U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is America in the Midst of a Political Realignment? (Guest Post)

Is America in the Midst of a Political Realignment?

by Jeremy C. Young*

The tumult of recent political events – from the surprising Sanders movement and head-scratching Trump nomination in the U.S. to the shocking Brexit vote in the UK – underscores the continued relevance of a thinker often overlooked by modern historians.  Walter Dean Burnham (born 1930) is a political scientist who taught at MIT, Washington University, and UT-Austin.  Burnham’s Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (1970) was one of the last triumphs of traditional political history; it appeared just as that subfield was eclipsed by the social and cultural turns (and before it reinvented itself as the “new political history”).  While the 2016 election cycle often seems to frustrate efforts at analysis, it fits into Burnham’s model with surprising ease.  Indeed, a reexamination of Burnham’s work suggests that 2016 bears all the hallmarks of a “critical election” – and that, if Burnham is right, we are witnessing a fundamental realignment of the American political system.

In a series of articles and books beginning in the mid-1960s, Burnham imagined the history of American politics as a series of relatively stable “party systems,” in which political power, partisan alignments, and central issue conflicts remained constant over thirty- to forty-year periods.  First came the “experimental system” (1790-1828), featuring a contest between Federalists and Republicans over which group of elites would control the American government.  The “democratizing system” (1828-1860) pitted rural, relatively poor Jacksonian Democrats against more urban, affluent Whigs.  The “Civil War system” (1860-1896) made sectional conflict the primary partisan flashpoint, with Northern Republicans generally defeating Southern Democrats for control of national politics.  Next came the “industrial system” (1896-1932), in which supporters of industrial capitalism vied with various groups opposed to the new economic system (Populists, Progressives, Prohibitionists, Socialists), with the Western states a particular battleground.  Finally, the “New Deal system” (1932- ) constituted a struggle between pro-welfare state Democrats and increasingly anti-welfare state Republicans, with the former usually victorious.  Burnham’s analysis ended in 1966, but it seems clear that a sixth party system emerged at some point between 1968 and 1980, leaving the Republican Party largely in control and sparking new battles over economic austerity and cultural issues.

Burnham was particularly interested in why these large-scale political alignments, after maintaining stability for long periods, came to sudden and occasionally violent ends.  (Here, Burnham may have been influenced by Thomas Kuhn’s concept of scientific paradigm shifts, which followed the same broad structure of long-term stasis punctuated by sudden disruption and discontinuity.)  The motivating force behind each realignment, Burnham concluded, was a major socioeconomic disruption: westward expansion in 1828, newly-inflamed sectional conflict over slavery in 1860, and economic depressions in 1896 and 1932.  (One could add to this list the collapse of the growth economy via the recession of the 1970s.)  Like canaries in the proverbial coal mine, third-party movements heralded the inability of traditional parties to handle these disruptions: Jacksonian Democrats in the 1820s, Republicans (and Know-Nothings) in the 1850s, Populists in the 1890s, Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin’s Liberty Union Party in the 1930s (and, one might add, George Wallace’s American Independent Party in 1968).  Next, a “critical election” occurred, featuring a partisan realignment in which the two major parties took opposite positions on the major issue of the day: Andrew Jackson’s Democrats versus John Quincy Adams’ proto-Whigs in 1828, antislavery Lincoln Republicans versus proslavery Breckinridge Democrats in 1860, the pro-industrial William McKinley versus the vaguely anti-industrial William Jennings Bryan in 1896, Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal versus Herbert Hoover and laissez-faire in 1932, Reaganomics versus the Great Society in 1968/1980.  Finally, in the aftermath of the critical election, positions hardened around these new partisan alignments, leading to a stable new party system.  In many cases (such as Bryan’s presidential campaigns in 1900 and 1908), this effectively amounted to rerunning the critical election over and over, usually with similar results.

The 2016 campaign cycle, it seems clear, meets virtually all of Burnham’s criteria for a critical election.  We are indeed in the midst of a socioeconomic upheaval, one more dramatic and disorienting than any since the rise of industrial capitalism: the development of a globalized, digitized economy controlled by multinational corporations and non-governmental organizations.  In the United States, this economic shift has increasingly led to the replacement of manufacturing jobs with employment in the service and distribution industries – employment which is often low-paying and arduous and which generally lacks the job security and benefits traditional manufacturing positions once promised.  Beginning in 2008, the Great Recession accelerated these trends and left much of the white working class feeling angry and helpless about America’s economic situation.  A third-party challenge to globalization appeared as far back as 1992, with H. Ross Perot earning 19% of the presidential vote on a platform of opposing free trade agreements such as NAFTA and luring manufacturing jobs back to the United States.  Today, both Trump and Sanders echo or extend Perot’s critiques of free trade and the globalized economy.  Sanders opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Export-Import Bank, while Trump goes much further, demanding 35% tariffs on most international imports – a move that would wall off the United States and a few close allies within an economic autarky, effectively unable to trade with much of the world.  With Trump winning the Republican nomination and the pro-globalization Hillary Clinton running for the Democrats, the stage is set for a classic critical election that will determine whether the United States embraces or rejects the globalized economy.

Burnham’s model, with its laser-like focus on domestic politics and economics, neglects at least two features that often accompany partisan realignments: an intensification of racism among the white working class, and international economic turmoil.  Racism featured prominently in Jacksonian Democracy (primarily against Native Americans), the Breckinridge Democrats in 1860 (leading directly to the Civil War), Populism in 1896 (particularly if Richard Hofstadter is to be believed), Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitic radio sermons, and of course the infamous “Southern strategy” of Nixon and George Wallace.  In each case, this racism was already latent in American society, but became inflamed when some white Americans erroneously concluded that the prerogatives of racial minorities were the cause of their economic dislocation.  It’s not surprising, then, to see some Trump supporters (and the candidate himself) laying blame for their own economic dissatisfaction at the feet of Latino and Muslim Americans; this is well-worn (though quite disturbing) behavior during American political realignments.  At the same time, the socioeconomic shifts that occasioned partisan realignments were often transnational in scope.  The global Great Depression had dramatic consequences for European countries; global student protests coincided with the American election cycle in 1968.  Accordingly, the fact that American political upheaval is occurring simultaneously with Brexit and the weakening of the European Union should not surprise us in the least.

Does the victory for Brexit presage similar success for Donald Trump in the United States?  Not necessarily.  In calling for a Brexit vote, British Prime Minister David Cameron made a classic political mistake: opposition to a new economic order is invariably more popular than is any specific alternative to that order.  Putting the European Union on the ballot allowed everyone from Labourites to the UKIP to vote against it, despite their deep disagreements on virtually every other issue.  In a candidate-based election such as the 2016 U.S. presidential race, it’s impossible to imagine large numbers of Sanders supporters voting for Trump or Trump supporters voting for Sanders, though they might vote together against the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  In 1896 – an election that perhaps more closely parallels 2016 than any in American history – William Jennings Bryan did an admirable job of uniting many disparate anti-industrial camps, including Midwestern Populists, Southern Democrats, and even a few disaffected Republicans.  Most urban industrial workers, however, were unwilling to vote for a party that privileged farmers (and opposed racial minorities) even if they agreed with Bryan on the evils of industrial capitalism, leading McKinley to a decisive victory.

The history of American politics suggests that holding back socioeconomic transformations is a losing proposition.  The Federalists, the Populists, John C. Breckinridge, William Jennings Bryan, Charles Coughlin, and George Wallace can all, more or less, be counted among history’s losers.  While we should not necessarily expect anti-globalization forces to take over the American government, Burnham’s model indicates that we should be prepared for such forces to reorient the political debate in the United States.  Populists who sought to undermine industrial capitalism gave way to Progressives who wanted to reform it and, ultimately, New Dealers who succeeded in ameliorating its effects.  Accordingly, those readers who are unsettled by the way this election cycle has played out might want to buckle their seat belts; concerns about globalization are not going away, and the campaign of 2016 may represent the new normal in American politics.


*Jeremy C. Young is an assistant professor of history at Dixie State University. His book, The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

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  1. This is a wonderful post–I have much more to add but want to digest it for a bit. Hope others chime in (and I’m sure they will).

  2. I agree this is a wonderful post, and it is especially thought provoking in that it follows Elan Zelnik’s post, which I am still thinking about. I am intrigued by analysis of dialectical processes, and I suspect this current electoral cycle would not be so surprising or unexpected if I had thought about it from such a perspective. I’m not familiar with Burnham’s work, but I foresee more reading matter to pile up with the rest of the to-read books I’ve accumulated thanks to reading this blog.

  3. Thanks for this, Jeremy. I’ve known about the racism in all those critical elections, but had never really lined them up to see to the long pattern the way you did above. I appreciate that.

    As for the future, historians are notoriously bad at predicting it. I’d be fearful of claiming that the next 3-4 national elections will mimic this one. – TL

    • A good point about the predictive value of these theories — although Burnham is technically a political scientist, and I think they have different views on predicting the future!

  4. A stimulating post, but I can’t say I’m persuaded by the argument that 2016 meets Burnham’s criteria for a critical election.

    According to your summary of Burnham’s argument, a critical election in his terms is a “punctuation” (cf. ‘punctuated equilibrium’), i.e., a break from an established relatively stable pattern that leads to a new stable pattern. Hence e.g. the 1860 election: a new party (the Republicans) takes the presidency, leading to a new party system (the “Civil War system”) that revolves around the issue of sectional conflict and lasts, acc. to B., until 1896. Then another election comes along and shakes up the partisan alignment and the central issue conflicts for another few decades.

    2016 does not really fit this model of a critical election, it seems to me. If Clinton wins, as seems likely (though not, of course, certain), there will be no partisan break or realignment at the presidential level; nor does it seem likely that there will be a partisan realignment at the congressional level, since even if Dems regain control of the Senate and/or House, the margin of control will prob. be fairly tight. (I admit to being a bit fuzzy on the exact meaning of ‘realignment’ as B. is using it, though.)

    In terms of issues, 2016 also does not seem to fit the model. ‘Globlization’ and trade have been issues since at least the early 90s, as you point out. The concern might have intensified but it doesn’t represent a new issue, hence doesn’t seem to fit the B. model.

    That said, political scientists’ (and historians’) models are often fairly elastic things and if one tries hard enough there’s often a way to fit almost anything one wants into a model’s framework.

    Historians should probably be reading more in the literature of historically-oriented political science — and vice versa — so it’s nice to see, as in this post, a historian recommending a book by a political scientist, even if one is not persuaded by the particular application.

    • Thanks very much for your stimulating comment. In response to two of your points:

      1) Burnham’s theory does not require that the realigning viewpoint capture the presidency. In 1896, for instance, the result of the election was a resounding victory for the industrial-capitalist order through William McKinley. The realignment took place not in the general election but at the Democratic convention, where William Jennings Bryan committed one of the major parties to an anti-industrial platform, thereby assuring that the issue of industrial capitalism would divide the two major parties for decades to come. Similarly, I believe the 2016 realignment has already taken place, with the collapse of the pro-globalization Republicans at the hands of Trump. I don’t expect Trump to win in 2016 or to be renominated in 2020, but it will be difficult for any Republican to be nominated who does not, as Ted Cruz does, accept at least some of Trump’s economic premises. This ensures that globalization will be a flashpoint between the two major parties far into the future.

      2) You raise an excellent point about the developing importance of globalization over decades. This brings up an issue which I alluded to but did not fully explain, and I welcome the opportunity to do so here. Burnham’s model does indeed admit realigning issues which originated decades before the realignment itself occurs. Again considering 1896, the issue of industrial inequalities had been percolating for decades (think of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, nineteen years earlier) before a major party actually adopted the issue as its own. Further complicating the issue is what I consider a misinterpretation on Burnham’s part of the election of 1912. Burnham’s sees the Progressive Party as an intraparty squabble between Republicans and dismisses it as unimportant. But a closer examination of Theodore Roosevelt’s platform in that year suggests he was advocating many of the ideas that made up the New Deal. If Roosevelt was a harbinger of a realignment that appeared twenty years early, he is an excellent analogue for the Ross Perot campaign of 1992.

      • Thank you for this. I now understand your argument better and it does seem persuasive now to me. Trump’s nomination probably does represent one of those moments when a major party embraces a particular view (in this case, on economics/trade, etc.) that will at least heavily influence it (to put it in cautious terms) for a good while into the future.

  5. Astute essay. Some other socio-economic trends that have largely escaped notice and that are likely driving a political realignment include:

    1. Changes in the nature of work, the workplace, the structure of the US labor market – in short, we have an unprecedented degree of contingent labor (about 35% of the workforce) and have returned to pre-1945 levels of economic insecurity for US workers and working families.

    2. The near-total collapse of any rational immigration policy as regards semi-literate (or illiterate), unskilled immigrants from Mexico and Central America – this is aggravating the economic insecurity problem, destroying working-class support for a generous welfare state, and undermining social institutions across many dimensions, from the public schools to the healthcare system to public safety and the criminal justice system.

    3. Perhaps most insidious of all, the collapse of aggregating cultural institutions that bring _unum_ out of _pluribus_, and their replacement by ever-smaller bands of tribes, partisans, and long tail “communities” in which the most extreme and loudest voices dominate.

    The third change is the one without any historical precedent. I only note that the dominant medium today for organizing and publicizing is Twitter, and that the clear masters of Twitter in the political realm are two: a nihilistic death cult called ISIL, and a narcissistic interloper called Trump.

    Heaven help us.

  6. If we are to have a new Teddy Roosevelt to herald a reform movement that will counterbalance globalization’s punishment of work and workers, he or she will have to focus on three huge reforms:

    1. Effective corporate governance, especially as regards cracking down on abuse (and outright violation) of the employment laws. End the H1B scam, and end the rampant misclassification of de facto full time employees as “contractors” so as to avoid payment of payroll taxes to the state and health insurance benefits to the employee.

    2. Related to #1, sever the link between employment and health insurance. Implement single payer (Medicare for all), supplemented by optional “top-up” private insurance provided by heavily-regulated, non-profit private insurers.

    3. End illegal immigration. Crack down on employers of illegals. End the insane, reactionary practice known as “sanctuary cities.”

    • @thibaud
      Isn’t it the case that the flow of undocumented immigrants across the southern U.S. border has declined quite a bit in recent years, partly as a result of tighter enforcement both at the border and to some extent w/r/t employers of undocumented workers? Given that the border is more than 2,000 miles long, I don’t think ‘ending’ illegal immigration is feasible, apart from the question of its desirability. Reducing it is feasible. Completely ending it, probably not.

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