Monday, April 14, 2008

Is Realignment Coming? Some Thoughts on Critical Elections and the State of Modern Parties

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted so I want to get a number of ideas flowing over the next few days. As a result, this post is going to be a bit of a stream of consciousness. After doing a number of posts on V.O. Key, I’ve started to revisit a number of “classic” studies of voting behavior to see of there are any parallels we can draw to the current contest. Next on the bibliography is Walter Dean Burnham’sCritical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics,” published in 1970.

Burnham’s work is seminal in that it brought forward the theory of “realignment,” namely the notion that American political history has been characterized by long periods of stable voting behavior and party coalitions, punctuated by rapid periods of upheaval, leading to the emergence of reordered coalitions and a new political order.

A couple of aspects of the current campaign got me thinking about Burnham and led me to dust off his book. First, as I wrote a few weeks ago, the speculation about Obama’s ability to “redraw” the political map hints at the potential for a modern realignment. With the Obama campaign producing increased political participation and drawing new groups to the Democratic side (at least for now), two preconditions of a “realignment” are present. Obviously it’s difficult (and dangerous) to use primary voting to predict dramatic systemic change so I don’t want to do much more than raise some ideas and questions. If you listen to much of Obama’s message on the stump—including the current brouhaha about voters being “bitter”—he is describing a state of voter unease that Burnham identifies as preceding these critical elections. Realignments “arise from emergent tensions in society which, not adequately controlled by the organization of outputs of party politics as usual, escalate to a flash point…They are involved with redefinitions of the universe of voters, political parties, and the broad boundaries of the politically possible” (p. 10). So, when Obama talks about “change,” he seems to be calling for realignment. Burnham also argues that following realignments we tend to see more dramatic policy change, another part of Obama’s message.

This has led me to think a lot about the importance of candidates themselves in this process. Does it matter who is running for office at the time of realignment? Does the right candidate make realignment more likely? Do politicians matter? Here, Burnham is less clear. He, like Kevin Phillips, and more modern writers like Judis and Texeira, focuses much of his analysis on historical, demographic, and socio-economic changes over the long term. Or put more crudely, political change follows societal change. As old political orders can no longer contain societal forces in flux, new orders erupt. Politicians seem secondary in this analysis. However, when we look at periods of realignment, we see presidents emerge that are by no means ordinary—Lincoln and Roosevelt, for example. While Burnham’s work was released before the Reagan ascendancy, many have pointed to his rise as the most recent realignment. Many of Obama’s supporters, though perhaps overly enthusiastic, see him as the next great charismatic leader who can reorder American politics. The question that I’ve been pondering is, if the conditions are right for a realignment, could a candidate like Clinton, Edwards, Richardson, or any of the other Democrats who sought the nomination produce the same magnitude of change that others are looking to Obama to create?? Again, Obama’s message suggests the answer is no. He wants us to believe that, yes, who is running matters.

Finally, Burnham’s book has gotten me thinking a lot about parties themselves. During the long periods of stability and the short periods of flux, parties are crucial actors. They serve to aggregate voter demands and structure political conflict. As the supporting coalitions shift, parties may disappear (the Whigs) or undergo substantial change. In earlier party systems, Burnham describes very strong party organizations with control over ballot distribution, candidate nomination, and even the distribution of political information through their own media. Beginning with the Progressive movement in the early 20th century, these party organizations were weakened dramatically. As voters became responsible for their own registration, primaries became the means for awarding candidates’ nominations, and as more voters became willing to identify themselves as independents, party “decomposition” began to accelerate.

As I read this I couldn’t help but think about the current state of the party nomination process we’re now going through, especially for the Democrats. We’re now at a point where, for example, the DNC has $5 million in the bank as opposed to Obama’s $40 million. Or, look at the debate about the Florida and Michigan delegations. We’ve spent the better part of two months engaging in a debate about whether rules established by the party (and agreed to by the candidates and states in question) can be changed simply because the campaign has played out differently than one of the candidates intended. Finally, we have Obama supporters suggesting that Clinton should spare the party more months of bloodshed by gracefully dropping out in the face of unassailable delegate math. The common thread that runs through all three of these is the weakness of modern political party organizations. Even though we have a party organization, it seems to lack any authority to shape the process and exert leverage over the candidates. In reality, it seems as if the party organization, as many have historically understood it, simply doesn’t exist anymore. All authority has been usurped by the candidates themselves. For Democrats hoping to win in November, their fear seems to be that the “decomposition” of the party has become complete. So complete, in fact, that it could kill their chances.

**Listen to Burnham discuss his work, in 2006, here.

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