Political Fragmentation and Partisan Realignment: Promise, not Threat

At Open Left, Paul Rosenberg has a piece on political realignments in the two-party system over the course of US history. Though the post focuses on the realignments of 1828 and 1860, it also contains a number of graphs detailing partisan balance with respect to the Presidency, House and Senate from 1794 to 2006. As is customary at Open Left, Rosenberg ends by arguing that third party activism is not conducive to effective issue advocacy, and thus makes a case for pursuing primary campaigns to oust insufficiently progressive Democrats in upcoming elections, stating: "Party fragmentation is a very real political threat." Yet it is also a promise.

At Least of All Evils, Dale Sheldon continues his series of posts on the history of partisan realignments in the US, written with the specific purpose of highlighting the drawbacks and deadlocks of the two-party system, while emphasizing weaknesses that could be or have been exploited in the interest of third party and independent activism. Some excerpts from his conclusions:

Part I (1792-1822):
that's one way to shift the two-party system that's been shown to work; take an existing major party in wide-spread popular decline, resign to 12 years of defeat, during which you infiltrate the opposition, then use parliamentary shenanigans to exacerbate "intra"-party resentment, and be re-born with a slightly new direction. This also perfectly highlights one of the big drivers of the two-party systems: when there are more than two strong candidates, vote-splitting leads to unexpected (and unpopular) results.
Part II: (1826-1858)
Another way to disrupt the two-party system is to find an issue both major parties are split over, so strongly that you can cause nomination fights in both in rapid succession. Then, while the parties fracture you can promote one of the pieces as your new third party, building it on a coalition from both parties that support your issue . . . But watch out for war. This is painful lesson on the inevitable, almost predictably periodic failures of a two-party system.
Part III (1860-1894):
So we see the same strategy repeated from before: Pick an issue ignored by the major parties, and run on it. The important lesson here is, it doesn't always work, at least not necessarily like you planned. Even though a major party picked up the issue, they lost the election, and the movement died out . . . pick your issue, and your allies, carefully.
Part IV (1896-1930):
To succeed, a third party needs to divide, and then build from the pieces, a coalition from both (or as we saw in part I, the only) existing major parties. And it's not enough to build "in the middle", as Roosevelt tried; you have to be completely outside the axis of partisan identification.
Part V, on the realignments from the 1930's to the present, is still to come.

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