Rosenfeld: Right, Roosevelt hatched a secret plan to unite progressive Willkie supporters with liberal Democrats in a new party, presuming that the conservative wings of both parties would in turn break off to form their own party. Inconveniently, Willkie died before this plan could move forward, though I doubt such a top-down gambit would have actually succeeded. The story of the book is the struggle of mid-level activists and politicians across the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s to fulfill Roosevelt’s old plan, and eventually succeeding.
Frum: So … mission accomplished! Why aren’t we happy?
Rosenfeld: I think the polarizers got two things wrong in terms of their anticipation of what a more ideologically defined and disciplined two-party system would look like.
First is institutional: The frequency of divided government increased markedly in the second half of the 20th century. This was not thought of as a particularly normal or regular occurrence by early postwar observers—their idea was that unified party control would be the norm, and so more disciplined parties would produce more parliamentary-style coherent governance. Instead, as we’ve seen, disciplined parties combined with divided government produces chronic gridlock, brinkmanship, and crisis.
The second is psychological: There was an underappreciation of how powerful the forces of partisanship would be under conditions in which that identity became more potent and salient: groupthink, antipathy to the other side, refusal to compromise, etc.
Frum: You point out that it was earnest liberal political scientists who first advocated a more polarized party system. They yearned for a Democratic Party that looked more like the social democratic British Labour Party of Clement Attlee. Banish Southern conservatives to the Republicans, and the result would be a tidier party system divided by issues, not personalities. It did not occur to them that the real basis of politics might turn out to be, in Kevin Phillips’s sinister phrase, “who hates who.”
Rosenfeld: Indeed—though, as you say, by the 1960s and 1970s, plenty of the polarizers I track are most definitely conceiving of electoral strategies to build majorities based on group animosities. A key tension in American politics, however, is that, while at the mass level ideological thinking and “issue-based” voting and politics are not pervasive, at the elite level the party system really is more defined by ideological and issue-based division than it used to be.
Frum: I don’t know. At the elite level, the party system looks just as divided by race, ethnicity, and culture as at the mass level, that is if the elite is defined to include the president of the United States and the producers and stars of the nation’s most influential media outlet.
Rosenfeld: I don’t see ideological or policy division as necessarily separate from or transcending the racial and cultural divisions that permeate society—but I certainly take your point.