Polarization and Partisanship in Contemporary America (#AHA19)

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Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL is back with another post from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association going on this weekend in Chicago.  You can read all his posts here.  –JF

Could there be a better moment for a revival of the 1976 film “Network” on the Broadway stage, starring the man (Bryan Cranston) who played such television white everymen as Hal on Malcom in the Middle and Walter White on Breaking Bad, than during the so-called “age of Trump,” what Ed Stetzer has dubbed “The Age of Outrage?”  As the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin rightly noted, “no predictor of the future – not even Orwell – has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote ‘Network.’”  So, it’s interesting and perhaps no coincidence, that in their new book Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974, Princeton historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer pick up the story of the fracturing of an America that’s “mad as hell and … not going to take this anymore” only two years before Howard Beale (Peter Finch) delivered that famous movie line.

Today Kruse chaired, and Zelizer sat on, a panel that explored the topic of “Divided Loyalties in the United States: Polarization and Partisanship in Contemporary America” at AHA19.  Nicole Hemmer kicked things off with a simple premise: polarization might have a negative connotation for most people, but it hasn’t been bad for everyone.  Over the last several decades, for conservatives and the Republican party, polarization has worked.  Hemmer gave two reasons for this strategy’s success on the right – an increased reliance on the politics of “playing to the base” (something Reagan, Bush 41, and even, at first, Gingrich did not overtly do) and a powerfully ideological media platform (i.e. talk radio starting with Limbaugh and then the Bealeistic rage-machine that became FOX News).

Timothy Stewart-Winter pushed back against the narrative that the United States is more divided today than it ever was, and did so through the prism of LGBTQ rights.  He deconstructed two common Obama tropes: first, that the 43rd president accomplished nothing after November of 2010 and, second, that he failed to remake the America of blue states and red states into a United States in the image of his 2004 DNC speech. According to Stewart-Winter, “what Lyndon Baines Johnson was for Civil Rights, Barack Obama was for gay rights.”  The man who hadn’t even heard of the Stonewall Riots when he ran for the Senate included a reference to it in his second inaugural address, after declaring his support for marriage equality at the same point in his political career that both President Clinton and Bush 43 had tacked to the right on that same issue.  Said Stewart-Winter, “Obama modeled for many Americans, especially men, what it means to change your mind.”  As polling continues to indicate and Stewart-Winter effectively argued, the nation changed their minds with President Obama, and the Trump Administration’s recent attempts to limit the rights of transgender people seem unlikely to reverse that cultural shift.

According to Leah Wright Rigueur, “political polarization is racial polarization.”  She placed the origins of America’s current political climate a little earlier than Kruse and Zelizer did, in the Goldwater campaign of 1964 and the subsequent conservative ascendancy within the GOP.  She powerfully made the connection from Goldwater to Reagan when she stated, “If Goldwater rang the death knell for black Republicans, Ronald Reagan dug the grave and buried the bodies.”  Wright Rigueur also made an effective argument for the idea that despite the entrenchment of partisanship in recent years, many black voters (especially pre and post Obama) are often voters without a party.  Most can’t conceive of voting Republican but feel that the Democratic party ignores them or takes them for granted.  The black vote (or absence of it), just might have been the decisive factor in the 2016 presidential election.

Zelizer concluded by agreeing with Hemmer’s thesis that the political right has benefited immensely from polarization since the 1970s, but added that the left has been just as susceptible to using divide and conquer strategies and ideologically-driven media platforms.  The difference has been, according to him, that liberals just haven’t been very good at using either of those tactics successfully.  Like Stewart-Winter, Zelizer also countered the idea that there’s been an overall shift to the right among Americans.  The progress made in feminism and gay rights belie that narrative.  As Zelizer noted, however, “we have left many questions unanswered since the 1970s.”  The answers to those questions animated culture warriors like Jerry Falwell Sr. and Phyllis Schlafly in their day and that mantle has been taken up by Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham today.  When seen as a desperate, rear-guard action to save White Christian America, perhaps it makes sense why in the age of Trump, some people are still “mad as hell and … not going to take this anymore.”

Thanks, Matt!

One thought on “Polarization and Partisanship in Contemporary America (#AHA19)

  1. Don’t know about you, but I’ve been getting a LOT of mileage out of the YouTube clip of that scene from Network.

    It’s my standard go-to explanation for “Why did so many vote for Trump?”: The “Mad as Hell and Not Going to Take It Any More” just reached critical mass and Trump was in the right place at the right time to ride the perfect storm.

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