UT Wordmark
College of Liberal Arts wordmark
Texas Politics - Political Parties
critical election
party system
3.1    Party Systems, Critical Elections and Realignments

Before we plunge into the historical details of the ups and downs, and twists and turns of the evolution of parties in Texas, we must first review some of the conceptual tools that have been developed to put some structure in the political, economic and social history of the state and its political parties.

Political scientists and historians have developed a set of widely-used concepts and terms for thinking about the dynamics of political parties. This section introduces these terms, and applies them to party history in the state. You can link back to it if you're a little fuzzy on the terms later on. (You can also use the glossary to look these definitions up later.)

The party history of the United States and of Texas can be understood as a series of long relatively stable periods interrupted by profound shifts in the composition of the major parties - which types of voters and interest groups consistently support each party - and their relative strength in the political system.

Shifts in the make-up and fortunes of the dominant parties are called realignments and are often marked by a critical election in which voters and interest groups make long-term changes in their party preferences. The relative positions of dominance of the major parties after realignment and their long-term constituencies (e.g., labor unions in the Democratic Party) together form a party system.

One might infer from this language of realignments and critical elections that the transformation of party systems happens in only very compressed periods, say from one election to the next. Though political scientists and historians debate the details, such transformations have deep historical roots, and sometime take place over a series of elections.

For an example of how shifts in party allegiance and power can take place over a series of elections, consider the rise of the Republican Party in Texas in the modern period. The development of a competitive Republican Party can be traced to the blossoming civil rights movement that matured over the course of the 1950s. The 1961 election of John Tower to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Lyndon Johnson (who campaigned successfully as Kennedy's vice-presidential running mate) is often cited as the debut of the newly resurgent Republican Party.

While Tower's election greatly energized the Republicans, the senator might more appropriately be regarded as an advance scout in a long-term and uncertain campaign. Almost two decades passed before Bill Clements was elected as the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, when the long migration of conservative voters and campaign contributors from the Democratic to the Republican Party reached "critical mass."

The long years between Tower's election to the Senate and the shifting tide of Republican allegiance highlight the multiple and complex factors that affect the configuration of party systems. The fortunes of political parties can be affected by sudden and dramatic changes to the socio-political environment. These changes might include going to war, defeat in war, imposition of new rules regulating political life, socio-economic changes like industrialization and urbanization, surges in immigration (either from other countries or other regions of the same country) and the conflicts these changes create not only between parties, but within them. In some circumstances, the stability of the party system can also be affected by the focused actions of a small group of people or even an individual seeking to change the status quo.

So change comes from the combination of long term developments and short, sharp shocks. Consequently, understanding how parties and party systems change seems deceptively easy when looking backward in history to find patterns in the unfolding of events and trends. But it is much more difficult to see patterns and turning points as they develop. Despite these analytical challenges, the concepts we survey here help to analyze the shifting patterns of party allegiances and political power.

Texas Politics:
© 2009, Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services
University of Texas at Austin
3rd Edition - Revision 115
prev next