Electoral Realignments

Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre

David R. Mayhew
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Electoral Realignments
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13003-4
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    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...

  5. 2 The Realignments Perspective
    (pp. 7-33)

    WHAT IS THE ELECTORAL Realignments perspective, and where did it come from? As Harvey L. Schantz has noted, the idea of realigning elections surfaced in political science before World War II.¹ Yet everyone agrees that it was V. O. Key who crystallized and popularized the concept in his 1955 article “A Theory of Critical Elections.” Here we see the basic, trademark dichotomizing move of the realignments school—the idea of sorting American presidential elections into two categories: a few that are “critical elections,” in Key’s terminology, and a great residual many that are not. The former are defined as ones...

  6. 3 Framing the Critique
    (pp. 34-42)

    HOW WELL DOES THE CLASSICAL Realignments genre stand up at the start of the twenty-first century, well past its base in historical evidence and a generation or two beyond the main assertions by its chief exponents?

    All the claims I have presented here can, in principle, be assessed for their empirical validity; that is the principal task I undertake in the remainder of this work. How can this be done? In some instances, reasonably hard empirical information is available in published works and can be assembled. Yet in many instances that course is not possible, and one must resort to...

  7. 4 The Cyclical Dynamic
    (pp. 43-69)

    DOES AMERICAN ELECTORAL HISTORY sort into specified crests and troughs? Do the highs and lows appear in regular cycles? What explains the regularity of the alleged cycles? Claims 1 through 4 of the realignments genre address these basic concerns.

    1)The existence of specified realigning and nonrealigning elections. Of efforts to discover realigning as opposed to nonrealigning elections during American history, I am aware of two sophisticated works using quantitative data that were undertaken blind to the conventional wisdom of the realignments genre about what results to expect.¹ It should be said that no quantitative work on this subject can...

  8. 5 Processes and Issues
    (pp. 70-102)

    DISAPPOINTING RESULTS LIKE THOSE reported above, however, do not end the discussion. Realignments advocates are quick with arguments of the form: “Even if patterns A, B, C, and D don’t pan out, patterns E, F, G, and H will.” Hence the advisability of assessing many alleged patterns.

    In this chapter I take up three claims of the realignments genre bearing on processes and three bearing on issues. My strategy in each of the six cases is to investigate how well the relevant kinds of events or features of American history have mapped onto the realignments calendar—that is, the calendar...

  9. 6 Policies and Democracy
    (pp. 103-140)

    ULTIMATELY FOR THE REALIGNMENTS genre, payoff territory arrives with its ambitious claims about policy making and its soaring assertions about American democracy and the “System of 1896.” I address these topics in this chapter, beginning with the three claims introduced earlier about policy making. The genre divides on whether on-schedule policy making is a consequence of electoral realignments or, alternatively, a defining property of them, but that question need not detain us here.

    11)Major policy innovations. Does a pattern exist, as David W. Brady claims, in which electoral realignments have ushered in “major shifts in public policy” or “outpourings...

  10. 7 Conclusion
    (pp. 141-166)

    I HOPE I HAVE SUCCESSFULLY demonstrated that the claims of the realignments genre do not hold up well, and that its illuminative power has not proven great. Notably, the various features said to be associated with realignments or critical elections—the causes, precursors, defining properties, measures, indicators, concomitants, consequences, and so forth that I have discussed—do not line up on the historical calendar the way they should.

    Yes, the 1932 election stands out for its durable realigning effects, but no one has come anywhere near establishing 1828, 1860, 1896, and 1932 as an exhaustive set of elections that share...

  11. Index
    (pp. 167-174)