Thursday, February 22, 2018

Sam Rosenfeld's "The Polarizers"

Sam Rosenfeld is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colgate University. He has a PhD in History from Harvard University and studies parties and American political development. His research interests include the history of political parties, the intersection of social movements and formal politics, and the politics of social and economic policymaking.

Rosenfeld applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Polarizers comes toward the end of the introductory section on my chapter on the 1960s. As a result, it’s more big-picture and analytically explicit than the typical pages of detailed historical narrative found throughout the book. And the big-picture argument I’m making in the chapter is this: political developments in the 1960s, for all of their extraordinary social and cultural tumult, marked less a turning point than an acceleration of preexisting dynamics in party politics. They reflected debates over parties’ proper role in American politics that were not new.

The preceding 98 pages have told the story of the postwar emergence of a critique, offered by thinkers and activists on both the right and the left, of the highly unpolarized American party system at midcentury. Both parties contained conservative and liberal factions, policy was made via bipartisan coalitions, and party allegiances often still stemmed from loyalties based on either tradition or non-programmatic material incentives like patronage. A new postwar breed of activists motivated by national policy issues and ideology, buttressed by leading political science scholarship, decried the fuzzy distinctions between the two parties that such arrangements produced. In the name of democracy, they championed restructuring and sorting the parties around coherent and distinct ideological agendas.

1960s activists, though a generation younger than the postwar actors tracked in previous chapters and often motivated by more radical systemic critiques, mounted a challenge to existing party practices that sustained and amplified their predecessors’ “demands for greater moral commitment and attention to issues in party politics.” In accounts of the early work of Students for a Democratic Society, the 1964 convention challenge of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the antiwar nomination challenges of 1968 and their translation into a party reform project, I show how the major social movements of the era “contributed signally to the long-term project of breaking down the transactional elements of political parties and remaking them as more issue-defined and ideological institutions.”

It would take the ensuing, truly pivotal decade of the 1970s for such actors to finally achieve transformative breakthroughs in both parties that served to forge the political world we still inhabit today.
Visit Sam Rosenfeld's website.

--Marshal Zeringue