Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

You Say You Want a Re-Alignment? Four Models for America's Political Future

Created: 09 March, 2016
Updated: 16 October, 2022
7 min read

“Realignment.” Get used to that word because we are going to be hearing it a lot in the next few months. American political parties realign themselves every 40 or 50 years, as governing coalitions emerge, break up, and reassemble themselves in new combinations. The phenomenon of realignment--if not actually part of the design of the country--was at least anticipated in Madison’s great Federalist #10, which argues that, for a republic to remain free, factions must never become permanent.

Since 1855, the extent of these political realignments has been hidden by the fact that we have always had two parties with the same names: Democrats and Republicans. But these names do not represent coherent ideologies; they are more like the Dread Pirate Roberts in

The Princess Bride: the same names just keep getting used over and over again to describe fundamentally different things. The “Party of Lincoln” has very little to do with the parties of McKinley, Eisenhower, Reagan, or Donald Trump.

The key thing to remember is that these two major parties are and always have been coalitions of different interest groups, issue voters, inclinations, and ideologies. Sometimes these are coalitions that make sense, and sometimes they are purely matters of political convenience. The current Republican Party, for example, represents at least four very different kinds of voters who have been (more or less) in the same tent since the Reagan Revolution:

  • Business conservatives who want to create a good environment for business operations.
  • Right-libertarians who want minimal government interference
  • Values voters who oppose abortion, same-sex marriage, and other generally progressive social movements
  • Neoconservatives who believe that the United States should use its military power to shape the world in its image

There are natural points of connection between these ideologies. Business conservatives and right libertarians can agree on low taxes and less regulation. Business conservatives and neoconservatives can agree on the need to use foreign policy to open markets. And so on. But there are also lots of fissure points where what is good for one group (i.e. lax immigration laws that provide lots of cheap labor for businesses) directly opposes the agenda of one or more of the others.

What we are seeing in 2016, I believe, is a fracturing of this coalition. The Trump supporters tend to be right-libertarians and evangelicals, who have long been the junior partners in the coalition. In 2008, many of these voters coalesced into the Tea Party and begin putting rightward pressure on the Republican establishment, which has generally come from the other two groups. It seems very clear that two of the major factions in the current Republican coalition are ready to party ways.

So how will this shape the electoral politics of the future? What will the next great alignment of the American political system look like? I have no idea. Nobody does. But both American history and current global politics give us some intriguing models that might emerge, with revisions, in the next American political system:


Modern Mexico: One Establishment Party with Left and Right OppositionFrom 1929 to 2000, a single party in Mexico held the presidency and most state and local positions: the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) was, for all intents and purposes, the government of Mexico. In 2000, Vincente Fox lead a second party to victory: the right-leaning Partido Acción Naciona (PAN) to victory. But the PRI did not just go away: it continued on as a majority party, sharing power with the PAN and the left-leaning Partido de la Revolución Democrática, (PRD), which has yet to win the presidency, but does control several states and the Federal District, along with about 20% of seats in the Senate.

Something like this could emerge from the elections of 2016. Both major parties have establishment and non-establishment candidates. And let’s face it, Hillary Clinton and John Kasich have more in common with each other than either one of them has with Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. A possible realignment could feature a very large, centrist party that combines the more mainstream members of both the Democratic and the Republican Party. This establishment party would have to compete in elections against both the Bernie Sanders Left and the Ted Cruz/Donald Trump Right, which would form smaller, but still competitive parties of their own.

The United Kingdom: A Kingmaker in the CenterUntil the recent rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party, the Parliament of the United Kingdom was controlled by the right-leaning Conservative Party, the left-leaning Labour Party, and the smaller, more centrist Liberal Democrats. The fact that the Lib-Dems can align with either major party to form a coalition often gives them a disproportionate amount of power. In  a close election, when neither of the larger parties can form a government, the  Liberal Democrats can be kingmakers. Both sides have to make overtures to the center in order to create a governing coalition.

We saw a form of this alignment in 2005 with the Senate’s (im)famous “Gang of Fourteen”—seven senators from each party who pledged to oppose both unnecessary filibusters and the “nuclear option” to end filibusters altogether. These fourteen centrist senators effectively bent the rest of the Senate to their will; as long as they stood together, neither party could carry out its plans to use procedural manipulations to control the judiciary. But what if it expanded? What if a group of senators from both parties started opposing the extremists in both parties on a lot of other issues?” In time, this could evolve into a moderate movement within the two party system that prevented the other two parties from straying too far from the center. Even within the two-party system, a bi-partisan group of moderate senators and representatives could become the kingmakers in the center.

Canada 1993: A Regional Separatist PartyThe Canadian Parliament has a similar distribution of parties as their cousins in the United Kingdom: it has a major conservative party, a major liberal party, several smaller parties and the Bloc Québécois, the political arm of the Québécois secessionist movement. In 1993, something remarkable happened: the Bloc Québécois won 54 seats and became the second-largest party in the legislature. Thus, for the first time in Canada’s history, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition Party was one officially committed to the dissolution of the country.

For several years, I have thought it possible that the Tea Party movement could evolve into something like an American Québécois: a regional secessionist movement centered largely in the South whose official position called for a renegotiation of the American political contract, either by secession or by a new Constitutional Convention that dramatically alters the balance of power between the federal government and the states. Such a convention is not likely to happen, but the thought of it is enough to sustain a semi-separatist political party through several election cycles. The implications of such a party for the American political system would be profound.

America 1860: A Fractured Major PartyWhen the 1860 Democratic National Convention adjourned without nominating a candidate, the Party of Jackson split into different factions: the Northern Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas; the Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckenridge; and the Constitutional Union Party (mainly former Whigs who did not support the Republicans) nominated John Bell. The fracturing of the party paved the way for Abraham Lincoln to win the election easily. Then the Civil War happened. And the Democrats were out of power for another 40 years.

Something like this (minus the Civil War) is the current worst nightmare scenario for the Republican Party. If the 2016 conventions ends up brokered or stalemated, and an establishment Republican (like, say, Mitt Romney) ends up the nominee, either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz (or both) could conceivably mount a third-party campaign that would split the Republican Party in half, lose the Senate and the House, and basically destroy the current iteration of the Grand Old Party for a generation, leaving it to re-emerge in 30-40 years as something unrecognizable to members of the party today.

I know that this is all very sketchy. I have made all kinds of simplifications and generalizations about other times and places to pull out some illustrations of what an American realignment might look like. In truth, of course, it will look like its own thing, and the parallels we find will be surface comparisons only. But even very rough comparisons call help us visualize an American political system that does not exist yet. But all of the pieces are in place for some kind of realignment, though we can never be quite sure what rough beast might be slouching towards Bethlehem (or Cleveland) to be born.