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That hyper-partisanship is wrecking American democracy is a truism of our times. But there is a lack of consensus about what to do about it. One challenge is that many pundits and would-be reformers lack historical understanding of the problem, which leads them to both over-romanticize the past and believe it can be reconstructed through sheer exhortations for more compromise.

The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era
by Sam Rosenfeld
University of Chicago Press, 336 pp. Credit:

These reformers should read Sam Rosenfeld’s new book, The Polarizers, a timely and valuable guide explaining how our current political divisions came to be. Rosenfeld, a Colgate University political scientist trained as a historian, goes through the historical record to recreate two parallel stories—the intellectual debate over whether to have two distinct political parties, and the on-the-ground intraparty battles in which activists triumphed over insiders in restructuring party organizations and coalitions. Told together, these stories add important context to our present dilemma, reminding us that party politics are so different today from the 1950s that recreating that period is impossible—and not necessarily desirable.

At midcentury, the common critique was not of too little bipartisanship, but of too much. By the late 1940s, Democrats and Republicans had similar national programs, distinguished by only minor points of emphasis, and because both parties had significant liberal and conservative wings, programmatic diversity was far more likely to be found within rather than between the parties. Two currents, one intellectual and one cultural, helped to undermine this model and presage the marriage of party and ideology we have today.

The intellectual current was the rise of the “responsible party” theory of government, advocated by political scientists who argued that the lack of clarity between parties “stifled progress while blurring accountability to the voters,” as Rosenfeld puts it. A famous 1950 report by the American Political Science Association, Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System, for example, complained that the muddled party system of that time was based more on ties of patronage and tradition than on meaningful national programs. Responsible-party advocates longed for something akin to the system in the United Kingdom, in which parties would “bring forth programs to which they commit themselves and . . . possess sufficient internal cohesion” to carry out.

The cultural trend was that as voters became better educated and more economically stable, they wanted something more out of politics than the patronage provided by the old political machines. This led a new generation of solidly middle-class and young activists in both parties to turn away from the pragmatic politics of backroom bargaining and technocratic tinkering of their elders and toward a new front of ideological battle, beginning with civil rights.

In the GOP, middle-class “suburban warriors” in the West and Southwest were roused to discontent with the moderate pragmatism of East Coast Republicans. Young Republicans passed a platform plank in 1959 explicitly denouncing “Eisenhower Republicanism.” While many point to the 1964 takeover of the party by Goldwaterites as the point of origin of the modern GOP, Rosenfeld argues that it was a victory two decades in the making for the Goldwater wing, which saw the benefit of melding political gain and principle into a truly conservative politics. The Goldwaterites, for example, rightly believed that they could appeal to southern conservative Democrats over their shared distaste for civil rights legislation and defeat the far less organized urban-oriented liberal moderates, who Rosenfeld importantly notes were too top heavy with elected officials and intellectuals and “devoid of grassroots strength.”

Among Democrats, the energy for aligning party with principle came from “young, educated New Deal liberals, motivated largely by national issues, [who] forged alliances with organized labor and racial minorities to square off against sclerotic, generally non-ideological Democratic organizations.” Civil rights was their cri de coeur, an issue “whose rhetoric of moral transformation promised an equivalent transformation of political institutions.”

After the disastrous 1968 convention, Democratic Party activists reformed presidential nomination rules, giving voters more say by making primaries binding, and gave women, minorities, and the young more representation among the delegates, strengthening the hand of issue-driven activists. The reformers benefited from the fact that while they had a clear plan, “party regulars lacked coherent and identifiable standards, arguments, or alternative proposals around which they could rally.”

Meanwhile, in Congress, Democratic Party activists took aim at senior committee chairmen, who tended to be southern conservatives. With the arrival of the “Watergate Babies” after the 1974 election, congressional Democrats enacted new rules to give both the caucus and the speaker more power to overcome the conservatives. These rules were pushed by liberal outside groups, most prominently Common Cause. Later, Newt Gingrich would further centralize power when he became speaker, bringing American politics a step even closer to the responsible-party vision.

The midcentury mess of mixed-up parties did have contemporary defenders, whose insights now take on a dark prescience. Richard Nixon opined in 1959, “It would be a great tragedy if we had our two major political parties divided on what we would call a conservative-liberal line. . . . [O]ne of the attributes of our political system has been that we have avoided generally violent swings in administrations from one extreme to the other.”

As a mode of governing, non-ideological politics worked well with the technocratic solutionism of President John F. Kennedy, who proudly told Yale graduates in 1962, “The central domestic issues of our time relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals.” It was also hospitable to the deal making of a Senate leader like Lyndon Johnson, whose unique gifts (“face-to-face persuasion, individualized knowledge, group brokerage”) were “most beneficial to a power-seeker in a depolarized political environment.” But it also suppressed controversial but urgent issues like civil rights. Consensus politics could work when the substance of party politics was thick with issues of consensus, in which debates over means dominated debates over ends. Once ends came to be more important than means, politics changed. Pragmatic incrementalism was no match for moral urgency.

By the 1970s, both parties were so divided between their non-ideological past and their ideological future that it was hard to tell what they even stood for, leading reporter Lance Morrow to complain that “today, the parties have virtually collapsed as a force in American politics.” He lamented “the draining of energy and resources away from the parties and into a sort of fragmented free-for-all,” and observed that Congress “now has all the discipline of a five-year-old’s birthday party.” Presidents Ford and Carter both tried and failed to bridge the gaps within their party coalitions, leading to presidencies that were, in retrospect, doomed to fail.

This was precisely the moment when the balance of power in both parties was finally shifting decisively in favor of “the polarizers”—the activists and organizers who were carrying forth the responsible-party vision advocated by midcentury political scientists. That vision finally arrived in 1980, when the Reagan presidency became the crowning achievement of decades of work by dedicated activists and thinkers. Inside the RNC, chairman Bill Brock centralized technical support, candidate recruitment, and campaign finance, invested in salaried field officers in every state, and “helped make the GOP a finely tuned and well-resourced vessel for the Reagan revolution to come.”

Since the 1980s, the ideological activists have remained dominant in both parties, steadily weeding out dissenting holdovers from an earlier era while enforcing more and more programmatic unity, an iterative and ultimately generational project. Even the “New Democrats” of the 1990s “pitched moderate programmatic initiatives in explicitly partisan terms.”

Rosenfeld’s history lesson gives us two key takeaways.

First, just as mid-1950s theorists who complained about too much bipartisanship should have been careful what they wished for, so too should modern advocates of “bipartisanship” remember that bipartisanship was not all lollipops and roses. It fostered a political system in which voters lacked meaningful choices, and it stymied civil rights.

Second, even if we were to decide that the messy party system of the 1950s were preferable to today’s mess, it’s not clear how we could simply reverse six decades of organizational and coalitional transformation. The party organizations of the 1950s reflected a very different world, in which most politics was local and there were few highly educated, activist voters. Rosenfeld is thus rightly skeptical of those “who seek to revive the pre-polarization glory of transactional, pragmatic partisanship stripped of the influence of ideological purists.”

Where then, does that leave us? Rosenfeld is not optimistic—but neither is anyone else, these days. Still, an optimistic takeaway from the book is that change is possible through deliberate action. Just as activists half a century ago set in motion a new vision for a party system, so too might today’s activists set in motion their own vision for a new party politics. Institutions do change, and organization and activism do matter. And while we are unlikely to recreate history, we can and should learn from it. For anyone who cares about our political future enough to learn from its past, The Polarizers is absolutely essential reading.

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Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the New America Political Reform program and the author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.