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Not Quite Détente

By (February 1, 2008) No Comment

The Second Civil War

By Ronald Brownstein
Penguin Press, 2007
A browser in a bookstore today might be forgiven for dismissing Ronald Brownstein’s The Second Civil War as another trite condemnation of—and cure for—the partisanship that characterizes politics in Washington today. But in fact, half of the book is a rich, erudite history of partisan politics from 1896 up to the dawn of the new millennium, and so the requisite assessment of the Bush years is all the more valuable in light of what came before. This approach isn’t without its limits, and the almost exclusive focus on political history leaves a few gaping holes in the picture. But on the whole, this book is time well spent for those who want to understand the evolution of American politics over the last century.


Brownstein’s impetus for writing the book is the tribe-like behavior of Republicans and Democrats over the last decade, what former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman calls an era of “hyperpartisanship.” An era in which, Brownstein asserts,

the political system has evolved to a point where the vast majority of elected officials in each party feel comfortable only advancing ideas acceptable to their core supporters…. This book examines how we have reached this dangerous impasse. It rests on an unambiguous conclusion: The central obstacle to more effective action against our most pressing problems is an unrelenting polarization of American politics that has divided Washington and the country into hostile, even irreconcilable camps.

This claim isn’t really as bold as it appears; he’s speaking strictly about mechanisms here.

And, to his credit, our author doesn’t let his thesis degenerate into a blanket condemnation of “hyperpartisanship,” though he’s uneven in enumerating its benefits. For instance, while Brownstein notes that the proliferation of interest groups has left Washington more open to differing points of view, these groups have at the same time diluted the power of the individual. Electoral participation may also have increased as a result of the “stark choices” voters now have, but that doesn’t explain (and neither does the author) why most Americans feel they aren’t really represented in Washington. Most astutely, he cites the role of ideologues in challenging the status quo, bringing, as the great historian Richard Hofstadter put it, “neglected grievances to the surface.”

What separates The Second Civil War from the usual hackery is its century-spanning history of political warfare. What begins as a wonderfully succinct evaluation of the 1896 Presidential election expands as the author incorporates statistics, anecdotes, polls and demographics to throw the insular world of the capital into wide relief. Beginning that year, the McKinley-Bryan race “ended a period of extended political disorder” and inaugurated the “age of partisan armies,” a period of “intense conflict between remarkably unified partisan coalitions.” Presidents were elected with overwhelming majorities in Congress, and sought consensus within their parties in order to overwhelm the opposing party. Of course that last bit might seem familiar to readers today, and it set the stage for the greatest failure of the era, Wilson’s inability to get the United States into the League of Nations. Brownstein recounts:

To take the United States into the league, Wilson needed support among Republicans as well as Democrats…. But he did not possess the skills, the vocabulary or even the inclination to court such support. Thin-skinned, resistant to criticism or even ideas that contradicted his own beliefs, Wilson approached the league with an unwavering conviction in his cause and an inability to empathize with the arguments or political needs of those who resisted it.

The parallels with George W. Bush are obvious, and Brownstein pursues them explicitly. To drive the point home, he also quotes, in a footnote, Robert La Follette’s description of Wilson. It’s worth repeating as much for wry amusement as for its modern-day verisimilitude. Wilson was “cocksure and stubborn while his inexperience and ignorance of more than the merest smattering on the problems, and his intense partisan feeling renders him almost impossible.”

What the author is trying to impart here is the danger this sort of party-line behavior presents when a nation is faced with serious or even existential threats (as shunning the League proved to be when Hitler rose to power, and, to pick just one, as global warming may be today). Alongside this sort of tribalism was its natural result, a severe sense of discontent on the part of those left out of the process. Yet paralysis never followed, because in the first third of the twentieth century, presidents ruled with vast majorities in Congress. Not so today.

The tone of politics in Washington changed drastically after Roosevelt’s 1937 court-packing fiasco, and rebellious southern Democrats joined with Republicans to usher in the “age of bargaining,” the ethos of which Lyndon Johnson summed up nicely when he said: “It is the politician’s task to pass legislation, not to sit around saying principled things.” Brownstein describes in fascinating detail the intricate cross-party alliances that characterized this period. They were encouraged by the slower pace of political life, the lack of television, and “the problem-solving orientation of many of the era’s key figures.” This last factor highlights another important thread that runs through the book and into the author’s hopes for the future: the importance of leadership, especially presidential leadership, in affecting change. That “problem-solving orientation” was bolstered by the often close relationship congressmen had along party lines, and their shared suspicion of mass-mobilizing ideology. This sort of dynamic naturally resulted, as Brownstein says, in

incremental, not revolutionary, reform…. [But] it compelled political leaders who held contrasting views and represented differing constituencies to talk and listen to each other. Almost everything important that happened required bargaining between and within the parties. That meant political leaders, on almost any major decision, needed to consider and, as much as possible, harmonize a wide range of opinions.

At its best, the “age of bargaining” could, by the collaborative nature of the majorities formed, produce an enduring national consensus on the big issues it addressed. At its worst, progress could be sloth-like, wallowing in the mud of its own inertia. This period of compromise saw its “finest hour” early on, when Roosevelt and later Truman consulted with Republicans (Brownstein’s story of their efforts to court Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg is a pleasure to read) to form a bipartisan post-war strategy for the United States that lasted for decades: Soviet containment, the Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe, and the formation of the United Nations. It is no narrative accident that the greatest failure of the “age of partisan armies” and the greatest triumph of the “age of bargaining” were both foreign policy decisions with far-reaching consequences.

His succession to John F. Kennedy confirmed in the landslide victory of 1964, Lyndon Johnson, with his headstrong, almost parliamentary approach to leadership, produced an astonishing string of legislative victories, from education and entitlements to the environment and civil rights. For our author, this marks a break from the consensus politics of the last three decades and the beginning of an “age of transition.” Whatever the merits of The Second Civil War (and there are many), Brownstein’s dissection of the next three decades of change stands above the rest.

From the civil tumult of the 1960’s sprang the interest group politics we know so well today. As he is wont to do throughout the book, Brownstein uses stories as microcosms to illustrate the bigger themes and events he’s discussing. For interest groups it’s Ralph Nader’s sudden rise to prominence when General Motors president James Roche admitted, on the floor of the Senate, to spying on him. Nader’s fulminations about auto industry safety hadn’t made much of an impact, but within six months federal regulation was in place. Brownstein writes, “nothing quite like it had happened in years. It was if Nader [and his] allies had demonstrated a new mathematical proof that challenged the accepted arithmetic of power in Washington.” The social change of that decade imparted to many a general “skepticism about authority in all forms,” and groups appeared dedicated to curbing the power of big business and “purifying government.” This new interest group politics was initially dominated by liberals, but a conservative response was not long in coming. These partisan and non-partisan groups were the progenitors of the vast intellectual and political infrastructure we have today.

  Yet another cause of Washington’s change in tone was change in the way Congress conducted its business. In a supreme feat of self-control, Brownstein resists rubbing the irony of it all in the faces of his Democratic readers. Frustrated by the occasional alliance of Southern Democrats (or “Dixiecrats”) with Republicans, the liberal wing of the party pushed for rules changes that would blow up in its face decades later. Chairmanship of the various committees in the House of Representatives had always been assigned on the basis of seniority. Anxious to enforce party discipline, the Democratic leadership eventually succeeded in pushing the emphasis from seniority to “merit,” which was defined as adherence to the party line. Republicans followed through with similar changes. But these tools of enforcement weren’t used to their fullest potential until the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1990s. Naturally, embattled Democrats followed suit.

Meanwhile, changes in daily routine pushed legislators further away from the “age of bargaining.” The rising cost of campaigning forced Congressmen to spend more time fundraising, while air travel allowed (or forced) them to make more trips back to their home states. Increased media attention meant that instead of talking to each other, they more and more spent their time talking past one another to television cameras. All of this was partially obscured, however, by President Carter’s bumbling and the compromises President Reagan was forced to make with resurgent Democrats.

But a change in the composition of Congress itself would soon make all of this very obvious. Dissatisfied with the Democrat’s seemingly perpetual dominance of the House of Representatives and the seemingly meek Republican response, Newt Gingrich and others sought a more confrontational strategy. Gradual turnover in favor of younger and more radical Congressmen combined with rules changes and voter-oriented messages to allow a slow takeover that culminated in the 1994 “Gingrich revolution.” What allowed a new crop of ideologues election victories and rewarded their bare-knuckle style? It was “the arranging of the parties into more disciplined, ideologically coherent, and culturally homogenous coalitions.”

Brownstein again quotes Richard Hofstadter to illustrate the change. Writing decades ago, Hofstadter said

In our politics, each major party has become a compound, a hodgepodge, of various and conflicting interests; and the imperatives of party struggle, the quest for victory and for offices, have forced the parties to undertake the business of conciliation and compromise among such interests.

For Brownstein today, “that definition is obsolete.” This change first manifested itself in the 1960’s, when the two parties began to take more ideologically consistent positions. One of the factors in this was reemergence of the “ideological vanguard” in each party, “suppressed since the late 1940s.” Barry Goldwater’s militant campaign, Johnson’s roughhousing, Nixon’s social conservatism, and George McGovern’s “leftist” idea’s on foreign policy all sharpened the distinctions between the two parties. Events were even more important, often providing occasion for these positions, and forcing each party to become identified with one side or the other on Vietnam, women’s rights, economic regulation, crime and, perhaps most fatefully, civil rights.

The victories of the civil rights movement, codified into law under Johnson, would eliminate the southern conservative Democrats from the political scene and push those voters toward the Republican Party, which in those years was keen to exploit racial tensions. And as the parties became more ideologically consistent, voters came to align themselves more closely with one party or another, and thus we have the “red state/blue state” political boundaries of today. Moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats became anathema and anachronisms. All of this is beautifully encapsulated by Brownstein in his description of the political evolution of Trent Lott (from conservative Democrat to Republican) and Ralph Neas (from moderate Republican to Democrat), which he sums up here:

Neas and Lott have probably hardened somewhat in their views since the 1960s. But mostly their youthful beliefs have not changed. What changed is the party they found most compatible with those beliefs. To remain constant in their convictions, both concluded they needed to change their parties. With that decision each joined in a great migration.

This vast canvas of mutually reinforcing changes brings us to the present day, where Karl Rove’s strategy of party unification amounted to a “51 percent solution.” He and the Republican leadership gambled that their more ideologically cohesive party—as Brownstein notes, Democrats had always been more diverse despite the changes they’d undergone—could run roughshod over the opposition provided they were disciplined enough. The attacks of September 11th allowed them some success initially, especially in foreign policy. But as events of the past had shown, widespread discontent (especially with multiple policy failures) would surely result. George W. Bush and the GOP attempted to push through hotly contested policies with little or no compromise, in the process not only having little success, but alienating many and unifying the opposition against them; hence the Democratic victory in the 2006 midterm elections.

Brownstein is negligent, however, in minimizing some agents of change and painting our modern political gridlock in strictly political terms. The changing nature of the media and the consolidation of its ownership are given little attention. It’s hard to believe this wouldn’t merit much space considering its implications for public discussion in our country: the decline of investigative journalism, the rise in “infotainment” and the predilection for stenography have certainly lowered the bar. Brownstein’s emphasis on compromise also has its pitfalls. While surely many of our most pressing problems require compromise and dialogue, his too often single-minded focus on bargaining minimizes the serious philosophical differences at play. And yes, compromise has certainly been instrumental in many of the great achievements in American history, but many good things were also gained through the same partisan tactics the author denounces. Compare the weak civil rights laws passed during the “age of bargaining” with the landmarks of Lyndon Johnson’s first term.

These shortcomings aside, Brownstein has made a worthy contribution to our understanding of American politics today. His history of the evolution of party relationships in America is fantastic, and it allows his examination of the present day to avoid the same jejune proclamations that currently litter the bookstores. As for the future, The Second Civil War sounds a cautious note. Brownstein doesn’t think it likely that we’ll return to an “age of bargaining,” nor does it seem that he would wish to, riddled with problems as that era was. But he does believe that the forces of partisanship can be moderated, and that they must be for our country to be able to face its most pressing difficulties. This moderation, he says, may be a long time in coming, but it almost certainly must begin with a President willing to undertake serious change. With our current crop of candidates jumping over each other to evince the appearance, if not the substance, of that change, it might be a future we’ll live to see.

Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.