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Even in this most partisan and dysfunctional of eras, we can all agree on one thing: Washington is broken. Politicians take increasingly inflexible and extreme positions, leading to gridlock, partisan warfare, and the sense that our seats of government are nothing but cesspools of hypocrisy, childishness, and waste. The shocking reality, though, is that modern polarization was a deliberate project carried out by Democratic and Republican activists.
In The Polarizers, Sam Rosenfeld details why bipartisanship was seen as a problem in the postwar period and how polarization was then cast as the solution. Republicans and Democrats feared that they were becoming too similar, and that a mushy consensus imperiled their agendas and even American democracy itself. Thus began a deliberate move to match ideology with party label—with the toxic results we now endure. Rosenfeld reveals the specific politicians, intellectuals, and operatives who worked together to heighten partisan discord, showing that our system today is not (solely) a product of gradual structural shifts but of deliberate actions motivated by specific agendas. Rosenfeld reveals that the story of Washington’s transformation is both significantly institutional and driven by grassroots influences on both the left and the right.
The Polarizers brilliantly challenges and overturns our conventional narrative about partisanship, but perhaps most importantly, it points us toward a new consensus: if we deliberately created today’s dysfunctional environment, we can deliberately change it.
About the Author
Sam Rosenfeld is assistant professor of political science at Colgate University.
“For anyone who cares about our political future enough to learn from its past, The Polarizers is absolutely essential reading.”
“A timely and significant contribution to the literature on political sorting and polarization that defines the current state of the two major American political parties. . . .A readable and well-structured history of our current party system. . .Highly recommended.”
“Partisan and ideological polarization are defining features of our time, but they are more often denounced than understood. In The Polarizers, Rosenfeld sheds much-needed light on the origins of present-day politics—revealing the human actors who took deliberate steps to bring about the political alignment we know today. His readable, deeply informed narrative should change the way we think about the recent past and even our own times, showing the era of polarization to be not a fall from grace but a plausible response to the very real problems and dilemmas of the old political order. Rosenfeld’s new research and new insights brilliantly challenge much over-crusted conventional wisdom about polarization, and offers hints as to how conscious political action can help redress the flaws of the current party system much as past actors took steps to cure the ills of the past.”
“A delight for policy wonks and politicos, Rosenfeld's insightful study of the development of political parties since World War II is highly instructive for our current moment.”
“A thorough and detailed study that introduces readers to the myriad figures who contributed to the development of what Rosenfeld deems the ‘polarization without responsibility’ of our present times.”
“To some political junkies, reading Sam Rosenfeld’s book will be an exercise in almost unbearable nostalgia for that world of political stability and comity and the kind of genuine debate that can only come with mutual respect between those of differing political points of view. . .[The Polarizers] is a tribute to the meticulousness of his scholarship in reconstructing such a difficult and complicated history, one that was complicated, at least in part, deliberately.”
“Using impressive, indeed herculean, amounts of archival work, Rosenfeld shows that as more and more Americans became politically aware and as, in the wake of the polarizing 1960s, people found ideological cohesion around economic and cultural issues, a growing number of ideologically driven and issue-based activists worked to ensure that the Democratic and Republican Parties respectively represented their cohering interests. Rosenfeld’s analysis is built upon a surprising irony: the very partisanship that so many pundits now lament was something that pundits of an earlier era wanted! The Polarizers is a provocative book that unlocks the black box of partisan polarization.”
“Many observers complain about partisanship in contemporary politics, but Rosenfeld provides a careful and fascinating history of the people who created our current system. Frustrated with the way that bipartisanship had created gridlock in the 1950 and 1960s, partisan entrepreneurs such as Paul Butler believed that strong and ideologically cohesive parties would offer a better way to govern. They believed that partisanship promised to make a stronger democracy. Through tremendous archival research, Rosenfeld shows how this all happened and provides a fresh perspective on the roots of our current system.”
“Less an elegy than an illuminating genealogy, The Polarizers places today’s sharp partisanship in historical context. Moving fluidly between fascinating particulars and systematic analysis, the book’s rich account of persons, motivations, and mechanisms illuminates central transformations within American political life, all the while offering acute judgments about the party system, past and present.”
“Exceptionally well researched, written, organized, and presented. . .A work of simply outstanding scholarship.”