What The Next Realignment is About
This book is about political parties and realignments, but most of all it’s about the future of America. It’s about how our parties got the way they are. What built them? Who built them? Of what are they really made? What ideas and philosophical principles sustain them, and what do those principles really hold? The book is also about the powerful forces tearing at our parties’ hearts. How do realignments work? What causes them and what shapes them? Why was the utter and traumatic collapse of the Whigs so different from the launch of the Populist and Progressive Movements? How does the recurring eruption of awakenings, national spirits of moral reform that periodically spark powerful religious revivals and dramatic social movements, continually plunge America into crusades for moral and social reform? What forces are already quietly cutting the ties that bind America’s political factions, and how are these forces combining in a potent mix, pushing America’s parties toward collapse? Most of all, this book is about America’s future. The choices we make as we navigate these disruptive changes will forge new ideologies for America’s parties, affecting which problems we address and how, and ultimately redefining America as a nation.
To explain what drives realignments, the book delves into the history and stories of America’s past party systems—Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, the Whigs and Jackson’s Democrats, the Civil War parties of North and South, the Populist and Progressive Era parties that reformed America out of the Gilded Age, and our New Deal era parties of today. Most important, it explores the great debates of history in which the American people sparred over how America should change, what it should become, and how it should address new problems and concerns. Through this telling of the story of America, the book proposes a better theory about what realignments are and why they occur. It demonstrates how, with each realignment, an old system is swept away in a moment of crisis. Americans, facing new problems, form new alliances better suited to address the new problems of a new age. A new party system forms, one designed to debate the most pressing problem of the era ahead. Those parties then wage that new grand debate over years of elections and policy experiments, until ultimately the questions we created them to address are finally resolved. Then America changes again. Old problems fade, new technologies develop, and new troubles arise. Over time, parties perfectly designed to wage a critical debate from a long-gone era decay into anachronisms. No longer able to offer compelling solutions to problems, they become old and brittle until they break—clearing the way for new coalitions uniting different people, often former enemies who now have more in common than they once had, unlashing vibrant new eras of reform. The American political system is built around these periods of collapse and rebirth.
Perhaps most important, the book provides us with the tools we need to better see the seams and cracks now tearing our familiar New Deal party system down. The story of modern politics isn’t just a story of liberals and conservatives hoping to push America “left” or “right.” It’s the story of a temporary debate launched amid the devastation of a depression and world war over how to adapt the American republic to the modern industrial economy. Understanding our own party system—how it came to be, the factions of which it consists, and the squabbling principles and idea it binds together into its dominant ideologies—is critical to understanding how and why it’s coming apart and what’s likely to emerge from its collapse. Realignments are always whirling eras of turmoil, breakdown, and uncertainty, as old patterns fall away and people have to find their way anew, but not every realignment is the same. Some are traumatic, like the one that followed the chaotic implosion of the Whigs. Others quickly channel the destructive energy into building something new, such as the realignment that birthed the Populist and Progressive Era. American realignments can be destructive. They can also become conduits for reform, clearing the way for fresh ideas and new approaches necessary for national renewal. If we understand how and why our own party system is breaking down, we can better guide the next realignment to ensure America’s future is one we want.
We live at one of history’s great turning points. Realignments always present America with a choice. We can choose to renew our parties before they inevitably collapse, ushering in a new political age with refreshed parties built around updated ideologies to ensure the national divisions that rule America’s new era are ones that make America better, stronger, safer, and more prosperous. Or we can do nothing until a powerful storm beyond our control rips the system apart, hoping whatever emerges from the rubble doesn’t lead the nation down dangerous towpaths into a darker era serving no one. Monumental change really is afoot. An old order really is falling away and a new one is emerging. We don’t know what the future looks like, other than that it won’t follow the rules of decades past. The anger, the bitterness, the dysfunction, the inability of our parties to grapple seriously with the difficult problems the nation faces—they’re just tremors. They’re symptoms of the beginning of the greatest shift in American politics in our lifetimes. Our parties haven’t significantly changed since the days of Packard cars, the manufacturing economy, rotary telephones, and radio plays. Our era has stayed stable for so long—with “liberal” Democrats fighting the same war with “conservative” Republicans—that it started to feel permanent. That time is at an end. As our parties break and new ones emerge, our decisions will determine what sort of parties these will be. We should make this choice with open eyes and our shared interests as citizens fully in mind. If we’re wise, we can renew our politics and our parties, launching a new age of national renewal that will restore what so many Americans in this troubled time now believe is lost—the promise of the American Dream.