By Dwight Kiel

Dwight Kiel, University of Central Florida

For representative governments to work, citizens must have an abundance of two qualities not easily acquired, reason and proper temperament. The reason for reason seems obvious enough; we would like citizens to be informed and to vote consistently with their interests and their beliefs. Citizens don’t have to be geniuses or policy wonks, but they certainly shouldn’t be so overcome by passions that reason is swept away. The reason for a proper temperament is also rather obvious, but less attention is paid to this quality–unless one studies democratization globally. For representative government to work citizens must be good winners and good losers. Citizens don’t have to embrace those they have defeated or those who have defeated them, but they do have to accept the results and wait to do battle in the next election. Winners must avoid the temptation to reeducate, restrain or remove losers once the winners hold political power, and losers must resist the temptation to alter the results by violence. With two glaring exceptions, the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 (bad winners) and Lincoln’s election in 1860 (bad losers), American presidential elections have been marked by a proper temperament. For a country so well armed, we have remarkably low levels of election-induced violence.

Given this rather nonvolatile past, the most interesting development to come out of the 2000 presidential election is the rancor and hostility penned by editorialists in major publications after the 2000 presidential elections. This was particularly the case with conservative publications that sought to demonize Gore and to raise the specter of a “constitutional crisis.” The Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal accused Gore of a coup d’etat and of impeachable offenses because of the litigation he began in Florida.[1]James Baker, speaking for the Bush campaign, could simply not stop himself from declaring we were in or were on the verge of a “constitutional crisis.” This claim of constitutional crisis was absurd; Bush and Gore made it clear that they would abide by court decisions and recounts.[2]If members of their campaigns had engaged in drive-by-shootings of their opponents then one might entertain this claim, but litigiousness can be a sign that a system is working, not failing. (Litigiousness is certainly preferable to violence.)

I want to point out one the reasons I think the conservative press resorted to such rancor and hyperbole in the 2000 election. One may be tempted to suggest that this was a carry over from the conservative mudslinging of the Clinton years. (Bill’s low morals brought out the worst in his opponents.) However, I think the source was born of a deep frustration, a frustration that is the result of a change in presidential politics traceable to 1968. To understand why 1968 is a pivotal point we need to examine the idea of critical elections.

Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham developed the concept of critical elections and electoral realignments.[3]Examining turnout levels for presidential elections, Burnham noted peak turnouts in 1860, 1896 and 1932. Inspecting those elections more closely, Burnham noted other interesting characteristics of these elections:

(a)  a third party emerges (except in 1932) and it brings new ideas and new policies to the national agenda;

(b)  a plurality of the voters identify with one party, often realigning to the other party;

(c)  during the 36 year periods the realignment causes one party to dominate the presidency;

(d)  the party that dominates the presidency also dominates the Congress thus allowing united rather than divided government.

These elections are critical elections because they establish political agendas for the next 36 years. Furthermore, they provide the opportunities for electoral realignments where one party maintains such a large plurality of voters that the party easily dominates national politics.

The election of 1860 is the “purest” example of a critical election/electoral realignment. The Republicans, led by Lincoln, were the new third party and they championed the end of the expansion of slavery and the interests of the rural north. They dominated national politics for the next 36 years. The 1896 election fits the model well with a strong third party, the Populists, and a new agenda featuring urban concerns and international trade issues. The Republicans, led by McKinley, remained the dominant party but shifted their agenda and their base of strong support. The 1932 election has all the right features except that no third party develops. FDR led the Democrats to victory in 1932 and his farm-labor-southern-urban-minority coalition would dominate American politics into the 1960s. This coalition’s policies generated the American version of the welfare state. FDR’s realignment proved so strong that only one Democratic president in 36 years faced divided government and that was for only two years of Truman’s second term. The only Republican elected during this period was Eisenhower and he ran more as a General than a Republican.

If the 36 year time period remained in place after 1932, then the next critical election should have taken place, of course, in 1968. Indeed, 1968 met some of the conditions for a critical election. There was a third party, Wallace’s American Independents, that raised a series of issues about affirmative action, state’s rights and the welfare state that were incorporated into the Republican agenda (and Clinton’s also) during and after 1968. Voter turnout was high compared to recent elections, and a Republican captured the Presidency. However, the Democrats did not give up the Congress and voters did not realign to the Republican Party. Republicans could not wrest control of the House away from Democrats, even during the Reagan Presidency, until 1994. (The frustration of divided government during the Reagan years fueled the term limits movement, a movement abandoned by conservatives once Gingrich became Speaker of the House in 1994.) Thus, although the Republicans could win the Presidency they could not pursue their own agenda effectively because of divided government. When the Republicans finally gained control of the House they had to deal with a Democratic President who somehow “stole” the Presidency from a Republican administration that only 10 months before the election had registered approval ratings (91%) that most political scientists considered unachievable.

Although Republicans could count on support for their presidential candidates, a realignment failed to occur when increasing numbers of voters became Independents rather than Republicans. Even in closed primary states, like Florida, where it makes little sense to be an Independent, the number of Independents now is over a third of the electorate. Fewer and fewer citizens identify with the parties and those that do identify with a party tend to do so less strongly than partisans once did.

The failure of either party to lure enough voters to avoid divided government has led to the bruising strategies of ethics complaints, special prosecutors and public humiliation. There is now even an acronym for the acrimonious tactics during divided government: RIP for Revelation, Investigation and Prosecution.

The frustration of having an agenda of new ideas in the face of those Democrats doggedly conserving the remains of the welfare state is almost too much for conservative commentators. These conservatives feel, quite ironically of course, that they are entitled to govern. That is why the conservative editorials reproduced in Bush v Gore: The Court Cases and the Commentary represent an entitlement conservatism that is both smug and nasty.[4]This entitlement conservatism is, fortunately, largely restricted to party activists and editorialists. We have been reminded constantly by conservatives that an entitlement mindset can produce sloth and a bad attitude. They may be right.


[1]These two editorials can be found in E.J. Dionne Jr. and William Kristol, Bush v Gore: The Court Cases and the Commentary (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2001) 167- 175.

[2]For an example, see Susan Jones, “James Baker: No One’s Claiming Fraud,” 9 Nov. 2000. Cpol20001109c.html

[3]Walter Dean Burnham, Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: Norton, 1970).

[4]Dionne Jr. and Kristol.

Works Cited

Burnham, Walter Dean. Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics. New York: Norton, 1970.

Dionne Jr., E.J. and William Kristol, eds. Bush v Gore: The Court Cases and the Commentary. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2001.

Jones, Susan. “James Baker: No One’s Claiming Fraud.” 9 Nov. 2000.


Dwight Kiel

Dwight C. Kiel is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Central Florida. Before coming to UCF in 1990, he taught at the University of Kansas. He received his BA at Cornell, his MA at the University of Texas and his Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst (1984). He teaches courses in American politics, public policy and political theory. He has published articles on a wide variety of topics including American political thought, 19th century European political thought and on education and environmental policy. He is the co-author of a text on political ideologies entitled Great Ideas/Grand Schemes and the co-editor of a book of readings, Ideological Voices.