated into gains in subpresidential politics and the failure of the Republicans to make progress in party identification. Republican capture of the Senate in 1980 proved to be temporary, lasting only as long as it took for the class of 1980 to come up for re-election, rather than part of some majestically unfolding process of creating a new Republican

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