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