Kendra Pic

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The fourth alignment of the American party system lasted from 1896-1932, with the election of 1896 considered the critical election. Republican William McKinley’s win, Stonecash and Silina note, “presumably produced a pronounced, abrupt, and enduring shift to the Republican Party… because the Republican win created a political alignment that largely stifled the consideration of certain policy issues for the next 40 years,” (7). Ultimately, realignments usually occur during times of national crisis or conflict, as the electorate is seeking new ways to address issues, especially ones that have yet to be confronted. This search for change was the case, or at least a significant contributing factor, for the fourth realignment in the response to the Panic of 1893. However, the alignment was also inconsistent with other realignment trends, since there were multiple transitions between the political parties during this era.  Each of these elements reflects in contemporary party politics.

With industrialization underway, a significant issue surrounding the 1896 election was that of how the country would navigate this change, with Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan’s platform resting on improved environments for workers.  This approach resulted in the isolation of urban areas, creating an electoral shift towards the Republicans. Political scientist Robert Saldin, suggests the realignment towards the Republican-driven era, was also heavily influenced by the economic disruption in the late 1800s due to the failure of banking and other economic sectors.

Scholar Marjorie Hershey notes that the panic also contributed to internal conflicts within the Democratic Party, namely the low-income white constituents with the less progressive party leaders, looking for further support from their party, which continued to divide the constituents or reduce their vigor for their party identification (152). Prior to 1896, the discussion around the economy persisted around how to regulate industry, workers’ rights, and the class divide. Scholar James Sundquist captures the failed attempts by Democrats to marshal supporters in Dynamics of the Party System (Ch. 7).  While they were not successful in forming their coalition, class struggles were a regular issue with the rise in labor strikes and the creation of the Greenback Party and Populist Party.

This realignment took place at the end of the Reconstruction era (1876-1896), whereby at this stage in history, as noted by Aldrich et al., the two parties had a secure platform and influence within American politics. They were both fairly balanced in terms of support, and every election showed gains, “first for one party and then for the other, with divided control common,” (345). This sentiment is similar to that of contemporary election history, with each party making small advancements in some elections and experiencing setbacks in others. However, during the Realignment of 1896, the Republicans managed to sustain their majority in the different branches of governments throughout this period, an indication of a realignment.

Similar to the Fourth Alignment beginning with national crisis needing to be addressed and voters more willing to be rallied by a different party, it ended also amidst the new national crisis of the Great Depression. While social issues like Prohibition were at the forefront before, economic concerns were the only main concerns at the beginning of the Great Depression, and therefore the election of 1932, gave the Democratic Party their best opening for victory, While there were many that questioned FDR’s campaign and nomination,  Historian William Leuchtenburg recounts that “[h]is opponent, President Herbert Hoover, was so unpopular that FDR’s main strategy was not to commit any gaffes that might take the public’s attention away from Hoover’s inadequacies,” (“The Campaign and Election of 1932”). Under FDR’s leadership and his plans for the New Deal to surmount the national, economic crisis, he reassured Americans that his plan would alleviate the current conditions. While it may not have been as certain at the time, since realignment studies need a long-lasting change, FDR’s election ended the Fourth Alignment and paved the way for a new Democratically-driven era.

Not all scholars have been convinced of the value of realignment theory.  David Mayhew, an elections scholar, lays out an argument to debunk the value of realignment as a failed model in Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre.   Among the lack of evidence for a solid realignment? Woodrow Wilson served two terms for the Democratic Party from 1913-1921. The 1920 election resulting in the defeat of Democratic rule and restoring Republican dominance is not usually considered as “critical” as the election of 1896, although it essentially brought about the same results.

The question remains if nowadays, the United States is experiencing a period of realignment. Aldrich et al. share that, especially in recent years, “the House, the Senate, and the presidency have shifted partisan control several times, and each election opens with at least one, if not two or even three, of the elected branches of government under close competition for partisan control,” (343). Some believed that after Obama’s election wins in 2008 and 2012, that the United States was again foreseeing a new realignment era with a Democratic majority. With President Trump’s election in 2016, some argued this marked a shift towards a Republican realignment or at least make way for easier likelihood in the future. Regardless, the biggest issue with studying realignments is they must occur over a long period of time, remain durable, and electorate shift is necessary. Multiple elections will need to take place before one can decisively conclude that the electorate has made a considerable change either in partisanship or with their values within their parties.

Kendra graduated this May with a major in politics and international relations, as well as a minor in journalism.


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