29 December 2011

American History needs Bipolarchy Studies

The December Journal of American History features a round-table discussion on the historiography of modern American conservatism. Kim Phillips-Fein leads the discussion with a survey of writing and thinking on conservatism since the 1960s, when the movement was seen as an aberration requiring psychological explanations about "status anxiety" and so on. Over the last 20 years, approximately, historians have felt challenged to account for the late-century success of conservatism, which challenged liberal complacency about historical "progress." Some have gone so far as to argue that, rather than conservatism being an aberration, liberal success from the 1930s through the 1980s may have been the exceptional moment in American history, with deeply ingrained conservative habits of thinking slowly reasserting themselves beginning in the 1960s. Students of conservatism attempt to explain several things: why conservatives believe what they believe, how they organized to overcome apparent marginalization, and how they managed to become the dominant force in American politics from 1980 forward. The questions should raise corollary questions about liberalism: how did they lose the popular mandate, and what did they do, if anything, to alienate electoral majorities?

There have been intellectual and sociological studies of the great change in American politics between 1964 and 1980, and the contributors to the JAH round table cite a variety of different approaches and attitudes toward the subject. Few, however, consider the possibility that structural forces in the political order, most obviously the dominant two-party paradigm, influenced the ideological and demographic evolution of both conservatism and liberalism. Wilfred M. McClay suggestively describes the "symbiotic relationship" of conservatism and liberalism, calling for more attention to the "dialectical element in that relationship," but his comments seem restricted to the realm of ideas. Lisa McGirr comes closer to the mark when she argues that "more attention might be paid to the role of traditional political parties as powerful institutions in American life." She adds:

Central to the story of the Right's policy successes, after all, has been the transformation of loosely structured parties into our contemporary, highly organized, ideologically disciplined national parties. Of course, any understanding of continuity on the Right should look far more closely at strongholds of antiliberal sentiments in Congress within both the Democratic and Republican parties throughout the post-New Deal years.

Today's ideological discipline, however, might be overrated. It may be true that everyone seems eager to enforce ideological discipline within a party, but a perpetual hunt for heretics, decentralized to the point of chaos, isn't really the same thing as discipline. The Republican party in particular looks increasingly like a coalition of components increasingly uncomfortable with one another, united only in autumn by hostility to the liberal strawman. The GOP coalition always appears on the verge of flying apart, and in our recent past a Democratic coalition did fall apart -- the crack-up resulted not in a new party but in mass defections to the Republicans. Why did that happen, and why might the Republicans suffer a similar fate? Bipolarchy may provide part of the answer. Under Bipolarchy, each of the two major parties inevitably becomes an uneasy coalition, though each appears in the other's eyes, and is portrayed in the other's propaganda, as a monolithic negative. This coalition building is a two-way street. The major parties are always out to attract new interest groups, if only to prevent them from forming third parties. New interest groups seek influence within the major parties because they see no chance of success as independents. But as each party adds to its coalition, it risks alienating older coalition members. This seems to have happened to the Democrats, where New Deal progressives once worked with segregationist Southerners, but lost their support while pursuing black votes nationwide. In pursuing the counterculture vote in the Seventies, they alienated older working-class people who had been economically liberal but had always upheld traditional morality and had not questioned America's role abroad. Those older Democrats occasionally turned to third parties, but finally became "Reagan Republicans," or had gone GOP sooner thanks to Nixon's "Southern strategy." Historians ought to ask how much Bipolarchy had to do with that fateful shift, whether under different circumstances alienated Dixiecrats might have remained a third force, one potentially capable of controlling the balance of power in Congress if not capturing the Presidency, instead of throwing their lot with the Republican party. Historians with a broader view might ask how much of our political history since 1860 has been shaped decisively by the pathological imperative to have only two "real" choices. Others should be asking how that pathological imperative came to dominate our thinking, looking back to Martin Van Buren's revulsion at the four-way 1824 election and his insistence that American voters always be given the starkest two-way choice possible. It may be that historians will never be able to answer the questions they ask now about conservative ascendancy unless they understand better how Bipolarchy shapes not only our electoral structure but the attitudes of citizens. For those historians with progressive biases, the possibility that Bipolarchy makes conservative hegemony possible should make it a promising field of study. Conservatives should be interested in the subject to the extent that a conservative party may be the defining feature of Bipolarchy, and to the extent that conservative party building inevitably compromises conservative principles. A commitment from any quarter to Bipolarchy Studies would be a welcome sign, because that would mean that someone, for once, is not taking Bipolarchy for granted.

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