*The Polarizers*

The author is Sam Rosenfeld and the subtitle is Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era.  Here is the bottom line:

Today’s pundits wring their hands about polarization and yearn for the halcyon days of bipartisan comity.  Yet pundits of the mid-twentieth century saw that very bipartisanship as the key problem in American politics.  They argued that the lack of clarity between the parties stifled progress while blurring accountability to the voters.  Polarization was their solution to this problem.  They thought making parties “real” in the sense that Roosevelt had meant — unified behind distinct policy agendas that were clear to voters — would invigorate democracy and improve policymaking.  Their ideas influenced the views of key political actors on both the left and right in the ensuing decades.

This book is the story of how that happened, and it is a useful corrective for those who thinks greater partisanship is something quite recent.


'who thinks greater partisanship is something quite recent'

Well, it is compared to during the Cold War and its aftermath regarding Russia's desire to keep its most effective opponent, the U.S., from becoming more powerful in international affairs.

Foreign policy in the post war period was concerned about representing American interests internationally, not Democratic or Republican policy. Something that both Democrats and Republicans agreed on - summed up with the idea that electoral politics ended at America's borders.

Given that defense was about 80% of the federal budget in the 1950s, and the federal budget was much smaller than today in terms of percentage of GDP, perhaps it was not a big deal, limited pork, except the military industrial complex that Ike warned about..


Defense blew past 10% of GDP in the 1950's.


Total Federal spending is actually about the same since the 1950's, 20% of GDP. But that's actually a decrease.

Keep in mind there's a difference between transfer payments and the actual purchase of goods and services. Things like Social Security and Medicare simply means Wal-Mart sells more to older people and Amazon to doctors and hospital administrators than they would otherwise sell. On the other hand building a tank or bomber means a factory that would have otherwise been making cars or airliners is instead being used for that. Spending 10% of GDP on military is more distortional to the economy than spending 10% on entitlements.

This depends on how useful the munitions wind up being, doesn’t it? If you accept that some degree of national defense is necessary, and that it’s a difficult good to provide through market mechanisms then at least some government spending on defense is warranted. How much is enough is a more difficult question, and tightly connected to larger questions of foreign policy.

I would disagree. Even if the munitions wind up being very, very useful...like say deterring a secret fleet of hostile UFO's from invading earth that doesn't change the fact that in order to create a huge number of weapons you have to distort the economy pretty significantly from what would be the allocation of goods and services if left to a simple market based system. You could argue that the distortion is needed to prevent some larger evil...or like the ancient Egyptians you may argue that the output as determined by market forces is not the ultimate ideal goal (they would say building giant pyramids was something very important for a society to do)...but regardless it is a distortion. That distortion was pretty large back in 1950 and now it's maybe half of what it was.


I do concede that the budget has stayed around 20% of GDP (15-25), however, there have been extended periods when the budget hardly ever exceeded 20%, from 1947 to 1974, with exception of 1953 (Korean + cold war). In contrast, every year since 2008 has been above 20% of GDP. Your data source is very user friendly!




While we may question the utility of defense spending, and I am happy it is way below the cold war level, what defense spending has going for it, us that it is the one current function of the government that is mandated by our now hollowed out constitution, beyond the census that I despise. And also this is spending for the COMMON defense. I absolutely do not buy the argument that transfer spending is not distorting the economy, mine is definitively distorted!

We may argue about the relative utility of defense vs infrastructure spending, but those are spending for the COMMON good. As someone who probably would have passed the marshmallow test as a kid, and is now comfortable, transfer payments are probably 75% robbery from my perspective. A world where the majority of federal spending was for the common good seems more just to a net contributor.

I wouldn't mind federal spending staying at 18% of GDP, with the drop of defense spending to 5% of GDP, that could leave a lot to bullet trains, nuclear energy plants that could with the right ingenuity drive the oil price low enough to bankrupt the middle east, if we developed a credible path from nuclear energy to transportation fuel. This is if we spent on the common good. In reality, the economics of high speed trains are not favorable with our population density 1/4 of China, and probably 1/10th of Eastern China. And the TSA would find a way to make the experience miserable.

And there is another factor. Both the lack of spending on national park infrastructure (probably about the same capacity since US population was half of today's), and the transfer payments beyond actuarial fairness in social security adds an enormous demand on national parks. They are full off geezers. Fortunately, you can get good nature experiences by walking a few miles and enjoy some solitude.

do not buy the argument that transfer spending is not distorting the economy, mine is definitively distorted!

Suppose Social Security checks were cut $100 a month and your paycheck was increased about $50 a month (I'm assuming a 2 worker to 1 retiree ratio there). Old people would spend less, you would spend more. The economy would nonetheless churn out roughly $100 a month of consumption goods for that $100. Perhaps the stuff you buy at WalMart would be slightly different than the stuff the old person whose money got cut had brought...but that's not a huge shift in the economy. During WWII it was impossible for people to buy new cars as all the factories were literally retooled to make war material. Like Cuba, people had to keep used cars going and going and going. Not saying no distortions but transfer payments are less distorationary than the actual purchase of goods and services.

that could leave a lot to bullet trains, nuclear energy plants that could with the right ingenuity drive the oil price low enough to bankrupt the middle east, if we developed a credible path from nuclear energy to transportation fuel.

OK how much does Saudi Arabia (plus other oil producers) make from oil? Billions upon billions. Why don't you get together with Elon Musk and borrow billions of dollars to build a fleet of nuclear power plants and bullet trains? Paying it back will be easy because you can just charge people a portion of the money they would save on buying gas. After demanding a distortion free economy you suddenly change course and propose distorting the economy for your pet ideas?!

This problem is insoluble simply because the Left has discovered that they can buy democracy with taxpayer money and their goasl now will destroy democracy and the country. You cannot compromise with that and if the left wins the country loses. Having said that I predict that the left will win and most likely trigger a violent revolution that will produce a oppressive communist style government.

Could you elaborate a bit?

I really don't see the difference between (A) The left winning and (B) an oppressive communist style government.

Both A and B results in theft and newspeak.

An external threat tends to unify people.

Absolutely - it even seems to allow Democrats and Republicans to work together in a fashion beneficial to the United States, as compared to their own narrow interests. This is what makes the current political emphasis on 'collusion' so moronic - the Russians are interested in weakening the U.S., and care nothing about American partisan interests in the least. Apart from making them worse, of course, as seen in a concrete example of Russian generated political unrest in the U.S. - 'Last year, two Russian Facebook pages organized dueling rallies in front of the Islamic Da’wah Center of Houston, according to information released by U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican.

Heart of Texas, a Russian-controlled Facebook group that promoted Texas secession, leaned into an image of the state as a land of guns and barbecue and amassed hundreds of thousands of followers. One of their ads on Facebook announced a noon rally on May 21, 2016 to “Stop Islamification of Texas.”

A separate Russian-sponsored group, United Muslims of America, advertised a “Save Islamic Knowledge” rally for the same place and time.

On that day, protesters organized by the two groups showed up on Travis Street in downtown Houston, a scene that appeared on its face to be a protest and a counterprotest. Interactions between the two groups eventually escalated into confrontation and verbal attacks.

Burr, the committee's chairman, unveiled the ads at a hearing Wednesday morning and said Russians managed to pit Texans against each other for the bargain price of $200.

"You commented yesterday that your company's goal is bringing people together. In this case, people were brought together to foment conflict, and Facebook enabled that event to happen," Burr said to Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch.

"I would say that Facebook has failed their goal," Burr added. "From a computer in St. Petersburg, Russia, these operators can create and promote events anywhere in the United States in attempt to tear apart our society."' https://www.texastribune.org/2017/11/01/russian-facebook-page-organized-protest-texas-different-russian-page-l/

Basically, the Russians are as wedded to their vision of manifest destiny in 2017 as they were in 1817 or 1917, especially when it comes to reclaiming land they think is historically theirs. Even if the Tartars might disagree - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crimean_Tatars The only difference being that since 1945, the nation most successful in preventing the Russians from fulfilling their clear historical destiny has been the United States.

Brilliant trolling on prior's part. Certainly, the notion that we were all anti-Communists together back then is absurdly ahistorical and morally offensive, given the left's decades of derision heaped on the right, at home and abroad, for its opposition to Soviet Communism. This traditional pattern was more recently revived by President Obama in 2012, who chided Mitt Romney for his adversarial stance toward Russia, accusing him of Cold War thinking (while attempting to secretly assure Putin of the flexibility his administration would have toward Russia after the election).

'the notion that we were all anti-Communists together back then'

I cannot remember - was the Berlin Airlift and Marshall Plan a Republican or Democratic position, and how many Americans opposed such things? Maybe I was taught the false history, as both were held up for decades as exemplars of the sort of nation that American could be. Including standing up to a nation that was swallowing as much of liberated Europe as it could, and generously providing a better future to devastated nations that the U.S. prevented from becoming part of the Soviet empire.

'is absurdly ahistorical and morally offensive'

If you say so. Shame to see that what I learned as a student decades ago concerning America's response, both short and long term, to Soviet aggression was ahistorical and morally offensive.

And didn't that foreign policy bipartisanship progress from policies like the Marshall Plan and lifting the Berlin blockade to US involvement in Vietnam?

Tribal-identity vs clear-policy-proposals.

The Sam Rosenfeld of The Expanse?

Polarization and partisanship are not problems. The main problem is the decay of procedural norms and the impartial quality of the institutions meant to administer the procedural norms. A secondary problem is the promotion of hysteria among political partisans. One party is almost entirely responsible for the 1st problem. Responsibility for the 2d problem is more evenly distributed (but largely attributable to that same party during the last 15 years).

Your wife out again looking for some action, Cuck? Is that why you’re trollin’ the comment sections?

Good point.

How exactly is hysteria evenly distributed between parties while 1 party is responsible for the decay of procedural norms and the quality of institutions? If 1 party is responsible for that first problem, it makes it pretty tough to claim the other party is hysterical.

"Well Mr. and Mrs. Smith, I think there's two main issues in your marriage. The first issue is the serial killing that is going on. That's unhealthy behavior and, of course, has a lot of legal risk should law enforcement catch you. That's mostly a problem with Mr. Smith. The second issue is there's a lot of intense criticism going on in your marriage, that problem is evenly distributed between both of you".

Bork, Abe Fortas...

Was opposition to Bork sitting on the SC reasonable? I think it was. Can you say Republican opposition to Merrick Garland the same thing, just an ideological disagreement for the SC appointment? No I don't think you can.

Someone suggested yesterday that historians will be reading Trump's tweets for a hundred years, as they try to understand America's Nero.


Only one Party did that to themselves, hitched themselves to that wagon.

It's all Hillary's fault. Think about it.

Hillary was ideally suited to meet Jeb in the 2016 presidential election, in a better, and less absurdly polarized world.

Well, that would have been another nightmare scenario, as the two families that had controlled the White House for 20 years between them would be assured of at least another 4 years of control. America had pretty much been spared dynastic politics in the presidency since its founding.

Many of us were turned off by the dynastic aspect, but that is something we should have held together, on our part.

Whatever else, the two were both dedicated professionals who, if anything, spent too long "doing the work" before running for President.

(It would be a very different world if Trump had ever tried to demonstrate his ability as Secretary of State, or Governor, or if we had demanded that.)

In a better world, Hilligula would be headed off to prison, the Democratic nominee would have been one of the other four candidates (not Joseph Biden) and the Republican nominee would have been (1) an experienced executive who was (2) willing to enforce the immigration laws.

Art thumbnails the madness of our age, but really the blame should be spread wider.

Inaction was acquiesce.

World headlines you might not want to see, but should probably see:


That made me laugh. Maybe "a very stable genius" will become a meme, just like "an hero" or "all your base are belong to us" :-)

Or "bigly". Or "grab them by the p***y". Etc.

The notion that one can look at steady economic growth, historically low black unemployment, falling food stamp enrollment, and rising lower-income wages and see America burning is what historians will find interesting. Republicans will be happy with the attention of sole credit, however.

Some few will remain positively Trumpian in their denial of objective reality.

You list things Trump is disconnected from as his successes and ignore the man, his defects. Why not applaud his air traffic control, while you're at it?


Good comment. I think a lot of Democrats weren't even aware that they were bending procedural norms and creating biased institutions though. When you're intellectually dominant for so long, it just seems normal that the rules are bent in your favor. This is the whole thing about the "reality based community", or "reality has a left-wing bias". They just don't *see* the biases because they are so used to them, they are so thoroughly institutionalized that they accept the presentation of left-leaning opinions and left-wing historical narratives as simply the truth.
I don't think that entirely explains some of the hysterical partisanship of the right, but it certainly forced the right to create it's own echo chamber in order to even be able to present their own narrative accurately. Whenever the left-wing media presented it (if ever) it would be accompanied by all sorts of bias 'fact checking" or be a straw-man version of itself. Once the news media split into partisan camps they both spirals off into their own hallucinogenic versions of the truth. There was no long any check on either side going full retard.

Also seen in the news this week: "'expertise' has come to be seen as a liberal value."

Clarity between the parties? Here is how that clarity actually turned out: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/05/opinion/faust-on-the-potomac.html

Does the book address segregation? I checked the blurb and it didn't mention it.

Segregation is a huge part of this story. The Democrats in the South were more of a regional party than ideological policy, going back to the aftermath of the civil war.

Defeating the segregationists, and Nixon's subsequent southern strategy, was a key factor leading to ideological sorting.

There's also of course a role for television, cable news, and the nationalization of politics and elections.

Obviously, the author is welcome to disagree with this structural analysis and you only put so much in a summary. But summary is what I have to go on, and it sounds like the tail wagging the dog.

A two party system has always seemed cruelly limited to me. There are many kinds of people, and sorting them into "two" seems crude. I am a bit jealous of parliamentary systems with six or a dozen active players. I'd think we would all be able to choose a party closer to our hearts or minds, including how far out there we want to be - how polarized we want to be.

But with two, I see all sorts of unfortunate and emergent properties as polarization increases.

Everyone who wants to be politically passionate, or politically effective, is kind of caught in one of two roller coasters. Either you ride with Hillary or you ride with Trump.

Hillary is a loser, and no longer relevant to anything. Why people keep bringing her up is mystifying.

Sanders, on the other hand ...

The wrong analysis. As much as we may be happy to see the back of her, there is no doubt that Hillary could hold it together. She was professionally self-aggrandizing and opportunistic. Kind of the minimum bar for government work, imo.

At least be professional about it. Read the dann briefing papers.

She still lost, and no longer has real relevance in American politics. Sanders, however, still has real relevance. The same would apply to Warren, of course, if one wishes to stay within certain parameters - like being a female member of the Democratic Party, Sanders being neither.

However, I can see that what was written could be misunderstood.

One of the crueler jokes from the second Bush administration asked how easily any American could name 25 people more suited to be president than him without needing to think about it. The growing reality of the Trump administration provides a cruel twist - how many Americans can quickly name 25 adults less fit to be president than Trump? And of course, you are only allowed to tweet your list.

Trump makes Bush II look like Reagan. Then again, Trump has yet to make a mistake as stupid and costly as the Iraq war.

'Trump has yet to make a mistake as stupid and costly as the Iraq war'

But Bush II never bragged about having this on his desk (makes one wonder if Trump showed it off to the visiting Russians last year, with that Tass photographer invited to take pictures) - '... I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!' https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/948355557022420992

Though maybe Bush's fingers were too small to push it? But if you want to argue that Trump is not competent enough as president to wield the U.S. military as a tool of American policy, however thoroughly wrong that policy may be, no problem. After all, Trump has not demonstrated any competence in any aspect of his presidency, thankfully. So maybe he will be equally unable to actually follow through on any of his threats involving 'fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before' involving 'Military solutions ... now fully in place,locked and loaded,should North Korea act unwisely.' https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/895970429734711298?ref_src=twsrc^tfw

One hopes, of course. Though having the U.S. appear as a paper tiger to a growing number of opportunistic adversaries sensing America losing its position as a leader of the world's most powerful web of alliances might just be worse over a longer term than the result of the second Iraq War. Time will tell, of course.

Actually Trump's Twitter trolling war with Kim Jong-Un is one of the best things about him. It's totally unpresidential, childish, etc. but it will in no way lead to hostilities. Both leaders are engaging in it, and both are obviously having fun with it.

Sorting into two parties does seem more efficient, though. Consider an issue like abortion which tends to divide into a binary yes/no. There's really only two sides in it, pro-life politicians may sometimes try to signal moderation by asserting they would 'make exceptions' for things like life or incest but the reality is policy wise there are no differences between pro-life politicians and between pro-choice ones. A third party would require some group of people who hold some 3rd style of opinion to find that they would get their way more if they had a party of their own rather than choosing the party whose 'extreme' was closest to their 'moderate' position.

Consider, then, a 'moderate' who wants to limit abortion but not go as far as the official GOP platform? He would probably find his best shot in the Republican Party, he could act as a 'swing vote' should they ever consider a bill to ban abortion or use his 'swing' to demand concessions on other issues. Likewise consider a Democrat who is generally supportive of a legal right to abortion but is uneasy about 'celebrating' it. He might express his 'moderation' by putting in a clause saying Obamacare plans don't cover abortion unless the patient is willing to write a separate check to add such coverage. Both of these people find it easier to 'sort' into one of the two parties but it isn't clear tome how you create some party inbetween these two that is coherent.

I don't think it can really be just yes/no when there are so many varied solutions.


But definitely the two parties have reason to present it as yes/no, a simple wedge issue. I am sure any number of "abortion is my hot button" folks will pop up to agree.

I wonder how many of those partisand were "made" by the two party system and the action of the wedge?

Lots of differences in how the states approach abortion yet in each state there's two parties and there's little variation on the question of which party is the pro-life one and which the pro-choice. To the degree that moderates exist on the question, they sort into one of the parties rather than staking out a 3rd position.

Appearances are deceiving. There's really only one party, the government party. Just as when the New England Patriots win the Super Bowl, their opponents don't disappear from the planet, they're still competing in the NFL, a single party, that, incidentally, absorbed both the AFL and the USFL. Politics is an exercise in theatre.

An indicting view of a generation...

Consider though states that had well functioning polarization back then. France, for instance had relatively well defined parties with Gaulists and Socialists with clear policy differences that the electorate could vote on. Yet their political system also began having serious problems such that all of those well differentiated parties were snubbed at the last presidential election. More interesting is the fact that the polarization along axis of Gaullism to Socialism have not been the flash points for French political dysfunction. Instead we see a new polarization developing between the old guard and the Le Pen inspired factions. Here, no quarter is given and every means possible is used to strip the Le Pens of any remote political influence.

Austria had well demarcated parties, but they initially governed with a grand coalition. Yet here too the OVP and the SPO have been heavily surpassed by the Greens and the Freedom Party.

Belgium has never had well polarized parties, instead being balkanized into many regional variations of parties. It also has witnessed a difficulty in government.

The Dutch went from a pillarized system to well polarized parties ... and also managed to have governing headaches with Pim Fortuyn and company. The Dutch have endure a number of early elections, minority governments, and rapidly shifting party balances.

In general, the old political order has survived precisely nowhere in the last 50 years. Everywhere, rhetoric has become more dramatic and the political issues rarely are resolved as cleanly as they were in the past. Sure a few places like the US and UK have such strong parties that rivals have not disrupted their electoral calculations and the old combatants still duke it out, but I would submit they are merely channeling the changes that have swept the rest of the world into the old parties. It seems pretty clear that everywhere the old system of resolving political differences has given rise to a less functional, more antipathic style of legislating. It is almost as if this is what the voters want.

Perhaps, and perhaps only subjectively I'd like more choices.

But part of the question might be in the aftermath. As populations reconcile themselves with various degrees of disaster, where will stability emerge, with two parties or N?

'As populations reconcile themselves with various degrees of disaster, where will stability emerge, with two parties or N?'

N, if post war Germany is any guide. (Yes, a special case, but still valid.)

I haven't read the book. But I worry it falls in the same trap as many arguments against parties, which go something like this:

Polarization is bad. Partisanship is bad. Partisanship causes polarization. Parties are obviously required in order to have partisanship. So they're bad, too.

I think the real problem is that are parties aren't strong enough. Instead, we have weak parties with high partisanship.

Voters and elites have a tribal mindset when it comes to their party vs. the other, so they automatically disparage and distrust the other side. At the same time, party organizations both in elections and in the legislatures have very limited power over their members. They can't keep out the wack-o's if they run and win in a primary, which may not always be reflective of public sentiment by the way. They only get to try to punish and reward already elected members with some goodies, but nothing that compares to the influence of that members' prior convictions and base of electoral support. If parties were stronger, leaders like Speaker Boehner would not have put up with the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus. He would have made more deals with Obama and had more power to push the parties agenda more in line with the median voter's or at least the median Republican's.

I also disagree with the conclusion that Congress is polarized! One reason they move fewer bills is because the majority parties can't even agree on how to proceed! If anything, the two parties have too much internal division, so they don't propose much at all. Again, if the party leaders had more power, especially in selecting their party's candidates, they would choose people who would go along with the majority of the party's agenda.

In the mean time, voters and policymakers still hate the other side.

Take the Obamacare repeal, for example. Republicans kept most of it in place. Yet, Democrats were acting like it was the end of healthcare as we know it. We argue more vehemently over smaller and smaller policy changes. Our disagreement are more about affect and tribalism than actual policy disagreements. (And in some ways, maybe that's better than having actual, major differences in our policy preferences.)

Strongly agree. From a Canadian perspective, it is shocking how Republicans and Democrats dislike each other, but how difficult it is for a party leader to impose his will upon the elected members of his party.

(There are of course demerits to strong parties, but at least the voters can choose a leader or a platform and have a reasonable expectation of results. And someone becomes accountable for broken promises.)

Maybe the weak parties are due to fundraising that favours candidates and PACs, rather than the central party?

Congress is polarized. It cannot act because it's structure and practices grant a franchise to obstructive veto groups to gum up the works.

"Take the Obamacare repeal, for example. Republicans kept most of it in place."

Yes, if they were serious about a repeal, the tax plan was were to do it, by removing the funding for the subsidy (capital gains surcharge for high income filers).

Seems a bit mood affiliated to look at a non-repeal Trumpeted as repeal, and to blame the bystanders.

Best business model in town. I hit at you the hardest I can. You hit at me the hardest you can. We both ask our followers for donations to respectively save them from you or me. And then we split the money 50-50.


I'm reading the Wolff book right now and it's certainly captivating. You can get it cheapest on Audible. And to balance that out I'm listening to pro-Trump lectures by Newt Gingrich. These are good ones: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeUZ1dslID0 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yq-l-vxImDU. Seeing these two orthogonal viewpoints I'm again convinced of the "two movie" theory of Scott Adams: http://blog.dilbert.com/2017/02/12/good-example-of-our-two-movie-reality/ But I still don't know which movie is the correct one :-)

I don't care about polarization, it's just a symptom. The underlying cause is how embarrassingly stupid and incessantly evil the other side is.

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