Thursday, December 17, 2009

Breaking Waves of Dealignment

Realignment: the coming to power of a new coalition, replacing an old dominant coalition of the other party (or replacing a stalemate, as in the United States in 1896 or 1932). The concept of realignment or a critical election was first put to paper by political scientist V. O. Key in a 1955 article titled "A Theory of Critical Elections." According to Key and subsequent realignment adherents political parties, voter loyalty, and policymaking routinely shift in swift, dramatic sweeps - or critical elections. Realignment literally means that voters, en masse, switch allegiances from one party to another. In contrast, a dealignment is said to occur when voters abandon party loyalty to become independents or nonvoters.

Many believed that the one-two punch of the 2006 mid-terms and the 2008 presidential election was heralding a realignment in America with voters moving to the Democratic party. Indeed, the party reclaimed Congress and the White House and enjoyed a clear advantage in voter expressed party preference for the first time in 20 years. It appears that such realignment predictions were made in haste. Democrats no longer enjoy an advantage in voter preference and according to the latest NBC News/WSJ Poll only 38 percent of voters said their representative should be re-elected, while nearly half (49 percent) believe it’s time to give a new person a chance. According to Politico “That’s the lowest net re-elect number for Congress since November 2005 – and even worse than the polls taken right before the landslide election of 2006 that swept Democrats in control of Congress (39 re-elect/45 new person), and worse than those taken before the Republican revolution of 1994 (39/49).”

Translation? 2010 is shaping up to be another wave election – a term that non-political scientists and media commentators often use to describe a critical mid-term election. This presents a problem – critical elections were thought to usher in generational shifts in loyalty. But we have now had two wave elections in 12 years – 1994 and 2006 and may have a third on the way - only 4 short years after the last wave. All of this suggests that we have in fact dealigned in America. Voters are no longer loyal to any party, as such they willingly and easily switch allegiances from one election to the next. Writing for Politico back in August, Eamon Javers referred to this new generation of voters as “Fickle Kids” who change voting preference as often as they do cell phones. If this is true, if we have dealigned, if voters no longer have a true connection to either party, America is likely to enter a very unstable era in which party control of government will be very unpredictable and likely short-lived. It remains to be seen how the parties will react to this change.