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Realigning election

From Academic Kids

Realigning election or critical election or realignment are terms from political history and political science. They describe a dramatic change in politics. More specifically, they refers to any one of several presidential elections in which there are sharp changes in the rules of the game (such as campaign finance laws or voter eligibility), new issues, new leaders and new bases of power for each of the two political parties, resulting in a new political power structure and a new status quo that will last for decades. V. O. Key, Jr. identified realignments as occurring during "critical elections." Other scholars to cover this matter include Jerome M. Chubb, William H. Flanigan, and Nancy H. Zingale in Partisan Realigment: Voters, Parties, and Government in American History (1980, James L. Sundquist in Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States and especially W. Dean Burnham in a series of books.

The terms are somewhat arbitrary, and usage among political scientists and historians does vary. Some believe that certain elections are realigning elections, others say that the statistical data does not show a sharp enough break. Here is presented a list of potential realigning elections, with disagreements noted:

Realigning elections in United States history

  • U.S. presidential election, 1860 -- Abraham Lincoln
    • This election marked the final downfall of the Whigs (who had sputtered throughout the 1850s) and the ascendence of the United States Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln beat out three other contenders as the South split its electoral votes away from other Democratic contenders, allowing Lincoln, who carried every Northern state, to triumph. Lincoln's election was the proximate cause of secession and his efforts to keep the nation united led to the American Civil War. This represented the reverse of 1800, as electoral power flowed to the growing and industrializing North.
  • U.S. presidential election, 1896 -- William McKinley
    • The status of this election is hotly disputed; many historians do not consider it a realigning election because the Republicans remained in control. Other historians emphasize that the rules of the game had changed, the leaders were new, voting alignments had changed, and a whole new set of issues came to dominance as the old Civil-War-Era issues faded away. Furthermore McKinley's tactics in beating William Jennings Bryan (as developed by Mark Hanna) marked a sea change in the evolution of the modern campaigning. McKinley raised a huge amount of money from business interests, outspending Bryan by 20 to 1. Bryan meanwhile invented the modern technique of campaigning heavily in closely contested states, the first candidate to do so. Bryan's message of populism and class conflict marked a return to the Jacksonian spirit among Democrats unhappy with the growth of cities and industry. McKinley's victory in 1896 and repeat in 1900 was a triumph for pluralism, as all sectors and groups shared in the new prosperity brought about by his policy of rapid industrial growth.
  • U.S. presidential election, 1932 -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt
    • Of all the realigning elections, this one musters the most agreement from historians; it is the archetypal realigning election. FDR's admirers have argued that New Deal policies, developed in response to the crash of 1929 and the miseries of the Great Depression under Herbert Hoover, represented an entirely new phenomenon in American politics. More citical historians see a great deal of continuity with Hoover's energetic but unsuccessful economic policies. There is no doubt Democrats vehemently attacked Hoover for 50 years. In many ways, Roosevelt's legacy still defines the Democratic Party; he forged an enduring coalition of big city machines, labor unions, Catholics, Jews, racial minorities, Westerners and Southerners.

Possible modern realigning elections in the United States

Some doubt exists today as to what elections (if any) could be considered realigning elections after 1932. Although several candidates have been proposed, there is no widespread agreement:

  • U.S. presidential election, 1968 -- Richard Nixon
    • This election is often cited due to the innovative campaign strategy of Nixon. In running against Hubert Humphrey, he used what became known as the Southern strategy. He appealed to white voters in the South with a call for "states' rights", which they interpreted as meaning that the federal government would no longer demand the forced busing of school children on behalf of African Americans' civil rights as it had under Democratic president Lyndon Johnson (who had signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Democrats protested that Nixon exploited racial fears in winning the support of white southerners and northern white ethnics. Republicans responded that in a democracy every vote counts equally and it is unamerican to delegitimize anyone's vote. Since realigning elections previously had tended to occur at 36-year intervals, the new realignment came on schedule. Roosevelt's New Deal coalition had lasted over 30 years but after the urban riots and Vietnam crisis of the mid 1960s one by one the coalition partners peeled away until only a hollow core remained, setting the stage for a GOP revival. Nixon's downfall postponed the realignment which came about under Reagan, as even the term "liberalism" fell into disrepute.
    • Many people do not consider 1968 a realigning election because control of Congress did not change; the Democrats would control the Senate until 1980 (and again from 1986 to 1994) and the House until 1994. Also missing was a marked change in the partisan orientation of the electorate.
  • U.S. presidential election, 1980 -- Ronald Reagan
    • In this election, Ronald Reagan won a sweeping victory over Democrat Jimmy Carter, who won only six states (plus the District of Columbia) and 10% of the electoral vote. Republicans also took control of the Senate for the first time in over 25 years. Many people viewed Reagan's policies as sufficiently new to consider this a realigning election, and his iconic status within the Republican party would appear to confirm this.
    • On the other hand, detractors note that control of the House did not change, nor even come close to changing, at this time. In addition, the Republicans lost the Senate again only six years later, leading some to theorize that the Senators simply rode in on Reagan's coattails, and did not represent a true shift in the ideological preferences of their constituents. Also absent was a shift in partisan alignment from public opinion polls.
  • U.S. midterm election, 1994
    • Republicans finally took back the House and Senate, winning both chambers for the first time since 1952. In addition, that control has continued to date. Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America seemed like a sufficiently innovative technique to qualify, and the overwhelming nature of the Republicans' victory (they gained 50-odd seats, in a chamber of only 435—the total gain in elections since has been, for either party, in the single digits) would seem to make this a candidate for consideration as a realigining election. The Democrats did hold on to Congress for an extra decade but by 2004 all branches of the federal government were solidly Republican.
    • Critics note that this, unlike the others, is a midterm election. They also note the 3rd party candidacy of Ross Perot which enabled the election and reelection of Bill Clinton in 1996. However most observers agreed that by 2004 the nation had realigned into Red (Republican) and Blue (Democratic) states, with sharp differences in attitudes and politics between the two blocs.

Realigning elections outside the United States

  • UK general election, 1979 -- Conservative victory; Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister
    • This election brought the Conservatives into government where they remained for 18 years. Thatcher's policies of monetarism and privatisation represented a very different strand of Conservatism to that of previous governments and a bold shift from the post war consensus that had existed since 1945. The shockwaves led to a new party (the Social Democratic Party) and a long period of opposition for Labour during which time they were reformed and transformed into New Labour before they returned to government. At a more base level it led to a shift in voting patterns as the traditional class based voting started to break down and many of the working classes voted Conservative, whilst at the same time many public sector professionals turned away from them.
  • Canadian federal election, 1993 -- Liberal victory; Jean Chrétien Prime Minister
    • Throughout Canadian history two parties had taken turns in government and opposition: the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives (sometimes known as Liberal-Conservatives, Conservatives, Union and National Government). The Progressive Conservatives had won the largest majority in Canadian history in 1984 and were re-elected with a majority in 1988. In their second term, however, the policies of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney became largely unpopular and Quebec was frustrated by the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. The result was the rise of regional parties who elected large numbers of MPs despite a lack of national support. The Conservatives were crushed, winning just 2 seats, while new regional parties, the Bloc Québécois in Quebec and the Reform Party in the west won seats traditionally in the Conservative column. The Progressive Conservative party never recovered, winning 20 (of 301) seats in 1997) and 12 in 2000 before merging with the Canadian Alliance, which had succeeded the Reform Party when it attempted to gain a national base of support, in late 2003. The new Conservative Party of Canada, though taking the "Tory" namesake of the old Progressive Conservatives, carried most of the policies of the old Reform and Alliance and continued with Stephen Harper at its helm who had lead the Canadian Alliance into the merger.
  • ROC presidential election, 2000 (Taiwan) -- Chen Shui-bian
    • Though more popular and consistently ranked higher in the polls, James Soong failed to gain the ruling Kuomintang's (KMT) nomination over incumbent Vice President Lien Chan. As a result, he announced his candidacy as an independent candidate, and was consequently expelled from the party. The split in the KMT vote resulted in a victory for Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party, even though he won only 39% of the popular vote. After the election, Soong founded the People First Party, which attracted members from the KMT and the pro-unification New Party, which was by that time beginning to fade. Angry from the defeat, the KMT expelled chairman Lee Teng-hui, who was president until 2000 and was widely suspected of causing the KMT split so that Chen would win. Lee then founded the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union. The impact of these events changed the political landscape of Taiwan. Not only did the KMT lose the presidency for the first time in half a century, but its policies swung away from Lee's influence and it began intra-party reform. The two newly-founded parties became far more viable than other minor parties in the past, and the multi-party nature of Taiwan's politics was confirmed by the Legislative elections of 2001.
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