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Burnham: Critical elections and the mainsprings of American politics

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Burnham. 1970. Critical elections and the mainsprings of American politics.

In Brief

Burnham is assessing the existence of critical elections, where critical realignment signifies an abrupt coalitional change among the mass-based electorate (as opposed to secular realignment, which describes a gradual change in voter coalitions). Burnham is responding to Key (1955), who identified class-ethnic polarities among voter bases as a cleavage driving coalition change, and Schattschneider (1960), who argued that post-realignment periods are marked by long-term transformations in voting behavior, institutional, roles, and policy outputs change. Mayhew (2002) later argued that none of these theories (including Burnham's) performs well.

Of key importance in the critical realignment studies is the notion of an electoral life cycle, or a periodicity of stable electoral behavior followed by sharp, short-lived change. In effect, Burnham wants to replace a coordinated tipping point model with a punctuated equilibrium model.

Important Assumption: Burnham's descriptive theory hinges on conceptualizing of American political parties as broad-based interest aggregators and coalition builders. Political parties are integrative and cohesive; they appeal to large, cross-cutting sectors of the mass-based electorate and are multidimensional. Parties do not represent definitive policy outcomes.


  • Critical realignment: an abrupt coalitional change among the mass-based electorate.
  • Secular realignment: a gradual change in voter coalitions.


How Criticial Realignments Occur: Four Phases

  • Phase #1: constituencies are coalescing around certain critical issues; tensions arise in society because these mobilizations are not adequately organized or controlled by the outputs of party politics as usual (these tensions are associated with abnormal stress in the socioeconomic system).
  • Phase #2: a "third party revolt" demonstrates the incapacity of regular parties to integrate these issues within their platforms (which would otherwise appease their constituencies and dampen tensions); ideological polarization occurs among and within parties.
  • Phase #3: flashpoint; parties adjust to resolve the tension
  • Phase #4: significant transformation in policy; post-adjustment, institutional elites change behavior.

The Model's Basic Intuition

The rise of third-party protests as a "proto-realignment phenomena" indicates an increasing gap between the perceived expectations citizens have of the political process and the perceived realities of the political process. (In other words, the present alignment of interests slowly falls out of sync with public cleavages). In other words, dissatisfaction triggers protest movements. There are two types of third-party defections: the major party bolt (a faction breaks away from a major party) and protest movements (non-prominent leaders build a protest coalition that crosses party lines). The former is not part of a durable realignment, but the latter is.

Major Predictions

When third parties reach 5% of the electorate, they are proximately associated with realignment or existing at the midway point in the electoral life cycle. Examples: the Free Soil Party in 1848 (before the 1854 cut-point) and the Socialist Party in 1912 (midway point in the 1895-1927 electoral life cycle).

Historical Observations

  1. most proto-realignment parties have leftist orientations, which signals the heavy periphery orientation of protest movements;
  2. all proto-realignment parties channel the critical issue-bundles of the time (Examples: Free Soilers focused on slavery and sectionalism; Socialists focused on welfare liberalism versus laissez-faire economics).


Burnham uses two indicators: a discontinuity variable and a t-test from the difference of means. In the first empirical model (party vote model), Burnham finds the 1854 election and 1874 elections to be statistically significant (the former at the 2.5% level and the latter at the 1% level). In the second model (turnout model), Burnham notes that turnout jumps are more gradual than party-vote jumps, but turnout jumps are clustered temporally around the realignment cut-points as identified in the party vote model. In a six-state analysis using the party vote model, the 1893/95 and 1927/31 years are realignment years. Conclusion: Electoral eras have life cycles!


Center-periphery conflicts underlie the realignment of political parties in the United States. The nature of realignments--the rapid, compressed jumps of electoral coalitions from one partisan allegiance to another--is less significant than the implications of realignments over time. Critical elections redefine the universe of voters, political parties, and the broad boundaries of the politically possible.