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The Promise of Polarization

Ideological division was once seen as the solution to America’s political gridlock. What went wrong?

How divided have Americans become? When it comes to the two-party war, the differences could not be starker. Pew Research Center has reported that 55 percent of Democrats are “afraid” of the Republican Party and nearly half of Republicans are similarly fearful of Democrats. These survey results were published in June 2016—before Donald Trump was elected. Since then, of course, the enmity has increased. Trump’s genius for stirring up discord is one reason, but only one: The ingredients of all-out political warfare have been simmering for many years, as each of the two parties has discarded the old-fashioned ideal of the “big tent” and enacted its own purifying rituals.

What has changed is how personal these political divisions have become. Partisanship has taken on an unsettling aspect and turned into something new: “affective polarization,” which dictates not only how we vote, but also, as social scientists have reported in the Harvard Business Review, how we “work and shop.” Politically minded consumers are “almost twice as likely to engage in a transaction when their partisanship matched the seller’s,” and they are “willing to work for less money for fellow partisans.” Is this honorable self-sacrifice or self-inflicted injury? It is hard to say, especially since, when it comes to political dispute, “particular policy beliefs” are often beside the point, the researchers write. What matters is who wants the new bill passed and who wants it stopped. It’s a zero-sum game in which victories are less important than the other side’s defeats.

THE POLARIZERS by Sam Rosenfeld
University of Chicago Press, 336 pp., $30

Yet, as Sam Rosenfeld shows in The Polarizers, the irrational-seeming “extreme partisanship” and “tribalism” that contaminate our politics today originated in the principled efforts of writers, activists, and politicians who thought the two parties needed more polarization, ideological fixity, and internal discipline. This idea went back to the New Deal era, when the two major parties were each riven by internal disagreements on race, the economy, and much else, so that President Roosevelt met opposition in Congress not only from Republicans but also from Southern Democrats. He tried to fix the problem, first mounting a campaign to purge conservatives from the Democratic Party in the 1938 midterms (it backfired) and then inviting the moderate Republican nominee he defeated in 1940, Wendell Willkie, to join him in a plan to break apart the two parties and reset them like straightened limbs, “one liberal, and the other conservative.”

Today that course seems fatefully misguided, but Rosenfeld is right to point out that what came before wasn’t always better. What some enshrine as an age of “statesmanlike civility and bipartisan compromise” often involved dark bargains and “dirty hands” collusions, and was not especially democratic. This is what led political scientists such as E. E. Schattschneider and James MacGregor Burns to argue in the 1940s and 1950s against bipartisanship, because it depended on toxic alliances that hemmed in political players, from presidents on down. Thus, even the immensely popular war-hero Dwight Eisenhower, the first Republican president elected in 24 years, was stymied time and again by in-built flaws in a defective system. Eisenhower wanted to do the sensible thing—to advance civil rights and economic justice at home while negotiating abroad with the Soviet Union. He repeatedly came up against a stubborn alliance of conservative Southern Democrats and heartland Republicans.

Out of all this came the drive to reform the two parties, to make them more distinct through what Rosenfeld calls “ideological sorting.” The hope was that clear agendas, keyed to voting majorities, would marginalize the reactionaries and extremists in both parties, and that mainstream, “responsible” forces would govern from the center, giving the public the expanded, activist government it obviously wanted. This was the initial promise of polarization. What went wrong?

For one thing, Schattschneider and Burns were viewing the system from the heights of presidential politics, where centrism did indeed dominate. The ideological distance from FDR in 1932 to Eisenhower’s successor Richard Nixon, elected in 1968, was not great. World War II and cold war “wise men” could be either Republicans or Democrats. They belonged to the same establishment, attended the same Ivy League colleges, were members of the same clubs, read the editorial pages of the same few newspapers. Two parties organized around such leaders could each have presented a coherent agenda, one to the left of center, one to the right, meeting in the middle.

It was the consensus ideal, and it ignored deeper tensions in parts of the country where politics was harder-edged and culturally driven. An ideology nourished in the small-town Midwest and rural South and in the growing population centers of Western states resented and opposed the approach, style, and transactional presumptions of East Coast elites. And this resistance found support from right-wing intellectuals, heirs to pre-World War II “Old Guard” conservatism. Its best minds coalesced around National Review, founded as an anti-Eisenhower weekly in late 1955. Rosenfeld has much to say about the magazine, but he leaves out its most original and penetrating thinker, the Yale political scientist and NR columnist, Willmoore Kendall. An incisive critic of the Schattschneider-Burns thesis, he helped coin the term “liberal Establishment” and theorized that proponents of the “presidential majority” seemed to be wishing away the second, “congressional majority” elected every two years and therefore more directly accountable to voters.

Burns could argue that the “true” Republican Party naturally reflected Eisenhower’s internationalism, because influential people—including the publishers of The New York Herald Tribune and Time magazine—approved of him. But much of the GOP base gave its loyalty to local figures, whose views more closely resembled their own on the whole range of issues: civil rights and civil liberties, military spending and foreign aid, free trade and the national debt, even “the scientific outlook.” When it came to these matters, the people’s tribune wasn’t Eisenhower, the five-star general, who had been the “supreme commander” of NATO and the president of Columbia University. It was Senator Joseph McCarthy, who became the hero to the emerging postwar right. His most eloquent defender, National Review’s editor, William F. Buckley Jr., applauded McCarthy’s Red-hunting investigations and ridiculed the tu quoque hypocrisies of McCarthy’s “enemies”—liberals and moderates in both parties.

Rosenfeld is curiously silent about all this. He praises Buckley’s 1959 manifesto Up From Liberalism, calling it a “thorough formulation of the connection between building a conservative ideological movement and recasting the party system.” In fact, Buckley said little about this, apart from restating the case for McCarthy. It was puzzling to readers, including some on the right, that Buckley never got around to saying what conservatism meant or even what conservatives should do. When he talked about policy, it was mainly to denounce liberal proposals—on voting rights, health care, battles between labor and management—without offering any serious alternative in their place. What would a truly conservative administration do if elected? Buckley had no idea, “Call it a No-program, if you will,” he cheerfully wrote or shrugged, in words that sound like marching orders for today’s GOP. Undoing or rolling back the New Deal and post-New Deal programs already in place would suffice. “It is certainly program enough to keep conservatives busy.”

Buckley wasn’t being flippant. He was being honest. Conservatives really did have no interest in social policy. National Review writers excelled at philosophical theory and high rhetoric, but when the subject turned to “a crucial policy issue such as Medicare, you publish a few skimpy and haughty paragraphs,” Buckley’s friend Irving Kristol complained in 1964, when it was clear some kind of national health care for the elderly was going to be enacted, expanding the popular protections in Social Security. “Why not five or six pages, in which several authorities spell out the possible provisions of such a bill?” Kristol urged. “It could really affect the way we live now.” Buckley wasn’t interested, and Kristol plugged the hole himself with The Public Interest, the quarterly he founded with Daniel Bell in 1965. It was one of the era’s best journals, filled with well-written analysis and incisive commentary on the entire range of midcentury policy. But in the end, Buckley was right. As Rosenfeld says, it was National Review that gave direction to the conservative revolution and made the GOP better organized and more ideologically unified than the “polarizers” of the ’40s and ’50s could imagine.

Buckley’s brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell, was a key figure in translating these ideas into political strategy. He brilliantly repackaged Buckley’s “No-program” in a tract he ghostwrote for Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative, meant to launch a shot-across-the-bow challenge to Nixon in 1960. In a famous passage, Bozell and Goldwater project a vision of the ideal “man in office,” the savior of the Republic, who tells the people,

I have little to no interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.

When the book became a best-seller and the guessing game of authorship began, Goldwater insisted he had written it—or that it grew out of his speeches and published writings (never mind that they’d been ghosted too). Under normal conditions, few would have cared—John F. Kennedy didn’t write his books either. But Goldwater was being marketed as a bold political thinker. Rosenfeld perpetuates this myth, the better to present Goldwater as a serious-minded intellectual who “framed his positions on disparate issues within an overarching ideological vision.” That vision consisted of libertarian economics at home and militant anti-Communism abroad. Goldwater didn’t come close to getting the nomination. Nixon did, as expected, and then lost, barely, to John F. Kennedy—another victory for the liberal Establishment.

Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater join William F. Buckley and his brother at a National Review party.

Goldwater was too good a politician to chain himself to a single script, especially a losing script. It was dawning on some that Kristol had got one big thing right. The public really did want government programs, as long as the benefits accrued to them and not someone else. In early 1961, getting a jump on the next election, a second Goldwater ghostwriter, Michael Bernstein, drafted a prescient document, the “Goldwater Manifesto” or “Forgotten American” speech. It sketched out the beginnings of what later came to be called big-government conservatism—a reordering of spending away from the poor and minorities (singled out for help by Kennedy’s New Frontier) and toward a newly aggrieved group, “the silent Americans,” who truly “constitute the substantial majority of our people” and yet “cannot find voice against the mammoth organizations which mercilessly pressure their own membership, the Congress, and society as a whole for objectives which these silent ones do not want.”

What might the silent ones want instead? For one thing, Bernstein proposed, “tax relief for families with children attending college.” NR purists were appalled. This was still Big Brother—manna flowing from the Beltway—even if, in this case, the money was going back to overburdened taxpayers. In embarrassment, Goldwater backed away and made a new calculation. The most numerous “silent” votes were to be had in the South. White majorities there felt disrespected or worse by the presidencies of Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon Johnson. Civil rights was the pivotal issue, but not the only one. In fact, it overlapped with other tensions: in labor unions, public education, housing, anti-colonial uprisings abroad. Below the calm surface of consensus, a deeper struggle was going on. “There is a vague and bitter counter-revolution in this country—anti-big government, anti-union, anti-high taxation, anti-Negro, anti-foreign aid, and anti-the whole complex spirit of modern American life,” James Reston, The New York Times’ Washington bureau chief and most respected columnist, wrote in 1963, when Goldwater was the uncrowned king of an increasingly conservative GOP. The center that Schattschneider and Burns had counted on was coming apart.

What Reston missed was the sophistication of Goldwater’s rhetoric, helped along by the writings of Buckley, Bozell, and Bernstein. He overlooked as well the Southern strategy devised by NR’s publisher, William Rusher. It wasn’t a new idea. Goldwater’s first stab at the presidency, in 1960, had begun in South Carolina, when he won the delegates at the state Republican convention, catching Nixon off-guard. It was his first successful “duck hunting” expedition—that is, courting the votes of middle-class whites in the “New South,” with its rising business class. Uncomfortable with the overt race-baiting of Dixiecrats, these voters responded to a broader argument cast in the language of states’ rights and free enterprise, the true pillars of the constitutional republic as opposed to the Democrats’ promise of egalitarian democracy. You could make this case, and Goldwater did, without mentioning race at all. Buckley made the same adjustment. Instead of saying black people were inferior—National Review’s line in the 1950s—he now argued that Goldwater “does not intend to diminish the rights of any minority groups—but neither does he desire to diminish the rights of majority groups.”

While Democrats had become the party of civil rights, the Republican Party, without explicitly saying so, “was now a White Man’s Party,” as Robert Novak put it in his account of the 1964 election, The Agony of the G.O.P. The transformation began in earnest when Senator Strom Thurmond quit the Democratic Party, taking South Carolina’s electoral votes with him, and was welcomed into the GOP by his good friend Goldwater. Thurmond the defecting Democrat was joined by younger Southern politicians nourished within the GOP. These were figures like James Martin, who challenged and nearly unseated Lister Hill, the four-term incumbent Democratic senator in Alabama, in 1962. Martin was elected to the House in 1964, together with five others from the South, four of them from states—Tennessee, Texas, Florida, and Kentucky—that today contribute to the GOP’s base. Canny operatives like the Alabama prodigy John Grenier (oddly absent from Rosenfeld’s book) rose to top positions in Goldwater’s campaign. Its victories came almost entirely from the Deep South.

Outside the South (and his home state, Arizona), Goldwater got a thrashing in 1964. But he had opened up the route to what the political strategist Kevin Phillips soon called the “emerging Republican majority,” which nationalized the Southern strategy by courting alienated white voters in the North as the civil rights movement moved there; by focusing on racially charged issues like “forced busing” and the integration of labor unions, the GOP drove a wedge in what had once been Democratic strongholds. In 1968, Richard Nixon dusted off Bernstein’s “forgotten man” speech and made it the template for his appeal to the “silent majority,” as Garry Wills reported in his classic Nixon Agonistes. Like Goldwater, Nixon cast tribal politics in lofty ideological terms. He talked of “positive polarization” and promised to overturn “the false unity of consensus, of the glossing over of fundamental differences, of the enforced sameness of government regimentation.” Ronald Reagan, preparing to run in 1976, went even further, warning that if Republicans continued “to fuzz up and blur” the differences between the two parties when they should be “raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors,” he might quit the GOP and form a third party. Instead he contested and badly weakened the incumbent Gerald Ford. Four years later, Reagan repeated the Goldwater and Nixon formula, rechristening the “forgotten American” and “silent majority” as the “moral majority,” and won in a landslide.

For all this talk of the fundamental differences between the parties, however, partisanship did not yet reach today’s poisonous extreme. Nixon and Reagan, experienced leaders, ran “against” government while also realizing there were very few programs the voting public would be willing do without. Once in office, Republicans too were expected to make the system work. Democrats, with their long history of taking public policy seriously, were, however, better at it—as some conservatives acknowledged. In his influential book Suicide of the West, Buckley’s colleague James Burnham quoted Michael Oakeshott, who said fixing social problems was the liberal’s ambition, or delusion. While the liberal “can imagine a problem which would remain impervious to the onslaught of his own reason,” Oakeshott wrote, “what he cannot imagine is politics which do not consist in solving problems.” The conservatives’ job was to apply the brakes when necessary, to keep alive the opposition argument in a world in which all knew liberalism remained the basis of modern governance but weren’t always prepared to admit it.

This broad but tacit acceptance of activist government is what inspired the Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan to take a job in Nixon’s administration in 1969. He gambled that a moderate Republican, who said he disliked government but realized voters wanted it, might succeed in passing legislation where Democrats had failed. Despite encountering resistance from the “congressional majority,” Moynihan was vindicated. The Nixon years gave us a good deal of effective government. They saw the creation of the EPA, wage-and-price controls, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, Supplemental Social Security income (for the blind, disabled, and elderly), Pell Grants (college loans for lower-income students), the Endangered Species Act, and more. It was a “rich legislative record,” as the political scientist David Mayhew has written. The reason is conveyed in the title of Mayhew’s book, Divided We Govern, which showed how well government worked when voters split tickets and gave each party control of a different branch.

Rosenfeld’s thesis—that the postwar enthusiasm for ideologically unified parties yielded some positive good—works better when he turns to the Democratic Party, which really did clean house, cutting loose Southern reactionaries to make itself the party of civil rights. Stalwarts of the Senate “citadel” like Harry F. Byrd and Richard Russell lingered, but with diminished authority as civil rights became the party’s great cause, and Northern liberals—the Minnesotans Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, to name two, and the Prairie populist George McGovern—gained national followings. There were also the brave organizing efforts of college students, white and black, who mobilized citizens in the South. Rosenfeld has very good pages on the 1964 Democratic convention, when members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, led by the activists Bob Moses and Fannie Lou Hamer, challenged the Dixiecrats. Their victory was symbolic, but politics is often written in symbols.

One wishes Rosenfeld had more to say about other political figures, particularly black leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Bond, and Shirley Chisholm, who guided the Democrats’ response to the most important polarization in America. Kendall’s “two majorities”—one “presidential,” the other “congressional”—only grazed the surface of a nation profoundly split into “two societies, one black, one white— separate and unequal,” to quote one of the period’s great public documents, The Kerner Report. Published in 1968 after a year of investigation by a presidential advisory commission, the report explored the causes of the urban disorder in almost 150 cities—especially Detroit and Newark—in the summer of 1967.

In April 1968, while the Kerner commission findings were still being digested, King was assassinated, and the two societies hardened along lines that prefigure today’s jagged divisions. Trump’s truest forerunner, many have pointed out, was the one true radical in the 1968 presidential campaign, the Alabama segregationist George Wallace, a lifelong Democrat who ran on a third-party ticket and preached a Trump-like gospel of revenge. “The desire for ‘law and order’ is nothing so simple as a code for racism,” Garry Wills wrote of Wallace’s message at the time. “It is a cry, as things begin to break up, for stability, for stopping history in mid-dissolution.” Fifty years ago, “middle America” already yearned to make their country “great” again.

In truth it was becoming great—or better, anyway. Rosenfeld’s book, though the last pages rush through the years between 2000 and 2016, says very little about President Barack Obama, whose two terms were a model of “responsible party” politics, ideologically moored but also pragmatic and aimed at the broad middle of the electorate. It led to much good policy, and to the strong economy that is now buoying Trump’s presidency. Why does Rosenfeld have nothing to say about Obama? One answer might be that Obama was detached from the Democratic base: It steadily eroded during his two terms, especially at the all-important state level, as Nicole Narea and Alex Shephard wrote soon after Trump was elected. The Republicans, meanwhile, had diligently rebuilt from the bottom up, bringing about today’s “relentless dynamics of party polarization” and a climate of “factional chaos.”

Rosenfeld blames our current partisan gridlock on the system’s “logic of line-drawing.” But he also warns that “any plausible alternatives to the rigidities and rancor of party polarization might well prove to be something more chaotic and dangerous.” What can he mean? He points to the dangers of “pragmatic bargaining” and to the unprincipled compromises that might take the place of “effective policymaking.” This, he worries, would leave us with the same problems Schattschneider and Burns identified decades ago. Yet the last half-century of legislative history suggests something very different: The only coherent policies we’ve seen in decades—from the great civil rights legislation of the 1960s through Medicare and then Reagan’s tax reform in the 1980s—owe their passage to exactly the bipartisanship Rosenfeld finds corrupting. The lone recent instance of one-party rule creating a powerful piece of legislation is the Affordable Care Act, and the bill was vulnerable to attack precisely because no Republicans in either the House or the Senate voted for it and so had no stake in protecting it.

In one important way, however, Rosenfeld could be right about the ultimate benefits of polarization. In the Desolation Row of the Trump era, “Which side are you on?” has become the paramount question. Trump’s coarseness has invigorated the forces of resistance: A politer figure would not have given us the Access Hollywood tape, and the brazen denials afterward, and would not have fed the outrage that burst into public consciousness with the “Me Too” movement. So too Trump and Paul Ryan’s failure to come up with a workable replacement for Obamacare—a failure rooted in half a century of a “No-program program”—has given Democrats one of their most potent issues in the midterms. And the excesses of House Republicans, especially the foot soldiers in the Freedom Caucus, may well create opportunities for another disciplined group whose presence has been growing on the other side, the Congressional Black Caucus. If these changes come, polarization will be a major reason. The most enduring accomplishment of Trump and Trumpism— the latest, most decadent stage of the American right—could be the rebirth of an authentic American left.