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

By James L. Sundquist | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIFTEEN
The New Deal Party System: Years of Stabilization

TO RETURN to the questions of the first chapter: What is happening now to the American party system? Is it going through another period of major realignment on a scale comparable to the great upheavals of the past? Is the New Deal party system giving way to a new structure of political competition, arrayed along a different line of cleavage? Or is the party conflict still centering on essentially the same issues, and dividing people in much the same way, as when the New Deal revolution was fresh, half a century ago?

In historical perspective, fifty years is a long time for a party system to survive. The last three major realignments--as measured from their years of climax--were separated by intervals of only four decades, and before that the life spans of party systems were even shorter. If one is to credit the generational theory developed most fully by Beck, which holds that the children of the realignment generation will have weaker party attachments than do their parents, and their children in turn will have still fainter attachments, then the country has been "ripe for realignment" for quite a while. The youngest voters who actually went to the polls in the climactic years of the New Deal already bore the graceless title of senior citizens when the decade of the 1980s began. The children of the realignment generation then dominated the electorate, but their children were moving into it in large numbers and would shortly make up--if they did not already--the bulk of the politically active cadres in many places. These young men and women had only a hearsay understanding of, and little feeling for, the events that created the modern Democratic and Republican parties to which they might, or might not, profess allegiance.

Nevertheless, that a generation is ripe for realignment does not necessarily mean that it actually realigns the party system. For a major realignment to occur, it is still necessary that a crosscutting issue (or cluster of related issues) arise with enough force to dominate political

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