Political realignment is a concept which describes a change within a political system. This can indicate the balance of power within the government as well as internal bases within political parties. It is a natural occurrence as the political system evolves, being influenced by time, leaders, and events. This report will investigate the political realignment of the major political parties in the United States from 1964 to 1992.
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Leading up to the 1960’s the Democratic political bases encompassed an unlikely coalition, consisting of industrial workers from Northern states, Jewish and Catholic urban populations from the Midwest, Southern whites (including many supremacists), and African Americans. This was known as the New Deal coalition, many of the groups united by socioeconomic status of poverty, remnants of history from the Civil War and the Great Depression which affected their race or region.
The Republican party maintained the support of business owners (both small and large), rural areas, prosperous farmers, and the highly educated upper class. This base was unified by their wealth or culture from previous generations (Friedman).
The 1964 Presidential election began a significant political realignment for the parties. The year was particularly memorable for its major breakthroughs in the Civil Rights Movement which was advocated by the Democrat liberal Lyndon B. Johnson. He was able to pass the famous Civil Rights Act of 1964 amongst many other victories for minorities. Meanwhile, his opponent in the 1964 election was a Republican Barry Goldwater who ran on conservative values and opposed the emergence of the new counterculture. Despite Johnson winning the election with ease, the South was strongly alienated as a Democratic-controlled region. Goldwater was able to make the region into emerging bloc for the Republican right, which would redefine American politics for a considerable time (Public Broadcasting Service).
The 1968 Presidential election was the actual political realignment point. Leading up the election, the Democrats were hurt by poor publicity of President Johnson associated with the Vietnam War. Their voter base was dominated by the New Left that encompassed various social progressive movements of the time. Meanwhile, the Republicans built on the foundations of Goldwater’s 1964 campaign and attempted to capture Southern votes.
The candidate, Richard Nixon ran a campaign on the premise that “law and order” had to be reestablished in the country and states’ rights will be protected. The Democrats criticized this as exploitation of racial fears and misleading as many Southern states did not want to abide by federal court orders for desegregation. Nixon eventually won the election (Chatham). The country became increasingly divided as it struggled to find its identity upon political turmoil and social counterculture movements.
The trend continued through the 1970’s, but unpopular economic policies and Nixon’s Watergate scandal resulted in the election of the Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976. Surprisingly, a vast majority of Southern states voted for Democrats during the election, which was a political anomaly. In the 1980 election, Republicans introduced the charismatic candidate Ronald Reagan. He ran on a modified Southern Strategy which avoided direct racism.
Republicans understood that with nationwide acceptance of Civil Rights, that would be politically harmful. As described by the Republican strategist Lee Atwater, the new Southern strategy emphasized the broader concept of states’ rights. While the campaign focused strongly on fiscal conservatism and national security, the states rights concept was meant to imply that the control of race relations would return to local jurisdictions (Perlstein).
Reagan won the election, which was a significant political realignment of national values towards conservatism. Reagan was profoundly religious and during his acceptance speech called upon divine Providence for guidance and blessing. A new form of American religious politics emerged which more than two-thirds of the population supported. As a result, a powerful evangelical political bloc surfaced with significantly conservative views, which influenced policies. It is important to note that throughout the decades of Republican presidents, Congress remained controlled by the Democrats. Conservative Republican views dominated the nation for the next decade.
However, as media technology and coverage expanded, politics became a concept of public image. George Bush Sr. was able to win the 1988 election not so much due to his political strength, but because of the negative publicity of his opponent Democrat Dukakis. A policy failure from Dukakis’ term as governor of Massachusetts led to political failure, which the Republicans took advantage of in order to control the media narrative (Freedman).
Finally, the last large political realignment of the discussed period is the 1992 Presidential election of Bill Clinton. He led the emergence of the New Democrats, which was a moderate and centrist political bloc. It significantly increased the party’s voter base by including the unskilled worker class as well as appealing to the highly educated, minorities, and women (Morgan and Lee 396). Clinton actively targeted traditional Republican states in the South and West. A sizable portion of his votes came from the African-American community and low-income whites. However, Clinton was not wholly liberal, backing such policies such as the death penalty.
Clinton and his running mate Al Gore were from the South and aware of the local cultural norms. They took advantage of the New South strategy, which did not focus on racial tensions anymore but promoted economic development in a socially conservative approach (Yglesias). They led to the Democrats capturing the voter base in many hardline Republican states such as California. It was a significant political realignment since many of these states remained Democratic for the foreseeable future and shifted the distribution of political party affiliation in the country.
Chatham, Joe. “On 1968: A Realigning Period.” Heterodox Academy. 2017. Web.
Freedman, Lawrence. “Reagan’s Southern Strategy Gave Rise to the Tea Party.” Salon. 2013. Web.
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Friedman, George. “The Reinvention of the Democratic and Republican Parties.” Geopolitical Futures, 31 Oct. 2016. Web.
Morgan, Stephen, and Jiwon Lee. “Social Class and Party Identification During the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Presidencies.” Sociological Science, vol. 4, 2017, pp. 394-423. Web.
Perlstein, Rick. “Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy.” The Nation. 2014. Web.
Public Broadcasting Service. “1964: The South Changes Political Parties.” PBS Learning Media. Web.
Yglesias, Matthew. “Bill Clinton is Still a Star, But Today’s Democrats Are Dramatically More Liberal Than His Party.” Vox. 2014. Web.