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By Jay Cost

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Realignment: The Theory Will Never Go Away

As I have written on this page many, many times - realignment is not a good theory for understanding the ebb and flow of American politics. Yet popular political commentators (rarely academics, who really only use it these days to describe the movements of discrete geographical or demographic blocs of voters) continue to trot it out after every election.

Brent Budowsky today declares that the most recent realignment is dead. How a realignment can die, I'm not exactly sure. But anyway, he writes:

Realignment is dead. President Barack Obama and Democrats blew it.

Dealignment has arrived. Republicans blew it, and are now so repellent that Americans increasingly reject both political parties.

Here's my question, if we can go from being "realigned" to "dealigned" in just a few short months, when were we ever aligned in the first place? Doesn't alignment imply some permanence to it? This is the OED's definition of "align:"

To bring into line with a particular tradition, policy, group, or power.

That implies some stability, does it not? If something is being brought into line with "tradition, policy, group, or power" it is as if it once did not fit but now it does. How then could it be brought out of line so quickly, unless it was never in line to begin with (or, my theory, there is not really a line for it to fall into!).

And let us remember that dealignment was a term used in the 1970s. The theory was that the two parties had failed to deal with issues like race, crime, and Vietnam - and that voters were thus beginning to eschew party labels, the parties were falling into decay, and we were in a dealigning phase. The startup time for this dealignment was actually around the last rightward realignment that Budowsky identifies, i.e. 1968. One person's realignment is another's dealignment, I guess.

My take: this piece is just another example of the kind of Ptolemaic epicycles one must add to the realignment theory to get it to work. It's not that there never was a realignment, it is that it "died" because the Democrats "blew it" in just eight short months. Children conceived before the realignment began have not yet been born before it's over - but it was still a realignment. Er? That's a tipoff to the problem. Again, my take is that realignment is an overly structural concept that is based on outdated theories; as a grand catchall to describe the dynamics of the American political process, it is not terribly helpful.

But of course I don't think we ever will get rid of realignment, as the title suggests. Science eventually was swept up in the Copernican Revolution, but political commentators will always be Ptolemaist when it comes to realignment. It is such an appealing idea. In its popular form it offers a simple, easy-to-grasp picture of the grand sweep of American political history. If you don't stare too hard at the messy details that don't fit the narrative, it is elegant and even beautiful. Plus, if your party happened to win the most recent election, you're all the more inclined to talk about realignment, as it suggests you are extremely likely to win the next couple!

-Jay Cost