How Democrats and Republicans Pulled the Stakes out of the “Big Tents”

The supposedly new level of hostility between our parties in the last decade-plus is often explained by each side’s reactions to threats and insults—intense reactions, followed by intense counter-reactions. Among the more recent developments said to have generated this polarizing momentum: the hatred aimed at George W. Bush after the Iraq War, the hatred aimed at Barack Obama . . . and now the Age of Trump, caused by Trump. But these are symptoms far more than causes. The causes are less dramatic and more lasting. They are structural. As the young political historian Sam Rosenfeld of Colgate University shows in The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era, important political players worked for half a century to redefine both parties as starkly contrasting ideological forces.

Their success in this project is the main reason for today’s partisan polarization. When a party’s control of the White House or Congress has clear ideological implications, people who prefer the opposite set of beliefs, or fear the beliefs that seem to be in power, can be expected to take it badly. Their responses, in turn, are likely to upset the other side. The basic mechanism perpetuating this dynamic is the change (or continuance) in the partisan balance of power which results every two years from our national elections. The polarizers whose success Rosenfeld chronicles made elections more promising for people who wanted coherent, ideologically identifiable agendas enacted. But for the same reason, their achievement made Americans more fearful about politics.

Why these wide-ranging efforts to ideologize the Democratic and Republican parties? Although many citizens find the current polarization strange and frustrating, they might find non-polarized parties at least as strange, and just as frustrating, if they traveled back 60 years. They might decide the polarizers mostly improved our system.

The Two Parties’ Big Tents Start to Shrink

There was some merit in the insistence of politicians like New York’s Republican Governor Thomas Dewey in 1950 and Vice President Richard Nixon in 1959, and political scientists like Edward Banfield in 1964, that the relatively non-ideological party system of the mid-20th century, with its diversity within parties, was best for America and should be defended. These men believed that ideologized, homogeneous parties would present serious dangers.

Rosenfeld respectfully acknowledges this point of view. He also notes, in his conclusion, that the polarized, agenda-focused parties we have today must work within a constitutional system whose “separated powers, myriad veto points, and staggered elections” (for the two elected branches and for the Senate) make it hard for them to deliver on their promises.

But the polarizers—with whom he largely sympathizes, at least on the Democratic side, and most of whom cannot fairly be dismissed as extremists—had good reasons for wanting to change things. Liberals couldn’t trust a Democratic Party that had within it legions of conservative politicians, predominantly from a segregated South that increasingly seemed alien to the liberals’ and many other Americans’ values. Conservatives couldn’t trust a Republican Party whose Northeastern elite leaned liberal and showed them a sometimes blatant disdain. In one of National Review’s founding statements in 1955, the consensus-oriented watchwords that seemed dominant ideals at the time—national unity, middle of the road, bipartisanship—were denounced as “fatuous and unreasoned slogans.” Against what it saw as this evasion of major differences among Americans NR would advocate “restoration of the two-party system at all costs.”

The notably non-ideological 1956 election, in which the new conservative magazine refused to endorse President Eisenhower for a second term, occasioned equal discouragement among some Democrats. It “was over before the campaign began,” said Senator Herbert Lehman (D-N.Y.). Congressional Democrats, even though they held slight majorities in the House and Senate, had failed to present the issues in the past two years. “On the contrary, almost everything the leadership did . . . was designed to prevent any controversial issue from being seriously joined or vigorously debated.”

Conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats increasingly worked to make their parties more homogeneous. Or, as they would put it, to stand united for clear principles—for the Democrats, strong civil rights laws, new heights of government social spending, and (later) more regulation; for the Republicans, reductions in government, the at least rhetorical advocacy of traditional social values plus government backing for them, and stronger anticommunism in foreign policy. But as is usually true when our parties are carefully examined, the histories of the Democratic and Republican transformations into much more internally consistent ideological advocates are not symmetrical.

The main strength of The Polarizers is its richly detailed account of how the institutional Democratic Party changed—of how, indeed, it changed to the point that Bernie Sanders came close to winning its nomination in 2016. Rosenfeld has twice as many pages on the Democrats as on the Republicans. Still, his accurate account of the GOP’s evolution is noteworthy in at least two ways. He points out various calls by significant figures for a more right-wing party as early as the late 1940s, and he shows the extent of national chairman Bill Brock’s cooperation in this transformation in the late 1970s—especially in the establishment of supply-side tax cuts as a common GOP message.

Two Crucial Leaders on the GOP Side

A fuller account of the Republicans might have given more attention to the roles of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, as distinct from the activists who favored them and the appetite within the party for ideological or principled agendas.

The beginnings of the Republican transformation predated (but are most clearly manifest in) the successful campaign to make Senator Goldwater the GOP’s presidential candidate, against seemingly steep odds and over howls of protest from the party’s moderates. With the election coming just after the traumatizing Kennedy assassination, Goldwater did not expect to win in 1964. He also doubted his ability to be an adequate President. But he felt a duty to run, for the sake of his enthusiasts and especially college-age conservatives, many assembled in a feisty new group called Young Americans for Freedom. “Lose the election,” he reportedly told his wife, “but win the party.” What if he hadn’t run?

Then, two years after Goldwater’s epic defeat, Reagan was elected Governor of Democratic-leaning California by a million votes and quickly became many conservatives’ national champion. In 1976 he lost his challenge to President Ford’s nomination, but if he had lost badly—had been driven from the race by consistently bad primary results—it’s hard to imagine him running for President again, let alone winning.

It was Reagan’s decision to shake off his relative vagueness in the early primaries and run a briskly ideological campaign against the Ford-Kissinger détente foreign policy, plus the strong backing of national conservative groups and the statewide organization of Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), that won him the North Carolina primary. This led to a string of additional victories, which made the race for the nomination a close one and allowed Reagan to capture (in part through his spontaneous speech at the convention) the hearts of many Republican regulars, not just the “movement” conservatives who were mostly with him all along. Remember, too, that in the general election, Ford almost defeated Jimmy Carter. If he had continued to occupy the White House into the late 1970s, it is unlikely Reagan would ever have reached it.

Without the Right’s two symbolic leaders, it’s not clear that the Republican Party would have become as conservative as it did, because conservative activists and candidates—as distinct, perhaps, from major conservative donors—have the political disadvantage of representing a set of ideals, not a tight integration of ideals and tangible interests as liberals or progressives do. (The one tangible interest in keeping with their principles that clearly applies to great numbers of conservatives is every taxpayer’s self-interest—less strongly felt among the Democrats—in paying less to the government.) Principles as such are less politically compelling to voters if they have only limited support from definite self-interest. But principles plus compelling candidates can be enough. Conservatives, then, may need national leaders more than liberals do.

Goldwater and Reagan were not just aligned with many Republicans’ beliefs, but commanded great personal loyalty from them as well. The conservatives who worked to polarize the Republican Party in the sense of radically opposing it to the Democrats, and who eventually achieved their goal, probably needed Goldwater’s and Reagan’s galvanizing qualities in order to fight campaigns. The battle of ideas probably would not have sufficed. To unite the party and win the presidency despite the fact that many Republicans, and what political science calls “the median voter,” were somewhat to their left, the conservative polarizers also needed Reagan’s brilliant ability to play politics as the prudent game of addition it most certainly is.

No One Was Really Crucial on the Democratic Side

There are no comparably key personalities, it seems to me, in the activist liberals’ ideologization of the Democratic Party. Interest-group politics appears to have been more fundamental to its leftward transition. Two of the major developments Rosenfeld cites, both in the 1970s, are the left-leaning activists’ success in “consolidating a new coalition of groups, interests, and movements as the grassroots organizational base” of the party, and congressional Democrats’ growing ideological cohesion in voting on legislation, due partly to new centralizing procedures established by Speaker Tip O’Neill and other leaders in the House of Representatives.

This book’s clear, excellently researched account of the activists’ step-by-step triumph leaves the reader with the impression that, despite a few dramatic episodes along the way, the Democrats’ conversion into a consistently big-government and socially liberal party was nearly inevitable once a single decisive change had occurred: the party leaders’ sacrifice of the support of the anti-civil rights “Dixiecrats,” a sporadic drama that began in 1948 with the risky adoption of Hubert Humphrey’s civil rights plank in the Democratic platform and culminated in the civil rights laws of the 1960s. Presidential candidacies during the party’s leftward evolution (Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, Jesse Jackson in the 1980s) seem secondary when compared with the marginalization of the Dixiecrats.

The leftward evolution was effected, as Rosenfeld shows, through a largely bureaucratic process driven by activists working within the Democratic Party’s system. This involved a makeover of the party to more strongly reflect its solid, or prospectively solid, constituencies. Initially the Vietnam War opponents, and then, a bit later, ideologically passionate interest groups (including an alliance of unions that prominently featured the United Auto Workers) executed a self-reinforcing sequence of organizational moves and demands in the party. They did so tirelessly, with an impressive mutual cooperation. But they were, as Rosenfeld describes at least part of this period, “to a great extent . . . pushing through an open door.”

Due to the seeming weakness of the opposition to them within the party, the process was also, at least as we read of it in The Polarizers, lacking in grandeur, color, and narrative tension. Although gradual, as are most (if not all) political developments of any depth, it took a lot of stamina but not necessarily much imagination or courage.

Mayor Daley, Non-Ideological Vestige

Following the vast cultural sea change of the late 1960s, Mayor Daley’s machine Democrats, who were unseated as delegates by left-wing and reformist fellow Chicagoans, had no business anyway at a 1972 convention that was about to nominate Senator McGovern (D-S.D.). Since so many of their constituents were part of President Nixon’s “silent majority” or close enough to it, and traditional machine politics was ill-suited to the new era of ideology, they might as well have stayed away from Miami Beach that year. Although the Democrats had already, and quite understandably, shrugged off the segregationists, a party committed to civil rights legislation need not have shrugged off the non-segregationist social conservatives of the white working class in addition. But in reading The Polarizers, one gathers that Democratic leaders were afraid, or more likely just unwilling, to say “no” to the more ideological side of the labor movement, the post-1960s racial activists, and the militant  feminists.

The Democratic leaders seem, I think correctly, to have regarded the ideologues generally as family, as many Rockefeller-Eisenhower-Dewey Republicans did not view the Goldwaterites, and many George H.W. Bush Republicans did not view the Religious Right or even the core Reaganites. (“You don’t have to like your family,” it has been said, “but you have to help them.”) The Democrats’ great hero, after all, and one as firmly cast in that role as Reagan has been for the Republicans, was Franklin D. Roosevelt—an eminently practical politician, but hardly an example of the 1950s “end of ideology” moderation that frustrated left-leaning Democrats at the time (including Eleanor Roosevelt and her allies, such as Humphrey and the party’s energetically polarizing national chairman, Paul Butler, who figures prominently in the book).

The Polarizers would have been even better, therefore, had it discussed the possibility of a decisive unity in principle, even without the polarizers, in the post-1964 Democratic Party.