Partisan Dealignment

Previously, individual voters would often affiliate themselves with a particular political party. But recent trends show that more and more people are dealigning with a single political party. 

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Partisan Dealignment Partisan Dealignment

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Table of contents

    In this explanation, we will discuss the effects of partisan dealignment on the electoral and legal systems in the UK and the US. This is an important theory to understand, as it will help you evaluate the effectiveness of the electoral process and how individuals decide how to cast their votes.

    Partisan dealignment: meaning and principles

    In summary, Partisan dealignment is a political phenomenon in which loyalty to and identification with a particular political party declines. This can lead to an increase in independent voters, or 'swing' voters, who may vote for candidates from different parties in different elections.

    One sentence summary: Partisan dealignment is a process whereby individuals don't identify with any political party.

    Political science defines partisan dealignment as a process whereby individuals don’t identify with any political party. It is important to note that in partisan dealignment, a voter may still identify with a particular political party on a short-term basis, but they no longer identify or associate with a particular party on a long-term basis. Voters instead tend to make decisions based on issues, candidate characteristics, or short-term political factors.

    In the last several years, the number of people who identify with a particular party has begun to decline. An increasing number of people among the electorate have now become what is called ‘floating voters’ - members of the public who vote but have no particular alignment to any singular political party.

    One of the consequences of partisan dealignment is that it creates unpredictability. As a result, the outcomes of elections become uncertain. This uncertainty comes from the fact that party supporters float between political parties, so the numbers in each party increase and decrease in an unpredictable manner.

    Partisan Dealignment The outcomes of elections become uncertain due to partisan dealignment StudySmarterFig. 1 - The outcomes of elections become uncertain due to partisan dealignment.

    Why is partisan dealignment relevant to my studies?

    Partisan dealignment is relevant to your political studies because by understanding the concept, you can use it as a theory to understand the fluctuating nature of the elections and why certain parties are elected and some are not. Having an understanding of partisan dealignment can also be a useful tool in predicting electoral outcomes in politics.

    Partisan dealignment: examples

    Partisan dealignment refers to a process where the electorate's loyalty towards a particular political party weakens, leading to an increase in the number of people who identify as independents, or who switch their party allegiance from election to election. Here are some examples:

    1. United States: Over recent decades, there has been a growing trend of voters identifying as Independents rather than associating with the Democratic or Republican Party. In the 1950s, about a quarter of Americans identified as independents. By the 2020s, this proportion had increased to around 40%, according to polling from Gallup.

    2. United Kingdom: The UK saw a significant partisan dealignment in the late 20th century, with many traditional Labour voters shifting their support to the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and then a swing back to Labour under Tony Blair in the 1990s. The number of floating voters, who do not consistently vote for the same party, has also increased.

    3. Canada: The rise of new political parties, such as the Reform Party in the 1990s and the New Democratic Party in the 2011 election, disrupted the traditional dominance of the Conservative and Liberal parties, illustrating a degree of partisan dealignment.

    4. Germany: The post-war dominance of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been challenged in recent years with the rise of parties like the Greens and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), indicative of partisan dealignment.

    These examples show that partisan dealignment can result from a variety of factors, including shifting social and economic conditions, the performance of political leaders, and broader societal changes.

    Reasons for partisan dealignment

    There are four main reasons why people stop identifying with a political party. Let’s study them.

    Education and partisan dealignment

    One theory that explains partisan dealignment is the overall increase in education over the past few decades. Rather than simply voting for the party they have always voted for, the public is educated enough to question their traditional loyalties towards a particular party. People are now more able to consider for themselves the individual policies put forward by parties in each election.

    Ideological shifts and partisan dealignment

    The changes in values and beliefs in society mean that there has been a shift in the electorate’s support for specific policies. These changes also mean that voters often leave the parties they are normally affiliated with as they no longer believe in the traditional values promoted by the older political parties.

    Social capital and partisan dealignment

    The third reason for partisan dealignment is a decline in 'social capital'. In other words, a reduced general sense of community in society. Because we are living in a post-industrial era, our societies have become increasingly diverse.

    This diversity affects alignment. The more diverse individuals become, the more the variety of opinions increases, reducing alignment with one party. This is similar to the change in ideologies but not identical. This theory looks more closely at the fluid and consumer-orientated social attachments and loyalties in society.

    Partisan Dealignment diversity affects alignment StudySmarterFig. 2 - Diversity is a factor that affects political alignment.

    Because of the changes in social attachments, alliances have changed. Therefore, members of society have changed the political parties they support.

    The media and partisan dealignment

    A final theory on why partisan dealignment occurs centres around the impact that media has on society. Many voters among the older generation did not have as easy access to information. These voters depended on their local MP and which party they were affiliated with to help shape their attitudes. Consequently, this made it much easier to predict the number of votes a party might receive.

    Voters no longer have to depend on the information supplied by their local party officials to help them make voting decisions. Today, they have a variety of informational sources at their fingertips, starting with the internet and social media.

    An example of partisan dealignment

    After the economic crash in the UK in the 1970s, support for the Conservative party decreased, leading to dealignment. Those who had previously supported the Conservative party did not switch to Labour or another party, they remained independent.

    Partisan dealignment theories

    There are two main theories in political science that try to explain partisan dealignment: cognitive mobilisation and unrealised partisanship.

    Cognitive Mobilisation

    Cognitive Mobilisation is a theory established by Russel J. Dalton. This theory states that the cognitive ability (the ability to think) in society has advanced considerably since the political system was first established. Over time, people have generally become more educated and have access to a lot more information.

    Therefore, the public has become more aware of the political system, and people’s perceptions of politics have become more fluid. This 'mobility of the mind' supports the theory of partisan dealignment. In other words, when views change or become increasingly fluid among the electorate, their support for political parties may shift, and therefore voters may dealign with an individual party.

    Unrealised partisanship

    This theory argues that voters don’t often realise that they are loyal to one political party. When they don't know they are sticking to one party, they aren't aware of other policies put forward by other parties. However, through time and education, those who haven't realised they've aligned with an individual party may become aware that they have.

    This theory suggests that once this realisation occurs, individuals will most likely change their loyalties. The realisation that they have unwillingly aligned with a political party without realising it, prompts voters to look for different parties to support.

    Partisan Dealignment - Key takeaways

    • Partisan dealignment occurs when individual voters don’t have loyalty to one particular political party and begin to float between political parties. Voters may still have a political alignment with one party over the short term but not for the long term.

    • Partisan dealignment makes the outcome of elections more unpredictable.

    • Partisan dealignment helps explain the decline in support that traditional political parties are experiencing.

    • Partisan dealignment occurs due to increased access to media, increases in education, and a shift in ideologies within society.

    • Theories that support the idea of partisan dealignment are cognitive mobilisation and unrealised partisanship.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Partisan Dealignment

    What is partisan dealignment? 

    Partisan dealignment occurs when individuals no longer identify with a single political party and begin to float between political parties. 

    What principles guide partisan dealignment? 

    Partisan dealignment doesn’t have specific principles that guide it because it's not a homogeneous movement. Partisan dealignment is a phenomenon that we are seeing in contemporary society.

    What are the features of partisan dealignment? 

    Individuals moving away from singular loyalty, fluctuation in support for political parties, and unpredictability when considering the outcomes of elections. 

    What are the reasons for partisan dealignment? 

    Increase in education, increase in media access, changes in social ideologies, and a decline in social capital.

    What are the consequences of partisan dealignment?

    It can cause unpredictable election outcomes and fewer supporters for established political parties.

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