Realigning election (often called a critical election or political realignment) are terms from political science and political history describing a dramatic change in the political system. Scholars frequently apply the term to American elections and occasionally to other countries. Usually it means the coming to power for several decades of a new coalition, replacing an old dominant coalition of the other party as in 1896 when the GOP (Republicans) became dominant, or 1932 when the Democrats became dominant. More specifically, it refers to American national elections in which there are sharp changes in issues, party leaders, the regional and demographic bases of power of the two parties, and structure or rules of the political system (such as voter eligibility or financing), resulting in a new political power structure that lasts for decades.
Realigning elections typically separate Party Systems--with 1828, for example, separating the First Party System and the Second Party System in the U.S.
Political realignments can be sudden (1–4 years) or can take place more gradually (5–20 years). Most often, however, particularly in Key's (1955) original hypothesis, it is a single "critical election" that marks a realignment. By contrast a gradual process is called a "secular realignment." An American example was the change in the voting patterns among white Southerners, who from the 1870s to 1962 had overwhelmingly voted at the national and state levels for Democratic (what was called the "Solid South"). A critical election came in 1964 with a shift at the presidential level to the Republican (GOP) presidential candidates. However there was a gradual shift toward the GOP at the state and local levels, as Aldrich (2000) and others have found. Democratic voting remained strong into the 1970s and only slowly shifted towards the GOP as state Republican organizations systematically broadened their base in the 1980s and 1990s.
Political scientists and historians often disagree about which elections are realignments and what defines a realignment, and even whether realignments occur. The terms themselves are somewhat arbitrary, however, and usage among political scientists and historians does vary.
In the U.S. Walter Dean Burnham argued for a 30–36 year "cycle" of realignments. Many of the elections often included in the Burnham 36-year cycle are considered "realigning" for different reasons. Some political scientists, such as Mayhew (2004), are skeptical of the realignment theory altogether, saying there are no long-term patterns: "Electoral politics," he writes, "is to an important degree just one thing after another.... Elections and their underlying causes are not usefully sortable into generation-long spans.... It is a Rip Van Winkle view of democracy that voters come awake only once in a generation.... It is too slippery, too binary, too apocalyptic, and it has come to be too much of a dead end."
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“Savages cling to a local god of one tribe or town. The broad ethics of Jesus were quickly narrowed to village theologies, which preach an election or favoritism.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882)