Dealignment in Politics: Definition, Theory & Example

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What happens when one political party lets you down, but there aren't any other good choices? In this lesson, we'll look at dealignment in politics and see how it's impacting the political world today.

Dealignment

In American politics, party affiliation matters. That is, until it doesn't.

This simple truth has been at the foundation of American politics for a long time, and the source of much debate and consternation among political scientists and policymakers. Party affiliation is important, so why does it change? A number of researchers have devoted lots of attention to the issue of realignment, the switching of political affiliation, but there's an even more confounding trend beyond that: dealignment. This is what happens when a large number of voters abandon their affiliation with one party, but don't replace it with any other party. They became unaffiliated, or independent. In politics, this is the biggest form of crashing the party.

How it Happens

Dealignment is a very interesting phenomenon, so what exactly does it look like? Dealignment refers to not just a single individual losing his/her party affiliation, but a widespread trend as many people formally abandon the party to which they had been previously tied. Basically, they stop voting for the political candidates that are formally sponsored by that party.

There are two main ways that we can actually see this occurring. First is in the rise of independent candidates. In dealignment, unlike realignment, voters are not switching from one of the major parties to another. They are abandoning all the dominant parties, but this doesn't always mean they are abandoning their democratic voice. Instead, they place their votes in independent candidates, generally ones who are promising to somehow eschew the established political order.

Of course, the other frequent result of dealignment is an actual decline in voter participation. If people do not feel like any independent candidate stands a legitimate chance at winning, they may choose not to vote out of protest or simply out of apathy. Considering how difficult it is for independent candidates to win in a party-dominated system, low voter turnout is one of the most common symptoms of dealignment in the USA.

Why it Happens

It's important to be able to recognize the signs of dealignment, but perhaps even more important to be able to understand why dealignment occurs. Many researchers have developed theories about this, and have found that voters may dealign for multiple reasons over time.

Some researchers think the principle cause of dealignment is a rejection of antagonistic partisanship. When the parties start bickering and fighting simply because of party affiliation, it can alienate voters who actually care about specific issues. Instead of participating in the partisan squabbling, those voters seek out independent candidates who basically espouse the same values, but don't have party affiliation.

Other researchers think that dealignment may actually be caused by a hyperactive news media, the internet, and social media. In short, the average voter has more outlets for understanding politics, can debate with other people online, and is more politically aware than ever before. As a result, these people may not feel like they need a political party to prescribe a political agenda. They want candidates who are fluid and flexible, open to dealing with issues in ways that sometimes stretch beyond the party lines.

Of course, there's one other major reason that dealignment occurs, and that's when the available options just aren't any good. As people become fed up with ineffective government and neither of the major parties seem capable of fulfilling their agendas and promises, voters may choose simply not to vote or to vote for independents. In short, dealignment is a product of bad government.

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