James Kloppenberg Reviews New Books on Democracy and PolarizationHistorians in the News
tags: political history, democracy, polarization
James T. Kloppenberg, Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard, is author of Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (Princeton) and Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (Oxford).
Respect. Dignity. Recognition. Non-domination. These words pepper the writings of Americans on the Left when they identify what our nation needs. Disrespect, disgrace, invisibility, and subordination have marked the experience of far too many Americans for far too long. Only dramatic systemic change will enable us to move toward liberty and justice for all. Women, African Americans, recent immigrants from America’s southern borders, and members of the LGBTQ community have mobilized to fight oppression by white men. The surprise, at least to many Americans on the Left, is that many white men now hold an equally firm conviction that it is they who are now disrespected, disgraced, invisible, and subordinated. In a nation they once dominated so completely that their power went uncontested, many white men now insist they have been robbed of their freedom.
Understanding the lines of combat today requires confronting both sides of that divide. Those of us committed to what we consider social justice too seldom acknowledge the anger and resentment felt by those opposed to our efforts, for reasons they consider legitimate, or those left behind economically. Corporate offshoring of jobs and deskilling due to technology have undermined the self-respect of those who suffer from such developments. Our own self-righteousness can blind us to the perspectives of those who have dug in their heels to protect values they cherish. Their grievances, unintelligible to many on the Left, shape our contemporary political landscape. Only if we understand their perspective and its sources can we do anything about the bitterness that marks our moment. Much of the white working class, once central to the New Deal coalition, now enthusiastically, even angrily, identifies with Republicans. What happened?
Political polarization in the United States did not begin in recent decades. Struggles over how to understand American history date from the birth of our nation. Disagreements over slavery were so fierce that Georgia’s and South Carolina’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention threatened to bolt if the issue even came to the floor. Although the founders deprecated political parties as factions sapping commitment to the common good, hyperbolic attacks on domestic enemies nevertheless began soon after the Constitution was ratified. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson produced some of the most influential documents of the American Revolution and served together in George Washington’s administration, yet as early as 1793 they were at each other’s throats. The parties that formed around them were as bitterly critical of each other as Republicans and Democrats are today. Familiar images of dignified and bewigged American statesmen blur reality: fisticuffs sometimes broke out on the floor of Congress in the nation’s early years. Newspapers were openly and viciously partisan. New Englanders and Southerners routinely derided each other as threats to the nation and pawns of foreign powers. Some doubted the new United States could survive.
Timothy Shenk, in his wide-ranging Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30, 464 pp.), locates the origins of the American party system in two rival strategies for maintaining white supremacy. As the Slave Power Conspiracy maneuvered to extend the reign of bondage across the nation, countless Black lives were sacrificed to perpetuate the power of pitiless Southern planters and their Northern merchant accomplices. As Michael Kazin makes clear in his outstanding book What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35, 416 pp.), defending the privileges of Americans “whose roots lay in European soil” became Democrats’ principal concern decades before the new Republican Party named Abraham Lincoln its standard bearer. Excising the malignant cancer of slavery cost more than 600,000 lives before the nation could be reconstructed on what anti-slavery activists envisioned as a new foundation established by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Charles Sumner, among the few Northern politicians consistently committed to comprehensive civil-rights legislation and the focus of Shenk’s chapter on anti-slavery activists, struggled heroically and lost repeatedly.
Even before the Civil War amendments could take effect, anti-racist “abolition democracy,” to use the apt phrase of W.E.B. Du Bois, was stymied by terror. Black Codes, enforced by the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs, circumscribed the freedom of freedmen. Eventually, legalized forms of white supremacy almost as vicious and unrelenting as chattel slavery reappeared throughout the former Confederacy. Reuniting the nation on the backs of formally freed yet effectively subjugated Black people was a project shared by Northerners and Southerners of both parties. White Americans invented a “magnolia myth” of paternalist slave owners and their supposedly contented slaves, a fiction consecrated by professional historians who portrayed the Civil War as unnecessary, Reconstruction as ill-conceived, and strict racial segregation as a necessary accommodation for what they deemed Black inferiority. Not until the late 1950s and the 1960s did many whites join Blacks’ century-long struggle to challenge laws enshrining institutionalized racism. It is a fantasy to think those efforts have succeeded in eradicating the assumptions that undergird practices of white supremacy.
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