America is heading toward its third great political realignment

Across nearly four centuries, the genius of Anglo-American political institutions has been their general tendency toward evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, change. This inclination has been clearly reflected in the development of the most stable and successful political party systems in the world. Over time, political ascendency has favored those parties that stood for a steady broadening of the voting population and their inclusion in the processes of democratic governance through peaceful, though not always uncontroversial, means.

Even in those rare instances when “regime change” has required a resort to military force — England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 or America’s Revolution of 1776 — these revolutions have been decidedly more limited in scope and far less bloodthirsty than the malign template of the French Revolution of 1789 and others that have emulated its “root and branch” approach to radical societal change.

In the United States there have been just two great political realignments, both of them occasioned by immense and catastrophic events that reached into every corner of the republic and fundamentally changed how people thought about politics and the very character of the Great American Democracy.

The first was the Civil War (1861-1865) — far and away the greatest bloodletting in our history — the result of which was the overthrow of the Democratic Party ascendency begun by Thomas Jefferson in 1800 that had endured for 60 years but eventually would be undone by its persistent toleration of slavery. The further result was the 70-year ascendency of the Republican Party begun by Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

The second great catastrophe leading to political realignment was the Great Depression, beginning in 1929, which inflicted more material misery on the American people than anything in our history — and even more ominously, seriously called into question the institution of capitalism that heretofore had been seen as the indispensable element in American growth and prosperity. As a result of this shattering event, millions of Americans who were adherents of the Republican Party ever since the Civil War changed their allegiance to the Democratic Party and its New Deal, led by Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Most would generally maintain that allegiance for nearly 90 years.

It is evident that there is a great deal of party-switching going on today, mainly benefitting Republicans since the most striking group switching their allegiance are Hispanics and, to a much lesser but significant extent, African Americans who have been historically the most reliable part of the long-ruling Democratic coalition. Many Democrats comfort themselves by viewing these shifts as temporary and thinking of them in the context of the well-known pattern of voters less bonded to their usual party affiliation, who routinely punish the party of the White House incumbent whose policies they find disappointing. 

This midterm retribution, however, in no way precluded these critical swing voting blocs — e.g., independents, suburban women — from bouncing back to their usual party affiliation in the presidential election two years later, as both Presidents Clinton and Obama, hugely punished in their first midterms but subsequently re-elected, can testify. In the eyes of these Democrats, thus reassured by history, all that is needed for their party to rebound is a fresh new face as their presidential standard-bearer in 2024.

I would suggest that this viewpoint profoundly misreads what is happening in our country today, and that a series of unprecedented events, ideological obsessions, mistaken policies, and economic and cultural impacts is irreversibly changing how longtime, devoted Democrats — notably from within minority communities but also from an alienated working-class generally — view today’s political parties.

This present trend in party-switching is not just about this one election; it represents a more permanent, new affiliation because the Democratic Party for which their parents and grandparents signed up long ago has ceased to exist, replaced by an affluent elite that openly mocks their values and wages war against their economic well-being. The best historical template for today’s switchers is African Americans during the Depression, who decisively and permanently switched from the party of Lincoln to the party of Roosevelt simply because Democrats spoke directly to their needs and beliefs and Republicans, who long took them for granted, did not.  

Similarly, those voters now abandoning the Democratic Party won’t be coming home any time soon. 

William Moloney is a Senior Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his doctorate from Harvard University.  He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.