When Political Parties Die: A Cross-National Analysis of Disalignment and Realignment

When Political Parties Die: A Cross-National Analysis of Disalignment and Realignment

When Political Parties Die: A Cross-National Analysis of Disalignment and Realignment

When Political Parties Die: A Cross-National Analysis of Disalignment and Realignment

Synopsis

Why do major political parties die? The shelf life of minor parties in democracies tends to be short, but major parties tend to be highly durable. The Democratic Party of the United States and the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom have been going strong for two centuries. Major parties perpetuate themselves by maintaining a consistent ideology on major national issues, even at the cost of periodic defeats at the polls. In American politics, ideological polarization maintains the vitality of the two major parties and renders them almost immune to threats from new parties, even as it impedes consensus and compromise on public issues.

Spectacular instances of sudden death in major parties have nevertheless occurred in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Italy, and they all exhibit similar characteristics. The fatal event- which author Charles S. Mack calls "disalignment"- occurs when a schism opens between party leaders and traditional core-base voters on an issue of overriding national importance. Major parties survive periodic defeats, but they cannot survive disalignment.

Excerpt

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Few institutions seem as derided, yet as necessary and prevalent, as political parties. Parties are essential elements in linking society and the state, and they compete to provide an elected government. Yet, their modes of operation and competition often make them widespread objects of scorn. Nonetheless, we could not have democracy without them.

Political parties reflect past circumstances and events, as much as contemporary ones. Like a river, politics is ever changing yet always there. Events of decades and even centuries gone by affect the shape of political institutions of both today and the future, even as they inhibit or prevent other developments from ever coming to pass. This concept is called “path dependence,” and T. S. Eliot’s poem captures its essence well: the British capture of France’s North American territories in the late 18th Century worked its way through the intervening years to find its contemporary reflection in the politics of Quebec and Canada. and Britain’s Glorious Revolution, almost a century earlier, led in one way to the rise of that country’s Liberal Party and in another to the birth of the American Whig Party—and indeed to the constitutional systems of both countries.

Minor parties arise constantly to give voice to new points of view and to new or underrepresented interests. Most quickly disintegrate. a very few become major parties, but once they do they are likely to be very long-lived indeed. Among the democracies of West Europe and North America, most of the dominant political parties have been around for decades, and many date back to the 19th Century. How have they managed to survive so long?

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