Political Parties, Social Movements, and Presidential Elections, 1896 and 2012

By Paul Burstein


Presidential election results, 1896 and 2012 (source: http://www.270towin.com)

Anyone who looks at maps portraying presidential voting by state for 1896 and 2012 can easily reach two conclusions. First, American politics is amazingly static. The country remained divided into the same two blocs of states: the South and much of the North Central Midwest and Mountain states on one side, and on the other side New England, the Middle Atlantic and midwestern industrial states, and the west coast.

Second, American politics is amazingly dynamic–the vast majority of the states in each bloc switched parties.

How can we explain this combination of continuity and change? Arguably there are two especially important forces at work–first, the economic and cultural interests and values that play a crucial role in every democracy in the developed world (and often elsewhere as well), and second, political entrepreneurs in political parties and social movements who sought to manipulate those forces for their advantage.

What interests and values matter most in politics? In their 1967 essay, “Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignments,” Lipset and Rokkan showed that as countries became democratic, their newly formed political parties most often represented social groups organized around specific economic and cultural interests and values. There were two economic divisions–between social classes, and between urban and rural areas. And there were two cultural divisions–between the dominant culture and minority cultures (often defined in terms of race or ethnicity), and between religious groups–in the West, between Protestants and Catholics, or between those who were religious and those who were secular. Parties that wanted to control the government had to build a majority–in a two-party system, by drawing social groups into one party, in multi-party systems, by forming coalitions of parties representing the largest social groups.

Lipset and Rokkan showed that once parties were institutionalized, their connections to social groups and parties tended to remain strong; in a two-party system, the winning party continued to win, the losing party to lose. How then could the minority party become the majority? Demographic and economic change could be crucial–the growth of cities, the working class, and particular religious, ethnic, or racial groups could help one party disproportionately.   But this was likely to happen slowly, and never automatically. Losing parties hoping to become winners need political entrepreneurs to reframe political conflict, sow divisions in the majority party, and attract groups of its supporters to their side.

Lipset and Rokkan focused mainly on entrepreneurs within political parties and paid much less attention to social movements. But now we know how important social movements–working with political parties–have been as sources of change.

Consider the plight of the Republicans at the beginning of the 1960s. The Democrats had controlled Congress almost continuously since 1932, and the Republicans had won the presidency in 1952 and 1956 only because their candidate was a war hero. If the Republicans were to move from minority to majority, they had to break up the Democratic coalition of social groups and win some over to their side.

Doing so has been a long process, and not entirely successful (partly because the Democrats had strategies of their own). Yet the Republicans have done very well, in ways remarkably consistent with Lipset and Rokkan’s analysis, with the addition of social movements into the mix. There have been four key conflicts.

First and most obviously important has been the struggle between the civil rights movement and the nameless but broad, pre-existing movement by whites throughout in the South, beginning immediately after the Civil War, as the Ku Klux Klan, White Citizens’ Councils, many other organizations, and vast numbers of local mobs, sometimes working with state and local governments, intimidated African-Americans through economic pressure and violence.

In the South, on their own, African-Americans had no chance of winning civil rights, but the large-scale migration of blacks to the North beginning in World War I, and their gradual movement into the Democratic party starting with the New Deal, led to the nationalization of the conflict–and to a problem for the Democrats. The Democratic party had become home to two groups that hated each other–southern whites and African-Americans.

This was a great opportunity for the Republicans–if they could win one of those groups, they might be able to return to power.

But which group? The Republicans did the math–a lot more votes were to be found in the white South. With the Dixiecrats in 1948 and Goldwater in 1964 showing the way, Nixon’s “southern strategy” worked. The South ceased being solidly Democratic and became solidly Republican (see Miller and Schofield 2008 on changes in the Republican and Democratic coalitions).

The second conflict was religious. As the enmity between Protestants and Catholics declined and white Catholic ethnic groups successfully assimilated, the Lipset-Rokkan model foresees two prospects. Religion could cease to be a major force in American politics (as in some religiously homogeneous European countries), or a new divide could appear, between the more traditionally religious, and those who were less so, or secular.

The U.S. has gone the second route. In response to the Supreme Court’s decision banning mandatory prayer in public schools, the decline of traditional sexual morality, the rise of the women’s movement, Roe v. Wade, and other forces, white evangelical Protestants who had previously been relatively quiescent began to organize, most famously during the 1970s under the rubric of the Moral Majority, and then through the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and other organizations. They fit naturally into the Republican party, which had long been disproportionately Protestant and, as the new organizations proclaimed themselves, conservative. The evangelicals provided the Republicans not only with voters, but with activists. Conservative Catholics began to move into the Republican party as well, motivated partly by religious traditionalism and partly by what they saw as Democrats abandoning them in favor of African-Americans and other minorities.

The third conflict is cultural, based in ethnicity and race as well as religion. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 led to an influx of non-white, sometimes non-Christian legal immigrants. Illegal immigration has similarly altered American demography. The Tea Party and other movements that rose to prominence after the election of President Obama were traditionally conservative in some ways–favoring small government and lower taxes, for example–but seem to have been motivated in large measure by hostility to American minorities, to legal immigrants seen as racially, ethnically, or religiously objectionable, and to illegal immigrants. Social and cultural anxiety about those who were different enabled Tea Party supporters to influence some elections and the views of Republican elected officials (Parker and Barreto 2014).

Finally, the fourth conflict: the cities versus the countryside. The non-Southern states that now vote Republican are disproportionately rural–for example, Montana, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oklahoma. They have lower per-capita incomes and a higher percentage of Protestants than most other states outside the South, and are more homogeneously white. It makes sense for majorities in those states to vote for the party that they think will defend them against forces diminishing their importance in American life.

The rise of the Republicans has been induced, in substantial measure, by Republican leaders working together with social movements to win over social groups fearing a loss of cultural dominance and economic power. The states that were in 1896 defined by their fears of domination by big-city economic interests, of racial equality, and of cultural change, remain in a kind of defensive stance in today, and have moved together from one party to the other. (Why the other states moved in the other direction is a topic for another post.)

Even if the Democrats do relatively well this year, what are they doing to counter the Republicans over the longer term? Social movements aligned with the Democrats lack, so far, the partisan appeal needed to match the Republicans. Where might Democratic political entrepreneurs of the future direct their attention? What about the white working class–so much a part of the Democratic coalition at one time, so much discussed for decades, having moved so much into the Republican camp? Can no one figure out a good way to appeal to them? Or do not enough Democrats want to?



Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Rokkan, Stein. 1967. “Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignments,” in Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan, editors, Party Systems and Voter Alignments. New York: Free Press.

Miller, Gary, and Norman Schofield. 2008. “The Transformation of the Republican and Democratic Party Coalitions in the U.S.” Perspectives on Politics 6:433-450.

Parker, Christopher S., and Matt A. Barreto. 2014. Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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