Sam Rosenfeld, The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era (University of Chicago Press, 2018)
The literature on polarization in the U.S. –both of the two main political parties in the country and of the electorate at large–has been plentiful during the last decade. In fact, Sam Rosenfeld’s meaty book is not even the first on this subject that I’ve reviewed here, for both Lee Drutman’s Doom Loop and Robert Talisse’s Sustaining Democracy are also largely focused on it. [N.B.: Sam Rosenfeld is not related to Sophia Rosenfeld, the author of Democracy and Truth, the subject of my last Hornbook review.] But The Polarizers provides the most thorough history I’ve seen of the people and events since WWII that are responsible for having produced the current versions of the Democratic and Republican parties.
For one of my generation, there may be a deep pool of nostalgia roiled up by mention of some of those particular persons and events. When I was barely in high school, with but little understanding of any political matter, the combination of revulsion for the body bags being shown on the nightly news and an abject fear of the draft made me get “neat and clean for Gene” (McCarthy). And if anybody is interested, I still have a Fred Harris “The Issue is Privilege” t-shirt around somewhere. Naturally, I didn’t know anything about the McGovern-Fraser rules changes that were gradually revolutionizing the Democratic Party. Still less was I aware of the 1950, E.E. Schattschneider-led American Political Science Association (APSA) study that was the main motivator for the “responsible party” theory according to which political parties should be essentially issue-driven. While I freely admit today that I didn’t know what a “credentials fight,” a “steering committee,” or a “unit rule” was (or why my parents thought George Meany was such a meanie), I do still remember Dan Rather getting punched in the stomach at the Democratic convention and assuring Walter Cronkite and his TV audience that it was “all in a day’s work.”
For old-timers like me, Rosenfeld brings those days vividly back. And not just for those with Democrat roots. We again see the Buckleyites teeing off on the Eisenhowers and Rockefellers. Rosenfeld reminds us not only of Goldwater, Ford and Reagan, but of Schlafly and Viguerie–and their early understanding of the promise of mass mailing. It can be fun to look back on those days from this distance. But the denseness of this history may be a bit much for those without personal experiences to relive. Consider the following excerpt: “Anne Wexler consulted on the NDC’s Party Reform Task Force and headed the delegate selection reform effort at Common Cause, a new good-government organization founded by ex-Health, Education, and Welfare secretary John Gardner. The ADA formed a Convention Task Force to monitor state’s implementation of the reforms, overseen by Wexler’s fellow activist and now-husband, Joe Duffey, and co-chaired by McGovern-Fraser staffer Ken Bode after he left the commission in 1970. The leading staffer on the NWPCs’s Task Force on Delegate Selection was Phyllis Segal, whose husband Eli had served as McGovern-Fraser’s counsel, while the NWPC’s policy council included Arvonne Faser, wife of one of the commission’s namesakes. Bode established his own independent organization, the Center for Political Reform (CPR), which coordinated pressure campaigns for state-level implementation and defined strategy for credentials challenges at the 1972 convention.” I mean, there is a reasonable chance that such passages might cause readers younger than I am to respond much as George Bernard Shaw did to George Moore’s fictional treatment of the life of Jesus. While Shaw agreed with Moore’s heretical take regarding what did and didn’t happen on the cross, his patience soon flagged. He wrote, “I read about thirty pages of The Brook Kerith. It then began to dawn on me that there was no mortal reason why Moore should not keep going on like that for fifty thousand pages, or fifty million for that matter.” This is an understandable complaint whenever a book is long, detailed and a bit dry. But while it may be largely a result of my demographic placement, I can say that I personally find Rosenfeld’s retelling (mostly) fascinating.
The main features of this tale are fairly well known. The two main U.S. parties gradually became completely issue-oriented between the 1950s and the 2010s. The Dixiecrats became Republicans, and the Ripons and ERA advocates became Democrats. Prior to this ideological sorting, the parties were more like fraternities or other clubs–though without membership fees. You joined one or another party because a bunch of your buddies were already involved with it. Maybe a local boss or “ward healer” might give you a job if you joined. Or perhaps you naturally thought of one party first because your parents or your neighbors belonged to it and assumed you would too eventually. Like the Crips and the Bloods, their main distinguishing factors were those sorts of family or geographic ties. There certainly didn’t have to be any issue-related affinity. After all, Dwight Eisenhower was as liberal as any Presidential candidate being put forward by the Democrats, and Strom Thurmond was as conservative as any Republican.
Rosenfeld meticulously sets out the details of the journey from this Sharks/Jets mold toward a responsible party “amateurism,” including the various fits and starts encountered by the sorting juggernaut. And he reminds us of some of the movement’s heroes, like Democratic Party Chairman Paul Butler and Republican Senator Jesse Helms. And there can be little doubt about the accuracy of Rosenfeld’s chronicle of this unsteady march, for, as the above-named Talisse and Drutman books also show, the battle for arch-partisanship has been won. The two parties certainly despise each other at this point.
What one might miss, however, is a demonstration that polarization–where that is understood as a moving toward the farthermost poles–has occurred right alongside the increases in group antagonism. And this may be doubted. For example, Washington Post op-ed writer Jennifer Rubin has argued strenuously that, while the Republican Party has gotten more extreme, the positions of the Democratic Party are about where they have been for many years. It is not Pelosi that has doomed bi-partisanship according to Rubin: after all, the AOC gang has barely moved the needle of the Democratic ethos a tiny fraction of the distance that Trump has pushed the Republican Party. Furthermore, in some cases the two parties have done little more than exchange positions: more Democrats seem to be anti-tariff these days than Republicans, and that change may help Republicans secure more support from labor interests–hardly a polarizing shift. Again, while the anti-abortion activities of the Republicans are in the spotlight today as a result of positions taken by the newly constituted Supreme Court, Rosenfeld’s book reminds us that the Republicans had a national pro-life plank in their platform way back in Phyllis Schlafly’s time. Finally, it might be asked if it’s legitimate to say that the Republican platform has moved right when that party doesn’t even have a platform. That party’s stance on every issue is currently and officially “Whatever Trump Wants,” and, of course our ex-President is about as capricious as it’s possible to be, sometimes restricting government reach, sometimes enlarging it, depending on his mood.
On the (far) other hand, one need only look at a few dozen pieces in The American Conservative to see current obsessions that at least seem more radical than those that motivated the National Review in William F. Buckley’s heyday. Wokeness is said to be absolutely rampant and coming for our spouses and kids, Victor Orban is repeatedly praised as a hero not in spite of, but because of, crushing free media and discriminating against minorities. (One article ponders who will be the American version we’re all desperately waiting for.) Tucker Carlson is defended for giggling at the very idea of transgender children, human equality is generally denied, that old-time Christian religion is deeply missed (it’s good enough for them!), and the Disney Corporation is accused of “grooming.”
Furthermore, Rubin notwithstanding, the Democrats can also be reasonably argued to be moving away from whatever “center” might be left in the country. There is now a Green New Deal spoken of (although there are likely quite few of us who have any clear idea what such a Deal might entail), and over 30 billion dollars’ worth of student loans have recently been cancelled. In addition, bathrooms with specific genders attached to them are regularly frowned upon these days by party regulars, and there is an uncertainty with respect to gendered sports that can be found nowhere among Republicans. And there is, of course, a new fuss regarding pronouns. Such positions are relatively new and are all anathema to Republicans. So it may not be entirely amiss to claim that a general polarization of both parties as well as an omnipresent hyperpartisanship did eventually result from that 1950 APSA report.
Well then, can we infer that the Republican Party is irrevocably marching toward Naziism and that the Democratic Party is dazedly drifting into some form of Woke State Socialism? The Magic Eight Ball is unclear. Speaking for myself, I originally took some comfort from a 2021 piece by New Right advocate Tanner Greer in The Scholar’s Stage in which the author lamented the fact that a genuine revolution of the Right is being held back by what he termed an “American folkway.” In Greer’s view, since at least the days of the Puritans, there has been a powerful anti-government streak in America–a libertarian element urging us to resist any power that ever tries to stop us from filling our basements with armaments–that has restrained the Right, preventing what could otherwise be a sacred use of government power to produce glorious cultural outcomes–like towering golden walls that can keep out both dark-skinned immigrants and Chinese imports. Because Republicans have always hated big government, I figured that the folkway that this antipathy reflects might prevent the emergence of anything too closely resembling Hitler’s SS in America. Not only that, I realized that Republicans do still have their anti-regulation, corporatist funders. The New Right may insist they no longer want to cozy up to corporations, but I understand that money still has its say in these matters.
But before those as fearful as I am take too much comfort in the anti-government tendencies found in the American heartland (even if they join me in finding libertarianism misguided and mean-spirited) Rosenfeld’s history may remind them, as it did me, of the success of the Laffer Curve in burying this particular folkway under a slick film of snake oil. A consideration of the voodoo economics of Reagan’s day, so cleverly sold by David Stockman and a former Buffalo Bills QB as a way for every person to pay less in taxes without necessitating the reduction of any “lunchbucket” social programs, will quickly demonstrate that wishful thinking can trump even the most ancient antipathies. After all, it’s taxes and regulations that Republicans hate; other government activities are generally not despised so long as nobody has to pay for any of them. And Laffer and Kemp even insisted that if taxes were brought down far enough, the programs that the Dems (perhaps foolishly) love could be broadened! If they could get that new community center gym, two more policemen and three teachers, and the bridge over the brook finally repaired, while also paying a third less in taxes–why the heck not? And don’t think for a second that such tripe would never be accepted today by the savvy citizenry whose ingenuity built the bustling cities, giant farms, fast food franchises, trans-continental bus lines, and social media platforms now lying above and below the purple mountains’ majesty. After all, it managed to deliver 3 new Senate seats and 15 new House seats to the Republican Party in 1978 (including one for Newt Gingrich). The moral is: if the Repubs manage to find another organizer/fundraiser as deft and efficient as Bill Brock, I’d advise all those who don’t much care for brown-shirted autocracy to crawl right back under their beds and never answer their doorbells.
About the Author
Walter Horn is a philosopher of politics and epistemology.
His 3:16 interview is here.