The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

People used to joke about ‘Democrats in disarray.’ They’re not joking now.

The comedian Will Rogers famously joked: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” Until relatively recently, neither Republicans nor Democrats were particularly organized. Instead, they were loose coalitions of politicians with very different ideologies. Sam Rosenfeld is an assistant professor at Colgate University. His recent book, “The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era,” describes how the parties changed. I asked him questions about the book and the recent resurgence of the Democratic left wing.

H.F.: Pundits and political scientists once complained that American political parties were too middle-of-the-road and thought that more polarization would be a good thing. Why?

S.R.: Those who made these complaints at mid-century were driven in part by their normative understanding of how democracy should work. The doctrine of Responsible Party Government led them to criticize bipartisan policymaking and the lack of political polarization. They saw this as blurring accountability, since it robbed voters of the ability to hold identifiable politicians responsible at the next election.

But they were also engaged political actors who wanted to promote their political factions and achieve their policy goals. On the left, liberal Democrats in the early postwar era saw the party’s conservative Southern faction, empowered by the congressional committee system, as the chief obstacle to pushing the party in a social democratic and pro-civil-rights direction. On the right, conservative Republicans railed against their moderate fellow party members (eventually including President Eisenhower) for alleged accommodationism to Democrats. Both sides had reasons to prefer a system in which the parties had clearer ideological identities — no more obstruction by dissident Southern Dems! No more quisling “me-too” Republicans! Each side assumed that it would benefit electorally under such circumstances.    

H.F.: In the 1960s, U.S. political parties were seen, as you describe them, as “big tents that mitigated rather than clarified conflict.” What were the advantages and disadvantages of this approach?

S.R.: I’m answering this question just after a federal government shutdown, which reminds us how the old depolarized system was less vulnerable to grinding dysfunction and self-induced crisis. Ideologically overlapping and decentralized parties made it easy to build ad hoc coalitions and instilled norms that helped underpin the basic functioning of the system as well as a certain kind of legislative productivity.

Except for extraordinary moments like the New Deal and the Great Society, however, lawmaking tended to be parochial and incremental, instead of comprehensive and programmatically coherent. Politics was dominated by clubby arrangements that were nontransparent and insulated from popular participation. This meant that the system could only deal with limited kinds of issues and conflicts, which explains why the social movements of the 1960s were so disruptive.

H.F.: How did civil rights for African Americans shake up this old system for both Democrats and Republicans?

S.R.: The contingent fact that the Democratic Party was both the champion of activist liberalism and the party of the Jim Crow South — as Ira Katznelson describes it, a “marriage of Sweden and South Africa” — lay at the heart of the depolarized mid-century system. By the 1940s, an alliance of civil rights advocates, labor organizations and liberal activists was making civil rights a pillar of the Democratic agenda. On the other side of the aisle, conservatives adopted an anti-civil-rights stance, ostensibly on constitutional grounds, and began pushing for a party realignment where the GOP would ally with Southern whites.

These two long-term projects, together with Supreme Court decisions, led to African Americans aligning themselves with the Democrats, and rural white Southern conservatives starting to defect to the Republicans, making the parties more ideologically different from each other, too. The parties became more ideologically different from each other across the entire country, on issues that weren’t directly connected to race. Even so, it was the long civil rights struggle that was the fulcrum for ideological polarization.

H.F.: In the early 1970s, President Nixon toyed with a plan called Operation Switch Over that would have courted anti-civil-rights Southern Democrats into a new Republican coalition that might have mixed racist appeals to whites with high Social Security spending and a guaranteed income. What might have happened if this racialized Keynesianism had been implemented, and did this prefigure some of the arguments that Donald Trump made on the campaign trail before he converted to Republican orthodoxy?

S.R.: Counterfactuals are a tricky business. Changes in the later-1970s political economy arguably helped enable conservatives to avoid making the tough choice some had thought would be necessary — to ditch their opposition to the state and build a majority based on right-populist cultural politics. Instead, the conservative-controlled GOP was able to sustain and even intensify an anti-government economic agenda while winning elections and voter allegiances largely around identity and culture.

That agenda remains unpopular, however, and Trump exploited the gap between the party’s elites and its voters by abandoning conservative economic orthodoxy during his campaign and still walking away with the nomination. Even if Trump has only delivered on his campaign promises on trade, he has shown that a right-populist political project still has electoral potential.

H.F.: The Democratic Party is seeing new battles between centrists who would prefer greater accommodation with donors and the other side, and a left (led by new stars such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) who are pushing for a more ideologically unified and oppositional party. How much do these fights replicate the Democratic disputes of previous decades, and how much are they new?

S.R.: What’s notable about the current situation is that the centrists aren’t putting up much of a fight at all — certainly not one with any sense of an underlying vision behind it or a factional esprit de corps. All of the energy, motivation and commitment is coming from the left and has been for several years now.

I think the grass-roots energy powering pols like Bernie Sanders and Alex Ocasio-Cortez belongs to an underappreciated tradition of left-liberal activism within the party that stretches back at least to the labor activists and “amateur” Democrats of the mid-20th century. Across the decades, left-liberal Democrats have argued for a more ideologically cohesive and ambitious agenda and more disciplined and hard-charging partisanship, to make the party into a vehicle for social democracy. The ideological space separating the dueling factions has arguably become much smaller, as the party system has ‘sorted’ liberals into the Democratic Party. If Hillary Clinton or even Henry Cuellar are the intraparty bete noirs of the left, rather than Howard Smith and James Eastland, something’s changed.