About the polarization poisoning our politics

Summary: Here is an interesting review of an important book about the polarization poisoning our politics. Professor Rosenfeld explains its origins and effects, but gives no cures.

The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era
Available at Amazon.

Principles, Parties, and Polarization

James Bowman reviews
The Polarizers:
Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era

by Sam Rosenfeld
(assistant professor of political science at Colgate).

In the first and only political science course I ever took, just over 50 years ago, the first and almost only thing I remember learning was that the United States was different from most representative democracies in having “broker” political parties rather than the “missionary” parties that were more typical in, for example, European countries.

For historical reasons, both major parties in this country had coalesced around regional, ethnic, racial, religious, class, and cultural loyalties and only sporadically and secondarily around ideological ones. Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats were both forces to be reckoned with in their respective parties and had to be conciliated – often by what was called “balancing the ticket” – when it came to choosing candidates for national office.

Even as I sat in that classroom, however, the parties were beginning what Bill Bishop has dubbed “The Big Sort.” The Democrats were to take the lead, after the upheavals of 1968 and Hubert Humphrey’s loss to Richard Nixon, in purging their (mainly Southern) conservative bloc – which Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” had been designed to welcome into the Republican party.

Yet, as Sam Rosenfeld shows in The Polarizers, the work of ideological homogenization performed by George McGovern and liberal congressman Don Fraser of Minnesota with the Democrats’ Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection (better known as the McGovern-Fraser Commission) in the runup to the 1972 campaign was not entirely original to them. It had been anticipated by Paul Butler’s chairmanship of the DNC in the 1950s – and, before him, by the Progressives of the Woodrow Wilson era, for whom, Rosenfeld writes, “making the parties more cohesive and programmatic was bound up in a broader reform project aimed at adapting America’s cumbersome and antiquated constitutional structure to the needs of a modern industrial and military state.”

Male deer fighting, horn to horn
© | Dreamstime

Butler’s efforts on behalf of what he called “party government” or “party responsibility” and what James Q. Wilson called “amateur Democrats” had been successfully opposed by the party’s professionals of the period, especially by the bosses of big-city political machines (referred to euphemistically by Rosenfeld at one point as “nonideological patronage-based organizations”), as well as by Southern Democratic leaders in Congress – Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson in particular. Such men were far from alone at the time in seeing the old, nonideological party system as the route to a peculiarly American kind of consensus politics.

“The parties have been the peacemakers of the American community,” wrote Clinton Rossiter in Party Politics in America (1960), “the unwitting but forceful suppressors of the ‘civil-war potential’ we carry always in the bowels of our diverse nation. Blessed are the peacemakers, I am tempted to conclude.” As late as 1968…

“as one analyst [Charles Ogden Jr.] put it, Butler’s commitment to implementing responsible party principles betrayed a disastrous misunderstanding of the American system, where federalism and the separation of powers demanded that parties serve as “arenas of compromise” – decentralized “multi-group associations with liberal and conservative wings.” To those skeptical of the responsible party vision …the very “irresponsibility” of American parties was a feature rather than a bug.”

Today it is easy to forget the extent to which Johnson had governed by consensus before his presidency foundered on the rock of Vietnam. “Of all the major Great Society laws passed between 1964 and 1967,” writes Rosenfeld, “only one, the Economic Opportunity Act encompassing several War on Poverty programs, failed to garner at least 25% of Republican votes in both chambers. Most enjoyed significantly larger percentages than that.”

Various events and trends – Johnson’s decision not to run again in 1968, demographic shifts away from the cities (and thus machine politics), and a gradual erosion of the power of the Democratic party’s conservative congressional leadership – all conspired to provide McGovern, Fraser, and their progressive allies in the party with a window…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.