Walter Dean Burnham

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Walter Dean Burnham (b. 1930) is a leading political scientist and historian of American elections and voting patterns. He is best known for quantitative analysis of national tends and patterns in the popular vote, in developing the "Party Systems" model, and for assembling county election returns for the whole country.

Burnham retired in 2003 and is currently professor emeritus of political science at the University of Texas at Austin, where he held the Frank Erwin Centennial Chair in Government. He received his AB from Johns Hopkins University in 1951 and his AM (1958) and Ph. D (1963) from Harvard University, working with V.O. Key. Prior to coming to UT in 1988, he taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Burnham was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and he served as President of the Politics and History Section of the American Political Science Association.

Burnham is a specialist in election returns, and a leading expert on the sources of data for the ICPSR. He is famous for interpreting the data.

Burnham's 1970 book Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics presented a theory of American political development focused on the role of party systems that last several decades and are then disrupted by a critical election. Such elections not only hand presidential and congressional power to the non-incumbent political party, but they do so in a dramatic way that repudiates the worn-out ideas of the old party and initiates a new era whose leaders govern on a new set of assumptions, ideologies, and public policies. The elections of 1860 and 1932 are perhaps the clearest examples of critical elections, and scholars have disagreed about how well Burnham's theories still explain American electoral politics.

The frequency of its citation in the footnotes of other works indicates that Burnham's article "The Changing Shape of the American Political Universe" (1965) was highly influential. The majority of citations focus on the themes of voter turnout decline, realignment in 1896, and explanations for voter decline. The theory of elite, capitalist control of the political system in the 20th century has gained less attention and support, but deserves extended qualitative evaluation.[1]


  • "The Changing Shape of the American Political Universe" American Political Science Review (1965) in JSTOR
  • Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (1970) (summary)
  • Politics/America: The Cutting Edge of Change (1972)
  • "System of 1896" in Paul Kleppner et al. The Evolution of American Electoral Systems (1981)
  • The Current Crisis in American Politics (1982)
  • Democracy in the Making: American Government and Politics (1986), textbook

About Burnham

  • Beck, Paul Allen. "Micropolitics in Macro Perspective: the Political History of Walter Dean Burnham." Social Science History 1986 10(3): 221-245. Issn: 0145-5532 Fulltext in Jstor
  • Burnham, Walter Dean. "Critical Realignments Revisited." April 5, 2006 video recording of Burnham retrospective on critical realignments
  • Jensen, Richard. "The Changing Shape of Burnham's Political Universe," Social Science History 10 (1986) 209-19 Issn: 0145-5532 Fulltext in Jstor


  1. Beck (1986)