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

By James L. Sundquist | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIXTEEN
Years of Disruption: Race and Southern Politics

THE ISSUE of governmental activism that gave rise to the New Deal party system, and that continued to dominate political debate during the relatively placid 1940s and 1950s, reached a second climax in the mid- 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson's Great Society measures were enacted. Some of those acts were direct counterparts of New Deal programs: Medicare was an extension of the Social Security Act of 1935, and the Job Corps was patterned after the Civilian Conservation Corps of depression days. Extension of the federal government into a host of new fields--aid to education, environmental measures, assistance to depressed areas--aroused the same philosophical dispute about the role of government that had been so hotly waged in the 1930s. And on most of this legislation, the parties were arrayed just as they had been three decades earlier--the Democrats as the party of intervention, the Republicans as the party of going slow and spending less.

Under such circumstances, under the theory advanced earlier in this book, the New Deal party system should have been invigorated. The difference between the parties was dramatized, the country to a considerable degree polarized. What it meant to be a Democrat or Republican should have become much clearer to the generation that had not known the stark partisan conflicts of the Great Depression years. The New Deal party system should have been reinforced and more firmly stabilized.

Yet it was precisely at the time the Great Society was being born that the party system moved in the opposite direction. It was destabilized. The attachment of individual voters to their parties was drastically weakened, and more and more people dissociated themselves from both the established political parties, declaring themselves politically independent. Learned observers talked not of realignment but of dealignment, projecting the "onward march of party decomposition" until they visualized a country in which the political competition would be among

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