Are we currently seeing another ideological realignment happening in today's unstable political climate?

Similar to how, in the years since the WW2 post-war period, the main political parties underwent an observable ideological realignment, which eventually led to the aforementioned changes in party affiliation.

Signaled by the election of Donald Trump, the rise in popularity of Bernie Sanders and the nationalist movements sweeping across Europe...

Is that sort of ideological realignment happening again?

I'm also curious what you might think about the impetus that created this ideological shift.

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    I would break this up into three questions:1) the first phenomena is well documented, as people age they become more conservative. That's been true for awhile. 2) Next I would talk about the Post WW2 shift (it actually dates to pre-Eisenhower) and was geographical, but ideological really on one side only. 3) Current situation. – K Dog Jan 12 '17 at 16:23
  • Admittedly, my question is more trying to get at whether it's happening today, but I thought that the preceding points would provide context to the question -- and subsequent answers. – holaymolay Jan 12 '17 at 16:29
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    Issues: a)"Today's political climate" is always "unstable": We simply are no longer worried by how unstable it was in the 80s or the 90s. b)Magnification effect: "Traditional parties" are still in power almost everywhere. c) Short time: You are comparing a supposed realignment that took more than twenty years (until LBJ Civil Rights Act? or even more?) with a supposed trend that is 4 or 5 years old. The human mind is very good at finding patterns, but sometimes it leads to finding patterns even if there is none. I do not think the question is answerable right now. – SJuan76 Jan 12 '17 at 17:15
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    I don't think it's possible to answer that question here until well after the fact, but I do not think any of the things mentioned in the question indicate a realignment. Republicans don't seem to have changed very much, but Democrats have become more pro-corporate and pro-war, having supported them for 8 years under Obama while he continued and extended Bush's policies. – J Doe Jan 12 '17 at 17:32
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    @KDog No, positions are things like "I support this trade agreement" and "I do not support prosecuting torture". Ideological shifts are just what I said, "becoming more pro-corporate and pro-war", they are the underlying trends behind the positions. – J Doe Jan 12 '17 at 20:18


I'll attempt to answer this question from a US perspective only, although similar realignments may be occurring globally. Basically the parties are both undergoing ideological shifts which are significant in my view, the Progressives are casting off their Hegelian roots, and Conservatives are departing from Buckley, Burke and Locke traditions. Incidentally, both have opted for deeply anti-intellectual (maybe post-intellectual?) ideologies in their places.


The Democrats are struggling with three contradictory, non-supportive ideological focal points, two of which represent divergences of progressivism, one of which is very recent.


As a point of departure, the Progressive movement started in the very early part of the 20th Century, but had it's intellectual roots in Hegel, Focault, and Marx (Marxism is to some extent watered down Hegelism). James Ceasar put it thusly:

The party was the carrier of the great progressive tradition that stretched back from LBJ and JFK to FDR and ultimately to the progressive intellectuals John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Charles Beard. These thinkers introduced the transforming idea of "social intelligence," a concept that demanded the continuous application of rational government planning, under the aegis of social science, to the ills of the modern industrial age. Social intelligence was intended to direct and accelerate the forward course of history. The conviction that progress was certain, so long as social intelligence was deployed, was the premise underlying the entire project. This way of thinking was largely intact in the 1960s, when hundreds of social scientists took leave from their universities to make the great trek to Washington to serve their nation and party.

You can also find the Hegelian traditions alive and well, for example, in the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Breyer

GEORG HEGEL was a German philosopher of the early 19th century. Hegel believed that history unfolds through a "dialectical" process, in which each stage is the product of the contradictions inherent in the ideas that defined the preceding one. Within these tensions and contradictions, Hegel believed, the philosopher can discern a comprehensive, evolving, rational unity. He called that unity "the absolute idea." History consists of an inevitable and progressive march to that idea.

Until recently it appeared that Marxism (which borrowed Hegel's dialectic but replaced "ideas" with economic systems and classes--hence "dialectical materialism") would represent Hegel's most enduring contribution to the modern world. But then Communism collapsed. Now it can be argued that Hegel's most enduring contribution is found in American constitutional law.

How did the metaphysical speculation of a 19th century German historicist, whose teachings were congenial to Marxists but are anathema to modern analytic and positivist philosophers--as well as proponents of the Constitution as originally understood--come to influence our constitutional law? The answer lies in the concept of the "living constitution"--and in the influence of Woodrow Wilson.

This flavor of Progressivism is still rhetorically alive today, as some of Barack Obama's and Bill Clinton's locutions, such as the "arc of history" attest. But as an animating and intellectual force it is largely spent. Consider Jonathan Gruber's role in passing Obamacare, a Progressive program cut from the same mold of those in the 1960s. In the Progressive tradition, the benefits of the program would have been debated forthwith and "social scientists" of that movement would have considered Gruber's assertion that the ACA was passed only because of the stupidity of the American voter to be something of an anathema.

Enter the rise of the New Left

James Ceasar (ed note, a professor of mine) does an excellent job of describing the New Left's ascendency and what they stood for:

For those in the party's mainstream, the revolt of the New Left and the "counterculture" came as an enormous shock. It was as if their own offspring had suddenly and unnaturally turned on their progenitors and set about mercilessly to devour them. The New Left called into question almost everything liberals had deemed to be progress: material well-being, American power, and especially the enlightened motives of the leaders of the American nation. Liberalism was part of the problem, not the solution. In the words of the movement's political manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, "What we had originally seen as the American Golden Age was actually the decline of an era." The moral disaster over which liberalism had presided, culminating in the Vietnam war, was so fundamental, so interwoven into the fabric of American life, that only a revolution could save us. The New Left married a deep pessimism about America to an unbounded optimism about the transforming power of revolution.

Those who look at the writings of the New Left today will find very little if anything that stands the test of time. None of the movement's intellectual luminaries, from Norman O. Brown to Tom Hayden to Charles Reich, can be counted a substantial thinker. Nevertheless, many leaders of the movement engaged in concerted argument--indeed, felt obliged in their political action to expose the theoretical problems of the liberal tradition and to advance their own ideas. Thought mattered to them. Their arguments evidently had an impact, too, as many liberal intellectuals succumbed before the theoretical onslaught. It turned out there was no theoretical position the liberals believed was true. The "best and the brightest" proved lacking in conviction, while the radicals were full of passionate intensity.

This split between the liberals and the radicals in the late 1960s and early 1970s cost the Democratic party its confidence, and the party has never been quite the same since. The New Left did not take over permanently, a task for which it was morally, intellectually, and above all politically unfit. Once it became clear--as it did in the 1972 election--that the majority of the American people had no sympathy for the New Left's cause, especially "revolution," the old liberal mainstream was in effect asked to step back in and serve as the public face of the party, and it did so in the persons of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

But the New Left didn't disappear. Renamed the cultural (or multicultural) left, it decamped from center stage and repaired to safer quarters in the universities, where it managed to carry out much of its program. Inside the Democratic party, it ceded actual leadership, but maintained an impressive power base and exercised enormous influence on the policy agenda. Usually, the old liberals found the cultural left too dangerous to embrace, but too powerful to resist.

The Democrat party has see-sawed ideologically from the failures of Progressivism evident in the failures of Vietnam, and the Great Society (and Communism generally) and the anti-intellectualism of counter culture, protest wing of the Democrats.

This position has been forcefully argued by some party intellectuals, most recently Michael Tomasky in a lead article in the American Prospect. "What the Democrats still don't have," Tomasky wrote, "is a philosophy, a big idea that unites their proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes into a vision for society." Even more disturbing to Tomasky, however, is that the party has lost the capacity to engage in this kind of thinking; its spirit is now anti-intellectual. "The party and the constellation of interests around it," he writes, "don't even think in philosophical terms and haven't for quite some time."

The Cultural Left or New Left finds it footing in Intersectionality

Intersectionality is defined by Wikipedia as

Intersectionality: Intersectionality (or intersectionalism) is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. An example is black feminism, which argues that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black, and of being a woman, considered independently, but must include the interactions, which frequently reinforce each other.

From Damon Linker Links in the original to several excellent source materials.

In the fierce post-election debate about how Democrats should respond to the party's astonishing electoral collapse at all levels of government, some have argued that identity politics is the problem, while many others (especially younger activists) have claimed it's the solution.

Those inclined toward the latter position would be well advised to read a recent New York Times story very closely. An account of growing rancor surrounding the planned Women's March on Washington (scheduled for the day after Donald Trump's inauguration), the piece demonstrates with admirable clarity how doubling down on identity politics — and especially the left's embrace of the trendy postmodern ideology of "intersectionality" — is likely to shatter the Democratic Party into squabbling factions even more vulnerable to a resurgent right.

I think it would be hard to debate that the ideology of intersectionality and identity politics is not the primary animating force among the Democrats today, and it's precisely that ideology that had ramifications in the most recent election.

Linker goes on:

It would be one thing if Democrats had reason to hope or expect that they would be saved by demographics. Ever since the "emerging Democratic majority" thesis was first floated more than a decade ago, leading liberals have been convinced that their side is bound to prevail as the country becomes less white over time and minority groups eventually combine to form a left-leaning electoral majority. In such a situation, a politics based on racial, ethnic, gender, and other forms of identity might make sense as a mobilization strategy.

The focus on identity politics and social justice does not appear to receding among the Democratic faithful and is being coupled and alloyed with socialism and progressive economic strains.


As the founding of the Republican party was dedicated upon the re-application of neo-liberal thinking of the Founders, especially the ideas embedded in the Declaration of Independence, the revival of GOP force as an intellectual movement in the 50s and 60s had those same ideas and moralities reapplied. Center to this move were Goldwater, as Brythan, states in another answer to this question. Also deeply involved were William F. Buckley, Hans Morgenthau (and his intellectual heir and collaborator Kenneth Thompson, also a professor of mine), Reinhold Niebuhr, the Chicago School of Economics, headed by Milton Friedman (and his heir Thomas Sowell), and the Austria economic leaders headed by Hayek. So the above thinkers represent most of the best of the ideological basis of the modern Republican movement until the present day, and it too serves as a point of departure.

Enter Brain Dead Conservatism* coined in the first article below

The first to notice an ideological shift in the party, way back in 2009, was Steven Hayward in a Washington Post Article and it presaged the coming of Trump.

During the glory days of the conservative movement, from its ascent in the 1960s and ’70s to its success in Ronald Reagan’s era, there was a balance between the intellectuals, such as Buckley and Milton Friedman, and the activists, such as Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, the leader of the New Right. The conservative political movement, for all its infighting, has always drawn deeply from the conservative intellectual movement, and this mix of populism and elitism troubled neither side.

Today, however, the conservative movement has been thrown off balance, with the populists dominating and the intellectuals retreating and struggling to come up with new ideas. The leading conservative figures of our time are now drawn from mass media, from talk radio and cable news. We’ve traded in Buckley for Beck, Kristol for Coulter, and conservatism has been reduced to sound bites.

This populism is just reactionary in the sense that it waits to get punched, and then punches back. The chip on their shoulders is evident. Hayward points to many other examples in his well referenced article.

Other examples of this phenomena that Hayward doesn't point out include:

Matthew Continetti, in Commentary:

Lately, though, it’s seemed as if the process by which William F. Buckley legitimized American conservatism has gone into reverse. . . As conservative media has proliferated, the authority of any one man or publication or radio show or television network has receded to the point of invisibility. For a time conservatism may have resembled the Catholic Church, with Buckley as pope, issuing bulls and ex-communicating heretics. But conservatism these days more closely resembles Islam, with untold numbers of mullahs issuing contradictory fatwas, with antagonistic schools of thought competing for adherents, with not a few radicals eager and willing to blow the whole thing up.

And Tevi Troy, in Politico

One of the most spectacular fissures of this already dramatic political season has been the messy, public divorce of the Republican intelligentsia from the party’s suddenly energized populist voter base. . .

It’s easy to lay the blame at Donald Trump’s feet (after all, it’s hard to imagine another Republican candidate of the last four decades rejecting National Review so cavalierly), but this year’s split between intellectuals and the rank-and-file GOP goes beyond the front-runner. In fact, neither of Trump’s remaining rivals, Ted Cruz nor John Kasich, is particularly cozy with the conservative intelligentsia. . . What’s really going on is that the ideas that the conservative intellectual community has been peddling for decades have failed to appeal to an angry blue-collar voter base. What worked in Reagan’s era just doesn’t work anymore, and Trump is simply exploiting the divide.

Whether or not this populist strain in conservatism is here to stay, or what will occur in the conservative party post-Trump is hard to say. One of the schisms in the party, the international adventurism of neo-conservatism that advocates nation building appears to be suffering considerably.

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  • I need to take some time to digest this @K Dog – holaymolay Jan 13 '17 at 17:29
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    This... doesn't even attempt to answer the question. – J Doe Jan 13 '17 at 19:04
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    @JDoe K Dog certainly answers my question... and he NAILED IT! Why? Because my question can't be answered by a soundbite. It requires historical context and thoughtful analysis, which is exactly what @K Dog has done here. And I appreciate this thorough and thoughtful answer. – holaymolay Jan 14 '17 at 1:14
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    Up allow for quoting Hegel, especially Marx. Didn't Marx say, "History repeats itself. First as a tragedy, second as a farce." Oh, well, the very farce is going wild. – user7598 Jan 14 '17 at 2:54
  • @KDog Ultra hard agree. lol. If you read Marx carefully, people with certain reason would realize he was not a communist, nor a "socialist" ( whatsoever that means " but core solid mega magnitude top notch capitalism promotor. He nowhere mentioned what kind of exactly the "communism" would be, my image is something like ape governing anarchy. ^^. – user7598 Jan 17 '17 at 15:34

An observer looking at the United States in 1964, would not have regarded Barry Goldwater as the winner. Yet his basic governing philosophy took over the Republican party by 1980. Also, after the landslide loss in 1964, who would have expected the Republicans to win five of the next six elections?

In 1992, Democrats won with just a plurality of the popular vote and had lost five of the last six elections. In 2000, most of the departing Democratic president's accomplishments were compromises with Republicans. In 2016, we're talking about Democrats winning a plurality of the popular vote in six of the last seven elections.

There are two separate paths before us. Trump could be very successful and win reelection in a landslide. Trump could be an utter failure and lose in 2020. Which will happen? Many speculate but no one knows.

Even if Trump wins, it's unclear what effect it will have. Bill Clinton won in 1996, but the centrists seem to have lost control of the Democratic party. Remember that it was Goldwater's loss that realigned the party last time. And that only after sixteen years. In between, a centrist Republican won election twice. And of course, someone might credit George Wallace's role in peeling off Democrats in the South.

In the last seven elections, we've only had a clear, majority winner three times (2004, 2008, 2012). Twice the popular vote leader lost the electoral college. Twice there was a three-way race with no one winning a majority of the popular vote.

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    This answer has much to commend to it, but Reagan was still an outsider in 1980, although an heir to Goldwater. It's almost silent on ideology however. – K Dog Jan 12 '17 at 22:31
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    While I can't argue with any of the facts you present, I'm unsure how this actually answers the question? – user4012 Jan 13 '17 at 17:59

That's the kind of thing you can really only see in retrospect.

The major USA parties do periodically go through realignments. The last one (arguably) happened between the late 1960's and early 1980's, when conservative white southerners switched to the Republicans, and the Liberal wing of the Republican party slowly migrated the other way.

(Note: One simplistic but useful way for people used to Parliamentary systems to look at the US system is that the major parties are like Parliamentary party coalitions, not parties. In typical Parliamentary systems, people vote for parties, and then the parties attempt to form a ruling government based on the amount of votes they got. In the US system what would be "parties" are unofficial, they form into 2 coalitions before the election, and then the voters decide which is the ruling coalition and which is the opposition. So this question devolves to "are the party coalitions changing"?)

The thing is, that last (sixth) realignment is still controversial, and it ended roughly 20 years ago. If people can't decide if that one happened, there's really no hope of a definitive answer for one speculatively going on right now.

I've seen a lot of talk the last few years about some new "Obama Coalition" existing, and alternatively talk this past cycle about blue-collar white voters becoming more Republican and white-collar whites becoming more Democratic.

The problem with the "Obama Coalition" theory is that the groups that comprise it seem to be the same alignment of voting blocks, just with a different emphasis. The racial makeup of the USA is changing, so it makes sense that the party coalition favored by the parts of it that are increasing would cater to those blocks' interests more. That's not a full-on realignment though.

The problem with the "Trump Realignment" theory is that when we look deeply at actual exit poll results for the 2016 election, not a lot of change was to be seen. Racial preferences have not changed a lot, and it appears that on election day the voters mostly voted like they did in 2012, with the exception that more Democrats simply stayed home in 2016.

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  • I agree that Trump doesn't actually signal an ideological change in the Republican party. Instead, I would say that Trump is more a message from the voters to the party itself, which says "fall back in line". – holaymolay Jan 13 '17 at 16:55
  • @brianjason that's an actual old saw: Democrats fall in love with their politicians; Republicans fall in line. – K Dog Jan 13 '17 at 19:37
  • @KDog - Well, this past election certainly did little to debunk it. – T.E.D. Jan 13 '17 at 20:16
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    @T.E.D. I don't think so at all. Did you know that for the 2 years leading up to Trump declaring his candidacy, he paid someone on his staff to listen to conservative talk radio? He did this because he wanted to know what really is important to the conservative Right. Trump won because his message was perfectly on point with what Republican voters wanted to hear. – holaymolay Jan 14 '17 at 0:15

While ideologies tend to change with each generation, it is my belief that the rate of technological advancements corresponds the shift in generational ideology. For example, many youth in the US find it absurd that Supreme Court justices use mail couriers rather than email yet interpret laws regarding cyberspace; like many other politicians, the same logic can be applied to many politicians since it is harder for older people to connect and understand the younger generation and their technology. This is visible in most, if not all, debates on net neutrality.

But more the point, these technological shifts change the way voters perceive issues and live their lives, and as a natural consequence, politicians must adapt. A good example of this was Hillary Clinton using old methods of propaganda (such as platitudes and failure to address controversy head-on) to win over voters; it backfired (along with many other reasons) whereas the outreach to voters from the Trump campaign can all fit on a bumper sticker. This appeals to a generation of people conditioned by technology (ex: phones, apps to skip ads, social media, etc) to have shorter attention span; coupled with lowered education standards (in regards to literacy and STEM), this enables a politician like Trump to exploit a vulnerability of a democratic system.

Perhaps the best example of this is the source of news for most people. Many work long hours and do not have time to keep up on current events. It seems today that news from one source contradicts news from another source. If two people google the same keywords, they will get different results based on their preferences. If team blue only gets blue news and team red gets red news, then both people are in a bubble accusing the other of being factually wrong. And given that TV media killed print media, it's harder to find universally accepted sources. The average age of a FOX viewer is 70 and the average age of an MSNBC viewer is 65. Most youth don't follow TV news; even Pewty Pie (unsure of spelling) gets comparable views on youtube playing video games than mainstream cable news! (For those that do not believe Russia hacked the DNC, this may partially explain why alternative media - such as Russia Today RT - is being labelled propaganda, as their viewership among youth has increased as cable news viewership is declining.) It seems relevant given that most youth get their information from youtube, online blogs, reddit, etc.

In places where the corporate media stranghold is not as powerful, changes unlike that in the US (and Britain with Brexit, France with the conservative winning over the relatively liberal incumbent, Germany with the rise in neo-nazi sentiment and immigration concerns, etc) are taking place. For example, the Pirate Party of Iceland, which was a third party not long ago, is now basically a major political party. Interestingly enough, a lot of Wikileaks work is done there, and their press freedoms and liberties have gone unexploited in a similar vein, causing the opposite shift in ideology.

This is my opinion based on facts, so I don't know how to prove this. Also, it is often hard to discern actual change from noisy data until enough time has passed. It is worth noting that "outsider" candidates have won past elections and although current news sourcing contributes to partisanship over ideology, both parties have been polarized in the past. Had the number of US voters increased rather than decreased from last election, I would be more confident about my answer. However, half the country does not vote, implying large error bars.

Question for Op: Had Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders won the electoral vote, would you still think an ideological shift is happening?

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    I'm not sure if "Question for Op" refers to me, but I think that Bernie Sanders, by virtue of running in the primaries, became the catalyst for an ideological shift among young voters, because he justified Marxist thought to the youth of America. While a lot of what Bernie says is factually inaccurate (e.g. Scandanavian model being "socialist", which it isn't) his influence cannot be understated. I believe his ideas will have a massive effect on the Democratic party in coming years. If Hilary won, she would have had a greater effect on the republican party, pushing them further to the right. – holaymolay Jan 13 '17 at 17:15
  • @brianjason Bernie has consistently said the Scandanavian model is Democratic Socialist, not Socialist. So I think his statements might be a lot more accurate than you think. – J Doe Jan 13 '17 at 22:30
  • @JDoe maybe so, but much of his proposed policies are flat out socialist. These "Scandinavian socialist" countries are more free-market than we are in the united states. For example, Norway has no minimum wage, yet workers at McDonald's make $16-24USD per hour, depending on age. And when someone wants to start a business there are fewer regulations, so government-imposed barriers to entry are less. In other words, they do a better job at encouraging free enterprise. Yet their tax rate is comparable to what you see in the U.S., which allows them to afford a large welfare state. – holaymolay Jan 14 '17 at 0:29

There is certainly a growth of nationalism taking place. A possible reason is that people have become disillusioned with liberalism, but more specifically they are disappointed in the application of liberalism in the field of international relations, as opposed to the ideology itself. Western democracies are currently shopping for a new ideology and nationalism seems to be in the lead when one considers issues such as the EU referendum, Trump's presidency and how well Marine Le Pen seems to be doing according to current polls.

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    I'm no expert on Europe, but from what I see, the Nationalism sweeping across Europe appears to be caused by a couple main factors. 1) EU governance to a lot of Europeans feels like taxation without representation. In other words, the EU requires a tribute from all member nations, but only some countries are truly enjoying the benefits. Hence the Brexit. 2) the Syrian migrant crisis and the explosion of crime in the wealthiest EU member nations. Internally, the EU is descending into chaos and the nationalist movements are an attempt by the populous to regain control. – holaymolay Jan 14 '17 at 0:44

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