How the American Two-Party System Became so Divided

Mid-century politicians envisioned ideologically defined parties—but failed to anticipate today’s hyper-polarized environment.

President Franklin Roosevelt speaks in New York City on the campaign trail in 1940. (Harry Harris / AP)

“It would be a great tragedy if we had our two major political parties divide on what we would call a conservative-liberal line. [O]ne of the attributes of our political system has been that we have avoided generally violent swings … from one extreme to the other. And the reason we have avoided that is that in both parties there has been room for a broad spectrum of opinion.”—Vice President Richard M. Nixon, 1959

Since “the country was already split vertically between sections, races, and ethnic groups” it would be “dangerous to split it horizontally too between liberals and conservatives.” Down that path “lay the rift between haves and have-nots and the ideological politics of Europe.” —Attributed to Robert F. Kennedy, 1963

Those quotes are taken from The Polarizers, a new book about the U.S. party system by Colgate University political scientist Sam Rosenfeld. Rosenfeld studies those mid-century Americans, right and left, who rejected the opinion of Nixon and Kennedy—and helped form the highly ideological party system of today. I interviewed Rosenfeld by Google Doc on March 16. The conversation has been edited and revised for concision and clarity.

Frum: You tell a story of Franklin Roosevelt sighing to his former presidential election opponent, Wendell Willkie, if only we had two consistent parties, one liberal and one conservative—and then proposing that Willkie succeed him as the leader of the liberal party!

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.

Frum: But your early polarizers wanted a party system that would clarify issues for voters and thereby deliver better results. Instead, the messy, idea-free party system of the 1950s built the interstate-highway system. The coherent party system of the 1990s and after has rather less to show for itself, doesn’t it?

Rosenfeld: I think a clear case can be made that the “idea-free” and (importantly) relatively clubby and cloistered policymaking world of the mid-century “fit” American political institutions better than the modern disciplined parties do. That came at a cost—people weren’t wrong about action to address major national problems getting bottlenecked and blocked thanks to bipartisan obstruction, and the whole system relied on less permeability and accountability to voters.

Yes, there’s endless toxic culture war on display on Fox News and the president’s twitter feed. But actual policymaking is occurring under unified GOP control. I’m not a fan of it, but it’s certainly the product of commitments and agendas stemming from a more ideological party. As was the ACA, Dodd-Frank, etc. under the previous administration.

Frum: Your story focuses on the people who advocated a more polarized party system. Yet political scientists have brainwaves all the time that typically go nowhere. This one was overwhelmingly realized. Why did U.S. society agree to follow where the American Political Science Association and the American Conservative Union wished to lead?

Rosenfeld: As a theoretical matter, I think there is a lot of running room that engaged partisan actors and activists have to set their parties’ agenda and thus set the terms of conflict in American politics—the mass electorate tends to be a reactive force or lagging indicator. But turning to that mass electorate: There was a very unusual set of regional partisan allegiances defining American politics as of mid-century, much of which stemmed from developments dating back a century (the Civil War) and dependent on mass disenfranchisement of large numbers of Americans. The actors I focus on had ideas about things they wanted to do in power, yes, but they also saw the potential for reshuffling those electoral allegiances, and they often made their factional arguments in strategic, electoral, this-will-win-us votes terms.

Frum: The America of blurry parties was also a more economically egalitarian America than any America before or since. It was a uniquely ethnically cohesive America: The proportion of foreign-born in the population steadily declined after 1920, reaching its all-time low in the 1970 Census. It was an America in which regions were more being closely bound together into a national economy—and an America in which the real possibility of a third world war enhanced the authority of the presidency and penalized any political actor (such as Barry Goldwater or George McGovern) who looked irresponsible or weak.

That’s not our America. Our America is riven by the most extreme class divisions in its history. Its metropolitan knowledge centers are thriving; everywhere else, the economy is stagnating and even life expectancy is declining. It is being ethnically remade by mass immigration. It feels its international position is declining, yet it is not mobilized by any one single rival. Why wouldn’t its party system be revolutionized by such a tsunami of social changes?

Rosenfeld: It’s no surprise that the party system reflects such divisions and discontents. If your causal argument here is that those changes in society are what actually transformed and polarized the parties, I think the timing doesn’t quite line up with some of these factors—it’s in the 1970s, not the 1990s or 2000s, that rates of party polarization start to increase in Congress, for example. Those other elements did indeed contribute to a degree of public political consensus in the postwar period we wouldn’t see now, but the blurriness of the parties wasn’t a direct reflection of consensus, it was a byproduct of cross-cutting ideological and party allegiances. Maybe a little more of that blurriness would serve as a salve to our contemporary woes, but I have doubts about the possibility of putting the genie back in the bottle.