Illuminated by his detailed treatment of how coalition building has happened through American history, Shenk effectively equates coalition building with democracy - "as both a practical necessity and a moral obligation," at least "for anyone who believes that politics can be more than a way for the few to exploit the many."
Shenk starts from the evident fact of American history that, for most of our history, "one party has tended to dominate: Jeffersonians in the early republic; Democrats in the age of Jackson; Republicans during the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction, then again from the 1890s down to the Great Depression; and Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats in the Depression and postwar years. But neither party has been able to put together an enduring majority since the collapse of the New Deal coalition."
The universe has plenty of political analysis and punditry about the collapse of the FDR New Deal coalition and how to revive something similar today. What distinguishes Shenk's effort is his extensive study of what it took for previous political coalitions to be formed and to deliver (or not). In the process, he focuses on those he calls "the democratic elite, the portion of the ruling class whose authority derives, at least in theory, from the public’s consent. And they have a power that’s unique to modern democracies: the ability to form electoral coalitions that bind millions of people together in a single cause."
Shenk starts with the founding generation and its ambiguous approach to democracy and political parties. "A dose of oligarchy is just what the framers wanted," he agues. "They saw elections as a check against the dangers of democracy, a way of supplying the political class with the authority that came from representing the public while keeping power in the hands of the right sort of rulers."
As is well known, for all their wisdom and prescience in so many respects, the founders were woefully wrong about political parties. When parties did arise - rather quickly as it happened - they were at first "parties against parties." Soon enough, however, the Jeffersonian "Republicans had pulled off the first realignment in American history, creating a strong and durable majority that kept the party in power while slowly choking the life out of the Federalists."
Soon enough, in the Jacksonian era, popular political parties (as we understand them) were taking their place on the political stage. And, with them, came the professional politician - e.g., Martin Van Buren, who "considered partisan struggle essential to a functioning democracy. Parties channeled the inevitable conflicts in a democracy toward productive ends." The Jacksonian coalition - the ancestor of the Democratic Party as it was until living memory - was a coherent "coalition of urban workers, western frontiersmen, and Southerners of all sorts."
The mention of southerners, of course, points to the unique racialization of American politics that would be (and remains) one of our politics most enduring features.
Meanwhile, opposing the Jacksonian-VanBuren Democrats, arose the Whigs. "Although both parties had coalitions that cut across class lines, Whigs tended to draw support from merchants, planters, and industrialists," while "they denied "the existence of class conflict."In an era when mass immigration first became politically salient, "Whigs were also the party for evangelicals looking to improve the country’s moral character (and wary of Democratic acceptance of Catholics)."
From VanBuren and the Democrats, Shenk moves on to Charles Sumner and the new, radically anti-slavery Republican party. "Aside from abolition itself, however," the radical Republicans' victories were rolled back with the collapse of Reconstruction. The biggest winner in the Republican war against the slave power was, arguably, the same as in the Jacksonian war against the money power: Northern capitalists."
Thus, post-Reconstruction American politics became "battles between competing partisan tribes divided along lines of race, ethnicity, faith, and region. Republicans won native-born Protestants and the South’s dwindling number of African American voters, while Democrats relied on Catholics, immigrants, and the Solid South." This impasse was broken only by the rise of Populism, personified by William Jennings Bryan who won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1896. "Bryan’s victory dealt a stinging rebuke to the Democratic establishment, upended Republican electoral calculations, and brought the American political system closer to a full-blown crisis of legitimacy than at any time since the Civil War."
But Bryan was defeated. The new realignment, which Shenk calls "democratic conservatism," he sees as "an early demonstration of what became a global pattern in the twentieth century: a party of the right defying the hopes of radicals and the fears of reactionaries by reconciling industrial capitalism with representative government."
This produced the Progressive Movement, followed by what Shenk calls "the culture wars that dominated politics in the 1920s—Prohibition, immigration, Jim Crow," all of which "cut across the parties," with "the most reactionary voices" on the Democratic party side. The arrival of the Great Depression, however, ended "the cross-class coalition that had kept Republicans in power for a generation." This produced what Adlai Stevenson called "the party of everyone" - the New Deal majority, which Shenk calls "the strongest and strangest coalition in American history ... a brittle colossus, able to push through historic reforms but always in danger of cracking open." This, of course, has since happened: "The parties traded the core of their old coalitions, with Democrats picking up the Northeast and Republicans gaining the South and West. At the same time, the connection between income and partisan affiliation broke down, pushing working-class white people into the GOP and drawing educated professionals toward the Democrats."
This is, of course, familiar territory. "If the New Deal order was made by an economic crisis, it was undone by a social one." In this regard, Sheck's chapter on Phyllis Schlafly as one of his coalition-builders is especially important. While the polarization she and her allies produced didn't quite deliver an enduring Republican majority, it has "remade American democracy."
In the present, Shenk sees "a comprehensive breakdown in American politics. There’s the steady buildup of popular discontent with a status quo where elite self-dealing and technocratic gatekeeping deny most people real influence over government. Plus the distorting effects of an electoral system that all too often converts a strategically placed minority of voters into an electoral majority. Then there’s the failure of self-proclaimed champions of democracy to assemble a coalition large and durable enough to reform this antiquated system. And don’t forget the polarization machine that turns campaigns into apocalyptic struggles between good and evil while holding the results close enough to keep the battle going another day."
"If there’s an abiding winner in the long history of American democracy," Shenk concludes, "it’s the people with money." Hence, his invocation of the great democratic tradition of coalition building ""as both a practical necessity and a moral obligation," at least "for anyone who believes that politics can be more than a way for the few to exploit the many."
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