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by Jo Freeman

Published in We Get What We Vote For ... Or Do We?: The Impact of Elections on Governing, ed. by Paul Scheele, Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999, pp. 167-190.

Sex, race and religion are primary sources of partisan conflict in American politics. Race and religion are themes of long standing. Their guise and their proponents change from era to era, they coincide and collude with sectional and economic cleavages, they emerge and recede as dominant topics of public debate; but whatever form they take, race and religion have been crucial components of our political conflicts since the country's founding. Sex, more specifically the role of women and how it affects relationships between the sexes, is a theme that emerges only sporadically and manifests itself less directly than the other two. Since the rise of the contemporary feminist movement in the late '60s, the importance of sex has increased until in many ways it is a dominant, albeit understated, theme in current partisan contests. This conflict has largely been one of feminism versus antifeminism, seen most explicitly in the polarization of the two major political parties around issues raised by the feminist movement. However, sex as act as well as gender is also important as evidenced by the acrimonious debates over abortion and homosexuality. Since attitudes toward feminism strongly coincide with attitudes towards these issues, and in many ways provide the ideological basis for the pro-choice and pro-gay rights position, sex and feminism can be treated as a single theme.
Sex, race, and religion are fundamental to politics for two reasons. First, they define the communities in which people live. For race, and to a lesser extent religion, these communities are homogeneous; those in them constantly have their values and attitudes reinforced by others like themselves. Common communities are conducive to political consistency. Since women usually live with men, this is clearly not true of sex, though it is more true of homosexuals. Sex is only a sporadic theme, emerging only when structures or institutions are created which bring women together on a regular basis. The emergence in the last 20 years of a gay and lesbian community which is also politically conscious and willing to organize to elect sympathetic public officials may give sex the permanence of race and religion.
Second, ideas about race, sex, and religion embody fundamental values, and consequently are a source of conflicts over values even among members of the same race, sex, or religion. These values go to the heart of what we mean by culture. When they are threatened or attacked or even challenged the response is far more ferocious and obstinate than in the "normal" politics of who gets what, when and how. As a "nation of immigrants", founded by religious dissidents and political malcontents who brought many different cultures to our shores, our politics has often required us to channel and contain cultural conflict, to "civilize" it. Indeed some of our most exalted principles, such as the separation of church and state, or "that government is best which governs least", are the result of trying to keep cultural conflict out of politics. But for most of our history cultural conflict has been an underlying theme, whether it stays within the boundaries of electoral politics or spills over into direct community conflict.
The meaning of "race" has varied throughout our history. In today's popular parlance race is used almost exclusively for "blacks" and "whites," and sometimes "hispanics". "Racial" issues are those of particular concern to African-Americans, or reactions to African-Americans, though occasionally other groups identified as minorities, such as Native Americans and Asian Americans, are included as well. Whites, like blacks, are referred to as a single race, but this is of recent vintage. Previously, groups we now call ethnics -- Irish, Italians, Jews, etc. -- were viewed as distinct races. Here, race will mean what it meant in the historical period referred to. Politically, the common element in the attribution of race is community. Identifiable races live in common communities where they share institutions, values, information, and viewpoints. Members of these communities often practice the same religion and the same politics. Over time, most "races" have integrated into the larger American polity as their members dispersed geographically and economically. The more they disperse, the looser the community ties, the less important race is as a determinant of identity or political views. Thus most of the "races" of the 19th Century are merely ethnic groups today.

The cultural and political impact of our three major religious traditions -- Protestant, Catholic and Jewish -- has not been equal or even. Each religious group brought different values which were initially resisted then gradually layered on top of that which came before. Our cultural foundation is Protestant, the lasting legacy of the initial immigrants. (Herberg 1955, 94). The Irish immigration of the 1840s and 1850s brought a fervent Catholicism, whose building blocks did not sit well on the Protestant base. The Jewish wave was last and smallest, adding decorative touches more than basic cultural themes, except for New York City where the cultural influence is considerable. Jews were met with intolerance as Catholics before them, but as they have assimilated a subtle shift of belief has ensued from one that ours is a Christian culture to one that it is Judeo-Christian. The impact of other religions has not yet been widely felt.
Religion has always been a major source of community and identity for most Americans, with important differences in religious practices, socio-economic status and attitudes. Catholics were urban, voted Democratic, and joined labor unions. Nineteenth Century Jews were merchants and voted Republican; those who came or were born in the Twentieth Century shifted to the Democratic column. Protestants were predominantly rural, and outside the South voted largely Republican. (Herberg 1955).
As important as the three traditions have been as creators of values, the smaller units were the crucibles of community. Protestantism in particular has always been deeply divided by denomination, so much so that "religion" will be used here to mean differences in denomination as well as tradition. Indeed the black Protestant church is really a fourth tradition; the formation of separate black churches, and then denominations, began after the Revolutionary War and accelerated after the Civil War. (Niebuhr 1929, 253-259). The black and white Protestant churches have diverged so widely that black Baptists have more in common with black Methodists than with white Baptists.
In the post WWII era there has been a striking increase in secularism -- that portion of the population that doesn't identify with any major religious tradition, even when raised in one. There is no "secular" community, and secularism by itself is not an equivalent identity to a religious one, but "seculars" do share values as do members of religious bodies. The rise of secularism has had major consequences for both religion and politics.
In the Nineteenth Century men and women lived in separate worlds, even while sharing their homes. As prosperity created a middle class, the number of women grew who had sufficient leisure and education to work together in many movements. By the end of the century women had created a vast network of women's clubs concerned with individual and community improvement. The community of women formed by these groups, and the attitudes and values many shared, eventually made the movement for woman suffrage more than a radical idea pursued only by a few. For much of the Nineteenth century, the separate spheres of men and women created separate political subcultures, in which men engaged in electoral politics and women that of moral reform. (Baker 1984) However, in the 1880s, and particularly in the 1890s, women began to move into political parties, aiding men in the election of candidates. Their organizations were separate from men's, but not their politics.
After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, women's groups went in different directions and were often bitter opponents. For many reasons, feminism slid from the public agenda. It was revived in the late 1960s and 1970s, when a new feminist movement emerged and painstakenly created new organizations and communities of women (and some men) to alter women's role and enlarge their opportunities.

Party Systems and Electoral Realignments

In its 200 year history many different political parties have been active in one or more of the United States. But, with occasional exceptions, there has always been a national two party system. Contenders for public office have organized themselves into two competing ideological traditions.

"Each of the two ideological traditions has given rise to a series of major parties in American national politics; [one] to the Federalists, National Republicans, Whigs, and modern Republicans, and the [other] to the Antifederalists, Democratic-Republicans and modern Democrats."

Political scientist Jim Reichley calls the first the party of order because it prioritizes "public order and economic growth" while the latter is termed the party of equality because it favors "economic and social equality." (Reichley 1992, 4-6).
Although concerns with order and access (equality) have been constants in party history, concerns about the role of government have not been. Until the civil war, the party of equality was dominant nationally though not in every region; between the Civil War and the New Deal, the Republican Party prevailed as the vehicle through which economic growth and public order was sought; since then, the Democratic Party has mostly governed. In each of these three eras the dominant party favored stronger national government. Whichever party, or tradition, is in power, is the one which favors the institutions through which it exercises power.
The two ideological traditions have always incorporated many communities, interests and associations within them, some as active participants in the parties and some only as voters. They have not always been the same ones. Different interests, or blocks of voters sharing similar characteristics and views, emerge, grow and decline. The size of the effective electorate changes as the eligible population increases and voting rates rise or fall. Sometimes a voting community moves from one party to the other. These shifts, when permanent, alter a party's base -- the coalition of interests on which it depends and which write its fundamental policies. Alterations in voting patterns may lead to an electoral realignment -- that is a shift in which party wins elections, or some elections, in different locales. (Sundquist, 1983, Chapter 1). Sometimes the electorate realigns gradually and sometimes quickly; some realignments have been durable and some only temporary. (Campbell 1966; Burnham 1970; Sundquist 1983). These realignments may cause a redistribution of power between the parties, reinforce and solidify an existing distribution, and/or give rise to new parties, but they do so within one of the two main traditions.
Realignments occur when new cleavages in the electorate attain political saliency, or when changes in the size and composition of the electorate alter the impact of existing cleavages. Our pluralistic polity always has cleavages, but not all are important to everyone, and not everyone votes. Realignments reflect changes in major cleavage patterns. Generally new cleavages are superimposed on old ones, with some otherwise identical voters voting the new and some the old lines of partisanship. Many decades later, old cleavages fade from importance.
A durable distribution of partisan power is called a party system or electoral system. Political scientists generally agree that there have been at least five such systems in our national history, but disagree about further ones. (Burnham 1970, 135). The breaking points between these five party systems were roughly: 1828-32, 1856-60, 1892-96, and 1928-36. The transition between national party systems has usually been sudden, taking place over one or two "critical elections", though there is some disagreement on exactly how many elections are necessary to complete a transition. (Key 1955, 3-4, Kleppner 1987, 18, Burnham 1970). Because no critical election marked the end of the fifth party system, while the others ended abruptly, no consensus exists on whether or when it ended. There was also no critical election between the first and second party systems, though there is agreement that a seismic shift occurred.

A Brief History of the First Five Party Systems


The first party system was more one of factions among the founding elites than a true party system. Nonetheless, the "revolution of 1800" as Jefferson called it, marked the emergence of parties in American politics. (Sisson 1974, 11). Initially parties were driven by issues and events, rising and falling with electoral crises and displaying little institutional continuity. While meetings and caucuses selected candidates, participation was limited to "respectable" men and organization was from the top down. The "spirit of party" radiated a suspicion of corruption. This period also saw the decline of the Federalists as a national party, leaving the Democratic Republicans as the dominant -- sometimes the sole -- party outside of New England. (Formisano 1981).
Serious competition reappeared in the 1820s, initially within the one major party. By the 1930s the extension of suffrage through the abolition of property qualifications and the addition of several new states led to the formation of mass parties with complex and continuing organizations. The public attitude toward parties softened. During the second party system, lasting from roughly 1828 until the eve of the Civil War, partisan competition became the accepted way to elect public officials, and party conventions, local and national, became the primary means of selecting party candidates. Although several parties ran candidates in the 1830s, by the 1840s the traditional division had reasserted itself; groups allied in two major coalitions (Whigs and Democrats) contested elections in all states but one. Nationally there was a two-party system; organizationally, parties remained state and local affairs. Even after the Democrats elected the first national party chairman in 1844 and the first national committee in 1848, their primary task was to elect the party's ticket; the national officers did not run the party between elections. (McCormick 1966. Formisano 1971, 1981, 67. Shade 1981).
In the first party system, region, religion, and to a lesser extent race, were the major sources of party loyalty. Region often coincided with economic interests, but those interests were particular to the region rather than a reflection of the relative wealth of those within a region. Most voters followed their racial and religious peers in deciding their party allegiance, though these allegiances were affected by local politics and might differ from state to state. Congregationalists and Episcopalians were Federalist, as were Quakers except in New England; Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians were not. Older immigrants, e.g., the English, generally favored the Federalists while the newer ones, e.g. Germans and Scots Irish, did not. (Formisano 1981, 60-66. Shade 1981, 102. Reichley 1985, 177-82).
The second party system was shaped by the new immigrants. "[M]ost, being social and economic outsiders, were attracted, at least at first, to the party of equality. The great majority of Irish Catholics, as well as other Catholics and most Germans, Lutherans, and Reformeds became Jacksonian Democrats." Competition for jobs fanned an existing anti-Catholic prejudice, which, fed by "Protestant intellectuals and divines," frequently erupted in nativist violence. This persuaded some Protestant religious groups to shift to the party of order. (Reichley 1985, 183-8. Shade 1981, 102).
The second party system collapsed into Civil War; the third party system was built upon its ruins. Slavery split both major parties in the 1850s, but the Whigs did not survive.

"The Whigs' underlying problem was that their alignment with the moral program of northern Protestantism, a principal source of the political dynamism they briefly enjoyed in the 1840s, brought them into collision with the institution of slavery, thereby antagonizing and alienating their own southern wing," while the Democrats managed to unite all of the outsiders -- cultural, religious and sectional. (Reichley 1992, 107).

This opportunistic alliance allowed the Democrats to survive, but shifted the balance of power to the party of order. The new Republican Party, founded in 1854, elected its first President in 1860 and dominated national and northern politics for the next seventy years.
The Civil War fractured traditional alliances. Many Protestants who had supported the Democratic Party's egalitarian emphasis left because it would not take a stand against the evil of slavery. The new party they helped form combined support for economic growth with a strong stand for moral order and saw government as a means to attain both of these ends. The third party system created some strange alliances. The party of equality ruled in the South, where it was the defender of white supremacy, while the Republican Party brought under its banner both the champions of industrial capitalism and those of social justice. Partisanship was still a function of region, religion and race, but these had shifted. The sectional cleavage dominated. In the South, the freed slaves were gradually disenfranchised and with them the Republican Party. The rest of the country had a slight Republican majority but it was not evenly spread throughout. In three New England and four Midwest states the Republican Party dominated; in the rest statewide elections were closely contested with wide variations within each state. The primary cleavage outside the South was religion; Catholics were Democrats, most Protestants were Republicans. (Kleppner 1981, 124). Partisanship was strong and many state and national races were very competitive; outside the South 75 percent of those eligible to vote did so -- more than in any era before or since.
The third party system was not static; it was molded by Reconstruction and then retrenchment in the South and immigration, externally and internally, elsewhere. The puritans who had been Federalists in New England took their values with them as they pushed the frontier further west and brought more states into the Union. Where they settled the Republican party flourished. As the puritans moved west, European immigrants replaced them in the major cities of the East and Midwest. (Kleppner 1979, 198). They could become citizens after five years but could often vote before that; many states wishing to increase their population allowed the foreign born to vote upon filing a declaration of intent to become a citizen. (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1975, 1068).

"Immigrants from each European nation generally joined the party advocated by earlier immigrants of their nationality, the Germans, Scandinavians and Italians usually allying themselves with the Republican party, and the Irish, Greeks and other southeastern nationals with the Democratic party." (Catt and Shuler 1923, 1926, 161. Kleppner 1981, 132).

During this period the country was undergoing vast economic changes, industrializing and pushing the frontier of development further West each year. While the major parties fought at the national level over free trade versus the protective tariff, the most bitter political battles were local ones over the schools, use of English, the control of liquor, Sunday blue laws and other cultural issues. Minor parties flourished in the third party system because the major parties, whether in one or two party states, did not articulate many of the interests which the conflicts of the day generated. Indeed it was the inability of the third party system to channel conflicts between economic groups, by providing clear programs and choices, that led to the populist revolt and the critical elections of the 1890s. (Kleppner 1981, 127. Burnham 1981, 152).

The third party system ended with a crash -- literally. The Democrats had the misfortune to be in control of the White House and both Houses of Congress when the economy collapsed in the Spring of 1893. Northern voters punished the party as the "party of hard times". (Kleppner 1987, 97-107; Burnham 1981, 160; Sundquist 1983, 149). Even before the Crash of '93, distressed farmers of the West and South had organized a new People's Party (populist) to articulate their demands. It recruited from the Democrats in the South and the Republicans in the West to protest the exploitation of agricultural producers by the industrial capitalist barons of the Northeast. When William Jennings Bryan was nominated by the 1896 Democratic convention, and then by the Populists the next week, the Democratic Party's Eastern wing bolted. Bryan's agrarian radicalism and "free silver" campaign drove the urban Democratic voters into the arms of the Republican Party. Although Bryan tried to draw a new faultline between the "monied interests" and the "common people", industrial workers did not identify their economic needs with those of agricultural producers. Even New York City voted Republican for the first time. (Goldschmidt 1972, 520-532). The votes the Democrats gained in the sparsely populated West were more than offset by the losses in the urban East and Midwest. (Kleppner 1987, Chapter 4). Furthermore, the gains were temporary, the losses were permanent.
The fourth party system saw growing one-party dominance everywhere and Republican party dominance nationally. Sectionalism flourished, involving "the virtual destruction of the Republicans as an organized political force in the ex-Confederate states and a parallel and almost as complete a destruction of the Democrats throughout large areas of the North and West." (Burnham 1981, 164. Schattschneider 1942, 113, 115). Democratic national elites disintegrated, leaving power in the hands of state organizations and urban machines. While the national parties continued to debate the tariff, changes in the role of women, control of alcohol use, the use of law to regulate working conditions and political parties were fought out on the state level.
As the cities grew, the conflict between the urbanizing East and the rural West and South which precipitated the fourth party system became an urban/rural conflict that was intra- as well as inter- state. Increasingly populated by immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, the cities were perceived as an alien presence in need of control. This polarization had religious overtones. The frontier churches of the previous centuries -- Methodists, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, were now the religious homes of the rural population while the churches of the earlier elites -- Episcopal, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Unitarian -- had urban congregations. The immigrants, coming from eastern and southern Europe, were mostly Catholic (and Jewish in New York City), but they mostly did not vote. Nor were they represented in the state legislatures. It was 1964 before the Supreme Court required that legislative districts represent "one person, one vote." As the cities grew, members of the state legislatures increasingly represented acreage rather than people. Thus while there were many battles between urban and rural interests, especially over the use of tax dollars, they were not necessarily partisan ones.
The fourth party system ended as it began -- with a crash. The 1929 drop of the stock market, and the resulting Great Depression, caused voters to turn on the ruling Republican Party in 1932 as they had turned on the Democrats almost forty years before. But these voters were not the same voters who had voted Republican in previous decades. The Depression and the Roosevelt candidacy mobilized new voters who had been ineligible or uninterested in voting during most of the fourth party system. The first decade of the century had seen the largest wave of immigration ever known; by 1930 most had become citizens and their children had reached voting age. When foreign immigration was restricted after World War I blacks and poor whites continued to migrate from rural, especially Southern, areas to more urban manufacturing centers, though not to the same ones. (Andersen 1979. Henri 1975, 50-59, 68-69). Southern blacks went North, and Southern whites went West. These states didn't have the high barriers to voting common to the Southern states. The consequence of high foreign immigration and high birth rates before World War I and rapid internal immigration afterwards was that the American population shifted from one living on farms to one living in small towns and large cities. Most of the new voters in 1932 lived in cities. (Lubell 1956, 31-42).
The dominant cleavage of the fifth party system was class. Class had not been absent from previous party systems. By and large, the Democratic Party had spoken for the working man while the Republican Party articulated the ideals of the growing middle class. But the Depression elevated class consciousness over other divisions. "Put crudely, the hatred of bankers among the native American workers had become greater than their hatred of the Pope or even of the Negro." The major policy clashes were over the use of federal law to regulate business practices, the protection of labor unions and the right to organize, and the creation of and payment for various welfare programs. With Roosevelt's encouragement, labor unions increased their influence every decade and class consciousness "suppressed racial and religious antagonisms." (Lubell 1956, 49). Even blacks saw their loyalty to the party of Lincoln fade in favor of the party that addressed their economic concerns.
During the fifth party system the Democratic Party became even more a coalition of cultural, ethnic and economic minorities, especially those living in cities. Catholics remained Democratic, Jews became more so, while additional Protestants shifted to the Democratic column, especially unionized industrial workers in the cities outside the South. (Burnham 1970, 59; Sundquist 1983, 214-224). Outside the South the Republican electoral base remained in the small towns and rural counties, particularly among Protestants, the better educated and the wealthy. The shift of working-class white Protestants into the Democratic fold was not uniform throughout the nation. White Protestants in the Northeast were more likely to stay Republican than elsewhere. At the same time Catholics moving into the middle class and the suburbs began to vote Republican. Nonetheless, the great partisan divide between Catholics and Protestants continued until at least the 1960s though the regional and class cleavages left the Republican Party with only a minority of the regular voters in most states. (Ladd and Hadley 1978, 54-57).
The politics of class created the fifth political system and the politics of race ended it. This transformation was not as sudden as prior ones. Political scientists didn't even notice when the fifth party system ended, steeping themselves in debate over why there was no critical election, and whether this lack meant a realignment had or had not occurred. Only with hindsight did the changes that happened between 1964 and 1972 become evident, and it was among political elites more than among the electorate that a partisan realignment occurred. (Wilson 1985)

Elite Realignment


Electoral realignments are not the only kind. Elite realignments occur when political elites, particularly elected officials, change their votes, or their positions on issues, so that the partisan distribution of issue positions changes as well. "Elites" refers to those persons occupying influential roles or offices in our political system. A change in voting patterns does not necessarily mean that specific individuals changed their votes or their views, though it may. It may also mean that new people are elected to important positions who hold different views, or at least vote differently. It may also mean that individual office holders changed their parties rather than their views. Whatever the cause, elite realignments result when the partisan distribution of votes, or positions, on clusters of cognate issues changes significantly among political elites.
Elite realignments are much more frequent than electoral realignments. Elites (at least the ones who vote in the legislatures and write the party platforms) make many decisions on discrete issues and make them directly. Voters make few decisions -- only about which people will occupy which positions in the political elites -- and their impact on policy is indirect. Many factors go into a voter's decision on whom to support for each office, but it is unusual for any single issue, or even a cluster of issues, to be definitive. Mass realignments require issues that are very simple, highly salient, and sharply polarized by party. This is rare.
Elite realignments can have major effects on public policy. Like electoral realignments, significant changes in partisan voting patterns by those entrusted with the power to make policy shape the policies that result. Even when the major parties do not have strong disagreements over the general direction of a proposed policy, which party takes the lead affects the outcome because the Democratic and Republican Parties have distinct political cultures. Each party culture is partially derived from its separate tradition and the priority it gives to order or equality. And it is partially dependent on the groups in its coalitional base, which shift over time and may change with new party systems. (Freeman 1986). These cultures shape activity within each party, as well as the policies each propounds. Thus which party supports what issues and how it does so is significant for the development of public policy in any given policy arena.
Elite realignments have received little attention because the conventional wisdom among both political practitioners and political scientists in the middle of the 20th century was that differences between the Republican and Democratic parties were no more than tweedledum and tweedledee. Each party sought to appeal to the center because that was how to get elected; public office was viewed as an end in itself, not a means to effect policy changes. (Schattschneider 1942, 86). This search for the center was reflected in the national platforms which, while they differed occasionally, generally followed each other's lead in supporting issues that seemed successful in a previous election. (Polsby and Wildavsky 1984, 258-59). While competition for the center was disparaged by some as depriving voters of a real choice, others realized that it reflected the centrist position of most voters themselves. Indeed studies regularly showed that party activists held positions "further out" than party voters. (McClosky, et. al. 1960, 406-27). Elected officials, on the other hand, were assumed to vote the way their districts wanted them to vote, most of the time.
When one looks at the votes of those elected officials since World War II, however, party competition for the center, at least on issues of race and sex, is revealed as illusory. In fact, the parties were switching sides. Throughout the third, fourth and most of the fifth party systems, the Republican Party was the party of racial progress. For all five party systems it was also the party of women's rights -- much more receptive than the Democrats to women enhancing their role in society. In part, Democratic votes were weighed down by the South, which was always more conservative on issues of "sex" as well as race. And in part they were determined by its class and religious components, which were also more conservative on these issues than those of the Republican Party. But the social bases of both parties were changing. After WWII the children of the working class went to college, acquiring more liberal attitudes on issues of race and sex, while orthodox members of all religious traditions began to look to the Republican Party for leadership. In the 1960s party votes in Congress converged on race and in the early 1970s they converged on sex; then they diverged in the opposite direction.
The most documented case of elite realignment was done by Carmines and Stimson who analyzed party platforms and Congressional votes on racial issues over a 40 year period. During WWII black civil rights was put on the national agenda. In response to organized pressure, anti-discrimination clauses and Fair Employment Practices provisions began to see legislative light in bills and Executive Orders. Because of Southern Democratic opposition, Republicans collectively were more likely to vote for these provisions than were Democrats. Sometime in the late 1950s partisanship began to decline; the votes taken during the early sixties did not appear to follow a party line. However, by the late sixties party once again becomes a predictor of how an MC will vote on racial issues, but this time it is Republicans who are more likely to be racial conservatives. (Carmines and Stimson 1989).
Why and how this switch occurred is too complex to discuss here; the Republicans did not become segregationists as the Southern Democrats had been and all of Congress voted more liberally on racial issues. (Carmines and Stimson 1989, 117). But the fact that the issues had changed, as well as many of the MCs who voted on them, does not obscure the fact that on this highly salient issue, the political elites had realigned. The Democratic Party, including the Southern bloc, became the home of racial liberals.
A similar switch happened with sex, but it is harder to chart because there were fewer relevant roll-call votes and they were taken over a longer period of time. However, the Equal Rights Amendment is one of those few. There were three clusters of recorded Congressional votes the ERA. The first cluster occurred in the Senate in 1946, 1950 and 1953. The 1946 vote was a simple yes or no, and the record shows more Republicans in favor than Democrats. (2 Congressional Quarterly, July-September 1946, 568).

1946 ERA vote
  Yes No
Republican 23 10
Democrat 15 24

In 1950 the simplicity of the issue was clouded by opposition maneuvering which added a rider that gutted the Amendment. In 1953 the same rider was added. Members of both parties voted for the ERA, knowing that it would be recommitted to committee. Nonetheless, even with the rider, many Democrats still voted against the ERA; indeed all but one "no" vote on the ERA was by a Democrat. (6 C Q Almanac 1950, 539. 9 CQ Almanac 1953, 386).

  1950 ERA With
Hayden Rider
  1953 ERA With
Hayden Rider
  Yes No   Yes No
Republican 30 0   42 1
Democrat 33 19   31 10

The ERA stayed in committee for almost 20 years. When it was voted on again in 1970 some of the Democrats who had fought it in the 1950s continued to vote and speak against it. They were few in number, but because they had so much seniority they could speak loudly and carry big sticks. Again crippling amendments were added and the ERA allowed to die, but it was revived the following year and passed in the next Congress. More important, the votes in all three years -- 1970, 1971 and 1972 -- did not show a partisan pattern. (27 CQ Almanac 1971, 68-9 H. 28 CQ Almanac, 1972, 17-8 S). The final votes were:

  1971 Final
House ERA Vote
  1972 Final
Senate ERA Vote
  Yes No   Yes No
Republican 137 12   37 6
Democrat 217 12   47 2



The third set of ERA votes occurred in 1978. After only 35 of the 38 states necessary to ratify it had done so within the seven year limit, Congress voted to extend the deadline. There were several votes in both houses on amendments and cognate issues. All showed a partisan pattern, but it was clearest in the final vote which passed the extension. (34 CQ Almanac 1978, 64-5 S. 34 CQ Almanac, 1978, 176 H).

  1978 Final
House ERA Vote 
  1978 Final
Senate ERA Vote
  Yes No   Yes No
Republican 41 103   16 21
Democrat 186 85   44 15

The party platforms show a similar convergence, cross-over and polarization on issues relating to sex. Until 1972, the Democratic and Republican party platforms manifested similar attitudes toward women, but the Republican party tended to lead in adopting a feminist position on new issues. For example, the ERA was endorsed by the Republicans in 1940, but the Democrats delayed doing so until 1944. The ERA was removed from the Democratic Party platform in 1960, deliberately by its foes, but inadvertently, due to lack of attention, from the Republican Party platform in 1964. In 1968 the GOP gave "sex" an honorable mention in a plank expressing concern for the disadvantaged; the Democrats left women out altogether. Women reappeared in both party platforms in 1972, with similar statements, including support for the ERA. By 1976 the parties diverged again when the Republicans opposed a woman's choice (to have an abortion). By 1980 the divide widened as the ERA was removed from the Republican Party platform. Since then the parties have polarized sharply on all issues touching on women, sex and the family. Instead of seeking the center, the national parties are staking out distinct ideological territories.
Endorsements by party leaders also switched sides. The first major party Presidential candidate to support the ERA was Thomas Dewey in 1944. The first three sitting Presidents to endorse it were Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford. In the Presidential primary races of 1968 every major party candidate except Robert Kennedy supported the ERA, though none campaigned for it. Carter was the first Democratic President to publicly declare his support; by 1976 it was impossible to seriously run for the Democratic nomination if opposed to the ERA. By 1988 no serious Republican candidate could support it.
Elite realignment also manifests itself in changes in party affiliation by party leaders and elected officials. Some very prominent Southern Democrats became Republicans, including Strom Thurmond, John Connally, and Phil Gramm, as did Ronald Reagan, but before he ran for office. Abortion had an even stronger realigning effect on politicians' positions than race or the ERA. George Bush once supported Planned Parenthood; Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton were pro-life until they got the Presidential bug. They changed their positions to court voters in their parties. Politicians who were no longer running for office were less likely to change positions. For example, Barry Goldwater remained pro-choice; abortion was not on the public agenda when he ran for President in 1964.
On racial issues, the cross-over point in Congressional voting was 1964, the year a milestone Civil Rights Act became law. Republicans and Democrats worked together to pass this law, but the Republican Party candidate for President, Barry Goldwater, opposed it. He was not a segregationist; he believed in less government regulation, especially federal government regulation. African American voters never forgave him, voting heavily for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and more heavily for subsequent Democrats.
On sexual issues, the cross-over point was between 1970 and 1972. There were no roll call votes in Congress on women's issues between 1953 and 1970, so an earlier change would be harder to identify, though there may have been illuminating votes in state legislatures. The addition of "sex" to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was done by a teller vote of the House in a Committee of the Whole. However, Rep. Martha Griffiths (D. Mich) told an interviewer many years later that the "yes" votes came from Southerners and Republicans -- the latter apparently saw it as a surrogate for the ERA. (Brauer 1983, 51. Freeman 1991). There were many votes on bills to improve the status of women after 1970. Without going into the details, the initial votes lacked obvious partisan leanings, but they diverged radically by party over time.
One of the most divisive issues of the last 25 years has been abortion. Republican commentator William Kristol wrote in 1997:

... abortion is today the bloody crossroads of American politics. It is where judicial liberation (from the Constitution), sexual liberation (from traditional mores) and women's liberation (from natural distinctions) come together. (Kristol 1997, 32)

Party polarization on abortion can be charted through Congressional votes. Adams' examination of 176 House and Senate rolls calls from 1973 through 1994 shows that in the Senate Democrats became more pro-choice over time while Republicans became more pro-life. Unlike the Senate, Democrats in the House were already more pro-choice than Republicans in 1973; they became more so over time. One cannot see the crossover in partisan voting patterns because there were no Congressional votes on abortion prior to the crossover years for issues of "sex" (1970-1972). However, an examination of state legislative votes in the 1960s, when states were debating liberalization of abortion, might well show a greater Republican affiliation for the pro-choice position. (Adams 1997).


The answer to why party elites change positions before the voters that elect them is to be found in the internal dynamics of each party. Between elites and masses is an important strata of party activists, who donate time and money to elect their candidates, and are particularly active in the primaries and caucuses which select each party's candidate. This cadre is often interested in issues and involved in interest groups and social movements. They push politicians to support their causes, and push into becoming politicians those who share their views. Surveys of delegates to party nominating conventions have shown that their views diverge from the center more strongly than party elites or voters. It is this internal cadre that has provoked elite realignment. (McClosky 1960, Wilson 1985, Freeman 1993, 1998).

The Sixth Party System

During the time that elites were realigning, the voters were also changing, but not as dramatically as they had in 1928-32. Political scientists noted that fewer and fewer were identifying with either major party; they tended to vote for persons rather than party, particularly at the top of the ballot. Thus a search for the expected electoral realignment resulted in questioning of the entire theory of realignment, at least as something that reoccurred periodically, and to an attempt to understand why the voters were dealigning. (Shafer 1991)
My own interpretation of this is that there was in fact a change in party systems in the sixties and seventies. The fifth party system, in which class was the major line of cleavage, gave way to the sixth, in which race, or more specifically views on racial issues, was the dominant division. Like previous cleavages, it didn't replace class, but was superimposed on top of it. Political elites were in the vanguard of this change, signaling to their followers as much as following their direction. The result was a rolling realignment, which started at the top, and in some sections of the country, slowly worked its way down through the electorate. (White 1985).
Even though this realignment was not like the big three, one can still describe the characteristics of the sixth party system. Its chief attribute was ticket splitting, in which voters tended to vote Republican at the top but continued their habitual votes for Democrats at the bottom. However, this habit was waning. More and more voters declared themselves to be independent, and many began to vote differently than their parents did. While traditional ties to party loosened everywhere, this was particularly evident in the South. The 1968 Presidential candidacy of George Wallace served as a transition for Democratic voters to the Republican Party. As the years wore on more and more conservative Democrats voted Republican further and further down the ballot. At the same time, more educated voters were switching to the Democratic Party; since education correlates with income this confounded the tendency of the more wealthy to vote Republican. A gender gap appeared in which women, particularly unmarried women, voted Democrat, while white men leaned to the Republicans. African American voters continued to vote Democratic, but women were more likely to do so than men. Since the Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act brought them back into the Southern electorate from which they had been largely excluded during the 20th Century, they swelled the ranks of the Democratic Party, replacing Southern white elites who were moving into the Republican Party. The movement of Southern whites into the Republican Party made their voting patterns more like those of Northern whites; as the sixth party system matured, the Civil War cleavage was closing.


Seeds of the Seventh

In the meantime other lines of cleavage were opening up: sex, or more specifically attitudes toward sex, gender and family, was emerging as a major source of partisanship. So was religion. However, the new line of religious cleavage was not between Protestants and Catholics, but between traditionals and progressives with the latter significantly augmented by seculars who don't practice any religion. To a great extent groups holding similar views on issues of sex and religion coincide. Traditionals on one are also traditionals on the other, as are progressives. While this is not surprising, what was new was the politicization of sex, the repoliticization of religion, and the polarization of the parties along these lines.
Partisan polarization is following the "realignment of American public culture" described by Hunter in Culture Wars (1991). As a sociologist who studies religion, Hunter documented the development of the "pragmatic alliances" being formed between the orthodox wings of Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism on the one hand and the progressive wings of these "faith traditions" on the other in their effort to influence public culture. The "orthodox and progressive factions of the various faiths do not speak out as isolated voices but increasingly as a common chorus. In this, the political relevance of the historical divisions between Protestant and Catholic and Christian and Jew has largely become defunct." The progressive wing of organized religion has been joined, and often led, by a growing group of secularists, who, while often raised in a particular faith, as adults adhere to none. "[They] are disproportionately well educated and professional and are found most commonly in the larger cities of the Northeast and West." Their growth was fed largely by the enormous expansion of higher education after World War II. By 1982, they were 8 percent of the population. (Hunter 1991, 47, 75, 105).
The roots of this cultural realignment can be traced back many decades but until the 1960s it was confined to intellectual elites. The social movements and events of the 1960s radicalized the generation then attending or just out of college. Their experiences taught them to "question authority" -- a popular slogan of the sixties -- and this questioning in turn made them receptive to progressive and secular ideas. By the 1970s a backlash was gathering steam, stimulated by policies which it found reprehensible, such as busing and abortion, and behavior it deemed subversive and unAmerican, such as opposition to the Vietnam War. Those who adhered to traditional practices, values and morals slowly allied in opposition to those who would change them.
According to Hunter,

The central dynamic of the cultural realignment is not merely that different public philosophies create diverse public opinions. These alliances, rather, reflect the institutionalization and politicization of two fundamentally different cultural systems. Each side operates from within its own constellation of values, interests, and assumptions. At the center of each are two distinct conceptions of moral authority -- two different ways of apprehending reality, of ordering experience, of making moral judgments. Each side of the cultural divide, then speaks with a different moral vocabulary. (1991, 128. Italics his).

During the 1980s the cultural divide became a partisan divide, at least on the national level. Feminism was not the cause of the cultural divide though it contributed a great deal to its growth. However, it was the driving engine of partisan polarization. While race was the lead mare of the progressive team, sex was the wicked witch that spurred the opposition. Abortion in particular was a realigning issue because it merged concerns about changing sex roles and the consequences of sex acts and gave them a political basis. The 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing most abortions shifted the weight of governmental authority away from what religious conservatives felt to be the morally correct position. (Sullivan 1998, 49-50). By 1980 feminism had put on the public agenda issues which in 1960 had not been considered political and it had compelled the major political parties to take (opposing) stands on issues which in 1970 had not been considered partisan. It did this by redefining the scope of the political. As Thompson, Ellis and Wildavsky pointed out in their book on Cultural Theory:

the type of behavior or institution that is deemed political, or whether a boundary is even drawn at all, is itself a product of political culture. ... the study of political culture ... should pay special attention to the ways in which the boundary between political and non political is socially negotiated. (Thompson, Ellis, and Wildavsky 1990, 215)

Contemporary feminism declared that "the personal is political." This became a frame of reference which redefined the boundary of politics. Its value was soon recognized by women who were part of the highly educated, progressive culture, and they persuaded the men in that culture. Once the personal was acknowledged as political, feminism could expand beyond ending legal and economic discrimination into enhancing women's autonomy and addressing how women were treated inside the family. In effect, this expansion of the political legitimated as proper concerns of public policy practices which had traditionally been considered non political or relegated to the jurisdiction of the family. The growth and partisanship of the right wing was a response to this threat.
Four events have been identified as triggering the political organization of social conservatives and Christian evangelicals, two of which were explicitly feminist issues, and another of which involved sex. (Zwier 1982, 23-27). The first was the January 22, 1973, decision by the Supreme Court which legalized most abortions. Some pro-life groups had existed prior to Roe v. Wade in states with liberalized abortion laws, but the Supreme Court's stamp of approval on a woman's right to privacy on the grounds that a fetus was not a person under the Constitution was so repulsive to a particular stratum of American citizens that it crystallized opposition all over the country.
The organization of the religious right capitalized on the framework created by the right-to life movement but not until after its leaders were themselves convinced that political action was necessary. Ironically, it was the successful candidacy of a Democrat, Jimmy Carter, himself a born-again Christian, which accomplished this by legitimating political activity for Protestant evangelicals who had traditionally thought of politics as corrupt. When Carter subsequently supported efforts by the IRS to remove the tax-exempt status of private religiously oriented schools unless they were racially integrated it created a storm of protest. This furor persuaded Congress to deny the IRS funds for implementing its order and convinced evangelical ministers such as Jerry Falwell of the efficacy of organized protest.
A third triggering event was the growth of the gay rights movement in the seventies. One organization in California, Christian Voice, was created to oppose a 1978 ballot proposal to protect homosexuals against discrimination. Because the IRS threatened the tax-exempt status of their churches if they engaged in political activity, several ministers formed a separate political organization.
The fourth triggering event was the Equal Rights Amendment, the opposition to which also provided an organizing framework on which the New Right could capitalize. Phyllis Schlafly is often given credit for single-handedly stopping the ratification of the ERA, thought a "sure thing" when it emerged from Congress in 1972. However, Schlafly could not have so rapidly mobilized an opposition had not an infrastructure of sympathizers already existed. The language of the ERA is quite tame -- "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged ... on account of sex" -- but its implications were not. Social conservatives read into the ERA everything they feared about the emerging women's liberation movement, and what they feared most was women's autonomy from the traditional patriarchal family, which they held to be the basic institution of society.
These triggering events persuaded practitioners of evangelical denominations that they could not ignore politics. One result was the formation of the Moral Majority in 1979, the largest and best known of the New Right religious organizations, at the urging of secular conservatives such as Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich, Howard Phillips and Terry Dolan. They convinced Jerry Falwell to form a political organization to mobilize Christian evangelicals for Ronald Reagan through the use of mass mailings and the electronic church. (Zwier 1982, 9-10, 27-32. Viguerie 1982, Chapter XI).
While Jerry Falwell abandoned the Moral Majority in 1987, it was soon replaced by the Christian Coalition, built by televangelist Pat Robertson from the supporters of his losing 1988 Presidential bid. Aided by a $64,000 grant in 1990 from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, by 1994 the CC claimed 450,000 members in a thousand chapters in all 50 states. Using what former executive director Ralph Reed, Jr., described as "stealth" tactics to avoid the stigma attached to religious activism, by 1994 it had taken over the state Republican Party in eighteen states and exercised substantial influence in another dozen. (Persinos 1994, 22-24).

The strength of the Christian Coalition in the Republican party was based on growing support from evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics for the Republican Party. Throughout the sixth party system many voters in both groups were switching their votes from Democrats to Republicans. In 1960 most had been Democrats -- especially those living in the South or in the lower SES ranks. By 1992 a majority were Republicans, and a super majority of those regularly attending church. Catholics, who at one time were virtually all Democrats, were also switching. Barely a majority were Democratic identifiers in 1992; less among those regularly attending church. On the other hand, mainline Protestants still identified with the Republican Party but by 1992 were more likely to vote Democratic. Those professing no religious allegiance (seculars) were also moving into the Democratic fold. As Kellstedt, et. al., said in 1993 "these trends suggest that a new kind of party alignment may be in the making: a division between religious and non-religious people rather than disputes between religious traditions." (Kellstedt 1993, 2, citing Green and Guth 1991, 207).
These changes can particularly be seen in the shift in party identify by attitudes toward abortion, as revealed in the annual General Social Survey from 1972 to 1994. Adams found that the Republican masses had more liberal attitudes than Democrats toward abortion prior to 1988 and less so afterward. (Adams 1997). The move of pro-lifers to the Republican Party followed that of elites by several years, consistent with White's concept of a rolling Republican realignment, and with the active efforts of Christian evangelicals to mobilize their followers into the Republican party. (Green 1999)
The Congressional elections of 1994 reflected a cumulation of many of these trends. Overall, the gender gap was eight percent; more women voted Democratic and more men voted Republican. This was augmented by marital status; the gap was four percent between married women and men, and 14 percent between the unmarried. Blacks and Hispanics strongly favored Democratic candidates, women more so than men; whites less strongly favored Republicans. As expected, the Democratic Party commanded a majority of votes among the less educated and those with lower family incomes, but also among the most highly educated. This combination reflects both the class cleavage of the fifth party system and Democrats' newer gains among the most educated voters. The gender gap was sharpest at the extremes; women were more likely than equivalent men to favor the Democrats at the lowest and highest educational levels. Those identifying as born again Christians voted Republican by 76 to 24 percent. A majority of Catholics still voted Democratic, but at 52 percent it was the lowest Democratic vote in over a decade. (New York Times, November 13, 1994, 24).
By 1996, the outlines of a seventh party system were taking shape. The Democrats kept the Presidency and the Republicans kept the Congress, with many voters unwilling to commit to either party wholeheartedly. The gender gap widened to 11 percent; men and women essentially chose different Presidents. Even among blacks, who are still the most Democratic of voting groups, there was a decided gender gap. The gap was biggest among independent voters, and between unmarried men and women, but present as well in Democratic and Republican party identifiers, and married couples. Sex differences in voting patterns spread to other elected offices. (New York Times exit poll analysis, November 10, 1996, 28). Although the Democrats staged a slight comeback in 1998 -- unusual in a non-Presidential year -- these outlines did not change. The overall gender gap in House races was seven points, it was larger among blacks than whites, and nonexistent among hispanics. Class, as seen in family income, is still a partisan divide but it is mitigated by education, and enhanced by union membership. White Protestants (but not black) lean Republican while Catholics lean Democratic and Jews are second only to blacks in their Democratic loyalties. The gender gap remained large among the young and the unmarried, but narrowed somewhat between independents. (New York Times exit poll analysis, November 9, 1998, A:20). After several elections it has become evident that sex, like race, has become an established electoral cleavage. But it is not only the fact of sex and race, but attitudes towards sexual and racial issues, which constitute the real divide.
While it is not clear which, if either, party will be dominant in the seventh party system, the coalitions are solidifying and the issues over which major battles will be fought are crystallizing. With the demise of the cold war foreign policy issues are less partisan. Economic concerns are still important, but social issues are the most divisive. (Sullivan 1998, 48). The sharpest conflicts are those which combine economic and social issues. While the extent of government regulation motivates some political elites, it is who is regulated for what purpose that motivates ordinary voters. Fights over welfare policy and affirmative action have some economic characteristics, but they are really about race and sex.
The composition of the two major parties has changed, but not drastically; each has retained its basic flavor. However, the changes that did occur have accentuated differences that were submerged in the fifth party system when class concerns were dominant. The Democratic Party is still the party of minorities and marginal groups, but it is particularly the party of racial minorities and of those who espouse feminist views on women, the family, and the regulation of sexual activity. It is no longer the party of Catholics, though it is still of Jews. The Republican Party is still the party of order, and still overwhelmingly Protestant, despite the presence of more Catholics. But it has completely forsaken its Progressive tradition. Instead it has become the party of traditional "family values" as expressed by the practitioners of evangelical denominations. While these practitioners are still a minority of the national party, they are strong enough to veto who can be on the Presidential ticket, and thus what views Republican nominees espouse. They can also determine the Republican nominees in many state and Congressional districts. In each party groups reflecting sharply polarized views on "feminism" and "family values" are strong enough to veto party policy. (Freeman 1993, 1998).
After two decades of party polarization, the "culture wars" have become "party wars". Consequently, the seventh party system promises to be very acrimonious. Partisan competition is being transformed from a mere fight for office into a surrogate civil war. Each party, and its candidates, are carriers of a conflicting cluster of values in which the winner gets to decide the role of government, or each of the many governments in our federal system, in promulgating those values. The partisan politics of the Twenty-first century will be more like the Nineteenth than the Twentieth. Culture, not class or economics, will define the great debates. (Shafer 1985)



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