By many measures--commonsensical or statistical--the United States has not been more divided politically or economically in the last hundred years than it is now. How have we gone from the striking bipartisan cooperation and relative economic equality of the war years and post-war period to the extreme inequality and savage partisan divisions of today?
In this sweeping look at American politics from the Depression to the present, Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos argue that party politics alone is not responsible for the mess we find ourselves in. Instead, it was the ongoing interaction of social movements and parties that, over time, pushed Democrats and Republicans toward their ideological margins, undermining the post-war consensus in the process. The Civil Rights struggle and the white backlash it provoked reintroduced the centrifugal force of social movements into American politics, ushering in an especially active and sustained period of movement/party dynamism, culminating in today's tug of war between the Tea Party and Republican establishment for control of the GOP.
In Deeply Divided, McAdam and Kloos depart from established explanations of the conservative turn in the United States and trace the roots of political polarization and economic inequality back to the shifting racial geography of American politics in the 1960s. Angered by Lyndon Johnson's more aggressive embrace of civil rights reform in 1964, Southern Dixiecrats abandoned the Democrats for the first time in history, setting in motion a sustained regional realignment that would, in time, serve as the electoral foundation for a resurgent and increasingly more conservative Republican Party.
Stanford sociologist McAdam and social movements scholar and activist Kloos offer a timely, if at times tendentious, account of how partisan polarization and economic inequality have taken over America since 1960. The authors argue that the bipartisanship of postwar America was anomalous and made possible by the relative lack of social protest in the 1940s and '50s. The civil rights movement and the segregationist movement subsequently helped push apart the Democrats and the Republicans. The book's most significant contribution is its account of how the "Reagan Revolution," which further sharpened America's partisan divide, was implemented over the two decades after Reagan left office. Today, state legislation that bars ex-felons from voting, gerrymandering, the corrupting influence of money in elections, and the Electoral College suppress minority viewpoints, foster extreme partisanship, and ultimately threaten democracy. Some of the authors' conclusions are anodyne elected officials must find "common ground" and "reclaim... the political middle" and, overall, the book is likely only to please those who already agree with the authors. Still, McAdam and Kloos provide useful historical context for today's Capitol Hill.