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The Past is Present

keller-photo.JPGMorton Keller is the author of America’s Three Regimes: A New Political History, in which he argues that while most historians popularly categorize America’s history into short periods of time (most “eras” or “ages” lasting no longer than a decade) the truth is quite contrary. In the post below Keller, Spector Professor of History Emeritus at Brandeis University, looks at how our past informs our polarized present.

As the election cycle heats up, and political punditry spreads over the land like kudzu grass, the prevailing assumption is that to understand what is happening we should focus on the present and the near future, and ignore the past. Matt Bai observes in his new book The Argument that most bloggers regard the Clinton impeachment of 1998 “as ancient … as the underlying causes of the Peloponnesian War, and about as useful.”

But things look different when we consider that our Constitution and our political parties are well over two centuries old, and that these institutions, as well as our government and legal system, change only slowly, under great and sustained historical pressure.

The political world in which we live today dates not from Bill Clinton and the 1990s, or George W. Bush, but from Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the 1930s. It was preceded by a century-long political system dominated by the major political parties, their bosses and machines, and an electorate with strong party identities. 9780195325027.jpgThe political ground rules established by the Constitution, of frequent, regular, winner-take-all elections, led to national, heterogeneous, long-lasting political parties. This was the only way in which politicians could have a serious crack at the power they sought.

The tempestuous events of the past three quarters of a century–the Great Depression; World War Two; the economic, social, cultural, and technological transformation of American life since 1945–brought about changes in our political culture comparable in scale to the rise of the party system in the early nineteenth century. A different political culture has come into its full maturity. Political scientist Theodore Lowi observed in 1985, “What we now have is an entirely new regime, which deserves to be called the Second Republic of the United States.”

This new regime is populist, in that the political agenda is shaped primarily by voices outside the regular party-politician structure: the media, advocacy groups, bureaucrats, judges, experts. And it is bureaucratic, in that it relies far more than in the past on government agencies and the courts to define and enforce public policy.

One of the most notable characteristics of the new regime is its ideological tone: the degree to which polar confrontation so often takes precedence over splitting the political difference. A deeply contentious politics has been the rule rather than the exception since the 1930s. So it was in the time of FDR and the New Deal; in the time of the Korean War, Joseph McCarthy, and the Red Scare in the 1950s; during the bitter clashes over civil rights and Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s; and of course in the years since 2000. There is a puzzle here. The two modern instances of ideology run amuck in presidential politics were the Goldwater candidacy of 1964 and the McGovern run in 1972: arguably the two most disastrous campaigns in American political history. And public opinion polls repeatedly indicate that a plurality of American voters tend to the middle of the bell curve. True, they can slide toward either slope of that curve: to the Right (in the 1980s), or to the Left (most recently). Younger voters were drawn to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, to John Kerry in 2004. Republican consultant Roger Stone observes, “There really is no mass-based party anymore. … Most voters [more accurately, most new or independent voters] align temporarily with one party or another.”

Our current Era of Ill Feelings is generally attributed to the Iraq War, a deep red/blue national divide over social issues, and the fingernail-on-a-blackboard impact of the personality and policies of George W. Bush. But Iraq has been a far less bloody national experience than were Korea and Vietnam. Nor are most Americans irrevocably split on the domestic push-button issues of our time. They tend to have modulated views on abortion, gay marriage, immigration, and the like. And while Bush certainly evokes unconstrained hostility, so too did FDR, Nixon, and Clinton. Bush’s negatives are high; but Truman, Nixon, and Carter matched or surpassed them in the declining years of their presidencies.

Why, then, is our politics so polarized, so venomous? Much of it has to do with the political style that goes with a politics more populist than party-driven. The media, advocacy groups, and bloggers have become more important political players. Party bosses and machines, and ethnic and regional party loyalty, those traditional sources, have declined. The new powers have little or no stake in the compromises needed to govern. They have every stake in “energizing” their “base.”

This populist politics stretches across the ideological spectrum. Demonizing the opposition is the characteristic political style of both the fundamentalist Right and the academic/arts/media Left. The “he’s-a-communist” effusions of anti-FDR reactionaries is echoed by the equation of Bush and his administration with Hitler and the Nazis. The no-holds-barred demagoguery of Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts reappeared in those feeding frenzies the Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas hearings.

But there are warning signals that take-no-prisoners politics has limited popular appeal. The Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 did not sit well with the less partisan, more independent-minded 40 to 50 percent of the electorate. Nor have the Bush-Rove attempt to govern from the conservative Right, or the Reid-Pelosi cozying up to the liberal Left, had greater success, as the poll numbers of both the President and the Congress attest.

What of the political near-future? Are we locked into a never-ending, escalating politics of vituperation? Or will the widespread popular desire for a less divisive politics prevail? Will the current polarization stay with us, or will it decline when George W. Bush, that Typhoid Mary of polarization, departs?

This historian’s money (admittedly, a small stake) is on the latter. Most of our political history in fact has been dominated by a politics of compromise, not on a politics of obliteration. As that moment of truth, the 2008 election approaches, it is possible that a less sharp-edged appeal such as is displayed–at times–by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and–at times–by Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, will carry the day.

That is to say, it will do so if a quarter of a millennium of American political history has any explanatory weight. As the philosopher William James reminded us, we live forward; but we understand backward

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