RACE, RELIGION AND PARTISAN REALIGNMENT
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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)
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
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).
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).
Sixth Party System
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)
of the Seventh
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.
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).
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:
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.
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)
Greg D., "Abortion: Evidence of an Issue Evolution," 41:3 American
Journal of Political Science, July 1997, pp. 718-737.