Title: Party Wars: Polarization And the Politics of National Policy Making
Author: Barbara Sinclair
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
• Very good history of American politics since the 1950s
• Draws together threads from many different political and social trends
• History of the changes in party politics in America that have led to increased polarization
• Argues that some causes are internal to the Republican Party, others to changes in the electorate
Politics is such a complex phenomenon, with so many different subjective perspectives on what's happening, that it can be difficult to develop an accurate perspective on long-term trends or changes. What today appears to be an obvious trend may, in a few years, turn out to be obviously wrong as something entirely different develops. Careful scholarship, however, can provide very important insights into not just what happened in the past, but also what's really doing on today. That's what Barbara Sinclair gives us in her book Party Wars: Polarization And the Politics of National Policy Making.
According to Sinclair, the current problems with polarization and the lack of cooperation stem largely from changes in the Republican Party during the 1970s and 1980s. She provides clear evidence that, right up through the early 1970s, members of both parties in Congress tended to vote more frequently with the other party than with their own. Politicians of both parties were so independent that there were substantial numbers of both conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans who could vote as they wished without fear of retaliation.
What changed? The rise of neoconservatism and the Christian Right are major factors in the radicalization of the Republican Party. This, in turn, led to increasing appeals to conservative Democrats - especially in the South where white conservatives were unhappy with the Democratic Party's racial policies. Decreasing voter turnout has led to a decrease in voting moderates, thus radicalizing the entire electorate.
All of this creates a feedback loop: as conservative Democrats are replaced by conservative Republicans, the overall tenor of the Democratic party becomes more liberal while the Republican Party becomes more conservative. This leads to more consistently liberal and conservative political messages which, in turn, drive the voters more deeply into separate camps.
One thing absent from Sinclair's book is any reference to the ideas of Carl Schmitt, the German political and legal theorist whose writings played a major role in giving intellectual credibility to Nazi authoritarianism. Schmitt describes politics as a kind of war where compromise and "working together" is a recipe for losing. Many critics of contemporary Republican intransigence argue that they are taking their cues from Schmitt's ideas, either directly or indirectly. Sinclair focuses on the writings and actions of American politicians for good reason, but it would have been nice to read her perspective on this theory - whether to agree with it or to argue why it's misplaced.
Issues like this are, however, quite minor against a work that is overall so good. If you were not politically aware during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, you'll get a very good education on contemporary American political history. If you were politically aware, Sinclair brings it all together for you with the benefit of historical hindsight and you'll come away knowing more than you did before. She does not in the end try to argue for any solutions because, as she says, there's no reason to think that any status quo - either the past or the current one - should persist, and democracy cannot be expected to always produce the best outcome. What democracy does is provide us with the opportunity to participate in the political process and thereby affect the outcomes.