Watching a documentary commemorating the fiftieth anniversary year of Robert Kennedy’s (RFK) tragic run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, I couldn’t help thinking back to a venerable (if also somewhat moth-eaten) political science theory of critical realignment. This theory refers to a national election that radically and durably alters the balance of power in our two party system.
According to one iteration of that theory, these elections tend to occur on an approximately 36 year cycle of presidential elections and manifest in one of three ways: a new party displaces one of the two major parties (as when the Lincoln Republicans, calling for the containment of slavery, completed the dissolution of the Whig Party in 1860); a major party reinvigorates its dominance by mobilizing new and existing constituents around a fresh set of policy issues (as when the Republican Party ushered in a new period of electoral success with the 1896 election of the industrial protectionist McKinley); and when dominance switches between the two major parties (as when Franklin D. Roosevelt won overwhelmingly the first of his four presidential terms in 1932).
Key features of critical realignments include a crystallizing issue, heavy voter turnout, and major and durable shifts in voter allegiance. Political scientists have noted that this phenomenon seems to have petered out with the fracturing of FDR’s coalition in the Sixties. The election of 1968 did not see the emergence of a dominant new party (George Wallace’s success as a third party candidate that year was fleeting), nor did it witness either a renewal of Democratic dominance or a switch to long-term Republican Party dominance (control of the White House and Congress has instead oscillated between the two major parties).
Would the U.S. party system have experienced a critical realignment had Bobby Kennedy avoided assassination and won election as the thirty-seventh president of the United States? It is a question that occurred to me as I watched video footage taken from Kennedy’s funeral train of the people spontaneously gathered along the rail lines in big cities and small hamlets to pay last respects to their martyred candidate.
As one of the Kennedy family friends riding that train noted, those forlorn folks represented Kennedy’s base—Catholics, people of color, blue collar workers, the poor.
Had he lived and gone on to run in the general election, he would have added to these groups the students and liberals who had flocked to Senator Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar candidacy, as well as the party bosses who were supporting the sitting vice-president Hubert Humphrey. And had he won the presidency in 1968 and made significant progress in achieving his stated goals—ending US military involvement in Vietnam, retooling LBJ’s efforts at poverty reduction, fostering a sense of solidarity among racial and generational groups—would that have been enough durably to boost voter turnout and cement loyalty to a more social justice-oriented Democratic Party for decades?
A lot of “what ifs,” I know. But watching the stasis of American politics over the last decades in the face of mounting crises on both the domestic and international fronts, it is consoling to think of a possibility (however remote) of the critical realignment that could have been.
M. Davout, an occasional contributor to Bracing Views, teaches political science in the American South.