What is realignment?

In his Weekly Standard article “The (finally) emerging Republican majority,” Fred Barnes argues that a Republican realignment has occurred in the American electorate. Both Deacon and Rocket Man comment briefly on the article in “Breaking away?”
Deacon wisely puts a question mark behind Barnes’s thesis. Barnes unfortunately begs the question of what constitutes “realignment” and therefore makes the question as well as the answer somewhat opaque. He seems to be asking and answering the question whether the Republican party has become “dominant” in terms of voter party identification and officeholders, and the evidence he cites seems to me mixed.
The article alludes to Kevin Phillips’s thesis of an “emerging Republican majority,” a thesis that dates back to Phillips’s 1969 book of that name. Barnes’s article itself refers to the previous hypotheses regarding possible realignment dating from the 1972 and 1980 elections. Assertions regarding Republican “realignment” deserve the skepticism befitting previously sighted mirages.
The concept of “realignment” received a particularly strong workout in the run-up to the 1984 election. Following the election, Professor Peter Schramm of Ashland University and No Left Turns and Professor Dennis Mahoney of Assumption College co-edited a now out-of-print book of essays on the 1984 election that deliberated at length and with learning on the question of realignment.
In the introduction to the book they noted that the term “realignment” is a bit of technical jargon used by political scientists and political historians that has become part of the working vocabulary of journalists and commentators. They observed that behind the term is the history of party emergence and party decline, of political crisis, and, consequently of critical elections; from time to time throughout American history an election has proved to be the end of a political era and the beginning of another. The classic examples of critical elections with subsequent party realignments are the elections of 1800, 1860, and 1932. To a lesser extent the elections of 1828 and 1896 also fit the mold. The last clear realignment of 1932 was the New Deal synthesis of the social welfare state at home and interventionism abroad.
Schramm and Mahoney make the point that the process of realignment began with the success of the Goldwater movement in 1964 in making the Republican party the vehicle of active opposition to the New Deal consensus. But has the incipient realignment of years past reached the fruition that Barnes’s argument suggests?
Here Barnes’s avoidance of a defintion of “realignment” is debilitating. Past realignments have involved a reorientation of fundamental convictions. As Professor Charles Kesler of Claremont College put it in his brilliant contribution to the Schramm-Mahoney book in 1987: “[T]he truth is that a sufficient cause for realigment — a clear purpose or end that would organize and inform a new majority — has not yet been articulated. To align, after all, means both to put something in a straight line and to take sides. Putting the definitions together, one might say that in American politics a realignment means that the voters take or switch sides in order to put the country back into line with its fundamental principles, or at least with what they regard as its fundamental principles. Hence realigning elections are sometimes called ‘critical’ elections because ‘critical’ implies a ‘crisis,’ a turning point in the fortunes of the parties and the destiny of the country….[In the years of previous critical elections], the voters truly were presented with a ‘choice, not an echo’; and based on that choice — presented by a critical issue that cut across existing party lines or coalitions — an enduring majority party was formed that dominated American national politics for the next 30 to 40 years.”
Following the 2002 election, Professor Scot Zenter briefly took up the question in a piece for the Claremont Institute, “Of realignment and revolution.” Zentner’s analysis takes up the issue much as Barnes’s argument poses it, arguing as follows: “Bush actually has begun to lay the foundations for a new Republican realignment. He won the debate over homeland security by presenting the Democrats as more concerned about the interests of labor unions than the interests of the American people. He, too, has defended the ‘republican interest.’ But he must resist the attempt to ‘triangulate.’ To do so would play into the hands of the Democrats, who are waiting for just such an opportunity to regain legitimacy. Bush should push hard on every conservative front, whether it be education or immigration or taxes. He must unite in the minds of the people the American cause, the effort to win the war, and the principles of the Republican party.”
Barnes’s argument deserves further consideration and I trust that others more competent than I am, like Schramm and Kesler, will provide it. In the meantime, I think it’s fair to say that the vision of realignment remains just ahead of us, shimmering in the distance.
DEACON adds: It seems to me that some realignment — in the sense of a reorientation of fundamental convictions — occurred during the 1980s, to the benefit of Republicans. The location of the “center” with respect to some key economic issues moved, and hasn’t really moved back. Right now, as I suggested yesterday, the center doesn’t seem to be moving much one way or the other; the Republicans have just done a better job than the Democrats of appealing to it during the past few years. However, if more events like 9-11 occur, the center might well move, and this could lead to a realignment in favor of the Republicans, were the Democrats to repeat their mistakes of 2002 over several election cycles. But frankly, I question whether the Democrats, and in particular Hillary Clinton, would repeat those mistakes.
Peter Schramm, whose work on the issue of realignment is cited above by Trunk, weighs in on the current realignment debate at his great blog “No Left Turns.”


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