American political scientists have spent much time over the past – well, 200 years, give or take – studying so-called “realigning elections.”

These are, generally defined, as an election in which an old order stunningly and dramatically gives way to the new. They don’t come along very often – think once every two or three generations, rather than every 30 years – but when they do happen, one sits up and takes notice. You can tell they happen because even casual observers of politics (and I don’t mean you, dear readers; you’re better informed than most) sit up and take notice of the monumental change happening before them.

As an example, take the U.S. presidential election of 1860. Just before this election, the Whig Party – a conservative, nationalist party that had earlier split off from the Democratic-Republican Party – was one of the two dominant parties in the country. They were akin to the Democrats or Republicans of today; the Republican Party can be linked to them historically and ideologically.

They fell apart over slavery, with anti-slavery Northern Whigs coming together to create the Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, like Lincoln, began his political career as a Whig. After a period of turmoil, this new party was able to successfully elect Lincoln as president, ushering in a new two-party system that has survived to the present day while contributing to the start of the Civil War in the process.

It is easy to see how that election busted up an old system and created a new one, but there have been precious few clear-cut examples since. Early in the years of our republic, while our political system was still developing, there were several examples on which scholars can agree. After the end of the Civil War, though, the major example of a realigning election about which there is little debate is the election of 1932, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt formed the New Deal coalition and redefined the Democratic Party in the process.

Another important possible example of a post-war redefining election is the 1994 midterms, when Republicans regained the majority in the U.S. House for the first time in over 40 years. Ever since then, U.S. politics has become increasingly defined in partisan, tribal terms.


This may be explained because the 1994 elections led to the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton in 1999 and the election of a Republican president in 2000.

The question we now face – and it is especially poignant to consider in light of the recent passing of President George H.W. Bush – is whether we will ever emerge from that partisan quagmire as a nation. Bush, to his credit, handled his 1992 loss with dignity and grace. He not only has since befriended his former opponent, but immediately after his defeat he left a kind note wishing him well that showed his respect for the institution of the presidency and the continuity of our government.

That’s an example that all of us – from both parties – should seek to follow today as we come together to honor his legacy.

That’s not to say there haven’t been multiple, substantial efforts to bring us all together since 1994. On the contrary, they’ve been ongoing and eternal in recent years, increasing in frequency and earnestness, but sadly not in effectiveness. They’ve ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, from real policy proposals to absurd and shortsighted political campaigns, but none of them have gotten anywhere.

Instead, we’ve only become more divided, not less.

Partisanship has taken over every aspect of our day-to-day lives, and serious issues facing this country have been left stagnant because of it. We’ve failed to address the opioid epidemic, climate change and the erosion of civil liberties – all issues that could have brought us together in years past. Rather than addressing those and other serious problems, they’ve become partisan punching bags or just been completely ignored by both parties except when it’s politically convenient.


If either party can develop a comprehensive, effective way forward on these or other issues that have been abandoned, they have the chance to dominate politics for years to come. Instead, by ignoring them, they leave open the possibility of another realigning election that sends them out to pasture, eliminating one of our two major parties – if that’s still even possible in today’s climate.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: jimfossel

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