Why Can't the Democrats Build a Governing Majority? (Review of Timothy Shenk)Historians in the News
tags: political history, liberalism, Democratic Party
Kim Phillips-Fein teaches American history at New York University’s Gallatin School and is the author of Invisible Hands and Fear City.
REALIGNERS: PARTISAN HACKS, POLITICAL VISIONARIES, AND THE STRUGGLE TO RULE AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
By Timothy Shenk
In 1948, a young historian named Richard Hofstadter published The American Political Tradition, a critical look at the country’s politics that marked a sharp break from the accepted wisdom among historians of the time. Many scholars, following in the footsteps of the Progressive era’s Charles Beard, held that American history was defined by conflict: by the policy disagreements that separated agrarian from industrial regions, by disputes among different factions of the economic elite over the right path forward for the country. But Hofstadter suggested the opposite. Profiling an array of political leaders—from Thomas Jefferson and John Calhoun to Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt—he argued that American politics existed within a shockingly narrow spectrum. Almost all of the politicians he chronicled, who helped define the American “tradition,” had accepted capitalism and individualism as the reigning norms of political life. Despite their apparent differences, they all shared this bedrock faith—one that left them unable to grapple with the underlying realities of American life, with its myriad inequalities of class and power. American democracy was unable to live up to its promise, Hofstadter insisted, because it was in the grip of a liberal ideology defined by a rapacious individualism.
Generations of scholars have contested Hofstadter’s pessimism and his account of politics in the United States. Pointing out the remarkably limited cast of characters he’d chosen to stand in for the “American political tradition”—all white men, all but one of them elected leaders (the sole exception, the abolitionist activist Wendell Phillips, comes off much better than the rest)—Hofstadter’s heirs argued that American politics had always been far more ideologically diverse than he allowed, including real critics of capitalism and the country’s commercial norms. Others also challenged Hofstadter’s vision of American politics as essentially liberal in nature, pointing to the political forces—from slaveholders to patriarchs—who espoused explicitly illiberal forms and championed reactionary causes.
Yet for all of his critics, the questions that Hofstadter raised in The American Political Tradition are very much with us today. Why is a country that overtly embraces egalitarian ideals and democratic politics so far from being egalitarian and democratic in reality—a country where ordinary people can expect to exercise meaningful political power? We talk a great deal about “democracy,” but what does that really mean: How, and under what conditions, does it exist? And given the many obstacles to political change, how can we explain why it happens when it actually does? Indeed, these are questions of perennial concern—but today, as the country faces a frightening far-right turn, they have new resonance.
Hofstadter hovers over Timothy Shenk’s Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy. Indebted to The American Political Tradition in style as well as tone, the book is a collection of profiles of major political leaders and activists that takes as its central subject the “narratives, policies and symbols—in short, the ideas” that drive American politics. Shenk’s selection is far more eclectic and idiosyncratic than Hofstadter’s was; it includes Charles Sumner, Phyllis Schlafly, Walter Lippmann, W.E.B. Du Bois, the Republican Party strategist Mark Hanna, and Hanna’s daughter Ruth Hanna McCormick. Presidents get less play; there’s no chapter on Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, or Ronald Reagan, though Martin Van Buren and Barack Obama are represented. Like Hofstadter, Shenk is attuned to the divide between the rhetoric of these figures and the reality of what they accomplished, and to the ways that they were often undermined by their own hopes and actions, seeking to accomplish one thing but ending up in an entirely different place.
But despite Hofstadter’s evident influence, Shenk is motivated by a very different underlying problem. While Hofstader surveyed the sweep of American political thought and came to the pessimistic conclusion that its recurrent theme was the evasion of conflict through appeals to a shallow individualism, Shenk wants to explain how and why structural change does sometimes happen, and often against all odds. Political activists, after all, have always tried to make space for themselves within the American political tradition; sometimes they have even succeeded in turning the country in directions no one had anticipated. For Shenk, the central dilemma is produced by majority rule itself: If democratic politics involves appealing to the majority of voters in order to win an election, how can anyone gain power with the goal of creating lasting structural change? Since real change involves asking people to take a leap into an unknown future, is this possible to achieve in an electoral system that demands creating majority coalitions—including many who may have a profound stake in keeping things the way they are?