Our Political Chasm
Three books assess America’s partisan divide.
The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era, by Sam Rosenfeld (University of Chicago Press, 336 pp., $30)
Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, by Amy Chua (Penguin Press, 302 pp., $28)
The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, by Yascha Mounk (Harvard University Press, 400 pp., $29.95)
Three new books, two of some virtue, try to explain the political polarization that has besieged the country. The best of the three, Sam Rosenfeld’s The Polarizers, is a dry but engaging exposition of President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 insistence that “we ought to have two real parties—one liberal and the other conservative.” In a similar vein, Wendell Willkie, FDR’s opponent in the 1940 presidential election, had complained wistfully that “both parties are hybrids.” In the early 1950s, notes Rosenfeld, The American Political Science Association took up their plaints. Led by Wesleyan University’s E.E. Schattschneider, the APSA sought, in the manner of European parliamentary democracies, to create ideologically accountable party governments. These responsible-party advocates of mid-century presumed that it would be possible to organize partisan conflict around contrasting issue agendas without igniting political warfare. As the Schattschneider-led APSA hopefully insisted, “increasing concern with their programs” would not “cause the parties to erect between themselves an ideological wall.” A half-century later, in the wake of the bitterly contested 2000 presidential election, the wall that Schattschneider feared had been erected.
In Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, Yale Law School professor Amy Chua, a better and more imaginative writer, takes a different view of political polarization. “No other major power in the world,” notes Chua, “has ever elected a racial minority head of state.” To be an American, explains Chua, is to be part of a “super-group,” into which membership is open to all, based on birthright citizenship. Canada is the only other advanced nation that grants citizenship to anyone born within its borders, regardless of parental citizenship or even legal residence. No Asian or European country, Chua notes, grants unconditional birthright citizenship (actually, Pakistan does).
Chua falters, though, when she tries to explain why American identity has begun to decompose. The culprit, as she sees it, is the rise of tribalism—but where does that come from? Her answer is incomplete and unsatisfactory, partly because this is not so much a book with a coherent argument as it is a collection of essays. The focus of her essays on Vietnam and Venezuela, among other sections that deal with American foreign policy, is on America’s inability to deal with tribal polities. Chua argues that America has a hard time understanding countries riven by tribal conflicts.
After five meandering chapters, which conclude with a brief discussion of the white tribal elite versus the white working class, she offers an insightful but off-point discussion of Occupy Wall Street. The bitter division between the wealthy white professional classes and their minority allies, on one side, and the white middle and working classes, on the other, she rightly argues, creates a state of pervasive political anxiety. Neither alliance is fully dominant nationally. The first, largely located in California and New York, dominates the academy, the media, Hollywood, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley. Globalist in perspective, it deemphasizes the importance of citizenship. California, and to a lesser extent New York, have, through their sanctuary policies, done as much as possible to erase the meaning of citizenship; California has apparently given drivers’ licenses to 1 million illegal aliens. These coastal regions are centers of vast wealth but also concentrated poverty.
The other white tribe, according to Chua, is centered in the American heartland. It serves in the military and takes the symbols of patriotism seriously. Because of our bicameral system, this tribe exercises disproportionate influence over the Senate. Neither tribe is likely to concede to the other. Our seesaw political future will depend heavily on immigration, which is why it’s such a contentious issue.
Harvard political science professor Yascha Mounk has written The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, based in large measure on the World Values Survey, which purportedly reveals that support for a military dictatorship is as high in the United States as in nearly failed states like Yemen and Algeria. Mounk’s thesis is that President Trump represents a threat to democratic institutions; he glibly compares Trump with Hugo Chavez. What Mounk misses is that, according to his own surveys, millennials, the group most critical of Trump, are also the cohort most hostile to liberal democracy. Those born in the 1930s and 1940s are the most supportive of both Trump and liberal democracy.
Mounk takes the ahistorical view—common among cable news commenters—that 2016 was an extraordinary moment, when society was transformed. “A system of government that had seemed immutable,” he writes, “looks as though it might come apart.” But the real transformation began in the late 1960s, when American elites began to side with liberals while blaming the war in Vietnam on working-class whites. Mounk produces little evidence for his argument that, for instance, Trump represents a threat to an independent judiciary. If anything, the West Coast’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has been a threat to the constitutional authority of the executive regarding immigration law. Federal judges have consistently blocked Trump’s actions in this area—an area always regarded as an executive prerogative—and the administration has in every case respected judicial review.
Sticking with his coming-apart theme, Mounk notes that “the losers of an election refrain from limiting the scope of an office to which an adversary has been elected in their last days in the job.” Here, he rightly decries the egregious GOP action after the 2016 North Carolina gubernatorial election, in which Roy Cooper, the Democratic candidate, won by the narrowest of margins. But instead of “recognising that this gave him a mandate to rule for the next four years, Republicans decided to rewrite his job description,” Mounk says, dramatically diminishing his powers.
True enough, but Mounk seems unwilling to acknowledge a more egregious example of what he condemns. While Mounk was writing this book, and while Democrats were caught up in hysteria about Trump’s supposed collusion with Russian president Vladimir Putin, elements of the FBI, CIA, and State Department were attempting to undermine the legitimacy of the new president’s election. Collusion was indeed revealed—but it was between Fusion GPS, a for-hire opposition- research firm paid for by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee, and allies of Putin, who produced the infamous Steele Dossier. The Obama administration used the phony dossier to obtain FISA warrants that allowed it to spy on the Trump campaign, in an attempt to delegitimize it. For all his huffing and puffing, Mounk offers little to substantiate his argument that Trump poses a threat to democracy and its institutions.
The hyper-partisan hostilities of the present do pose a danger to our future, though. “When partisan team spirit becomes reinforced by shared substantive beliefs on core issues,” notes Sam Rosenfeld, “peoples’ partisan identities become a more intensely felt component of their self-identities. Righteous passion for one’s own side intensifies while distrust of and hostility toward the other side deepen.” He’s right, and his admonition applies to both the Resistance and the MAGA contingent.
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