The United States is clearly in a political and constitutional crisis. In Timothy Shenk’s new book, Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy, he tells the story of American “democratic elites,” people like Martin Van Buren, Mark Hanna, W.E.B. DuBois, Walter Lippmann and Bayard Rustin—and how they responded to and shaped their own political crises.
Some of the people who changed our democracy were politicians, while others were organizers or writers who critiqued and therefore altered the world around them. Political realigners came from the left, right and center, some joining with broad progressive movements while others worked the levers of power through the economic and political ruling class. What they had in common was an ability to create electoral majorities to shift public policy; and that’s the story at the center of Shenk’s book.
Shenk knows that there are many avenues leading to social change—like influencing our culture—that don’t involve electoral politics. But politics can’t be avoided either. If we are wondering whether our democracy can be saved or how to build enduring and impactful progressive coalitions, then looking at how leaders who came before us went about it can be instructive.
Shenk, a co-editor of the magazine Dissent and assistant professor of history at George Washington University, spoke to Capital & Main reporter Kelly Candaele from his home outside of Washington, D.C.
This article has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Kelly Candaele: In your book, you explore the political and intellectual careers of a number of diverse people, including presidents, philosophers and agitators. What’s the thematic unity among them?
Timothy Shenk: It’s a motley group. But all of them were concerned with democracy in a very particular sense—not democracy as a set of norms, or democracy as a way of life, but democracy as a question of building electoral majorities. I think the answers they came up with for how to deal with that problem are worth taking seriously today.
Currently we seem stuck politically where whatever this machine is, it has broken down.
Absolutely, and the fact that neither party can put together a stable majority makes it even worse. If you don’t have a coalition that can push through lasting change, then everything gets harder to solve. It’s given us the worst of both worlds, a status quo where it feels like everything is falling apart yet we’re somehow also stuck in place.
The book is called Realigners. Talk about the dynamics of political realignment throughout American history.
There is a really strong version of realignment theory that the rules of American politics get rewritten every 30 years or so. One dominant majority gives way to the next and that this coincides with a wholesale reshuffling of American life—politics, the economy, society, the whole shebang. Usually this version begins with the making of Jeffersonian democracy from around 1800, moves on to the age of Andrew Jackson, goes into a Republican era that lasts from the Civil War to the Great Depression and then enters the New Deal years.
Many scholars point out that when you look at the details of this story, it’s not nearly so simple as the crude version of realignment theory suggests. Majorities are fluid things, and the minority party is always one good election away from getting back on top. I think a tempered version of realignment can be useful in thinking about politics and how all the pieces of a political movement fit together.
You write that American political history is, in part, how the “golden line between rulers and ruled” is established and how democratic elites visualize and create that line through the narratives and symbols that they employ. Can you expand on that?
I started off wanting to write a history of the democratic elite, the portion of the ruling class that derives its power from being able to say they speak for the will of the people. This kind of power comes with its own set of expectations, its own rules, its own possibilities. These are the figures who, at their best, are able to mediate between two poles—on one side an empty populism that’s just pandering to the public, and on the other an unrestrained technocracy that wants grownups to run the show. I think the essence of democratic leadership is to assess the ability to rise above that division and to find a place that responds to real public needs without giving in to the worst of populism.
Some argue that it’s economics that is the underlying factor driving these major political changes, so that if your economics is not working for everyone, your politics won’t work either.
Economics are always part of the story, but it’s never the whole thing. You have to think about how all the pieces fit together—class, culture, the structure of government, the dynamics of campaigns. The most important question in politics—and it’s a question that the people I write about in Realigners came back to time and again—is how you maneuver with these constraints. In the right circumstances it’s possible to take this big lumbering machine that we call American democracy and push it in a new direction.
We like to imagine that we don’t need what you call “democratic elites,” but you make a case that we can’t escape them. They are “the people making the movie,” which makes me think that you might regard politics as partly entertainment.
It has to be. Especially in a modern representative democracy where everyone knows their vote isn’t going to decide the outcome of an election, you can’t treat voting as a strictly rational enterprise.
I’m not trying to be cynical here. The people running studios are trying to give the public what it wants. Even though the audience isn’t in charge of making the movie they still get to decide what they like. We shouldn’t underestimate that power.
The people you write about are kind of political alchemists, turning symbols and narratives into power. This is a crucial skill. But why is “politician” a dirty word? Or is it only the opposing side’s politicians we despise?
It’s a cliche to point this out, but Congress itself routinely has a terrible approval rating, maybe 9%. But if you ask people how they feel about their own individual congressman, the rating is often pretty high. Voters keep reelecting their congressional representatives on a pretty regular basis.
You also see that even when people are unhappy with politics writ large they still have their favorite politicians of the moment—Obama, Trump, AOC, whoever. Disappointment is part of life so it’s always going to be part of politics.
In your chapter on William McKinley [elected president in 1896] you write that he was a president who “broke the last major challenge to the emerging corporate order,” creating an enduring cross-class majority. Are enduring cross-class majorities still possible to build?
We’re building them all the time. Both Democrats and Republicans draw support from up and down the socioeconomic scale. That’s the norm in American history. There’s a fairly brief period of time when the parties are divided roughly along economic lines; that’s the New Deal era from the 1930s into the 1960s. But coalitions are always going to be messy in a big and diverse country with just two parties.
Some people argue that we need to resurrect the old New Deal coalition, while other historians suggest that the New Deal political period was the “great exception,” never to return again in that particular form. How do you see this?
You’re never going to re-create the Democratic coalition of 1936 because you’re never going to re-create the United States of 1936. The move away from class-based voting is a worldwide phenomenon, not some American deviation from the global norm.
Lots of factors are at work here: rising income levels, increasing rates of education, hot-button social issues. The issues that candidates run on and the messages they use in their campaigns matter. Donald Trump really did change the Republican coalition by bringing in a lot of working-class voters.
You quote the political scientist Walter Dean Burnham who wrote in 1970 that he “feared a polarized cultural conflict of regions of the U.S. against the center” and “blue collar whites against both blacks and affluent liberals” that would have large “civil war potential,” starting with losers in a presidential election refusing to accept that loss. A negative way of seeing this quote is that the rot obviously continues. A positive spin is that so far, we have stopped illegitimate political power from taking hold. What do you say?
It’s clear that the logic of polarization was evident from the 1960s onward. As Burnham understood, it’s hard to see how this ends well for a country and political system like ours. Fifty years after Burnham warns that candidates might refuse to concede, we get Jan. 6. It could have happened earlier or later but we can’t be too surprised that it occurred.
You make a distinction between poetry—say, the soaring speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. or Barack Obama—and the tough realities of politics. What’s the dynamic between those two parts of our political culture?
The question is, what ends does the poetry serve? King was one of the greatest rhetoricians in U.S. history. We remember him today because he combined rhetorical genius with a shrewd understanding of how the American political system worked.
Electoral politics is far from the only way to achieve lasting change. The story of gay marriage, for instance, was much more driven by culture. Politicians were latecomers to that fight.
You point out how some intellectuals in the 1960s regarded activist groups—NOW, the Black Power movement and the New Left—as “romantics who confused moral campaigning with good campaigning.” How do you assess the turbulent 1960s?
I think that there is a tendency in conversations on the left to turn the ’60s into a morality play where one side is either saved or damned. That’s not helpful. On both sides there’s a tendency to moralize, which can lead to a focus on individual or communal decisions that this group at this moment made a mistake and that doomed the left in the United States.
If there’s a narrative archetype that fits, it’s tragedy—a story about a mix of good and bad motives leading us to a place that I don’t think anyone would have wanted. Instead of playing into moralizing, I want to take the temperature down and face and fix the problems we have today.
You include a chapter on Phyllis Schlafly in your book. She became famous campaigning against the Equal Rights Amendment. She was extremely popular on the right and a precursor, in a way, of the QAnon conspiracy movement. Why did you include her?
Because the big story in the last half-century of American politics is the way that partisan polarization around divisive cultural issues took a sledgehammer to the New Deal coalition. Phyllis Schlafly was one of the people who had her hands on the hammer. So as a precursor to the polarized politics that defines our country today you can’t get better than her. She is a bridge between the Republican Party of William Howard Taft and Joe McCarthy and the Republican Party of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.
The ghost of Bayard Rustin hovers around the book. He organized the 1963 March on Washington and campaigned for broad, cross-race coalitions. He wrote a famous essay in 1965 in Commentary magazine called “From Protest to Politics.” Like the others in the book, he is not uncontroversial. What was compelling about Rustin?
Rustin thought, and I agree, that building a broad progressive majority served two ends. First, it was a practical necessity to achieve the type of change we need in this country. And second, for those of us on the left, it’s a moral obligation to persuade working people to join our cause.
Rustin was a black, gay, ex-communist who had done prison time because he was a conscientious objector during World War II. He was an extraordinary example of the democratic spirit as I define it, which is about taking the views of other people seriously while trying to bring them over to your side. And he was one of the genius strategists behind the most important movement in modern American history. That’s why I think Rustin at his best is also American democracy at its best.
This article was produced by Capital & Main, a nonprofit journalism publication focused on politics, the environment, health and the economy. It is co-published here with permission. Copyright 2022 Capital & Main.