Are Our Political Parties Realigning...Again?

Students consider how the Republican and Democratic Parties have evolved over time — and whether a new 'realignment' is happening today.  

To The Teacher:

The Republican Party often presents itself as "the party of Abraham Lincoln," the president who ended slavery in the United States. Over the past several decades, however, upwards of 80% of African-American voters have supported the Democratic candidate for president, and Republicans have struggled to garner support from African American voters. So what has changed?

In this lesson students consider how the Republican and Democratic Parties have evolved over time, on race and other issues. The lesson includes two student readings.  The first reading summarizes the evolution of Republicans since its early days as "the Party of Lincoln." The second reading looks at the process of "political realignment" through which the parties change and come to represent different constituencies. It will also ask if we might be experiencing a new political realignment today, amid insurgent challenges to the major party establishments by candidates such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.


Reading 1:
The Party of Lincoln?

The Republican Party often presents itself as "the party of Abraham Lincoln," the president who ended slavery in the United States. Over the past several decades, however, upwards of 80% of African-American voters have supported the Democratic candidate for president, while Republicans have struggled to garner support from African American voters. So what has changed?

It is true that the Republican Party, founded in 1854, was created as an anti-slavery party, based in the North. Abraham Lincoln, elected in 1860, served as the first Republican president and issued the emancipation proclamation during the civil war. However, while modern-day Republicans are quick to claim Lincoln, they fail to note that in the late 1860s and 1870s, their Party was also the party of "Radical Reconstruction"—an era that is not celebrated  by conservatives in the South, who make up the core of the modern Republican Party. As historian Eric Foner wrote in a March 28, 2015, article for the New York Times:

In 1867 Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts...These set in motion the establishment of new governments in the South, empowered Southern black men to vote and temporarily barred several thousand leading Confederates from the ballot. Soon after, the 15th Amendment extended black male suffrage to the entire nation.

The Reconstruction Acts inaugurated the period of Radical Reconstruction, when a politically mobilized black community, with its white allies, brought the Republican Party to power throughout the South. For the first time, African-Americans voted in large numbers and held public office at every level of government. It was a remarkable, unprecedented effort to build an interracial democracy on the ashes of slavery.

By the late 19th century, Reconstruction was defeated and state governments throughout the South were dedicating themselves to suppressing the Black vote and reestablishing white supremacy. Over time, the Republican Party became a more conservative, business-oriented party. As political commentator Steve Kornacki wrote in a September 2, 2010 article for Salon:

For a century after the Civil War, the South was deeply and overwhelmingly Democratic, a consequence of the "humiliation" visited upon white Southerners by the Republican-initiated Reconstruction that followed the Civil War. The level of support enjoyed by Democratic candidates in the region is almost too astronomical to fathom now. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson took 42 percent of the vote nationally in a four-way presidential contest. But in South Carolina, he snared 95 percent. In Mississippi, 88 percent... The region’s congressional delegation was uniformly Democratic — and, thanks to the South’s one-party status, disproportionately influential, with lifelong incumbents taking advantage of the congressional seniority system to secure the most powerful committee gavels.

For decades, they comfortably coexisted in the national Democratic Party’s other major source of support, the machine-folk of the urban North. But as civil rights became a national issue — and as the Great Migration of Southern blacks to the cities of the North and West turned civil rights into a priority for Democrats outside the South — the coalition began to splinter. When the party ratified a civil rights plank at its 1948 convention, Southern Democrats staged a walkout and lined up behind Strom Thurmond, South Carolina’s governor and (like all Southern Democrats of the time) an arch-segregationist. Running under the Dixiecrat banner, Thurmond won four Deep South states that fall.

Throughout the ’50s and early ’60s, Southern Democrats sat in political limbo. Their national brethren were inching their way toward a full-on embrace of civil rights, but the GOP wasn’t much of an alternative, not with Dwight Eisenhower endorsing integration and not with the party’s Northern-dominated congressional ranks strongly backing civil rights legislation.

1964, though, is what changed everything. In signing the Civil Rights Act, LBJ [President Lyndon B. Johnson] cemented the Democrats as a civil rights party. And in nominating anti-civil rights Barry Goldwater for president (instead of pro-civil rights Nelson Rockefeller) the GOP cast its future fortunes with the white electorate of the South. LBJ trounced Goldwater nationally that fall, winning more than 60 percent of the popular vote. But in the South, voters flocked to the Republican nominee, with Goldwater carrying five states in the region. Mississippi, the same state that had given FDR 97 percent of its votes 28 years earlier, now gave Goldwater 87 percent. That fall, Thurmond, now a senator, renounced his Democratic affiliation once and for all and signed up for Goldwater’s GOP. The realignment was well underway, and it had everything to do with race.

Today, more than 150 years after the Republican Party's founding, many policy positions held by conservatives in the Party stand starkly at odds with many of the positions held by Republicans during Lincoln's time. In a February 12, 2016 article, Huffington Post editor Alana Horowitz Satlin writes:

Federal Income Tax: In 1861, Lincoln OK’d the nation’s first federal income tax. Meanwhile, today’s Republicans push for lower and fewer taxes....

Funding For Public Education: In 1862, Lincoln signed a law giving states land grants which they could sell and use the money to fund old colleges or build new ones. Meanwhile, today’s Republicans have voted to cut crucial funding for higher education and blocked efforts to make college more affordable — such as President Barack Obama’s plan to make community colleges free. 

Expansion Of Presidential Powers: The Republicans of today often accuse Obama of abusing his presidential power. Using executive action, Obama has green-lit gun control and immigration reforms, as well as implemented paid sick leave for federal employees and a mandate protecting LGBT workers. Guess who else increased the power of the executive branch and ran an increasingly activist federal government? Yep, that’s right: Lincoln. In fact, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center calls Lincoln "the most activist President in history."

While some may still call the Republican Party "The Party of Lincoln," the party's track record suggests a more complex history.

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what was Radical Reconstruction? Why might it be unpopular with modern Republicans?
  3. What were some of the major historical changes that contributed to the shifting composition and political positions advocated by the Republican Party?
  4. What are some of the policy positions that Republicans hold today that members of their party might have opposed in the 1800s?



Reading 2:
Is a New "Realignment" Underway?

The process through which parties attract new coalitions of voters and gradually shift their political positions is known as "realignment." Realignment is something that has been experienced by both major parties in the United States. It explains, for one, how conservatives in the South went from being a solidly Democratic voting bloc to a solidly Republican one.

Realignment isn’t just something that happened in the past. The groups of voters that support each party continues to shift from time to time, as do the parties' stances on major political issues. In the past year, the presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders (Democrat) and businessman Donald Trump (Republican) both challenged the established orthodoxies of their respective parties. This has led some commentators to speculate that another wave of political realignment might be taking place in America.

In a July 15, 2016 article for, journalist Peter Coy describes the concept of party realignment:

We like to think of the two major parties as fixed, known quantities, like donkeys and elephants. But they’ve always been chameleons. The Democratic Party traces its roots to 1792. The Republican Party goes back to 1854. They’ve survived by changing with the times, sometimes radically, even to the point of swapping positions on key issues, whether civil rights, foreign policy, or taxation. Republican hero Ronald Reagan began his political life as a New Deal Democrat. He switched his registration in 1962, before he ran for office. He always insisted he wasn’t the one who changed: "I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me."

In a March 11, 2016, article for the Washington Post, journalist John B. Judis discussed how political scientists developed the theory of realignment:

In 1932, GOP ineptitude in the face of the Great Depression turned a solidly Republican majority into a Democratic one. After World War II, political scientists developed a theory of realignment to explain the shift. A succession of writers has attempted to refine and adapt that theory to analyze the development of American politics. It’s a useful way to understand the current eruptions.

The theory was born 60 years ago, in a paper by Harvard political scientist V.O. Key. In 1955, Key demonstrated that the Democratic realignment of 1932 had been anticipated by the "critical" 1928 presidential election, when Democrat Al Smith won urban, working-class parts of New England that had previously gone Republican. The predominately Catholic voters in these places would subsequently flock en masse to the Democrats. Key was among the first political scientists to document that a shift of ethnic and class voting blocs from one party to another (or the emergence of new voting blocs) could create the basis for party realignments.

In 1967, MIT political scientist Walter Dean Burnham built on Key’s work. In "Party Systems and the Political Process," Burnham laid out a new theory of realignments, suggesting that they’re cyclical and strike every 30 to 40 years. He called them "America’s surrogate for revolution." They could be foreshadowed by Key’s critical elections, but were precipitated by wars or depressions that exposed the inadequacy of prevailing party ideologies.

So, will the 2016 Presidential election prove to be another key moment of realignment? In an April 25, 2016 report, National Public Radio correspondent Mara Liasson quoted several experts who believe that the fundamental composition of the two major parties is unlikely to change in the near future. Nevertheless, internal battles within each party may effect the Democrats' and Republicans' stances on bigger issues. Liasson stated:

The big question is what effect this year's populist politics will have on both parties over time. In the past, populist movements have forced a realignment or a reshuffling of voters. Think George Wallace leading Southern whites out of the Democratic Party in the late '60s and early '70s. That kind of big shift in voter allegiance is probably not in the cards. There are not many socially conservative, economically populist white Democrats left that could switch to the Republicans. And there are not that many socially liberal, upscale white Republicans left who could switch to the Democrats.

"I think the party coalitions are pretty well defined," said Michael Lind of the New America Foundation. "The civil wars within the parties are about defining the party platforms more than the party coalitions."

For the Republicans, that civil war might lead to a debate about a new policy agenda, a more populist agenda that's less friendly to big business and the wealthy and more attuned to the concerns of the white working class. Henry Olsen, the author of The Four Faces Of The Republican Party, sees that as the lesson of this year's Republican primaries....

For the Democrats, populism is also here to stay even though it hasn't had the kind of seismic consequences as it has for the GOP. Bill Galston, a former Clinton White House aide, says there's a lot of economic discontent among "young adults, the working class and the middle class. So there's something real there for Democrats. And it's not going away."

Hillary Clinton will have to absorb some of Sanders' left-wing populism as she moves forward to the general election. She has already moved toward Sanders on expanding Social Security, if not on breaking up the big banks....

Trump's populist positions are challenging the Republican Party's basic DNA, its core ideology about foreign policy and trade and limited government. On the Democratic side, Sanders doesn't represent as big a break with Democratic orthodoxy. He represents a wing of the party that's always been there but has just gotten to be a much bigger part of the coalition this year.

Realignment illustrates that the major American political parties are dynamic entities that constantly shift based on voters' changig attitudes.


For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what is the concept of realignment?
  3. What do you think? Do you think the Trump and Sanders candidacies signal a realignment in American politics?
  4. Are there any constituencies or interest groups in American politics that you think might benefit from changing their party allegiance, or even forming a new party? Explain your position.