In The Polarizers, Sam Rosenfeld details why bipartisanship was seen as a problem in the postwar period and how polarization was then cast as the solution. Republicans and Democrats feared that they were becoming too similar, and that a mushy consensus imperiled their agendas and even American democracy itself. Thus began a deliberate move to match ideology with party label—with the toxic results we now endure. Rosenfeld reveals the specific politicians, intellectuals, and operatives who worked together to heighten partisan discord, showing that our system today is not (solely) a product of gradual structural shifts but of deliberate actions motivated by specific agendas. Rosenfeld reveals that the story of Washington’s transformation is both significantly institutional and driven by grassroots influences on both the left and the right.
The Polarizers brilliantly challenges and overturns our conventional narrative about partisanship, but perhaps most importantly, it points us toward a new consensus: if we deliberately created today’s dysfunctional environment, we can deliberately change it.
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The Idea of Responsible Partisanship, 1945–1952
On November 4, 1952, Adlai Stevenson lost handily to Dwight Eisenhower in the presidential election, ending twenty years of Democratic control of the office. Over 80,000 people wrote Stevenson in the immediate aftermath of the election. One of them was the political scientist E. E. Schattschneider.
The Wesleyan professor had read newspaper reports that Stevenson was assuming the mantle of leader of the Democratic opposition, and he wrote to express his hope that this leadership would embody "a more active effective sense than that implied in the expression 'titular head' of the party." He credited Stevenson with having "done very much to interpret for the nation the idea of party government and party responsibility" and implored him to build upon the popular following and policy agenda he had established in the campaign and sustain them in opposition.
What end would this leadership serve? "The function of the Democratic party as an opposition party," Schattschneider wrote, "is to remain, first, a liberal party, and second ... to help the public understand the meaning of the liberal alternatives" to the coming Republican rule, which he was sure would be brief. Moreover, structural developments, particularly "the breakup of the Solid South, which seems now to be near at hand," might allow for a newly effective party governance when the Democrats returned to power. Thus the party should prepare now for that power and responsibility by mounting a cohesive opposition.
Adlai Stevenson responded to this letter, as he responded to the many others articulating similar arguments in the winter of 1952, with a courteous and noncommittal note of thanks, after which, it appears, the politician and the professor never communicated again. In itself, the exchange meant little. But it hinted at a postwar intellectual and political story with lasting consequences.
Schattschneider, a lifelong student of American parties, was associated more closely than any other scholar with a specific outlook on how they should function, summed up by two terms he used in the letter: "party government" and "party responsibility." Proponents of responsible party government sought to nationalize the structures of American parties that had long been patchworks of state and local organizations. They promoted programmatic parties, organized around policy positions rather than ties of tradition, patronage, or personality. And to secure democratic accountability in a system that provided voters with only two real options, they sought ways to ensure that the two parties' respective programs were at once coherent and mutually distinct. The goal, as a Schattschneider-led committee of the American Political Science Association (APSA) wrote in 1950, was a system in which the parties "bring forth programs to which they commit themselves and ... possess sufficient internal cohesion to carry out these programs."
This was a theory with intellectual roots in the turn of the century, later taken up by a set of advocates influenced by their political experiences of the 1930s and 1940s. The modern national state created by the New Deal and World War II brought with it a new politics centered on issues of federal policy. Franklin Roosevelt's presidency reshaped American liberalism as a public philosophy of government activism. But, crucially, that liberalism only partially defined the program and personnel of the party that Roosevelt led — a party that contained factions opposed to various aspects of the New Deal agenda. Liberal Democrats, frustrated with the obstacles to effective policymaking posed by dissident elements of their own party, would thus prove the most eager proponents of responsible party notions in the ensuing decades.
Seeking to ensure that the Democratic Party would "remain, first, a liberal party," such liberals targeted those Democrats whose partisan identity was not tied to the New Deal. These included the declining ranks of nonideological patronage-based organizations as well as the conservative party leaders of the Solid South. The southern bloc compromised the coherence and effectiveness of the Democratic Party in Congress and made mischief in conventions and national committee deliberations. Thus, liberals pushed for party discipline in Congress and majority rule within national party affairs. Schattschneider's heralding of two-party competition in the South, meanwhile, hinted at a logical end product of these intraparty struggles: a realigned party system structured by coherent policy agendas, consisting of one broadly liberal and one broadly conservative party.
The doctrine of responsible party government was most clearly articulated in the 1950 APSA report, Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System, whose critics responded in turn with a vigorous defense of traditional American parties as valuable forces for stabilization and inclusion. This scholarly dispute helped to set the terms of debate for conflicts that would soon erupt in the rough-and-tumble world of party politics. Indeed, the questions it touched on — about the proper function of parties, their connection to policy and ideology, and their role in the political system — were to recur in American politics for another half century.
The New Deal's Incomplete Revolution
When Franklin Roosevelt enticed Wendell Willkie in 1944 with his vision of "two real parties — one liberal and the other conservative," a top-down party realignment seemed a tantalizing possibility. Some mistimed press leaks, a spate of cold feet, and, most important, Willkie's sudden death that October all compelled the president to abandon this pursuit. But the mere fact of his overture signified how the New Deal era had provided a new impetus for the ideological realignment of the parties.
The New Deal transformed American politics but only partially transformed American parties. This sparked a revival of responsible party doctrine as both an idea and a plan of action. Government activism during the Roosevelt years centered political conflict on federal policy and inspired a new belief in the power of state intervention in markets and society. But though Roosevelt's massive electoral victories occurred under the Democratic label, the New Deal was less a party program than the agenda of a congeries of interest groups, social movements, experts, and public officials, some entirely disconnected from Democratic organizations. The New Deal's effect on the Democratic Party was dramatic, shifting its electoral center of gravity to the North, associating its national agenda with the president's liberalism, and compelling a limited but real degree of centralization in its internal affairs. Countervailing developments, however, compromised Roosevelt's leadership over his party — most important, the emergence by 1938 of an effective obstructionist coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats. Those Democrats were mainly southern, disproportionately senior, and empowered by the congressional committee system. In his famous "purge" campaign that year, Roosevelt intervened in the primary contests of leading conservative Democrats in a largely failed effort to replace them with pro–New Deal alternatives. Roosevelt explained this effort to radio audiences in explicitly ideological terms, saying that, as "head of the Democratic Party," charged with carrying out "the definitely liberal declaration of principles" in the 1936 platform, he was obligated to support liberal Democrats over conservative ones whenever possible.
Four years later, Schattschneider hailed the purge campaign as "one of the greatest experimental tests of the nature of the American party system ever made." Its failure did not put an end to liberals' interest in party realignment. The dramatic year of 1948, for example, saw upheaval within the Democratic coalition followed by a polarized general election. In a stunning demonstration of the growing party clout of northern liberals, insurgent activists at the 1948 Democratic convention succeeded in adding a forceful civil rights plank to the platform, prompting four delegations from the South to bolt and mount a third-party presidential bid. For the general election, Harry Truman's political strategists devised an aggressively liberal campaign strategy, mobilizing core New Deal constituencies like organized labor in the name of securing and expanding Franklin Roosevelt's legacy. Truman's upset victory, accomplished without the Deep South's support, accompanied the election of a slew of energetic liberal newcomers to Congress. It seemed to herald an era in which Democrats could compete nationally without their southern conservatives.
Related developments helped to channel left-liberal energies into the Democratic Party and grow a constituency for stronger discipline and ideological cohesion within it. The New Deal oriented politics around national issues while the pressures of domestic anticommunism took their toll on radical agrarian and labor politics; both developments hastened the decline of regional third-party movements, such as Minnesota's Farmer-Labor Party, after World War II. The national Progressive Party disintegrated, while the anticommunist Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) consolidated its position as an elite liberal satellite of the Democratic Party. A similar dynamic affected the political strategy of the labor movement. After flirting with third-partyism, industrial labor leaders like Walter Reuther abandoned the effort by 1947 in favor of integration into the Democratic coalition. Their long-range strategy was to partner with liberal and civil rights activists within Democratic ranks, compel the exit of illiberal blocs (chiefly southern conservatives), and achieve an ideological realignment.
Meanwhile, the failures of Truman's second term — the grinding frustrations of congressional obstruction and partisan disarray that crippled the Fair Deal domestic agenda — prompted liberal Democrats to scrutinize the institutional and political roadblocks to effective party governance. Into this setting stepped a group of political scientists, eager to help.
The Prescription of Party Responsibility
The doctrine of responsible party government originated in the scholarly writings of Progressives like Woodrow Wilson and Henry Jones Ford. In part, the New Deal and World War II–era intellectual revival of the doctrine reflected classic Progressive concerns, such as modernizing public administration and rationalizing the politics of national policy. 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. Thomas Finletter, a New York lawyer and diplomat who served as Truman's Air Force secretary, typified this reformist impulse in his 1945 book Can Representative Government Do the Job?, which warned that the political drift and division fostered by American federalism and the separation of powers imperiled the national interest in an era of global crisis. He advocated closer legislative–executive branch coordination and the abolition of such legislative "anachronisms" as the Senate filibuster, the autonomy of committees, and the seniority system, all of which impeded action and fragmented authority. Giving presidents the power to dissolve Congress and coordinating the terms and election schedules of the House, Senate, and presidency, meanwhile, would help to produce that "party discipline which alone in representative government can constitute an effective bridge between the Executive and Congress and alone can bring them to work together harmoniously."
As Finletter's prescriptions hinted, the British parliamentary system loomed large as a model in postwar reformist thinking, particularly among liberal admirers of the postwar Labor Party under Clement Attlee. The Attlee government's implementation of a sweeping program of social provision and nationalization stood in stark contrast to the deadlock and disappointments of Truman's Fair Deal. British intellectuals like Harold Laski contributed to comparative analysis of the two party systems, while young American scholars like Samuel Beer studied the dynamics of British politics for applicable lessons. "I was much influenced by the British example of strong party government getting things through the legislature," Beer recalled. "I thought, well, that's what we need: A political party which has a program that's been explained to voters who then choose this program rather than another."
To these strands of responsible party thinking, Elmer Eric Schattschneider would add both an overarching framework and a potent voice of hardnosed realism — a highly un-Progressive celebration of the raw and messy aspects of reallife democratic politics. Writing in a distinctively terse, aphoristic style, Schattschneider celebrated the restless power-seeking energies of the political parties even as he sought to transform them. He believed in the centrality of parties as organizers of conflict and generators of governing agendas, in part because he was skeptical about ordinary voters' capacity to comprehend complex policy issues. As Schattschneider wrote, "the people are a sovereign whose vocabulary is limited to two words, 'Yes' and 'No.' Moreover, they are a sovereign that can only speak when spoken to." In contrast to the Progressives, he felt that this made the parties all the more important. Progressive antipartyism had been "formulated in language which seems to condemn all partisanship for all time," he pointed out, but was in fact directed at a distinctly corrupt and reactionary political era. Its legacy was a "folklore of politics" that venerated independence to a fault. "Independence per se is a virtue, and party loyalty per se is an evil. We cling to this notion" even in the face of evidence that "independence is a synonym of ineffectiveness in a game in which teamwork produces results." The worthy Progressive goal of issue-based politics would best be achieved, Schattschneider argued, through stronger and more programmatic parties.
Schattschneider similarly eschewed the Progressive tendency toward formalism and institutional reform. Though the fragmented constitutional structure fostered similar fragmentation in the parties, he believed that a new commitment among partisans to unity could trigger far-reaching changes in the entire political system. His priority was thus political: to will discipline and organization into existence on behalf of programmatic national parties. In turn, the ceaseless electoral competition between those parties would have the happy byproduct of smashing the boss rule of urban machines and the southern gentry.
The intellectual force of Schattschneider's arguments and his infectious enthusiasm as a teacher and scholar brought him a devoted following in the 1940s. "You're the prophet," his protégé Austin Ranney wrote in 1948. "I never expect to cease being a disciple." Other influential devotees included Steven K. Bailey, who alternated between stints in government and academia throughout the 1950s; James MacGregor Burns of Williams College; and Hubert Humphrey's circle of publicly active political scientists at the University of Minnesota. Neither Schattschneider nor his allies could claim to speak for the discipline. (Harvard's V. O. Key, for one, was both somewhat skeptical of responsible party doctrine and also more broadly influential.) But Schattschneider's effectiveness at intellectual networking played a role in his appointment as chair of the APSA's new Committee on Political Parties in 1947. Indeed, he had indirectly inspired the creation of the committee by publishing an article in 1946 concerning partisan dynamics in Congress. His analysis intrigued three scholars working in federal agencies at the time, Fritz Morstein Marx, Bertram Gross, and Paul T. David, who thought a comprehensive case might be made for responsible party reforms under the imprimatur of a national commission.
Establishing that committee was one way that political scientists sought to provide prescriptive expertise in the service of planning and reform in the early postwar years — a commitment that was not to last. As the APSA put it in a 1945 manifesto, part of political scientists' task was to "spread as widely as possible a knowledge of what good government is and what its benefits are to all citizens." An immediate model for the parties committee was the Committee on Congress, which had exerted modest influence on the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. The Committee on Political Parties' stated mission was to "study the organization and operation of national political parties and elections, with a view to suggesting changes that might enable the parties and voters to fulfill their responsibilities more effectively." The group circulated a series of position memos in 1947, then held meetings over the course of 1948 and 1949.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction
1 The Idea of Responsible Partisanship, 1945–1952
2 Democrats and the Politics of Principle, 1952–1960
3 A Choice, Not an Echo, 1948–1964
4 Power in Movement, 1961–1968
5 The Age of Party Reform, 1968–1975
6 The Making of a Vanguard Party, 1969–1980
7 Liberal Alliance-Building for Lean Times, 1972–1980
8 Dawn of a New Party Period, 1980–2000
Conclusion: Polarization without Responsibility, 2000–2016
Bibliography of Archival Sources