One of the ongoing topics of discussion in the wake of the election is whether we are experiencing a “political realignment”, a long-term shifting of power from Democratic to Republican hands that mirrors the shifting of power in the other direction that occurred in 1932. Out of curiosity, I dug up figures on the political balance of power in the House, Senate and Presidency from 1860 through to the present.

For the sake of illustration, I divided the time periods up into 2-year chunks. I designated each chunk as Republican-Controlled (GOP controlled the House, Senate and Presidency), Republican-Leaning (GOP controlled two out of three), Democrat-Leaning (Democrats controlled two out of three) or Democrat-Controlled (Democrats controlled all three). Marking the four types as “R”, “r”, “d” and “D”, the period from 1860 through 1931 looks like this:


The overall Republican dominance is pretty obvious. The immediate post-Civil-War period is arguably an aberration because many Southern states were still undergoing reconstruction and were not represented in Congress or allowed to provide electors for the Presidency. But even if we start counting in 1876, when Reconstruction ended, we get:


A period of back and forth until 1896, followed by a long span of Republican control broken only by Woodrow Wilson and the Progressives between 1914 and 1920 (a period when the GOP fractured itself with the Bull Moose insurgency of Theodore Roosevelt).

Things changed dramatically in 1932. From 1932 through 1980, the balance of power looked like this:


The Democrats had power during this time in a way they never really did in the 1860-1931 period. The sharpness of the switchover coincides with the Great Depression.

The 1980-2008 period (projecting forward and assuming the GOP doesn’t lose control of Congress in 2006, which seems a reasonable assumption) looks like this:


Something definitely changed around 1980. But the balance of power doesn’t look like the hard switchover we saw in 1932; it looks more like the 1876-1931 line — a time of mixed control slightly favoring the GOP that then pushes over to a period of hard GOP dominance. Laying the timelines together makes Bill Clinton look kind of like Grover Cleveland: a relatively conservative Democrat elected in a time of increasing Republicanism. And if George W. Bush really is analogous to William McKinley then the Democrats may be looking at at least another eight to ten years in the relative political wilderness.

(Note, though, that as with the stock market past behavior is no guarantee of future performance.)

2 Responses to “Political Realignment”
  1. Tom says:

    Kyle –

    Haven’t the parties swapped large components of their ideologies, even while retaining their names? (Being stuck in Dixie I know this is true for local issues, but my history is too dusty to be sure about national issues. Or was the post-1860 limitation to control for that? Mr. Hicks would probably be sad…)


  2. Kyle Haight says:

    The post-1860 limitation was just to make it easy to compare the Republican party to the Democratic party; prior to 1860 there really wasn’t a Republican party on a national scale. Actually figuring out party affiliations gets a bit tricky when you go earlier than that. There are a number of sessions of Congress that are just divided between “Administration supporters” and “Opposition” candidates, or between “pro-Slavery” and “anti-Slavery” candidates. And then there was the Era of Good Feelings.

    You are correct that the platforms of both parties have changed substantially over the years, as have their bases of regional support. The Democratic party of 1944 doesn’t look much like the Democratic party of 2004. The American electorate has also changed a lot over these time spans.

    (I think there’s an argument to be made that the current Democratic party is in the process of turning into the Green party, and the current Republican party is in the process of turning into the circa 1960 Democrats. As a small-government type, I don’t much like this development.)

    Still, the facts I was gathering weren’t intended to track shifts in ideology or policy, just the relative levels of control of the political parties as organizations. What if anything this means in terms of policy and ideology is a different (if related) and more complex problem.

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