What Is Dealignment? Definition and Examples

Shifting loyalties
Shifting loyalties.

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Dealignment in the political process occurs when a significant portion of the people who are entitled to vote in an election—the electorate—no longer affiliate with the political party with which they had been previously aligned, without forming new affiliations with another party. These dealigned individuals typically become independents or non-voters.

How Dealignment Works 

In the American political system, dealignment occurs when significant numbers of Republicans or Democrats give up their party affiliation to either as independent voters or simply cease to vote. In contrast to dealignment, realignment is characterized by a major shift in the dominance of different parties where a major party may lose its power in favor of another. In realignment, unlike dealignmnent, individuals not only switch their votes from one party to another but may completely abandon their former party.

Key Takeaways: What Is Dealignment?

  • Dealignment refers to a substantial erosion of political party loyalties among voters.
  • As used in the U.S., it refers to the decrease in the percentage of voters that identify either as Democrats or Republicans, along with a corresponding increase in the percentage that identifies as independents or non-voters.
  • Over the last several decades, U.S. election trends have been characterized as dealignment.
  • Dealignment can also apply to partisanship and social and economic classes.
  • In contrast to dealignment, realignment takes place when a large block of voters massively shifts its support to a rival party and sticks with that party over prolonged periods.

Dealignment from major political parties can be indicated by an increase in the number of independent candidates or a decrease in overall voter participation. Especially since the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, the United States has seen periods of both party realignment and dealignment. It is common for these trends to develop when neither Democrats nor Republicans hold a majority of the seats in Congress or the Supreme Court.

Many political scientists suggest that over the last several decades, U.S. election trends are best characterized as dealignment. This is evident in the portion of Americans identifying with a particular political party declining from 75% to 63% between 1964 and 1976. Dealignment does not refer to an individual voter losing their party affiliation, but to a widespread trend as many people formally abandon the party to which they had been previously tied.

The Presidential Election of 1860 began a new era in American political history during which dealignment has been more prevalent. Abraham Lincoln won the election and led the United States through the Civil War. Following the war, the Republican Party enjoyed the support of businesses, industrialists, farmers, and former slaves. Such large groups of supporters enabled the Republican Party to dominate the Presidency and Congress for close to 60 years.

The Republican stronghold on the electorate ended with the election of 1932 when Democrat Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. Roosevelt’s predecessor, Republican Herbert Hoover, had become widely unpopular for his policies during the Great Depression. As the presidential hopeful, Roosevelt promised Americans a New Deal to pull the country out of the Depression.

During the New Deal Era, Roosevelt was re-elected easily in 1936, 1940, and 1944. Democratic dominance of the presidency was interrupted in 1952 and 1956 with the election of World War II hero Republican Dwight Eisenhower but was re-established in 1960 with the election of John F. Kennedy. Although another Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, was elected in 1964 and championed sweeping civil rights legislation, his unpopular handling of the Vietnam War contributed to the end of the New Deal Era of Democratic Party control.

While Republican Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, the Watergate scandal led to his resignation and a growing public distrust of government. As a result, neither the Republican nor Democratic Party has enjoyed the same monopoly on politics as they had during previous eras. The United States is now in an era of divided government and even more widely divided public opinion. Part of the reason why is because party loyalty is far less intense today than it was 50 years ago. Waning loyalty neutralizes the power of political parties and gives way to the rise of third parties. For example, several individuals, including George Wallace, Ross Perot, and Ralph Nader, have formed third political parties in recent years.

Types of Dealignment

While these and other third-party candidates have yet to win a presidential election, their chances could be improving as more and more voters register as Independents rather than Democrats or Republicans. The increase in Independent voters marks a shift toward party dealignment. This shift can be an indication of either a highly informed electorate that is issue-oriented or a hyperpluralism political environment unwilling to form coalitions.

Besides simple voting loyalty, dealignment can apply to partisanship; a strong, sometimes blind adherence, dedication, or loyalty to a political party—or to an ideology or agenda associated with a political party—usually accompanied by a negative view of an opposing ideology or party. For example, the conservative ideology of highly partisan Republicans is typically not only opposed but denigrated by partisan liberal Democrats. Partisan dealignment is a process in which individuals become less partisan in terms of their support for the ideology or policy of a political party. This dealignment shows that short-term factors might play a larger role than usual in whether a candidate receives a vote from someone of their party.

Some examples of short-term factors that can contribute to partisan dealignment include greater political socialization and awareness, intensive mass media coverage, disillusionment both with parties and politicians and most importantly, the poor performance of government. Voters have also become more inclined to vote based on specific special interests such as immigration reform, reproductive rights, gun control, or the economy rather than voting according to a partisan party attachment.

Dealignment can also occur when members of a particular income or social class no longer support the political party with which their class has traditionally been aligned. In the United States, for example, lower-income working-class voters have traditionally supported labor-friendly liberal Democrats, while lower-middle and upper-income voters support business-friendly conservative Republicans. In this case, class dealignment would occur if members of the working class began to view themselves as lower middle class.

Similarly, class dealignment took place in post-1960s Britain when lower class people became more likely to obtain formal post-secondary education, a factor proven to be instrumental in getting professional jobs, reducing poverty, and consequently more shared affluence. As a result, many working-class voters who had traditionally voted for Labor Party candidates instead voted for Conservative Party or Liberal Democrat Party candidates.

A recent example of probable class dealignment in the U.S. was evidenced in the 2020 Presidential Election when populist incumbent Republican President Donald Trump lost the support he had enjoyed in winning the 2016 Presidential Election amongst wealthy fiscally conservative and socially moderate voters in the suburbs while making huge gains with Latino voters nationwide. While it was not enough to carry him to victory, Trump unexpectedly won counties in Miami-Dade County, Florida, the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, Los Angeles and the Imperial Valley in California, the Latino-heavy areas of New York City, and the Latino-heavy areas of Chicago and Cook County, Illinois.

Dealignment vs Realignment 

Certain identifiable groups in society, such as various socioeconomic classes, religious groups, or ethnic groups, have a general tendency to support the candidates of a particular political party over long periods. This phenomenon is called stable partisan alignment.

Dealignment occurs when significant numbers of voters abandon their established loyalties to their favorite party and become less partisan and more independent. They may vote for certain party’s candidates depending on the stance they take on various issues, or they may gravitate to another party, or they may switch back and forth between parties from one election to the next. Voters who move back and forth in this way are called swing voters.

Leaving the flock
Leaving the flock.

Andrii Yalanskyi / Getty Images

Under conditions of dealignment, it becomes more difficult for the major parties to produce long-term programs that will attract a long-term following. By having to make frequent shifts and revisions in their programs to attract increasingly fickle and unpredictable voters, parties find it harder to represent their constituents’ views in a stable fashion and support policy initiatives that may take many years to translate into effective governmental action. In short, party dealignment complicates the task of establishing responsive party government.

Sometimes the voters may change their habits even more radically.

In contrast to dealignment, party realignment takes place when a large block of voters that traditionally votes for one party massively shifts its support to a rival party and sticks with that party over prolonged periods, In the United States, for example, Southern white Protestant males were once solid Democratic voters. Since the 1970s, however, they have moved in large numbers to the Republican Party. While partisan dealignment means simply a loosening of traditional party loyalties on the part of individuals, realignment means an enduring shift in support from one party to another on the part of large social groups. Realignments represent major changes in a society’s electoral patterns.

Sources

  • Norpoth, Helmut. “Partisan Dealignment in the American Electorate: Itemizing the Deductions since 1964.” Cambridge University Press, September 1, 1982.
  • Särlvik, Bo. “Decade of Dealignment: The Conservative Victory of 1979 and Electoral Trends in the 1970s.” Cambridge University Press, July 29, 1983, ISBN-10: ‎0521226740.
  • Lawrence, David G. “The Collapse of the Democratic Presidential Majority: Realignment, Dealignment, and Electoral Change from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.” Routledge, March 14, 2018, ISBN: ‎0367318369.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Dealignment? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2022, thoughtco.com/dealignment-definition-and-examples-6287201. Longley, Robert. (2022, August 26). What Is Dealignment? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/dealignment-definition-and-examples-6287201 Longley, Robert. "What Is Dealignment? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/dealignment-definition-and-examples-6287201 (accessed September 26, 2022).