The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and How to Break It

The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and How to Break It

by Stanley B. Greenberg

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The 2000 presidential left the world standing still, but it was no fluke. America is divided right down the middle - the product of a half-century, unique in our country's history, of inconclusive, increasingly heated partisan battle. Tantalizingly close to victory, each party inflames and mobilizes its most loyal supporters and battles to gain even a small edge with some contested groups. Politics has become culture war - a fight about values, faith, the family, how people should live their lives. The result: partisans are more partisan, politics more polarized, America more divided.

The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and How to Break It tells the history of each party's failed efforts to dominate the era's politics and ideas, radically changing the political landscape. The book provides an in-depth guide to the new groups at the center of our politics. Internationally renowned political strategist and pollster Stanley Greenberg puts the reader in the room with the strategists and politicians and shows how each party can win, even shatter the impasse.

The Two Americas is a political primer and strategic playbook for this unique era - essential reading for any armchair political strategist or engaged citizen eager to understand our future politics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466881761
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/23/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 659,080
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Stanley B. Greenberg is CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. He has served as advisor and pollster to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröeder and Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. He was key to the war room team that last defeated President Bush and is also the author of Middle Class Dreams.

STANLEY B. GREENBERG is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller It's the Middle Class, Stupid! and polling adviser to presidents, prime ministers, and CEOs across the globe. He lives in Connecticut and Washington, D.C., with his wife, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).

Read an Excerpt

The Two Americas

Our Current Political Deadlock and How to Break It

By Stanley B. Greenberg

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2005 Stanley B. Greenberg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8176-1



Our country has certainly produced other very tight, inconclusive, and disputed elections — including the election of 1800 when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied the Electoral College, which threw the election into the House of Representatives; 1824 when a four-way race allowed John Quincy Adams to become president with only 31 percent of the popular vote and fewer electoral votes than Andrew Jackson; 1876 when the Republicans had to negotiate away Reconstruction and the rights of blacks to vote in order to settle the Electoral College impasse; and the post-Reconstruction elections (1880, 1884, 1888) when all were decided by less than 1 percentage point. In the same decade, the congressional parties became locked in parity, with the Republicans finishing the decade with a two-seat majority.

But the contested elections, no matter how dramatic, do not characterize our history the way the elections of 1960 and 2000 characterize our current untamed era. For most of our history before 1952, one of the major political parties was dominant electorally and hegemonic in the area of ideas and policy, elevating some issues central to their purpose and identity and suppressing, when possible, those they cannot handle effectively. The hegemonic parties became associated with a particular direction for the country, resolving some important dispute or issue, and defined the nation in a particular way — before giving way to another party and usually a new set of issues and social cleavages.

This argument about party dominance and hegemony is minimalist in terms of the heated debates in the political science literature, though not minimalist in terms of our understanding of the current era. This analysis of party dominance does not require "realigning elections" — historic elections, like 1932, everybody's agreed realigning election — where the deck is reshuffled for some decades to come. Nor does the argument of this book require the hypothesized patterns sometimes associated with realignment, such as surges in voter turnout, pioneering third-party activity, enhanced ideological polarization, or spans of unified party control of the Congress.

The country has periods of party dominance when the following is true:

1. One party wins the overwhelming majority of elections during a period. A party is dominant when it wins the presidency and is in control of the White House and the executive branch for extended periods, often decades. The party's capture of the presidency is usually made possible by changes evident in earlier elections, but for our purposes, it is becoming the dominant national party that creates periods for potential hegemony.

2. The dominant party is associated with a set of ideas or beliefs, a position on a critical issue of the day, or maybe just a perspective about the proper direction for America. The dominant parties in these periods do not necessarily win election on these issues or ideas; voters may choose them for many reasons — spoils of office, stands on wars long past, settlement of some sectional issue. But their stand on important issues and on grappling with some national challenge is associated with their entrenchment in office and hold on the presidency.

3. The dominant party's hold on the presidency begins to give way when, among other reasons, it cannot handle rising issues or conflicts. The dominant party has a vested interest in the dominant issues and conflicts, where it has marginalized its opponents. But its consolidation of power around the old issues makes it unsuited to deal with new, emerging issues and divisions. Its hold on power may be destabilized and soon give way.


The Jeffersonian Republicans

The Jeffersonian Republicans, forerunners of the Democrats later in the century, held the presidency through six successive terms — two each for Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. It was hard to know in this new nation that the factions would soon evolve into parties, as Madison warned of them in Federalist Paper Number 10 and Jefferson described them as the "last degradation of a free and moral agent." In some sense, the "Virginia dynasty" won dominance on the cheap; few voters actually participated in elections, about a third in the first decade of the nineteenth century, and party competition resembled more a fight among elite factions. Moreover, the Federalists, with no stronghold outside of New England and little support for their aristocratic posture, failed to compete from the beginning and fell into disrepute with New England's stern opposition to the War of 1812. Electoral competition was effectively over by 1820.

Democrats in the remainder of the century would look back to the Jeffersonian Republicans as formative figures — not just because of their revolutionary role but also because of the ideas they advanced for the new nation.

But Jeffersonian "principles" soon became the stuff of Democratic Party hacks and heroes, up until William Jennings Bryan took the stage. Jefferson stood against Hamilton's statist ideas — for "good administration" and an expansive executive, for an empowered federal government, with a capacity for managing finance, taking control of debt and banking, and encouraging manufacture. Hamilton had wanted to "unite the interest and credit of rich individuals with those of the state" in order to foster economic growth. The Jeffersonians, in heated contrast, proposed to limit the intrusiveness of the federal government in the market. Instinctively, the Jeffersonians aligned themselves with the likes of the Whiskey Rebellion and thus with popular rule over federal authority. Jefferson set out his party's core principle as "equal rights for all, special privileges for none," thus ennobling the ordinary producer and landowner, and diminishing the status of the privileged, requiring deference. He heralded a "civic virtue" where "free [white] men" would make proper judgments about issues of public importance. His hope was for a nation of "freeholders."

Ignoring whether Jefferson and his successors consistently governed by those principles, their unhindered dominance and the evaporation of the Federalists settled some big issues for the new nation. "Why did the first party system disintegrate?" Jacksonian historian Richard P. McCormick answers his own question, "Because the chief purpose for which it has been formed had lost its urgency." Perhaps Louis Hartz is right that politics in America was then left free to develop, but within the parameters of a Lockean consensus.

Jacksonian Democrats

Andrew Jackson's election in 1828 kicks off the second period of party dominance, putting the Democrats in the White House for six of the next eight elections, but this time with genuine popular engagement and real parties rather than factions or clans. Turnout jumped from 26.9 percent in 1824 to 57.6 percent in 1828. This was a tumultuous period, with the country swept by very big crosscurrents — the rise of manufacture and mills, large-scale immigration and the nativist reaction, and the extension of slavery into the frontier and the Free-Soil reaction. Andrew Jackson won the presidency as a populist figure, war hero, and vulgar man by Washington standards who allowed the multitude to swarm the White House. On the big "questions" of the day, however, for the resurgent Democrats, one observer noted, "There was no clear-cut party stand." That Jackson himself had no discernible positions on these issues made it easier for the party leaders to construct a flexible agenda for the elections. As one political scientist observed crisply, "It was not a tidy political event."

But the Jacksonian Democrats emerged with their gut sensibilities and philosophy of government and citizens consistent in content if not style with those of their adopted Jeffersonian forebears. They gained clarity in opposition to Henry Clay's "American system" — where the government expanded credit, protected industry, and financed internal improvement — for the purpose of promoting America's modernization. But while the Whig opponents proffered a government that "should exert a beneficial, paternal, fostering influence upon the Industry and Prosperity of the People," the Democrats wanted to stop government from overreaching. The Democrats, as they put it, preferred "the voluntary system"; "they desire to drive no man." Government, they believed, is inherently corrupt and bound to fall into the hands of the "rich and powerful." Thus, President Jackson waged war and defeated the United States Bank, and President Van Buren deployed Democrats against the "privileged banking corporations," the "self-constituted, dangerous and irresponsible power." In that spirit, they opposed high tariffs that protect manufacture, arguing that this is really a "system" for "plundering the laboring classes." The Democrats assumed to themselves a "special guardianship" over the principles of the Constitution, to block those who would expand government with a "doctrine of expediency and general welfare."

The Democrats sought to center America in the "common man" — the central passion of their politics. Jackson joined the "planters and farmers" to the "mechanics and laborers" in opposition to "monopoly power," or more aptly, against the forces driving America's commercial development. In his farewell address, Jackson used the pulpit of the White House to note that the success of these laboring people "depends upon their own industry and economy" and, together, "they are the bone and sinew of the country."

Their visions of the common man did not include slaves or Native Americans, who were mistreated and dispatched in this era with particular cruelty. That omission enabled the Democrats to build support in all regions of the country, establishing the patterns of support by 1836 or 1838 that would keep them in power for decades, until the Democratic-Whig system crashed against a number of issues that the major parties could not address, including the surge of immigration and unresolved issues of slavery.

The Democratic Party was constructed as a national coalition that would submerge sectional issues, that is, slavery. Every Democratic ticket from 1836 to 1860 was by design regionally balanced, one Southerner and one non-Southerner. The Democrats' rules required then, and up until 1936, that the nominee win two-thirds of the votes at the convention, ensuring a Southern veto and presidential leadership that took no extreme position on sectional issues. With the Whigs operating under their "gag" order, the United States struggled through this period of frontier expansion, operating under the terms of a series of deals — the Missouri Compromise from an earlier period and the Compromise of 1850 — to divide up the new states between free and slave. The political arrangements held in 1848 even when Martin Van Buren broke with the Democrats to head the Free-Soil Party. But the system of compromises brought neither a stable economic arrangement nor political peace, as third parties rose to take advantage of the silences.

The Republicans — America's Party

"The victory of the slave issue," John Aldrich points out, ended the Democrats' dominance and, indeed, undermined both the national parties that depended on sectional compromise. With slavery the issue, the cleavage line changed and the parties became necessarily sectional. The new Republican Party won in 1860, based exclusively in the North. The pre–Civil War Democrats were perhaps our clearest case of a dominant party crashing, hamstrung before the emerging issues of the day.

The Republican Party would become "America's party," winning the great majority of elections between 1860 and 1928. Its ascendancy was hardly unchallenged; the Republicans fended off the post–Civil War Democrats in very close elections in 1876, 1880, and 1888, the last without a plurality of the vote. Cleveland won the White House in nonconsecutive terms in 1884 and 1892; and the post-Bryan Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, defeated the faltering Republicans in 1912 and, with the promise to keep America out of war, won in 1916 as well. The essential voting patterns, established as early as 1856 and confirmed in 1880 when the South was reintegrated into the Union, largely held until the Depression of 1929. In the Deep South, no state voted Republican again until 1956.

Lincoln established the Republicans as the party that held the nation together — in some sense, they took on the biggest challenge that had bedeviled the country since its formation. They had defended the Constitution. And in abolishing slavery and breaking the power of the Southern landed classes, they set the country irrevocably down a modernizing and industrial path. Republican leaders from Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt to Coolidge described their party as the American Party, ready to defend America. The Civil War was a reference point where Republicans could continually remind voters that they defended America's virtues with force of arms. The great majority of the party's presidential nominees were military figures, especially in this period after the Civil War.

Of course nobody knew in 1856 or 1880 that the Republicans would be ascendant for so many decades. Indeed, with the chicanery of the Hayes-Tilden election and the dead-heat finishes in 1880, 1884, and 1888, both parties were driven to other means. The states of the Old South at the outset of the 1890s began enacting statutes to disenfranchise the black voter and to end the prospect of competitive general elections in the Southern states. The Republicans, for their part, in addition to waving the bloody shirt, constructed a system of Civil War pensions available only to veterans of the Union Army — one in ten voters concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest. The payments exploded from 1880 to 1910, when the Republicans were entrenching their position and fending off the Populists. The Grand Army of the Republic, 400,000 strong, backed the Republicans through all the election battles.

The Republican Party was defined by its modernizing, unifying, and nationalist vision for the nation, but that became much more ideologically developed as the parties battled through the economic transformations of the late nineteenth century and turn of the century. This was a period of tremendous economic growth and upheaval, with America emerging as a manufacturing and industrial society. Between 1880 and 1910, national wealth increased 275 percent; the urban population grew from 28 to 46 percent; massive immigration brought downward pressure on wages, as one quarter of immigrants' children aged ten to fourteen years were at work; farmers faced declining prices and monopolistic control of transportation and marketing. This was a time for the rise of corporations, holding companies, trusts, and monopolies, but also a time for deep downturns, including most of the 1890s, after the panic of 1893.

The election of 1896 was the "hottest," Frederick Lewis Allen wrote, "perhaps, in the whole history of the United States." The Democrats, breaking with their tradition of running fiscally austere, antigovernment nominees, chose William Jennings Bryan — the populist, evangelical candidate who would change the identity of the Democratic Party. His politics were rooted in the civic virtue and common man themes that carried the Democrats through the nineteenth century, but it included the premise that the country should be enriched from the bottom up: "If you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them." Bryan also broke from the past as he sought to create a new Democratic Party organized against the emerging industrial order. He began with the farmers, some of whom had channeled their protests through the Greenback Party and antimonopolist leagues and, in the 1890s, the Farmers' Alliance. He appealed to "laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere," though his support was mostly confined to the West and rural areas, including the South. The Democrats wanted the government to break up monopolies, regulate the railways, introduce an income tax, abolish the industry-protecting tariffs, and shift the country's currency from the gold standard to free silver.


Excerpted from The Two Americas by Stanley B. Greenberg. Copyright © 2005 Stanley B. Greenberg. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Part I: The Politics of Parity,
1. Toward Hegemony,
Part II: Half Century Untamed: 1952–2002,
2. The Opportunity Democrats: Redefined by Race,
3. The Reagan Revolutionaries: Reduced to Culture War,
4. The Reformed Opportunity Democrats: The Lost Middle,
Part III: The Loyalists,
5. The World of Republican Partisans,
6. The World of Democratic Partisans,
Part IV: Contested America,
7. Three Contested Communities,
8. The Contested Political World,
Part V: Breaking the Deadlock: The Republicans,
9. Step One: Winning in Our America,
10. Step Two: Reagan's America,
Part VI: Breaking the Deadlock: The Democrats,
11. The "Election Project",
12. Toward a Bold Politics: The JFK Democrats,
Afterword: 2004 — Toward Total War,
Also by Stanley B. Greenberg,

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