Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre

Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre

by David R. Mayhew

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The study of electoral realignments is one of the most influential and intellectually stimulating enterprises undertaken by American political scientists. Realignment theory has been seen as a science able to predict changes, and generations of students, journalists, pundits, and political scientists have been trained to be on the lookout for “signs” of


The study of electoral realignments is one of the most influential and intellectually stimulating enterprises undertaken by American political scientists. Realignment theory has been seen as a science able to predict changes, and generations of students, journalists, pundits, and political scientists have been trained to be on the lookout for “signs” of new electoral realignments. Now a major political scientist argues that the essential claims of realignment theory are wrong—that American elections, parties, and policymaking are not (and never were) reconfigured according to the realignment calendar.
David Mayhew examines fifteen key empirical claims of realignment theory in detail and shows us why each in turn does not hold up under scrutiny. It is time, he insists, to open the field to new ideas. We might, for example, adopt a more nominalistic, skeptical way of thinking about American elections that highlights contingency, short-term election strategies, and valence issues. Or we might examine such broad topics as bellicosity in early American history, or racial questions in much of our electoral history. But we must move on from an old orthodoxy and failed model of illumination.

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Yale University Press
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Electoral Realignments

By David R. Mayhew

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09336-5

Chapter One

THE STUDY OF AMERICAN ELECTORAL realignments, which enjoyed its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, has been one of the most creative, engaging, and influential intellectual enterprises ever undertaken by American political scientists. During the 1960s and 1970s, it rivaled the Michigan election studies. Then and since, it has offered certifiable science, in the sense of a conceptual scheme, a theory, and quantitative analysis; breadth, in its tackling of large questions concerning the what, when, and why of American history; and even a secular eschatology, in the sense that it has encouraged generations of students and others, primed to seek "signs" along a presumed highway to an extraordinary historical destination, to keep asking: Is an electoral realignment about to happen? Are we witnessing an electoral realignment this year? In the now familiar mode, a New York Times op-ed piece toyed with the idea during the 2000 election season, and a Nation article of that season bore the title "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On: A Political Realignment Is on the Way."

Basic to the appeal and influence of the realignments enterprise have been the talents of four major political scientists during its creative early days: the late V. O. Key, Jr., and E. E. Schattschneider, both of whom contributed important groundwork; and James L. Sundquist and Walter Dean Burnham, who provided the principal statements in the genre. All four of these writers exhibited a prodigious, sure-footed command of the factual particulars of American political history as well as the rare ability to generalize through detecting patterns. All four offered a kind of ideological excitement, as many academics of my generation will attest. It is small wonder that the genre made such a mark during its classical phase.

Inventive additions were made to the realignments interpretation in the 1970s and 1980s by, among others, the political scientists Paul Allen Beck, David W. Brady, and, writing as a threesome, Jerome M. Clubb, William H. Flanigan, and Nancy H. Zingale. In general, however, as is customary with academic schools, the creativity of the realignments genre tailed off after an initial phase. Trenchant critiques appeared. The historians Richard L. McCormick and Joel H. Silbey, reflecting the sensibilities of their own discipline, offered periodizations of American political history that jarred against that of the realignments canon. In the canon proper, there was little creativity in the 1990s.

Yet the realignments perspective lives on, at least in political science. In undergraduate courses on parties and elections, nothing has replaced it as a device for organizing American political history. In conferences on American political development, it is conventional wisdom. In academic journals, authors keep reaching for it as an authoritative framework. In the minds of many political scientists, notwithstanding the qualms of historians, the two-century-long timetable associated with the realignments canon has come to have an unquestioned fixedness approaching that of, I would imagine, the periodic table for chemists. Also, "Whole Lotta Shakin'"-type statements in the popular media have become a trademark of election seasons.

It is the continuing prominence of the realignments genre that stirred me to write this work, which takes the form of an empirical critique. It asks the question: How good is the realignments genre as a guide to the last two centuries of American electoral, party, and policy history? My answer: not very good at all-either in its classical version or since. Worse yet, I believe that the genre has evolved from a source of vibrant ideas into an impediment to understanding. In its current "normal science" form, it seems to be blinkering graduate students and exacting opportunity costs. For the political science discipline, in my view, it is time to move on. In this work, I do not try to advance any ambitious theory or conceptual scheme of my own-the work is a critique-but, in the large subject area commanded by the realignments genre, to open up lines of inquiry thought to be closed off is possibly by itself a kind of advance.

Chapter 2 is a nonjudgmental presentation of the essential claims, as I see them, of the realignments perspective. I begin by briefly taking up certain works by the four classical authors but then shift gears and present what might be considered a fully fleshed-out, maximally ambitious version of the realignments perspective-an ideal type about a scholarship already featuring ideal types. To do this is to lean heavily on Burnham, whose theoretical or empirical claims have been particularly ambitious; on Schattschneider, whose claims were equally ambitious if less completely worked out; somewhat less on Sundquist, who has been more cautious; and least of all on Key, whose claims were close to the vest. Also accommodated are the other political scientists noted above who made influential analytic moves during the 1970s and 1980s. There is a point in operating in this fashion: what I am calling the fully fleshed-out version of the realignments perspective has proven, I believe, to be particularly engaging and influential.

As an analytic technique, I resolve the large realignments perspective into fifteen distinct empirical claims. In Chapters 3 through 6, drawing on relevant primary and secondary sources where appropriate, I evaluate these fifteen claims for their empirical validity and illuminative power. In Chapter 7, I close with some conclusions and a few points of more general interpretive criticism. In that chapter, as well as earlier, I point up what I am not doing in this work. I am not trying to argue that all American elections are equal. Unquestionably, some of them have been more engaging, momentous, or consequential in various ways than others. It is and should be a continuing scholarly task to illuminate such differences. Yet it is not helpful to get trapped forever in a failed model of illumination.


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