A political realignment, often called a critical election, critical realignment, or realigning election, in the academic fields of political science and political history, is a set of sharp changes in party ideology, issues, party leaders, regional and demographic bases of power of political parties, and the structure or rules of the political system, such as voter eligibility or financing. The changes result in a new political power structure that lasts for decades, replacing an older dominant coalition. Scholars frequently invoke the concept in American elections and occasionally those of other countries. American examples include the 1896 United States presidential election, when the issues of the American Civil War political system were replaced with those of the Populist and Progressive Era, and the 1932 United States presidential election, when the Populist and Progressive Eras were replaced by the New Deal issues of New Deal liberalism and modern conservatism.
Realigning elections typically separate (what are known in the field of comparative politics as) party systems—with 1828, for example, separating the First Party System and the Second Party System in the US. It is generally accepted that the United States has had five distinct party systems, each featuring two major parties attracting a consistent political coalition and following a consistent party ideology, separated by four realignments.
Political realignments can be sudden (1–4 years) or can take place more gradually (5–20 years). Most often, however, particularly in V. O. Key Jr.’s (1955) original hypothesis, it is a single “critical election” that marks a realignment. By contrast, a gradual process is called a secular realignment. Political scientists and historians often disagree about which elections are realignments and what defines a realignment, and even whether realignments occur. The terms themselves are somewhat arbitrary, however, and usage among political scientists and historians does vary. In the US, Walter Dean Burnham argued for a 30–38 year “cycle” of realignments. Many of the elections often included in the Burnham 38-year cycle are considered “realigning” for different reasons.
The central holding of realignment theory, first developed in the political scientist V. O. Key Jr.’s 1955 article, “A Theory of Critical Elections”, is that American elections, parties and policymaking routinely shift in swift, dramatic sweeps.
Key, E. E. Schattschneider, James L. Sundquist, Walter Dean Burnham are generally credited with developing and refining the theory of realignment. Though they differed on some of the details, earlier realignments scholars generally concluded that systematic patterns are identifiable in American national elections such that cycles occur on a regular schedule: once every 36-years or so. This period of roughly 30 years fits with the notion that these cycles are closely linked to generational change. Some, such as Schafer and Reichley, argue that the patterns are longer, closer to 50 to 60 years in duration, noting the Democratic dominance from 1800 to 1860, and Republican rule from 1860 to 1932. Reichley argues that the only true realigning elections occurred in 1800, 1860, and 1932. Given the much longer length of time since the last generally accepted realignment in 1932, more recent scholars have theorized that realignments don’t in fact operate on any consistent time scale, but rather occur whenever the necessary political, social, and economic changes occur.
The alignment of 1860, with Republicans winning a series of close presidential elections, yielded abruptly in 1896 to an era of more decisive GOP control, in which most presidential elections were blowouts, and Democratic Congresses were infrequent and brief. Thirty-six years later, that system was displaced by a cycle of Democratic dominance, lasting throughout the Great Depression until Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980 and the House election of 1994 when Republicans regained the majority for the first time in 40 years.
A central component of realignment is the change in behavior of voting groups. Realignment means the switching of voter preference from one party to another, in contrast to dealignment (where a voter group abandons a party to become independent or nonvoting). In the US and Australia, as the ideologies of the parties define many of the aspects of voters’ lives and the decisions that they make, a realignment by a voter tends to have a longer-lasting effect.
In Britain and Canada, on the other hand, voters have a tendency to switch parties on a whim, perhaps only for one election, as there is far less loyalty towards a particular party.
1977 Indian general election – Janata Party victory, defeating the Indian National Congress
The left-wing Indian National Congress, which had led the country to independence from the United Kingdom in 1947 and had won every general election since the first post-independence election in 1952, lost power to the right-wing Janata Party led by Morarji Desai, after the immensely unpopular imposition of The Emergency by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi since 1975. Both Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay lost their seats.
1896 presidential election — William McKinley
• The status of this election is hotly disputed; some political scientists, such as Jerome Clubb, do not consider it a realigning election. Other political scientists and historians, such as Kleppner and Burnham consider this the ultimate realignment and emphasize that the rules of the game had changed, the leaders were new, voting alignments had changed, and a whole new set of issues came to dominance as the old Civil War-era issues faded away. Funding from office holders was replaced by outside fund raising from business in 1896 — a major shift in political history. Furthermore, McKinley’s tactics in beating William Jennings Bryan (as developed by Mark Hanna) marked a sea change in the evolution of the modern campaign. McKinley raised a huge amount of money from business interests, outspending Bryan by 10 to 1. Bryan meanwhile invented the modern technique of campaigning heavily in closely contested states, the first candidate to do so. Bryan’s message of populism and class conflict marked a new direction for the Democrats. McKinley’s victory in 1896 and repeat in 1900 was a triumph for pluralism, as all sectors and groups shared in the new prosperity brought about by his policy of rapid industrial growth.
• While Republicans lost House seats in 1896, this followed a massive two-election gain: from 25.9% in 1890 to 34.8% in 1892 and 71.1% in 1894, for a total 45.2% gain. Republicans lost 13.4% in 1896, but still held 57.7% of House seats.