Review: Two Books on the Recent History of PolarizationHistorians in the News
tags: Republican Party, Michael Kazin, political history, polarization, Democratic Party
Paul Starr is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, and professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University.
What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party by Michael Kazin, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party by Dana Milbank, Doubleday
Three historic changes in the major parties and their social foundations have shaped American politics as we know it today.
The first, beginning in the mid-20th century, was the racial and regional realignment that has made the Democratic Party the home of Black Americans and majorities of other people of color, while enabling the Republicans not only to capture most Southern states but to become the majority party of white America.
The second was an independent though related cultural shift, in which women, people with nonconforming gender identities, and the more secular, urban, and better-educated moved toward the Democrats, while the more religious, rural, and less-educated, particularly men, moved into the Republican Party. The combined effect of these two general processes was to make the Democrats the party of racial and cultural transformation, while the Republicans became the across-the-board party of backlash even as they remained the party of business.
The third change has come as a shock, though perhaps it should have been anticipated as a result of the first two. This was the collapse of the center-right, the takeover of the Republican Party by its ethnonationalist right wing, and the resulting uncertainty as to whether Republicans can still be counted on to follow the basic rules of democratic government, like giving up power after losing an election.
While not framing recent changes in these terms, two new books about the parties—the historian Michael Kazin’s What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party and the journalist Dana Milbank’s The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party—help us think about the astonishing transformation that has overtaken the parties and put the survival of American democracy in serious doubt.
Kazin’s book is a sweeping history of the Democrats from the party’s origins in the early 19th century down to the present. Running through What It Took to Win is the idea that what it took was, first of all, persuasively argued commitments “to make the economy serve ordinary people” and, second, the construction of effective organizations to recruit candidates, turn out voters, and absorb the “energies of rising social movements.” The party was able to do those things during the only two periods when it had “durable majorities,” from the late 1820s to the mid-1850s and from the 1930s to the late 1960s.
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