The Great Realignment: Understanding Politics Today

For many it seems as though we are living through a time of political breakdown and chaos. In many democracies, established parties are losing votes and declining as political forces. This particularly affects the social democratic center-left but has started to affect the mainstream center-right as well. Everywhere there is success for new insurgent forces and parties, usually described as “populist.” Most of these, such as the Rassemblement national in France (RN; formerly the Front national), the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany (AfD), or the Sweden Democrats (to give just three of many examples) are described as “radical right,” but there are also insurgencies from the radical left such as Podemos in Spain. In the UK there was the 2016 Brexit vote, seen everywhere as a popular revolt against the establishment, while the United States has seen the election of Donald Trump and the rise of a radical left in the Democratic Party.

Most observers see all of this as both unexpected and new or unprecedented. There has already been a significant literature describing it and trying to make sense of it. Most of this tries to explain the political upheavals in terms of something called populism. This is broadly defined as a kind of politics that sees society as divided between a homogeneous and pure “people” and a corrupt and even malevolent “elite.” The implication of much of this is that things such as the election of Trump or Brexit or the rise of parties like the AfD and RN are a kind of emotional reaction by disaffected voters, one that will dissipate once the cause of their disaffection (about which there is disagreement) has been dealt with.

All of this misconceives what is actually going on. What most developed democracies are experiencing is a realignment of politics. This is a process in which the one or two major issues that define political identities and divisions change. As a result, old alliances and voting patterns break down and new ones emerge. People who were once opponents become allies and vice versa. This reflects changes in the substantive divisions of interest and sentiment in society, shifts in the balance of power among social classes and within the class of political investors and donors, and changes in what primarily concerns both voters and the politically influential. Realignments of this kind occur regularly in most democracies, typically on a generational basis—every 40 years or so—and thus this kind of upheaval is not unprecedented or novel. While it is true that many of the new parties and politicians have a populist rhetoric and style this is not a core feature of the phenomenon of realignment itself; rather it reflects the nature of the emerging division in politics and the current situation. As such it will not persist, but neither will it fade away. Rather we will see a move to a new and stable political alignment in which the ideas associated with populism now will become one of the two major poles of political debate while the populist style diminishes.

What though is a political alignment? At any time there are many issues that divide people, over which there is debate and argument. There are many different ways in which positions on these questions can be combined. So one person might for example be opposed to abortion, also hostile to the death penalty, and a supporter of free markets, while someone else could be a supporter of free markets, in favor of the death penalty, and relaxed about abortion. There are potentially almost as many combinations of positions on the range of issues as there are voters. However, actual politics always has a binary quality with two broadly defined sides or camps. In countries with a first past the post electoral system these will be two large parties while in a proportional representation system there will be many parties, but these will be grouped into two broad coalitions. There is no system where voters elect individual representatives who then form shifting coalitions on an issue by issue basis.

This reflects two fundamental realities. The first is that stable and effective government requires stable and coherent bodies of politicians and voters who remain together long term. The second is that the fundamental division in politics is that between being in power and out of power, which is always a binary one. How though is the binary division achieved? The answer is that while there are many disagreements and divisions there are always just one or two that are particularly salient: that is, they are important to large numbers of people and matter to political investors. These are the aligning issues, and people tend to align themselves with or against others on the basis of the views they take on those aligning questions.

This means that broad coalitions often disagree internally on minor issues but their members discount those disagreements because they share a position on the main, aligning issues. It also means that with time their views on the other issues tend to align, even when there is no logical reason why they should—for example, there is no reason why support for free markets should necessarily go along with enthusiasm for capital punishment, but in many times and places this has been the case. Typically there are just two aligning issues, with one of those two the primary issue and the other secondary (sometimes there are as many as three, but this is exceptional). This leads to a quadrant with four broad groups of votes reflecting the four possible combinations of views on the two aligning issues.

However, political alignments (or “dispensations” as some call them) do not last forever. Eventually one or both of the aligning issues loses its salience and ceases to matter as much as it did. This can be because of a decisive victory for one side, or because people simply stop caring about it in large enough numbers. So in mid-Victorian Britain relations between Church and State and the position of the established church was one of the two principal aligning issues but this was no longer the case by the 1890s. At this point a new aligning issue arises, reflecting the actual divisions of power, interest, and sentiment in society. This will often cut across previous divisions, and so all kinds of political alliances and voting patterns are disrupted. This is a realignment, which typically lasts for anything from four to fifteen or sixteen years. Once it ends a new and stable alignment has formed, which then lasts for another thirty to forty years. Historically realignments in many countries involve party splits and recombinations, or the appearance and rise of new parties and the replacement of old ones. We can clearly see this in early realignments in the United States, such as the one between 1852 and 1860, or the earlier one between 1820 and 1828. Sometimes, however, a realignment takes the form of an abrupt transformation of a political party so that although it has the same name and even many of the same personnel, the ideology it stands for and its voting coalition undergo a radical change. This is particularly true of realignments in modern first-past-the-post systems that make the rise of new parties difficult.

In most developed democracies including the UK and United States, the last realignment took place in the 1970s. The primary aligning issue was that of the degree to which the government should intervene in the economy and support egalitarian redistribution while the secondary one was over how far the government should use its power and the criminal law to uphold a particular set of moral norms and rules. This produced four broad blocs of voters, of which two were dominant and the “poles” of that alignment. One pole combined support for egalitarianism and state intervention in the economy with support for social liberalism (an assertion of private judgment and independence in the area of morals and conduct), while the other pole combined support for a free market approach in economics with social conservatism and a role for the government in enforcing moral rules. We may describe these two groups as liberals and conservatives in the U.S. lexicon and as social democrats and free market conservatives everywhere else. The two “homeless” blocs were, firstly, consistent libertarians (opposed to active government in both areas) and, secondly, consistent authoritarians, who favored government authority in both. For various reasons the second group of “homeless” voters were not competed for but ignored and taken for granted, while the first group were the crucial swing voters. The result was a gradual move towards the moderately anti-government position on both issues.

This division, which could be found in most democracies (there are exceptions such as Japan), has now broken down. We are now seeing the emergence of a new aligning issue. What though is it, and what is driving its emergence? The question of the economic role of government retains its salience, and in fact we are seeing a revival of argument around that topic and a clear movement away from the free market pole of that axis. However, the second issue has been transformed. The question now is not so much that of social conservatism versus social liberalism. Instead the key issue is that of identity, and in particular the tension between globalism and cosmopolitanism on the one hand and nationalism and ethnic or cultural particularism on the other. This is often described as a polarity between “openness” and “closedness” and has been noticed in most contemporary democracies (Spain and Portugal are the major exceptions). Increasingly this new aligning issue is becoming the primary one and is supplanting the economic division (which as said persists) as the big political division.

This new alignment again produces four blocs of voters. One, which has already clearly emerged in most countries, may be described as “national collectivists.” They are nationalist and patriotic, anti-cosmopolitan and anti-globalism; they are economic nationalists and support an active economic role for government and a large and generous but strictly national welfare state; they are cultural traditionalists and (often) social conservatives, and they support traditional ideas of identity, particularly masculinity and femininity. Alongside them are the free market conservatives who we may describe as national liberals—their philosophy could be described as “capitalism in one country.” This is an increasingly unstable position politically, and this group is facing a squeeze from several directions.

The other two blocs are currently in a race to see which emerges as the main alternative to the “national collectivists.” The first and in most countries the largest group may be described as “cosmopolitan liberals.” They are broadly free market, strongly cosmopolitan and globalist, socially liberal, and egalitarian. The second are the radical left. They are strongly in favor of an interventionist economic policy, also strongly globalist and cosmopolitan, but also committed to a kind of radical identity politics. All of these four blocs have shared sociological features and are often geographically separate as well, which makes their political significance greater. The “national collectivists” are typically older, white, often working class, and people who have not attended university, while the radical left and liberal cosmopolitans are typically younger, university educated, and more affluent or professional. The national collectivists are disproportionately found in rural areas, small towns, and ex-industrial areas while the “cosmopolitan liberals” and radical left live in major metropolitan areas. University education in this case is a proxy for a related division, which is position in the meritocratic labor market and the degree to which people work in sectors that are globally competitive and traded.

From this perspective current upheavals make sense. Social democratic parties everywhere are in trouble because they have two quite different kinds of voter that are very difficult to combine into a voting coalition. Center right parties face increasing challenges because they are losing voters to both national collectivists and emerging groups of liberal cosmopolitans; this can be seen very clearly in France for example. What we are seeing everywhere except Ireland, Spain, and Portugal, is the emergence and increasing success of national collectivist parties. These often start off with a “capitalism/free market in one country” program, but the usual pattern is for a sharp move towards a more statist and dirigiste one. At the moment these parties have a populist style or rhetoric. This however is not essential to their identity: instead it reflects the position arrived at by the end of the last alignment and the nature of the division alluded to above. By the 2000s there was a true consensus among the political and media classes around a kind of politics that emphasized cosmopolitan ideas about culture and identity, so a politics that questions that will be seen as hostile to the elite because it has little elite support at the moment. The way that educational attainment is now connected to economic position via the meritocratic labor market means that the division between the “educated elite” and the rest has acquired much greater salience than in the past, and this also gives politics a currently populist cast.

Right now things are in turmoil, but we will soon see the emergence of a stable division. In most countries this will be between national collectivists and liberal cosmopolitans, but in some cases it will be between national collectivists and radical leftists. In some countries this realignment has already happened. Thus in Poland the basic split is between Social Forum (cosmopolitan liberal) and Law and Justice (national collectivist), while in France it is between En Marche (cosmopolitan liberal) and the RN (national collectivist).

What is causing this? The default explanation of many commentators is that this must derive from economic concerns and anxieties. The emerging national collectivist politics is seen as the response of angry left behind voters who have not benefitted from globalization. This suggests that their discontent can be assuaged, and the genie put back in its bottle, by appropriate economic policy. Deeper research shows that this is not the case. The work of people such as Eric Kaufmann in his book Whiteshift: Population, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities and John Judis in The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt against Globalization, suggests that the real underlying factor is a set of deep concerns and anxieties about identity and a feeling that the world is changing or has changed in a way that is disruptive and too rapid. Sentiments of this kind are much more difficult to address and may require much more difficult shifts in policy that will be (rightly) unacceptable to many. That means that the emerging division is likely to persist and will probably become the new primary aligning issue.

What of the United States? Here the realignment is well under way and will probably be complete in another four years. As has been the case since the 1860s the realignment will see the transformation of one or both of the major parties and large shifts in voting patterns. The Republican Party is clearly becoming an American nationalist (national collectivist) party, combining economic nationalism and government intervention to favor certain business interests, nativism, and foreign policy unilateralism. The Democratic Party will probably emerge as the cosmopolitan liberal party, supporting free trade and (broadly) free markets together with egalitarianism, foreign policy globalism, and support for immigration. This however will probably involve several splits and serious ructions. Interesting times.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Stephen Davies argues that political realignments are regular features of modern democratic politics. In them, some longstanding issues lose their salience, while others rise to the top of the heap. Because the world is increasingly networked, our realignments are likewise increasingly taking place in concert, Davies argues; he goes on to suggest that nearly the entire industrialized democratic world is currently confronting a realignment that turns it toward questions of populism versus globalization.

Response Essays

  • Francis H. Buckley argues that American nationalism is nothing like the European variety. American nationalists stand for liberty under law, not an ethnic state. Libertarians, however, cannot easily be nationalists, because nationalism implies solidarity with citizens while denying it to others. On the whole, however, American nationalism is benign, and we should welcome its return to our politics, which began with the 2016 election.

  • Jacob T. Levy agrees with Stephen Davies that conservatives have recently moved away from moralism and toward national identity. But Levy sees national collectivism as potentially quite durable, a prospect that he does not welcome. He notes that authoritarianism and racism seem to be everywhere in contemporary populism, and he argues that attention to constitutionalism among conservatives has largely disappeared.

  • Henry Farrell argues that political bitterness across the world arises from a common source: neoliberalism. Domestic politics has been “hollowed out” in that all the real decisions are made by corporations or bureaucrats. Politicians prefer to compete on symbolic, highly contentious issues that are unlikely to be resolved. Liberal cosmopolitanism is “toast,” Farrell writes, because it lacks any significant constituency. As to libertarians, he argues that they should expect even less.