Political Realignment - Part 1

Byy On
• In USA & World,

American politics and its two-party system is not a static system.

The ebb and flow of political power proceeds in fits and starts with long periods of relative stasis and brief periods of unmistakable change. It is a kind of punctuated equilibrium. Because history is mostly hindsight with huge blind spots, there is rarely much perspective in the midst of events. There are large patterns that can be discerned, dimly at first and later, usually much later, they seem unmistakable and wholly natural. Eventually, particular elections are seen as turning points in political history. At the time they are happening, it is never as clear as it later appears.

The pivot points of political change are called realignments. Realignments happen much more slowly than a historical view suggests. In the last century there have been two major realignments. The first took place around the turn of the century and culminated in the 1932 election of FDR. It began in the late 19th century with the rise of labor unions and the emergence of what was known as Progressives. The prior realignment happened around the Civil War and the formation of what is now the Republican Party. The original Progressives were social reformers and were initially aligned with the Republican Party. Collective bargaining, the eight-hour day, government social services, civil service reform, federal support for agriculture, anti-trust laws, public education and a host of other fundamental changes were Progressive innovations.

By 1912, tensions between the progressive and conservative wings of the Republican Party led to a lop-sided presidential convention in which Theodore Roosevelt's supporters were locked out. Teddy took the Progressives out of the Republican Party into a third party called the Bull Moose Party. The upshot was the election of Woodrow Wilson and a migration of the left wing of the Republican party into the Democrats. The post-war reaction against Wilson handed control back to the Republicans during the 1920's. The financial crash and resulting depression established the Liberal Democratic majority that governed from the 1930's through the Second World War and persisted until the late 1960s.

The resulting political establishment was dominated by New Deal Democrats and ushered in reforms like Social Security, the rural electrification program (with an industrial base in The Bonneville Power Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority), federal arbitration of labor disputes, immense political power wielded by labor unions and the establishment of a highly centralized federal government. The New Deal liberals are what most people associate with the notion of Liberalism and a powerful, centralized federalism. The culmination of the New Deal social legislation was the Civil Rights Act and the end of legal disenfranchisement of racial minorities. Most popular history focuses on the New Deal election and gives insufficient attention to the role of the progressive exodus that laid the groundwork.

The next realignment is popularly known as the Reagan Revolution. Like the preceding realignment, it had roots that went much deeper than just the 1980 presidential election. The realignment began during the post-WWII reaction. The industrialization that accompanied the Second World War brought to the fore the social tensions of Jim Crow segregation. This was reflected by the migration of sizable numbers of blacks from the Deep South into the industrial Midwest and to a lesser extent to the Northeast and West Coast. The US had just fought a global war against foes who promoted extreme racial nationalism. In so doing, the racial integration of American industrial and military forces were both part of the war effort and the war aims. The result was the inevitable abolition of legal segregation, something that had long been integral to the national federalization program of the New Deal Liberals.

The uneasy alliance between the Liberals and the Southern conservative Democrats - always the weakest link in the pluralist coalition of the New Deal realignment - shattered with the Dixiecrat revolt of the Southern Democrats in 1948. The revolt was the opening shot in the political struggle inside the establishment over civil rights. For the next twenty years, the turmoil over civil rights culminated in the abortive Goldwater campaign in the 1964 presidential elections. The significant feature of the Goldwater campaign was that it was conducted by insurgents on the right wing of the Republican Party. A significant feature of the Goldwater campaign was that it was the first Republican presidential campaign since before the Civil War to reach out into the Southern states. George Wallace recognized this fissure and capitalized on it during the 1968 presidential elections, peeling off a sector of reactionary white middle class (and largely union labor) from the Democratic Party.

Simultaneous fissures in the Democratic Party over the war in Vietnam further sundered the coalition formed during the New Deal. One thing to bear in mind about the protests against the Vietnam war is the protesters were largely young people who had been politicized by the Civil Rights movement. The civil rights and antiwar movements were a new force for social progressives. The social progressives eventually emerged as the current Progressive wing of the Democratic Party. In this context, the New Deal Liberals (now morphed into the Centrists) are the conservative wing of the Democrats and the Progressives are the liberals. Despite conservatives continual name-calling about "Liberals" (which is really just a code word for anybody they disagree with) the Democratic Party is divided between Centrists and Progressives. The significant feature of the Progressive revolt in the Democratic Party is that in a two party system, they have nowhere to go except the Democrats.

Following the 1972 presidential elections, there was an abortive split from the Democratic Party by Southern Conservatives. The exodus begun in 1948 by the Dixiecrats nearly happened in 1974, when a sizable number of Southern Democrats proposed to cross the aisle as a bloc and join the Republican Party. The Watergate scandal put these plans on hold for twelve years.

By 1980, the Democratic alliance created during the New Deal realignment had splintered for good. The driving force at the grass roots was a new style of polarizing, divisive and reactionary politics based on "wedge issues." The wedges were being used to break apart the New Deal Liberal coalition. The salient wedge issues were opposition to school integration, prayer in schools, abortion, the "war on drugs" and "law and order." Later additions to this style of politics include opposition to gun control laws, "property rights," immigration and homophobia. All of these issues strike directly at personal and social values. They are black and white, good and evil, right and wrong, win or lose. There is no compromise, no negotiation, no opportunity for resolution through any type of political solution or consensual process. They are, in the word of Chip Berlet, toxic to democracy.

But wedge issues did their job and a significant new plurality emerged in American politics in the mid-1970s, the Christian Right. Organized mostly around the wedge issues of abortion and school prayer, the Christian Right (initially in the guise of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority) emerged as a factor in the 1976 presidential election. Because of the obvious weaknesses of Nixon's appointee, Gerald Ford, the Christian Right was not able to play a decisive role in the 1976 presidential elections, but they were clearly organizing as an emerging political and social force on the right.

The other group targeted by wedge issues became known as "Reagan Democrats." These were mostly white, mostly blue collar, mostly organized labor. In the 1972 presidential elections, Nixon had courted and won the support of George Meany and the AFL-CIO. This began the process of breaking up organized labor as a social and political force.

The 1980 election brought all of these forces into play and resulted in the resounding victory of Ronald Reagan over the Democratic incumbent, Jimmy Carter. Probably too much has been made of the missteps and misfortunes of the Carter administration as prologue to the Regan Revolution. The seeds of the conservative ascendancy were cast in the 1964 elections and bore first fruit in the next election with the ascension of Richard Nixon to the presidency. The last Democratic presidential candidate with clear affiliation with New Deal liberalism was George McGovern in 1972 and his resounding defeat was the death knell for the last vestige of the preceding realignment.

To sum up, the significant feature of every political realignment in American politics is the splintering of a ruling coalition with a sizable enough migration of voters and politicians from one party to another. As can be seen by the preceding history, the dynamics of the splits can be very different. They can arise because of a lop-sided majority inside of one party forcing out a faction, as happened to the progressive Republicans in 1912 and the expulsion of the progressive wing of the Democratic party in 1968. It can also happen by one party systematically breaking off and absorbing part of the base of their opponents, as happened with the conservative ascendancy in the 1980s. Whatever the cause of the split, it weakens the divided party. In some cases, like the trashing of the progressives by the Democrats, the minority faction can ultimately gain strength and reshape the party by rejoining it. This is particularly true when the splinter group moves away from the opposing party, as the progressive Democrats and ultra-conservative Republicans have done. The balance of power shifts by the migration from one party to another, thus forming a new ruling majority.

I'll break off here, since this has been a very long piece. In the future, I'll be applying the lessons of history to the current situation in both national and local politics.

Further reading

Richard Hoffstader, "The Age of Reform"
Eric F. Goldman, "Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of Modern American Reform"
Rick Perlstein, "Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus"
Walter Karp, "Indispensable Enemies: The Politics of Misrule in America"
Godfrey Hodgson, "The World Turned Right Side Up: A History of the Conservative Ascendancy in America."

About Paul deArmond

Closed Account • Member since May 29, 2009

Paul de Armond was a writer, reporter and research analyst. He is the recipient of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force 2001 Human Rights Award. In the 1990s, he and Jay [...]

Comments by Readers

Larry Horowitz

Nov 09, 2009


Thanks for the history lesson.  I noticed, however, that you generally ignore the impact of money on politics, which G. Edward Griffin describes in detail in ?The Creature from Jekyll Island: A Second Look at the Federal Reserve.?

I wonder if you agree that financial strings were being pulled behind the scenes that directly influenced the ebb and flow of political power.  If so, how?


David Camp

Nov 09, 2009

From where I sit, the federal government looks like a completely corrupt show (to gull the masses) run of, by, and for corporate interests controlled by a very small, very wealthy group. This group has no fellow-feeling with the American people, regarding it as a mass of cattle to be exploited.

I must say, I think the American population seems to delight in supporting these interests against its own interests. The T-baggers have legitimate beefs - but their legitimate anger is very skillfully misdirected.

The fascist movement in America has more power than any other movement. Take a look at the abortion of a health care bill just passed by the house. The most recent amendment bans “pool” insurers (the one that the poor and self-employed and small business will use) from paying for abortions. This seem to me to be negative eugenics - make sure the poor will be forced to have babies, but ensure the middle class can abort them. More cattle! Less thinking! Abstinence only!

Your analysis is very interesting, but I think the fascist coup took place in around 1941. It’s been renewed most recently with the 9-11 Reichstag fire.


David Camp

Nov 09, 2009


Some argue that the aggressive predatory character of the US government is almost as old as the Republic. But I’d argue that the earlier imperial conquests (Northern Mexico, Cascadia) benefited the American people. The later conquests (and attempted conquests) (Iraq - both 1953 and 2004; Central America, Vietnam) benefited only the elite group and its military-industrial employees. Cohesion is maintained as authoritarians have always maintained cohesion - in-group power and out-group exclusion and oppression.

The whole thing is not sustainable - it’s powered by fossil fuels and unjust dominion. But it may take a while to collapse while the vultures grab as much as they can.


Paul deArmond

Nov 10, 2009

“The World Turned Right Side Up” has a good chapter on changes in national monetary policy titled “The Strange Death of John Maynard Keynes.”

Hodgeson also co-authored a wonderful book on the 1968 elections titled “An American Melodrama”  The passage on the unveiling of Gen. Curtis LeMay as George Wallace’s vice-presidential candidate is priceless.

The most prominent financial skullduggery in recent times was the BBCI scandal, covered quite well in James Ring Adams and Douglas Frantz. “A Full Service Bank:  How BCCI Stole Billions Around the World.”

The Jeckyl Island myth is very popular in some circles, but it’s more in the realm of right-wing populist fiction than history.  Not that right-wing populist fiction isn’t a fascinating subject all in its own.  I may have something to say about that in the future.

For the time being, I wanted to be very clear about what I meant by realignment before discussing my notions of how it might be unfolding at a national and local level.


David Camp

Nov 10, 2009

It’s strange, the congruence of fringe “right-wing” and “left wing” ideas. All fringies agree that the Federal Reserve is inimical, controlled by a shadowy unaccountable group.

They just disagree as to the solution.

All innovation comes from the fringe. The center is where outmoded convention lives.

Om Namah Shivaya!


Tip Johnson

Nov 10, 2009

Interesting and true enough, but is it really just politics?  Seems to me economics plays an important role.

For instance, increasing workplace access to women seemed quite progressive at the time, but contributed to a declining middle class by glutting the labor market and driving real income down.  Soon two breadwinners were earning less than earlier single income families in real terms.  Folks with labor contracts became more conservative, protective of their better-than-average compensation and benefits. More conservative labor factions frustrated progressive democrats, made the party less effective and created political opportunity for Republicans.

It makes me think of the Lizard Theory of social change, wherein once you have a hot rock to bask upon, there is no further reason to move - except to chase off a rival, or to eat some passing morsel.  I expect that selective economic adequacy as a cause for social complacency plays a larger role in run ups to realignment than you suggest. Eh?


Larry Horowitz

Nov 10, 2009

The point of my comment - and the point of Mr. Griffin’s book on the Federal Reserve - is that puppets don’t often “sense” their own strings.

We are constantly being played and manipulated but are clueless.  Not only do we not know who’s playing us, we don’t even know we’re being played.

All this paralysis by analysis ain’t gonna make a hill of beans.  You can study the effects of political and economic change all you want; but until you understand the real cause, you won’t have any lasting impact.


Ryan M. Ferris

Nov 10, 2009

The fundamental issues driving American politics are almost always economic.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, the massive plight of unskilled labor (non-unionized labor),industrial era poverty and agrarian dis-enfranchisement drove the development of the IWW (under Big Bill Heywood),populist(and socialist) agrarian politics (under Norman Thomas), and progressive/muckracker era politics (under many, but certainly TR).  In the (four-way) election of 1912, Norman Thomas, a socialist minister from Oklahoma gathered 12% of the Presidential vote while in jail essentially for being a Marxist.  WWI was used as an excuse to imprison and destroy the incipient Communist movement in second decade of the 20th century.

Labor and Marxist movement re-emerged during the 20s and 30s, under the influence of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organization), the ILWU (longshoremen), UMWA (Mine Workers) and other marxist/unionization attempts. As the Depression gained strength, FDR sought mediated and reform solutions to the crisis of labor and poverty that had nearly destroyed this country.  America labor movements have the distinction of the most violent labor movement s in history.  WWII eventually solved FDR’s economic crisis by destroying much of Europe, Japan and impoverishing Russia. 

Despite this, great labor unrest existed after WWII and the late 1940s were that period in America where the most labor strikes were engaged.  In short, it took systematic advances by important industrial laber unions in Auto, Steel, etc. to bring the possibility of suburban respite to the American working class or “working middle class” if you prefer. Despite, or perhaps because of this, working class and Marxist movements of all types were deeply feared and systematically persecuted throughout the fifties. Harry Bridges, the head of the wildly successful and still powerful ILWU, served more than a year in jail for “lying about his membership to the Communist Party.”

The last 50 years of economic history have seen America’s elite pull every trick in the book to disunite a solidification of labor, students, minorities, and women into a co-cohesive party and socialist movement.  We can attribute to this programmatic effort to voter dis-enfranchisement, racial hatred, the destruction and assassination of important civil rights leaders, the assassination of significant left-wing democrats, the infection and corruption of the labor and feminist movements, the control of the media, the ludicrous construction of a system of unnecessary police power and prison systems and “terror control”, the addiction/enslavement of the middle class to debt/consumerism, the continual impoverishment of the working class, to name a few.

Now that 1% of the world’s rich owns 99% of the world’s wealth, Citigroup has helped us define our current civilization in it’s famous Plutonomy memo:
“In a plutonomy…there are rich consumers, few in number…but disproportionate to the gigantic slice of income and consumption they take.”

This is where we stand right now in this country. If not for unprecedented federal deficit spending in building, mortgages, auto, military, social welfare…we would literally look like Calcutta.  Where the next political movement or group will come from will be exigent upon the gripping poverty of the 99% of us that now survive on 1% of the wealth. Systematic manipulation and invasion of our politics, minds, families, and churches will determine the power structure, if any, with which the restless many chose to allay with against the prosperous few.

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