Amid the strange twists and turns of the 2016 presidential election, historically-minded observers keep coming back to a big question: Will this year produce a party realignment? As The Economist summarized things: “Academics reckon that in 219 years America has seen just six different party systems… Donald Trump’s idea of turning the Republican Party, long the ally of big business, into a ‘workers’ party’ may yet force a seventh.” Even political scientists have gotten in on this. Lee Drutman, at Vox’s Polyarchy blog, wrote “Eventually, the Democrats will become the party of urban cosmopolitan business liberalism, and the Republicans will become the party of suburban and rural nationalist populism.”
But what does realignment really mean? Where does the idea come from? Is a realignment really all that likely? In fact, there are reasons to believe that the 2016 election won’t result in realignment. The issues that motivate voters may change — in particular, the Republican Party appears more driven by cultural conservatism and grievance than small government philosophy. But new issues could sort voters into the same parties as before.
Electoral realignment is an idea that comes out of a body of mid-20th century political science scholarship. V.O. Key Jr. set out the major criteria for a realigning election in a 1955 article, “A Theory of Critical Elections”: The election results suggest a “sharp alteration of the pre-existing cleavage within the electorate” — in layman’s terms: The groups supporting each party change, and that change persists over several subsequent elections. Walter Dean Burnham, picking up on Key’s ideas, argued that these realignments occur on a cyclical schedule in American politics — about every 30 or 40 years — because the U.S. political system is otherwise structured not to be very responsive to changing demands …