Difference Between Party Realignment & Dealignment

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Which political party do you affiliate with? It's an important question in American politics, and when the answer changes it can indicate other major changes as well. In this lesson, we'll examine both how that can change, and why.

Choosing a Side

Love them or hate them, political parties are a huge part of American politics. In the USA, there are traditionally two dominant parties that set the entire tone of government.

Affiliation with a political party is known as alignment, and can have its perks. Aligned voters get to help set the party's agenda, attend party conferences, and participate in government through the structure of the party.

But is it enough? What happens when people feel the party isn't steering them straight? It's time for a new alignment.

Realignment

In American politics, alignment is a very useful tool to show us how the American people feel about the government and about important national issues. If one party promises to abolish alcohol and then many people join that party, we know that this is an important issue to many Americans. American voters frequently express their priorities, and alternatively their grievances, through the political party they join.

That means that abandoning a chosen party can be a big deal, but it happens - often en masse. A massive shift in party affiliation is known as realignment, in which a high number of people abandon one political party and join the other.

The result is almost always a change in power in both the federal executive and legislature, as well as within state governments. Very often, realignment occurs around a single and crucial presidential election, or critical elections, in which an issue of extreme importance galvanizes the electorate.

Examples of Realignment

So, when have we seen this in history? Many political scientists claim that realignment happens in American society roughly every 30-40 years, although some argue that this dramatic of partisan switching has only occurred a small handful of times.

Either way, two examples stand out and are agreed upon by everyone. First was in 1860, when Republicans won the presidency with Abraham Lincoln, toppling about 40 years of Democrat control of both Congress and the Oval Office. Republicans went on to dominate the government for decades as many abandoned the Democratic Party during and after the Civil War.

Compare these maps of the presidential election of 1928 (top) and the election of 1932 (bottom). This is a clear example of realignment, as a huge number of voters switched their affiliation from Republican (red) to Democrat (blue)
election maps united states

The other major period of realignment came in 1932, when the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression ushered in an era of Democrat control that would last for decades.

In both cases, realignment was motivated by major national crises, although historically there can be many reasons for large numbers of people to switch their political affiliations. Sometimes a party embarrasses itself through scandal or supporting an unpopular law or event (as when the Federalist Party opposed the War of 1812 and were reviled as traitors).

In any case, there generally needs to be a reason for realignment to occur on a massive scale; something needs to shake a lot of people's faith in their party.

Dealignment

So, what happens when one party manages to alienate its voters, but the other party looks just as bad? Sometimes, when people leave a political party, they aren't realigning. They're dealigning.

In American politics, dealignment refers to a widespread movement of people abandoning all political parties. They leave the party with which they were affiliated, but don't affiliate with any other party.

This means that dealignment is revealed through a major increase in independent voters. In general, we take this as a sign of discontent with the government at large, or at least with the options presented by political parties.

In some cases it reveals that people think the two parties are two similar to represent different options beyond the status quo, while in other instances dealignment seems to be strongly motivated by increased bickering between political parties, resulting in a loss of trust in each.

Examples of Dealignement

Dealignment is interesting because it's not traditionally common throughout American history, and yet it's been a growing trend for a while now.

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