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 of opportunity that had been denied Butler.

Meanwhile, across the aisle, the shakeout of liberal Republicans that had come with the Goldwater candidacy in 1964 proved to be less than permanent after he lost – but the ruin of the Nixon presidency and the electoral losses of 1974 and 1976 gave new heart and ultimate success to the conservative insurgency represented by Ronald Reagan’s primary campaigns of 1976 and 1980. Conservative dominance of the party was solidified with Reagan’s victory in the latter year’s general election, although it took a bit longer for the last liberal Republicans to be made to feel unwelcome in their party.

To some political junkies, reading Sam Rosenfeld’s book will be an exercise in almost unbearable nostalgia for that world of political stability and comity and the kind of genuine debate that can only come with mutual respect between those of differing political points of view – as we can see now that both genuine debate and mutual respect appear to have vanished from our politics. Such things are themselves anathematized by the culturally dominant left as part of the institutionalization of all that they most hate about the American past – that is, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. at home and quasi-imperialism abroad. Even to wish for a return of what was good in the past is to make oneself complicit in what the rising generation is being taught to regard as its crimes.

This must be part of what accounts for the acrimonious “polarization” of today’s political culture, though that seems too mild a word to describe what we see routinely hurled by each side against the other on Twitter. Back in Paul Butler’s day, says Rosenfeld, “consistent majorities of Americans” did not want ideological parties. To the extent that that changed during the 1960s it was largely as a result of “the explosion of the long civil rights struggle into a mass movement of direct action and moral reckoning” – which, accordingly, introduced an element of moralizing into the rest of our politics that has since become a habit, exacerbating what Rossiter called (borrowing from Austin Ranney and Willmoore Kendall) the “civil-war potential” that has lately come to seem so much closer to actual.

Lyndon Johnson may have put it best when he said that “what the man on the street wants is not a big debate on fundamental issues; he wants a little medical care, a rug on the floor, a picture on the wall” and “the biggest threat to American stability is the politics of principle.” Or, in the Rosenfeld summation, “he implied that Americans shared core premises and sought from politics only incremental improvements.” But Johnson had the misfortune of coming to the presidency in a time when both the New Left of the Students for a Democratic Society and the New Right, as represented by William F. Buckley’s National Review, were united in their celebration of a new politics of principle – something to which we have by now grown so accustomed that it seems strange even to question it.

In reading the book, there are moments when one is inclined to suspect that Rosenfeld is trying to demonstrate his own version of that time-honored tactic of the left, which is to bog down committee meetings in such boring detail that all those with a less herculean tolerance for tedium than the zealots themselves – like some of those on the McGovern-Fraser committee – go home, leaving the latter in possession of the field and the committee. This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but it is also a tribute to the meticulousness of his scholarship in reconstructing such a difficult and complicated history, one that was complicated, at least in part, deliberately: in order to disguise its aims from the observation of the less left-wing and the less dedicated.

Unfortunately, Rosenfeld’s scholarly energy appears to flag toward the end of the book. The 1990s are treated only cursorily and the 2000s hardly at all, even though they have seen the election of the most polarizing president since the Civil War. Surely the 2016 election and its aftermath deserve more examination and explanation than Rosenfeld gives them here. His notion of the “rightward movement of both major parties” seems badly out of date, and his argument that Democratic liberalism did not die out under the “New Democrats” of the 1990s is as redundant as the New Democrats themselves in the era of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Bill Clinton’s attempts in the 1990s at “triangulation” were designed to mitigate partisan animosities but only succeeded in increasing them. This happened, I think, because of a gratuitous moralization of politics that, indeed, built upon the “principled” politics of the 1970s and 1980s but that, as government has been increasingly taken out of the hands of elected officials and put into those of judges and unelected bureaucrats, has taken a side-turn into virtue signaling. Nor should we neglect the role of the media and their incessant hunt for scandal, in which they have now been joined by politicians themselves, who don’t seem to have anything better to do.

All this has made polarization into at least as much a social as it is a political phenomenon, and it has enabled Donald Trump to appeal over the heads of both parties to popular (and populist) resentment against what he calls “the swamp” – widely understood to comprise both an unelected but governing elite and a broad bipartisan consensus among elected officials that belies all their fierce and allegedly polarizing rhetoric.

In response, the scandalmongering has become so routine that even if Trump were, as he is so often said to be, the most scandalous president in our history, no one not committed to one side or another in the political wars could ever know it, since that kind of claim and counterclaim is just how we do our political business nowadays. If this is where “party responsibility” and “principle” have led us, maybe it’s time for a rethink.


About the author

Sam Rosenfeld is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colgate University. He has a PhD in History from Harvard and studies parties and American political development. That includes the history of political parties, the intersection of social movements and formal politics, and the politics of social and economic policymaking. See him on Twitter, his page at Colgate, and his website.

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8 thoughts on “About the polarization poisoning our politics”

  1. Pingback: About the polarization poisoning our politics | Vote.net

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “Is James Bowman a political scientist”

      Please read more carefully. Bowman is reporting about the book, whose author is Sam Rosenfeld — a assistant professor of political science at Colgate.

      “in the sense that you are an ‘editor’?”

      As for the FM website: it has had almost ten million pageviews and 56 thousand comments on its 4486 posts, which were written by over 125 authors. Its posts are widely republished, including at websites with far larger audiences.

      Check back when you’ve done better.

  2. Will have to read the book. Johnson’s quoted remark, “the biggest threat to American stability is the politics of principle”, was profound. A level of detached insight one would not have expected from him.

    As well as a move to ideological differences between the parties, the social aspect of polarization seems to be that issues which are not logically related are becoming clustered together socially. Because the policies are clustered together, people decide their view of them based on their choice of ideology. Then, having made the choice of policy or attitude on a given issue, they are unable to look objectively at the evidence used to justify them.

    You see it most clearly on climate, but you also find it in the politics of gender, and you find a lack of dissent and argument in the place where you’d expect it on the grounds of the reasonableness of the policies, namely the wars. It seems like the wars are uniformly supported on both left and right in America almost without debate. Its like the only issues that get debated are those which have turned into critical markers of where on the spectrum you are.

    So there are two losses in fact. One is that rational debate about the usefulness of policies and the factual justification for them has vanished. Its just a matter of ‘which side are you on?’

    The other is that really important policy choices have vanished from the policy debate just because you can take any position you like on them without having to move from one party to the other. So they are not worth arguing about.

    Some of this is American exceptionalism. I don’t think, for instance, that there is the same association between climate alarmism and left politics in the UK or Europe that there is in the US. You can think Paris was a crock and be either left or right, in a way that isn’t a feature of the US scene.

    Its a deeply alarming cultural development in America to anyone who remembers the America of the 1960s with its energy, hopefulness and (relative) fiscal responsibility.

  3. Larry,

    Haven’t politics always been this way? even going back to the founding of the country?

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Politics, like all aspect of society, is about magnitudes and mixtures of phenomena. Not, for example, polarization or not polarized.

      The US has had periods of polarization. The Founding thru Jackson was one. Probably inevitable during the early days of the First and Second Republics, but led to a stable system. Slavery created a second polarized period, as compermises failed as both sides demanded a binary solution.

      The post-WWII era was unusually unpolarized, by US standards — by most metrics.

      Part of this is that there are many ways to define and to measure polarization. For example, by looking at public opinion OR by party structure.

    2. I think what’s different about the present situation is that the division is not on one issue. There were deep and strongly felt divisions on slavery, on the New Deal, perhaps on entry into the 20C European wars, but I have the impression they were divisions on the particular issue.

      Here we have something different, people deciding that they have to take a position on a whole range of unrelated issues. Climate change, for instance, if we see the right dismissing it, we have to believe its real and important. Or the reverse for the right, we see the left adopting it, it has to be wrong. Gender issues similarly.

      Its self reinforcing – once the left takes a view and the right dissents, the fact of this dissent on the right persuades the left that its righteous to differ. The right (or the left) is evil, after all, and everything they think is wrong, so its obvious.

      And in public discourse, it becomes increasingly impossible to discuss the evidence, the debate consists increasingly only of name calling, all social media sites censor opposing points of view, and we end up in a series of echo chambers.

      I think this is probably new. And probably, at least in degree, unique to America.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        (1) “on the New Deal,”

        Opposition to the New Deal was not on one issue. The New Deal was a fundamental restructuring of the relationships of citizen and businesses to the State. That it was packaged into a political platform did not make it one issue.

        The various issues dividing us today could be repackaged — and might be repackaged — into one or two platforms with catchy names. But that would not make them one issue.

        (2) “Its self reinforcing – once the left takes a view and the right dissents, the fact of this dissent on the right persuades the left that its righteous to differ.”

        False. There are large areas of bipartisanship, where only the extremes dissent. For example, the surveillance state and our foreign wars are not even political issues (as seen in their absence in 2016 campaign) today.

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