In 1948, a young historian named Richard Hofstadter published The American Political Tradition, a critical look at the country’s politics that marked a sharp break from the accepted wisdom among historians of the time. Many scholars, following in the footsteps of the Progressive era’s Charles Beard, held that American history was defined by conflict: by the policy disagreements that separated agrarian from industrial regions, by disputes among different factions of the economic elite over the right path forward for the country. But Hofstadter suggested the opposite. Profiling an array of political leaders—from Thomas Jefferson and John Calhoun to Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt—he argued that American politics existed within a shockingly narrow spectrum. Almost all of the politicians he chronicled, who helped define the American “tradition,” had accepted capitalism and individualism as the reigning norms of political life. Despite their apparent differences, they all shared this bedrock faith—one that left them unable to grapple with the underlying realities of American life, with its myriad inequalities of class and power. American democracy was unable to live up to its promise, Hofstadter insisted, because it was in the grip of a liberal ideology defined by a rapacious individualism.
Generations of scholars have contested Hofstadter’s pessimism and his account of politics in the United States. Pointing out the remarkably limited cast of characters he’d chosen to stand in for the “American political tradition”—all white men, all but one of them elected leaders (the sole exception, the abolitionist activist Wendell Phillips, comes off much better than the rest)—Hofstadter’s heirs argued that American politics had always been far more ideologically diverse than he allowed, including real critics of capitalism and the country’s commercial norms. Others also challenged Hofstadter’s vision of American politics as essentially liberal in nature, pointing to the political forces—from slaveholders to patriarchs—who espoused explicitly illiberal forms and championed reactionary causes.
Yet for all of his critics, the questions that Hofstadter raised in The American Political Tradition are very much with us today. Why is a country that overtly embraces egalitarian ideals and democratic politics so far from being egalitarian and democratic in reality—a country where ordinary people can expect to exercise meaningful political power? We talk a great deal about “democracy,” but what does that really mean: How, and under what conditions, does it exist? And given the many obstacles to political change, how can we explain why it happens when it actually does? Indeed, these are questions of perennial concern—but today, as the country faces a frightening far-right turn, they have new resonance.
Hofstadter hovers over Timothy Shenk’s Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy. Indebted to The American Political Tradition in style as well as tone, the book is a collection of profiles of major political leaders and activists that takes as its central subject the “narratives, policies and symbols—in short, the ideas” that drive American politics. Shenk’s selection is far more eclectic and idiosyncratic than Hofstadter’s was; it includes Charles Sumner, Phyllis Schlafly, Walter Lippmann, W.E.B. Du Bois, the Republican Party strategist Mark Hanna, and Hanna’s daughter Ruth Hanna McCormick. Presidents get less play; there’s no chapter on Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, or Ronald Reagan, though Martin Van Buren and Barack Obama are represented. Like Hofstadter, Shenk is attuned to the divide between the rhetoric of these figures and the reality of what they accomplished, and to the ways that they were often undermined by their own hopes and actions, seeking to accomplish one thing but ending up in an entirely different place.
But despite Hofstadter’s evident influence, Shenk is motivated by a very different underlying problem. While Hofstader surveyed the sweep of American political thought and came to the pessimistic conclusion that its recurrent theme was the evasion of conflict through appeals to a shallow individualism, Shenk wants to explain how and why structural change does sometimes happen, and often against all odds. Political activists, after all, have always tried to make space for themselves within the American political tradition; sometimes they have even succeeded in turning the country in directions no one had anticipated. For Shenk, the central dilemma is produced by majority rule itself: If democratic politics involves appealing to the majority of voters in order to win an election, how can anyone gain power with the goal of creating lasting structural change? Since real change involves asking people to take a leap into an unknown future, is this possible to achieve in an electoral system that demands creating majority coalitions—including many who may have a profound stake in keeping things the way they are?
The United States has gone through one period of truly revolutionary change in its history—the abolition of slavery—and the first half of Realigners is concerned with the development of political parties and the maneuvering around slavery in the early republic and the antebellum years. The political problem of ending slavery brings Shenk’s key concerns to the fore: How can a society vote to take actions that completely transform property, labor, and class relationships? Enslaved people by definition could not vote—indeed, they could not engage in any formal or recognized political activity; could not speak freely or publish their own newspapers; and could not enjoy freedom from search and seizure, being property themselves. They effectively existed in a dictatorship that was no less absolute for being decentralized, one master at a time controlling his own plantation through recourse to violence—a violence that all white people were implicitly able to enact, if need be, to maintain the social hierarchy. The people most oppressed by slavery could not take political action to abolish it.
The rest of American society, in the North as well as the South, did not seem all that interested in taking action either. After all, most Americans after the Revolution benefited from slavery to some extent, especially in the first three decades of the 19th century, as cotton and its profits dominated the national economy and drove its growth. In the early 19th century, there was no electoral constituency that could bring an end to the slave system, and so, as Shenk notes, one had to be created: a “coalition of free states, powered by mass democratic politics, dedicated to abolishing slavery.” This was the project of Republican politicians like Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, in contrast to earlier generations of abolitionists, who had looked at the complicity of the entire nation in sustaining slavery and argued that withdrawal was the only moral choice.
There had been attempts to build an electoral anti-slavery politics before, starting with the Liberty Party, which was founded in 1840 by the abolitionist activists Gerrit Smith and James Birney. The Free Soil Party, emerging from a Democratic Party faction led by former president Martin Van Buren, focused on a single issue: preventing the expansion of slavery into western lands. But it wasn’t until 1856 that a group of Free Soil politicians and antislavery activists across the North founded the Republican Party. Crafting a politics that linked economic self-sufficiency and access to western land with an opposition to expanding the slave empire, the party was by no means committed to abolishing slavery throughout the country. The Republicans’ end goal, Shenk notes, was conservative: halting the divide of the nation into a propertied and a proletarian class. (“The South had to be transformed, they argued, so that the North could stay the same.”) But whatever its limits, the Republican Party did represent a democratic mobilization in opposition to the entrenched power of the slave system, and thus its electoral victory ensured that Southern elites would leave the Union.
The Republican Party’s vision of economic self-sufficiency and the moral dignity of labor helped it win the election of 1860, but war changed the Republicans, too. Although the party may not have supported abolition, the Civil War’s exigencies forced it to embrace an increasingly radical politics. As the “general strike” of enslaved people described by W.E.B. Du Bois erupted in the South, Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Republicans began to consider a general emancipation edict—one that Lincoln issued on January 1, 1863, followed by Congress’s ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments after the war. But even as the Republicans embraced abolition and the radical early programs of Reconstruction, “many persons who have been Radicals all their lives are in doubt whether to be Radical any longer,” as The Nation’s first editor, E.L. Godkin, put it. By 1877, the Republican Party had become a vehicle for the massive capital accumulation of the industrial age, as well as complicit in the disenfranchisement of Black Southerners and the eventual rise of Jim Crow.
Shenk’s best chapter is his profile of Charles Sumner, which dramatizes the rise (and fall) of a more radical Republican Party. He shows how the Massachusetts senator helped popularize the notion of the “Slave Power”—a galvanizing idea that the Republicans built their coalition around, and one that opened the door to a more radical antislavery politics. “All the acts of our Government [are] connected, directly or indirectly, with the institution,” Sumner wrote, insisting that slavery was an attack on white Northern and Southern voters as well as the enslaved.
This vision, Shenk contends, enabled the Republicans to form a mass coalition, win the 1860 presidential election, and sustain morale and popular support for a bloody war against the South. But as he notes, the Republican faith in the egalitarian sensibilities of white Southerners and Northerners would ultimately run aground on the intransigence of Southern elites and racism and indifference in both North and South. While the Radical Republicans would support the war while it lasted and even press for the constitutional amendments that followed, they proved unable to build enough popular support in the postwar years to redistribute land or to enforce the civil and political rights of the freed people. For Shenk, the very vision that allowed the Republicans to build an antislavery majority before the war also limited their capacity to guarantee the creation of democratic institutions after it was over.
Another theme running through Realigners is the ambivalent streak in American politics toward the entire project of electoral democracy. On the one hand, Shenk addresses the wary stance of the early leaders of the American republic toward mass politics. Many of them, he suggests, were skeptical if not hostile to ideas of majoritarian rule and hoped instead to preserve the prerogative of political power for deserving statesmen. They saw elections as a way for an elite class of guardians to obtain legitimate authority, rather than as a democratic mobilization to shape and define the popular will. Shenk presents Alexander Hamilton (for all his “young, scrappy and hungry” fame) as disappointed by the political world he had helped to create. “Our real disease…is DEMOCRACY,” Hamilton wrote to a Federalist comrade the day before he was killed by Aaron Burr. “Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.”
Politically remote from the Federalists but also unsure of the project of popular coalitional politics was the young W.E.B. Du Bois, who initially sought to advance the cause of Black freedom through the efforts of the “talented tenth,” an intellectual and cultural elite who would pave the way. Yet Du Bois’s vision, Shenk tells us, was not unique to him: The whole concept of the “talented tenth” was the product of a growing progressive elite who had come to believe that appeals to the majority were fruitless. Instead, political change would result from the mobilization of the most intelligent, creative, and disciplined. Du Bois did not abandon popular democracy altogether; in the 1910s and ’20s, he combined his vision of a progressive elite with an effort to encourage Black voting, believing that Black political mobilization wherever it was still possible was the key to ending segregation. But the “solid South” and the complete absence of democracy there made this seemingly pragmatic vision completely utopian. With the capitalist world sliding into the Great Depression, Du Bois began to question his own elitist preferences, as the upsurge of popular politics in the 1930s led to eviction protests, unemployed councils, sit-down strikes, labor uprisings, and the first glimmers of an interracial movement that could take on segregation and racism. Turning away from his earlier faith in meritocracy, Du Bois embraced a communist politics that insisted that mass mobilization was necessary for social change. In the midst of this turn, Du Bois published Black Reconstruction, his pathbreaking work of history and political theory that showed how enslaved people, waging a “general strike” in the South, helped turn the tide of the Civil War. As Du Bois wrote, “Charles Sumner did not realize, and that other Charles—Karl Marx—had not yet published Das Kapital to prove to men that economic power underlies politics.”
Du Bois was hardly alone in experiencing this sudden, rapid change in attitude toward protest politics during the New Deal years. During the Progressive era, educated elites imagined that they were there to rescue the nation from the unlettered, disruptive masses. But with the status quo dissolving into the despair of the Depression, the social unrest that had once seemed frightening to those same elites now appeared justified. What was more, for politicians such as the New Dealers, the upsurge of protest seemed to hold out the possibility of an alliance that could be harnessed to press through sweeping reforms. Nor were these developments limited to the United States. The democratic ethos and the hatred of inequality and hierarchy—of “royalists” and all those who would rule without popular consent—that drove the sit-down strikes and rebellions of the 1930s would also inspire a passionate resistance to fascism abroad: to Franco in Spain, to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, to the Nazis in Germany.
This broad defense of popular politics did not continue in the postwar years. As tensions grew between the United States and the Soviet Union, a new elitist sensibility soon became the defining feature of Cold War liberalism. For many liberals, the frank populism of the New Deal years had been exciting in the moment, but in the aftermath of the war and in the early Cold War it seemed embarrassing—a stagy politics that had been manipulated from above. Though Du Bois did not retreat from his commitments, he did become increasingly disaffected from American politics. “The result of the election I cannot change,” he wrote of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s victory in 1956, “but I can at least refuse to condone it. I can stay home and let fools traipse to the polls.” The new Cold War elites running Washington seemed to share his antipathy. Shortly before his 83rd birthday, Du Bois was indicted by a grand jury on the charge of acting as a Soviet agent. (The case against him, which hinged on his peace activism, was slim even by the McCarthy era’s standards and got thrown out by the judge.) Du Bois regained his confiscated passport in 1958, and a few years later he left the country of his birth for Ghana. He never returned.
As Realigners moves closer to the present, it focuses on how the right—not liberals or the left—eventually returned to the project of building a political majority. Phyllis Schlafly, the founder of the Eagle Forum and the architect of anti-feminism as a social movement, is presented by Shenk as “one of the most talented political organizers in American history.” Initially, he reminds us, Schlafly focused almost entirely on the anticommunist crusade, rallying conservatives within the Republican Party against the “kingmakers” she believed were exercising a malign control. Republicans should provide “a choice, not an echo,” as she titled her broadside in support of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. But when this argument ceased to have much traction after Goldwater’s electoral trouncing in 1964, Schlafly’s focus changed. She sought to appeal instead to a constituency of housewives and homemakers that no one had paid much attention to before, telling them that all they treasured was endangered by the liberal backers of the Equal Rights Amendment. Stitching together a coalition of older opponents of New Deal liberalism and new recruits to the anti-feminist cause, she helped create the New Right, which would eventually bring Ronald Reagan to power. The contrast of Du Bois and Schlafly suggests that in Shenk’s view, the right has in some ways been more successful in building this kind of coalition than the left.
Schlafly comes off in Realigners as far more successful than the person described in the book’s final chapter: Barack Obama. Parts of his story are already well known, including his multicultural background, his Kansas grandparents, his youthful radicalism at Columbia (“some species of GQ Marxist,” as one friend put it), and his time as a community organizer on the abandoned, polluted South Side of Chicago. Tired of working for change as an activist on the periphery of power, Obama decided to attend Harvard Law and try to shape the Democratic Party from within. While at Harvard, he wrote a book, Transformative Politics, with a law school friend.
Working through this never-published manuscript, Shenk describes how the young Obama wrestled with questions about the left’s way forward in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. (“The left generally and blacks in particular stand at a crossroads.”) Rejecting any notion of utopian transformations, Obama argued that people who want to improve conditions for Black Americans should make common cause with working-class white people and build broadly social-democratic programs: public works, national health care, investment in higher education. This pragmatic interracial organizing focused on the welfare state would dissolve racial antagonisms. Needless to say, this did not happen. After he was elected president, Obama found himself (in Shenk’s words) “a charismatic leader who failed to convert personal popularity into structural change, another prisoner of fate.” Maybe he could build a majority to win an election, but this did not translate into the muscle to make the changes he claimed to seek real.
Why not? One of the complex aspects of Shenk’s book—and, to some extent, our larger political situation—is that the meaning of elections is taken for granted. On one level, an election is a campaign that results in victory or defeat for a candidate, a party, a political agenda. But anyone who has ever participated in an electoral campaign knows that they are also organizing events. They help to marshal political groups and provide a chance to shape ideology. They are a form of political education as well as a contest for power, and they reflect power as much as they shape it. As we have seen over the past two years, losing an election can itself become a strange kind of organizing opportunity. There is a way in which Shenk’s book seems to emerge out of the new electoral organizing of the Democratic Socialists of America: It is the book of a left that doesn’t want just to be morally right or to dissent from the peanut gallery, but that has a vision of winning and all that might come after.
And yet, what really produces “realignment”—not just of electoral majorities, but of the status quo? And how important are elections as single events? What about the long, slow efforts to shape the overall distribution of power in society—the organizing that happens outside of the electoral realm? Union organizing campaigns, political magazines, the sudden flare-up of social movements such as the Greensboro sit-ins or Occupy Wall Street, the organizing institutes and long-term education projects, the mundane behind-the-scenes business lobbying: Might these be more important than the project of stitching together an electoral majority, because it is through such efforts that political constituencies are born? After all, those moments when things really do change—the 1850s, the 1930s, the 1960s—have usually been fraught with crises far outside electoral politics.
Even more, they have also been moments of economic and political rupture—eras when it is simply no longer possible for society to move forward as it has in the past. What is possible at any given moment shifts with history. Seen this way, winning an election is less a singular moment of realignment than the final step in a long chain of events through which political institutions and leaders are brought into alignment with a new reality.
Despite the many ways that Shenk’s book echoes The American Political Tradition, it is a product of this moment just as much as Hofstadter’s was of his. The historian of the 1940s looked at a society that had survived the cataclysms of the Great Depression and World War II without fundamentally changing its core institutions and its commitments to property and capitalism. Even though many saw the New Deal and its aftermath as marking a historical break, Hofstadter pointed to the lines of continuity. For him, the problem was the tragedy of stasis. For Shenk, on the other hand, the problem is different: explaining why, despite all the evidence to the contrary, society can sometimes, somehow, actually change—that things don’t have to continue as they are now, no matter how deep the paralysis seems. In a moment as bleak as ours, it is helpful to remember that, as Ignazio Silone once put it, “revolutions are facts too.”