America’s political parties are breaking as we tumble into our next great political realignment.
For as long as we all remember, politics in America has meant the same thing. On one side, a Democrat Party attracting a consistent ideological coalition advanced the ideology of New Deal liberalism. On the other, a Republican Party attracting a consistent coalition advanced the ideology of modern conservatism. It’s been this way for so long, we all started to think this twentieth-century political debate was permanent. Except now it’s coming apart.
That’s why American politics suddenly feels so turbulent and unstable. It’s why new and disruptive ideas, movements, and people are forcing their way into the public square. It’s why our political culture suddenly feels so angry, why so many of our longstanding norms are falling away, why so many new problems are popping up while so little in Washington is getting done. It’s why American politics feels “broken.”
This continual cycle of destruction and rebirth of political realignments is embedded into the very structure of our republic. These realignments have happened many times before, and they’ll happen many times again. As we approach the next great political earthquake that will tear the very structure of American politics apart and remake it wholly anew, it’s time we all understood what realignments are, how they work, and what we can do as the next one arrives.
That’s what The Next Realignment is about.
What's a Realignment?
American party systems don’t change gradually over time. They transform in quick and spectacular bursts. For decades, America’s two major parties representing the same coalitions of people and ideas. Over years, they engage in the same national debate. Then, suddenly, over just a few years, they dramatically fall apart and get remade anew.
Sometimes, the old parties disintegrate, like what happened to the Federalists and the Whigs. Sometimes new people and ideas take over the husk of a failing party, replacing its essence but keeping the old party brand. Either way, when it’s over America has two new parties representing new people and ideas engaged in a new great debate. This complete periodic remaking of our two-party system is a realignment.
America has had five distinct sets of parties, each punctuated by a realignment. During each era—what scholars call a “party system”—America had two major party coalitions, each competing for about half the national vote. These parties, formed in a moment of crisis, united distinctive ideological coalitions around unique party ideologies, ones unlike the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans we know today. Each of these parties then conducted a great national debate over the greatest issues of their age—until, over time, as that debate resolved and America changed, they declined. Eventually, they collapsed during another moment of crisis and two new parties emerged from the rubble. A new national debate addressing the new problems of a changed America.
During America’s First Party System Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists battled Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans over what sort of republic America would be—a commercial great power to rival those of Europe or a nation of independent farmers dedicated to republican simplicity. In it’s Second Party System, Andrew Jackson’s Democrats and Henry Clay’s Whigs fought over how to bring the people into the republic’s politics as America spread into the frontier. In the Third Party System, a Republican Party based around the North fought with a Democratic Party based around the South over the resentments of the Civil War and the work of post-war Reconstruction. In the Fourth Party System, William Jennings Bryan’s populist Democrats fought with Teddy Roosevelt’s pro-business progressive Republicans to reform America’s institutions in light of industrialization during the Populist and Progressive Era.
We forged the Republicans and Democrats we know today in this Fifth Party System during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. America’s Fourth Party System parties effectively crumbled during the horror of the Depression. Roosevelt, in responding to the crisis, empowered a brain trust of advisers to develop innovative policies, ones that ultimately pulled from both traditional Republican progressive ideas and populist Democratic ones. Those who opposed Roosevelt and his New Deal, however, saw this new agenda as dangerous . They believed it threatened American liberty and undermined the republican virtues a democratic republic like America needed to thrive.
By the end of Roosevelt’s presidency, the Democrats had a new ideology combining populism and progressivism. It held that Democrats could use expertise to plan a better society benefiting working people and the least well off. We call it New Deal liberalism. The Republicans had a new ideology too, one drawing on the principles of liberty and national virtue. It opposed the excesses of the Democrats’ New Deal liberalism as “big government” that threatened American liberty and the virtues necessary for national success. We call it modern conservatism.
Ever since, America’s two major parties—the Republicans and Democrats—have conducted this same great national debate. Democrats have advocated for New Deal liberalism, uniting a stable ideological coalition of populists and progressives. Democrats have pushed back against it advocating for modern conservatism, uniting a coalition of liberty and virtue conservatives.
Many Americans today, having lived their entire lives inside this one party system era, naturally presume this now-familiar battle between between New Deal “liberals” on the “left” and modern “conservatives” on the “right” is eternal. It isn’t. It’s a temporary battle over the problems of a specific historical time and place, industrial-era America in the wake of an economic depression followed by a global war. For the better part of a century, all of American politics has been organized around fighting this same long-gone industrial-era battle, the fight over Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Why Our Parties Are Breaking
We know from the lessons of history that our parties are ripe for collapse. On one hand, the issues we created them to solve are either resolved or faded into history. Our great national debate over the New Deal is over. It's a fight over a version of America that is now long gone. We no longer live in an industrial era economy in which one high-school educated citizen could support a middle-class family at an industrial job, retiring after forty years with thanks and a gold watch. America no longer stands as the most important superpower leading one faction in a cold war, with an economy untouched by war supplying the needs of the globe. We live in a fast, disruptive, global, multipolar, information-age economy facing new competitors across the planet. New technologies shatter old expectations. Its culture is constantly changing.
We now face an onslaught of new problems that we never designed our parties to address. The economic system has changed, the world as changed, our culture has changed, yet our parties haven't. The transformation from the industrial economy to the information age as important as the transition from the agriculture age to the industrial. Yet our parties remain locked in this same stale and anachronistic debate that has defined them since 1932. Our parties lack even the framework to think about so many of our new problems because their solutions lie neither in simply advancing the New Deal nor resisting that advance as “big government.”
Despite all the sound and fury of politics, the debate over the New Deal is over and everybody knows it. American politics is drifting because our parties no longer seriously intend to advance the agendas we built them to advance, yet they lack the ability to even think about, much less solve, the problems we need them to solve today.
American politics has changed a lot since the 1930s. We’ve debated issues spanning from the proper level of taxes, to the appropriate size and institutions of government, to civil rights, to how to protect our shared environment. Control of government has shifted from one party to the other and back again many times. There was the post-war boom. The Great Society. The Goldwater revolt. The Civil Right struggle. The protests over war in Vietnam. The rise of the conservative movement. The Reagan Revolution. The battles of the 1990s between a Republican congress and Democratic president. Over time, the geographic and demographic bases of our parties have even shifted. The once Democratic Solid South has become a Republican stronghold while the formerly Republican Northeast has become a Democratic one. Yet throughout it all, our parties have continued to fight over the same debate. The Democrats remain the party of New Deal liberalism, seeking to employ expertise and planning in the service of working people and the least well off. The Republicans remain the party of modern conservatism, pushing back against the excesses of “big government."
We know from history that when America's parties, built around an increasingly irrelevant debate, can no longer address the problems we face, a realignment is around the corner.
We know from hard experience a realignment is coming because all the conditions that create them already exist. A party system always collapses soon after the issues it was created to address decline, while new issues it can't or won't address arise.
When the great debate of a party system ends, American politics always goes into corruption and decline. That was true of the Federalist Party collapse, ending America’s First Party System and ushering in the corrupt Era of Good Feelings. It was true of the Whig collapse that brought the Second Party System to its end leading to the years of political chaos that ended in a civil war. It was true when the Third Party System’s debate over the Civil War decline, creating the corrupted Gilded Age. It was true when the Populist and Progressive Era reforms turned into the drift and hedonism of the Jazz Age. Eventually, after years of drift, when the right force strike hard enough, those parties collapse clearing the way for something new.
The important question isn’t when our parties will collapse. It's when, followed by what we then intend to do.
If we do nothing and simply wait for parties to collapse, realignments are a national trauma like the one that broke the Whigs. Our parties break without warning, creating a vacuum in the public square that dangerous and disruptive voices like the conspiratorial Know-Nothing eagerly seek to fill. It can take years of all the factions and interests of society stumbling about in the dark looking to make new alliances before new coalitions form prepared to address the new problems of America. Worse, since the process is uncontrolled there’s no way to ensure the new parties that form are truly ones we want, ones prepared to channel our differences over new issues in productive ways. We must simply hope for the best from whatever emerges from the rubble.
If we act first, however, realignments can become opportunities for reform and renewal. If we’re wise, we can renew our parties first before they collapse, dragging us into a new future on our own terms. We can jump into the fray like campaign of 1896, in which William Jennings Bryan rapidly remade a flailing Democratic Party still obsessed about the Civil War into a force for addressing the new problems of industrialization, or the New Deal debate that created the parties of today. We can shape our future before events shape it for us
We ought to act now, while we still can. We should renew our parties for the problems of the future. We should rebuild our parties around the issue that has so many Americans right now worried, the seeming decline in the American Dream.
The American Dream is a national promise that everyone in America will have a fair shot at pursuing their dreams, whatever that may be. That we’re a nation of social equals who, no matter where we come from, can all with hard work and a bit of luck achieve anything we dream. People across America, from varied backgrounds and across the span of political beliefs, are now collectively concerned that the American Dream is fading away—that opportunities are closed, the game is rigged, and people like them no longer have a chance.
We ought to renew our parties now around this national concern. We ought to dedicate our new era in America to debate how best to preserve our national promise of the American Dream.