I’m currently reading Sean Wilentz’s (relatively) new book The Politicians & The Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics. It is a timely read, and though I’m only a single chapter in, it is proving to be a psychological balm in these polarized times. In short, Wilentz’s thesis (or at least half of it) is that while Americans have, since nearly the earliest days of the republic, longed for an end to partisan rancor, parties are in fact a vital institution for making democracy work in a nation as large and diverse as the United States. “The American dream of politics without conflict . . . has a history as old as American politics,” he writes (3). Yet fierce partisan politics, “although often manipulated and abused, has been Americans’ most effective vehicle for democratic social and political reform” (4).
In his first chapter, Wilentz neatly traces the ebbs and flows of what he terms “postpartisanship” from Washington’s Farewell Address up to the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Among the conclusions he draws from this broad sweep of history are that postpartisanship takes two forms: on one hand, it represents a genuine dissatisfaction with political parties and their attendant friction; on the other, it has been co-opted by one party or the other as a cudgel for attacking their political opponents. “The rage for a modern postpartisanship,” Wilentz argues, “has failed to distinguish between a sincere if wrong-headed antiparty rhetoric and attacking parties as a partisan ploy—distinct uses of antipartisan politics that have sometimes overlapped” (4).
Though he does not emphasize it (at least not in the first chapter), Wilentz also hints at a class element underlying postpartisanship. Washington’s Farewell Address, in his eyes, was not simply a disinterested warning against the dangers of party. Though we prefer to remember him as a paragon of virtue (which we may unconsciously associate with objectivity and, thus, postpartisanship), Washington had a political ideology. He pursued one particular vision for America (that is, Hamilton’s, as exemplified by the fight over the bank) but viewed with disdain the hostile conflict brewing between Hamilton and Jefferson. According to Wilentz, Washington’s attack on parties was designed to malign the (Jeffersonian) “low demagogues who fomented” partisanship, but it “was also genuinely motivated by a patrician ideal of politics without parties” (6). Washington’s critique of parties, in other words, reflected his genteel sensibilities. (Of course, it was also easier for a man elected unanimously to see parties as unnecessarily divisive.)
Later, Wilentz describes Progressive era postpartisanship in a similar way. “Driven by severe class anxieties, incapable in the North of formally excluding the poor and the uneducated from politics, [liberal reformers] aimed instead to change other rules of the political game. By founding various independent clubs and quasi-learned societies, they sought to educate the electorate properly. Instead of denouncing parties outright, the elite liberals, with their style of ‘independency,’ appeared to be inside the parties but above politics. The independent style rejected the old party flim-flam—including a stridently partisan press—in favor of a cooler, more detached politics, free of the old emotional partisanship” (20). This would appear to have relevance in our own time. Postpartisanship is not the exclusive property of one political party or the other, but rather of the “elite.”
In other words, legitimate anti-party feeling might, in fact, be a bourgeois tendency, reflective of a deep-seated aversion to conflict and social “ugliness.” In any conflict, after all, elites are the ones with more to lose. And when those elites do lose power, attacking partisanship becomes a convenient way to re-assert themselves without appearing overly self-serving. Thus, postpartisanship is fundamentally conservative. Or, as Wilentz puts it, “The antiparty current is by definition undemocratic, as political parties have been the only reliable electoral vehicles for advancing the ideas and interests of ordinary voters” (28). To achieve a politics that is free from conflict, we must necessarily limit the number of voices and perspectives. By maligning parties—that is, the means by which millions of diverse voices are organized and made audible—we move away from the nation’s democratic ideals.
For the title of his first chapter (“The Postpartisan Style in American Politics”), Wilentz draws on Richard Hofstadter, who famously wrote The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Hofstadter’s work has received renewed interest in recent years, which should come as no surprise given our president’s tendency to engage in conspiratorial thinking that fires up his populist base. So is Donald Trump the latest manifestation of postpartisanship?
In running against “politicians” and promising to “drain the swamp,” Trump tapped into a feeling that only an outsider could possibly represent the interests of “the people.” His campaign certainly looked much different from those of Obama, but he also appealed to people who viewed the Republican Party “establishment” as hopelessly out of touch with average Americans. The fact that Trump has not yet drained the swamp suggests that his approach was perhaps postpartisanship of the disingenuous sort—an attack on parties as a partisan ploy. And for as much as he lambasts them, Trump is a member of the elite. The tax bill currently under consideration reveals the limits of his (and the GOP’s) populism.
All of this reminds me of an article I read by Joe Scarborough, written in the days after this year’s gubernatorial elections. According to Scarborough, some might interpret Democratic victories as “a political primal scream aimed at President Trump and his dangerous excesses. Some may even conclude that a Democratic sweep of next year’s midterms will follow along with the speedy impeachment of Trump. Then, surely, reason and order will return to the business of running the United States. Unfortunately, that pipe dream ignores the more profound meaning of this week’s election results: The shellacking Republicans took proves again just how unmoored American politics has become in the 21st century.”
Scarborough then offers, much like Wilentz, a broad overview of American political history. “Democrats and Republicans,” he writes, “have held a duopoly over Washington since Franklin Pierce got elected president in 1852. For most of that time, both parties saw their governing majorities rise and fall over the course of entire generations.” That is changing, however:
“[T]he political alignments that once endured decades of change have begun collapsing in two-year intervals. In 2004, Karl Rove spoke of a permanent Republican majority. Just over two years later, Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House. In 2008, many hailed Barack Obama’s winning coalition as a new Democratic majority, built on a well-educated and demographically diverse coalition. Fast-forward two years and the tea party laid waste to all previous political presumptions. . . . [In 2016,] Trump destroyed the Democratic establishment, but only after reducing the Republican political machine to rubble. Now, less than a year after seizing control of all branches of government, Trumpism is in full retreat.”
I’m not sure I agree with his last statement, but that’s not the point. In Scarborough’s view, “The fact that Trump’s GOP was beaten so badly . . . proves again that voters are voting against political parties instead of voting for inspiring leaders.”
Is this what comes of postpartisanship? Is this, in fact, the root cause of our seemingly broken political system? Like many others, I’ve long worried that the partisan divide is the cause of our problems. In only 20 pages or so, Wilentz turns that conventional wisdom on its head.
We may be in the midst of a political realignment, but Wilentz suggests that we may also be in the midst or a reorientation with regard to partisanship. In the year since Trump’s victory, naked partisanship appears to be on the rise, and as he points out, “The Tea Party activists who emerged in 2010, for all their proclaimed alienation from both major parties . . . did not whine about the evils of partisanship, they worked on it and, with great success, used the party system to advance their hard-right agenda as a wing of the Republican Party” (29).
I noted in my first paragraph that Wilentz’s book is proving to be a psychological balm. Over the past year, I have found myself turned off by all the bitterness, but I also wonder to what extent that is a middle-class predilection on my part. Is it possible that the solution is, in fact, to get down in the gutter and slug it out against one’s partisan foes? This, in turn, raises a related question: Is it partisan bickering that actually disgusts me, or was my desire for “harmony” really just a desire for the forces of change to keep their voices down?
I still have 300+ pages to read in Wilentz’s book. Perhaps another post will be warranted.