Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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.
So, have we ever seen any of this in American history? Yes, and in fact most political scientists would argue that we're seeing it right now. Voter turnout in the United States has dropped continuously since the 1970s (with the exception of isolated high-turnout elections), and more Americans are registering as independent. While the United States has yet to elect an independent president (at least, not since George Washington), several independents have been voted into state legislatures since the year 2000. Some politicians are even leaving an established party to run as independents, showing an interesting reversal in long-held assumptions about political security.
It will be interesting to see how this trend unfolds going forward, and researchers of the future will certainly have a lot to say about the 2016 election season. In this year, the Republican Party lost control of its electorate and was forced to nominate outsider Donald Trump. The Democratic Party nearly lost control of their electorate as well with the surge of popular support for progressive Bernie Sanders, who was independent before the primary and returned to being unaffiliated after. While this does not represent true dealignment, extreme political ideas and the challenging of the status quo were integral to the 2016 election season, and may predict changes yet to come. If the parties are unable to accommodate changing voter needs, or if voters feel they can better represent themselves via independents, dealignment may just become the norm of the political future.
In politics, dealignment describes when a large number of voters formally abandon one political party, but don't join another. They remain independent, or simply don't vote at all, so we can look to voter turnout and the rise of independent candidates as indicators that dealignment is occurring. Researchers have attributed dealignment to a range of factors, from a rejection of partisan bickering, to the rise of a more politically conscious population, to ineffective government. Whatever the reasons, dealignment seems to be a growing trend in American politics ever since the 1970s, and shows no signs of slowing down. For a system as reliant on partisanship as the USA, independent voters may be some of history's greatest party-crashers.
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