The Colgate University Political Science professor and author of The Polarizers: “Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era” discusses the 2018 midterm elections, Bernie Sanders, and the media’s inability to save us in an exclusive discussion.
Ben Evans: I’m Ben Evans and you’re listening to Fogged Clarity. This morning I’m pleased to be joined by Sam Rosenfeld, assistant professor of political science at Colgate University and author of The Polarizers: Post-War Architects of Our Partisan Era. Rosenfeld holds a PhD in history from Harvard University and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Review, Politico andVox, among other outlets. Sam, I appreciate you taking the time.
Sam Rosenfeld: Thanks so much for having me.
BE: Absolutely. Let’s talk first about your book The Polarizers. And congratulations on that. It came out in December of last year and it’s incredibly pertinent to the times we’re living in. So we’ve been hearing so much of late about divisiveness in America and we daily witness the enormous partisan divide in Washington. Your book reveals that such ideological separation was and is the plan of activist politicians and thought leaders on both the right and left following World War II. The book evidences that party polarization was a deliberate response by these individuals to combat what they saw as a growing lack of discernible difference between Democrats and Republicans. Can you explain why the engineers of party polarization regarded and seemingly still regard unity and a relatively unified national political ideology as a problem in the first place?
SR: Absolutely. So, the middle 20th century party system that is forged in the New Deal realignment of 1930’s, and then consolidated in the early post-war era is one that still to this day is a lot of gauzy nostalgia for among commentators who lament contemporary polarization and came of age in an era when things seemed a lot more civil and consensual. It was a party system in which it was, for contingent historical reasons–particularly the Democratic party, which was the dominate electorate majority party for many of these decades, after the New Deal–contained within it both the most liberal and activist political actors, and at the national level was the center left party. But also contained within it conservative and reactionary and, on the question of race, the most white supremacist faction of American politics in the form of southern Democrats who had disproportional amount of power in Congress. So the majority center-left party contained these hugely divergent ideological factions. On the right, in the Republican Party you also had a minority progressive–a northern Republican progressive tradition–dating back to the Mugwumps and capital-P Progressives that still had influence in the party, as well as a bunch of small government stalwart conservatives. So in both parties you had these big, internal ideological factions. And that meant that when policy was made, when legislation and legislative coalitions were put together, it was routinely done on a bipartisan basis. You had ad hoc coalitions of Republican and Democratic liberals to do some stuff. And then you had an institutionalized coalition of what was called the Conservative coalition of largely southern Democrats working with Republicans to block liberal legislation. But what it basically meant was that the parties, which is what organized the electorates votes and behavior on election day had much less influence shaping policy making. And bipartisanship–the norms of working across the aisle in various ways–were institutionalized and regularized. This is how people expected politics to happen. On the one hand, that makes it look like what was going on there was a unitary consensus, where people just didn’t disagree in that era, and people are now nostalgic for an era where everybody agreed and weren’t at each other’s throats. On the other hand, I think the critics of this system accurately, I would say, identify that it’s not the case that in the middle of the 20th century, everybody agreed–it was just that the disagreements were not reflected in particularly well or in the political system and party system. So the critique they made of rampant bipartisanship in this era of depolarization in the middle of the 20th century was a democratic one. Small-d democratic. They thought it was bad that voters didn’t have a meaningful choice to make on Election Day. The old expression: tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum…it was an echo rather than a choice, that voters were robbed of the ability to make a choice about what direction they wanted to see government and public policy go. And precisely because in power elected officials worked in a bipartisan way, in these ad hoc coalitions, there was no party there was no kind of collective entity that voters could hold collectively responsible for governance. So come the next election, voters both didn’t have a meaningful choice in who they’re voting for in the first place and then they don’t have any real sense of who to hold responsible if they’re unhappy with how things are going. There’s no entity that has collective responsibility.
BE: So it was a move made in the interest of voter autonomy, you suggest?
SR: That was how it was justified and argued for, yes. There were instrumental and substantive goals that a lot of these political actors and activists had. Some of these people were actually academic political scientists. They were talking about this and conceiving of this as problems of political theory and democracy. They thought democracy requires parties, because parties help simplify choices in a way that voters can utilize. It gives voters some power in making choices and that it provides a mechanism or accountability so you know who’s exactly responsible for what’s going on in Washington or in your state house. Then you can hold them accountable in the next election. But a lot of those Advocates were they themselves on the academic side New Deal liberals, people who advocated a continued path towards social democracy, an activist government, a bigger welfare state, more economic regulation, etc., following in the tradition of Roosevelt’s New Deal. They were frustrated by particularly the role played by this dissident minority Southern Democrats in blocking further progress along those lines. They had a more political goal in that they thought a system in which the parties realigned would ultimately be good for liberalism and liberal legislation. The expectation would be that liberal Democrats would get elected and in power they would be able to pass a whole bunch of stuff without the southern Democrats distracting.
BE: So how is it that kind of academic vision was perverted into what we witnessed now today in American politics?
SR: Well, two things. The more political side of this is that as of the late 1940s and into the 1950s, there was no modern conservative movement. The conservative movement as in an ideological force or programmatic force hadn’t developed and managed essentially to take over the Republican Party and become both a kind of cohesive and effective legislative Force and proved itself able to win elections with relative frequency. It was very much of its time a perception that making parties more disciplined and distinct from one another would just end up leading to liberal Democrats winning a bunch of elections, and building the activist liberals day by day. Part of that is just not an anticipation of conservativeism and a marriage to the center-right party in our two party system would be an extremely potent force that could contend with the Democratic Party on a permanent basis. More broadly they had an expectation that the emergence of stronger and more disciplined and distinct parties wood end up altering American political institutions in ways that could accommodate those kinds of parties. Briefly put, one thing they didn’t expect that divided government periods when one party controls all of Congress and the other party controls the White House would be a regular feature of the American political system. It hadn’t been until really the post-war era. Most of the time up till World War II the norm would be during an election year one party does well and the other party doesn’t and you end up getting unified control one way or the other. Taking parties that have now become much more disciplined and hostile to the other side because they disagree so much more systematically about policy– taking those kinds of parties and plugging them into the system where a lot of the time both parties are going to be occupying equally powerful positions in the government simultaneously–that the recipe for gridlock and at best and crisis at worst is one that a lot of people didn’t anticipate. And they also didn’t anticipate other kind of Institutions like the Senate filibuster, the supermajority requirement in the Senate to survive and in fact become more potent and pervasive tool of obstruction. All of these kinds of features in American institutions make it very hard to govern on the basis strict partisan majorities.
BE: What’s the endgame in terms of the situation we’re facing right now? How does a society that’s become so divided and so polarized remedy that gap in an age when everything seems to be driving at further division?
SR: Right. This is where the “chapter 10” problem people talk about with books: you have to have a last chapter that is like, “okay, we’ve diagnosed this terrible problem, and now here’s my roadmap to solving.” I have a very weak chapter 10 in that regard. I would say there’s a set of problems that are institutional and lend themselves to the potential for solutions that are institutional in 21st century American politics, and I have something to say about that. But before that I want to say, the Trump era has revealed–beyond institutional issues–has reminded us of the potency of white supremacy as a political force in American Life that spans all of American history. In the 21st century it is reflected in the brittle, fragile sense of vulnerability and extremely volatile resentment of a dominant ethno-racial group feeling their power slip away in the face of demographic changes, etc. And that’s something that comparatist people can look at other political systems can identify as a really difficult political problem, a potent one. And that’s a huge problem I don’t have any solution for, besides fighting and combating those forces and build a politics that can accommodate the diversity of our society. A lot of the work on polarization is in part about the psychology of ordinary voters having a party allegiance that leads to particular kinds of cognitive and psychological behavior where you make an enemy of the other side. This word that’s thrown around a lot is “tribalism”. Essentialize the other party as an enemy, and that shuts down any capacity for a reasoned debate, compromise, forbearance, etc. That too is a problem; once those dynamics get locked in, it’s very….
BE: Let me ask you something. We’re talking about division. Do you have any lasting illusions of altruism in politics or are political stances merely being taken because they are oppositional to others?
SR: I don’t believe in…I don’t think altruism is ever a key feature of politics writ large. Nor do I think alternative…
BE: Perhaps morality would be a better word.
SR: I don’t think the divisions we see in 21st century American politics are purely manufactured or concocted or staged. I do think, and this is something we’re I just disagree with others on this, that part of this story I’m trying to tell in my book is a story in which the parties do actually meaningfully come to have to sort themselves around very difference World Views and agendas. Those are real disagreements and real divisions.
BE: So you think conviction on the left of Justice and human dignity is equaled and its passion for the rights desire for fiscal conservatism and the free market?
SR: That’s where it gets a little tricky. It in part depends on who you’re looking at. The book’s story is one of engaged political actors and activists. I subscribe to the view–there’s a lot of empirical grounding–that broad electorate, not then and not particularly now isn’t as engaged and doesn’t have as much systemic ideological views. They take their cues from these kind of engaged actors and activists. That distinction has come to matter particularly for the Republican Party and their voter coalition. I think Trump’s campaign in 2016 showed that there absolutely is not a deeply felt sentiment for small government and low taxes and fiscal conservatism among a huge number of ordinary rank and power Republican voters. Not fiscal conservatism by any means, but a right-wing economic agenda is the sincerely held agenda of the engaged groups and Elite that run the Republican party and it’s reflected in the kind of policies that come from a republican-controlled Congress. What Donald Trump said during the campaign is really instructive here. On the one hand he had all this kind of red meat: building the wall, travel ban, stoking ethno-nationalist resentment. On the other hand, he also said explicitly during the Republican primary, I’m the only Republican candidate that is going to protect Social Security and Medicaid, I’m going to raise taxes on hedge funders, I’m going to invest a trillion dollars in infrastructure– positions that deliberately went off the reservations of Republican economic views. That upset an alarmed a lot of Republican Elites but it did not alienate Republican voters. Once he became president it turned out he was lying about all those positions that he delegated to Congress, to Congressional Republicans the entire economic agenda. That’s certainly a problem that Republicans face these days is that they are–I stress–sincerely committed to an economic agenda about the role of government that is becoming increasingly difficult to square with ringing elections because it’s not particularly popular.
BE: Let’s move away from the book and let me pick your brain as a Harvard PhD and professor, and just a good, nimble, engaged political mind. I want to talk about the 2016 presidential run of Bernie Sanders. This was seemingly a man who could and was unifying people buy it announcing social inequity and both the monetization and corporatization of American politics; one who looks capable of unifying Democrats and progressives and many of the populists who eventually voted for Trump. In general election polls taken as late as June of 2016 in head-to-head races against Trump, Sanders was running 12 points ahead, where as Hillary Clinton was only beating him by 4 or 5, we saw the anxiety a candidate like Sanders drummed up in the establishment, and we saw that anxiety stretch out to influence the media which deemed Hillary Clinton the presumptive Democratic nominee as early as February 2016, even after Sanders won the Primary in Michigan. My point here being, if so many currents of influence are at work to prevent transformative social and political change which seems in the face of climate change and another impending economic crisis, absolutely necessary, how can we ever hope to achieve it, if this man who was bringing tens of thousands of people together at his rallies and who had a message– I work for an automotive company and many of those Trump backers became Trump backers because Bernie did not receive the Democratic nomination, I work with a lot of middle-class individuals who would have voted for him. It seemed like he was directly rejected by the establishment because he represented a truly radical shift in American politics and the American way of life. I just want to get your ideas and opinions on that.
SR: Again, I’ve got two thoughts about that. First I will say– if you thought that Bernie Sanders’ program and project was good and something you want to see, there are strong reasons for hopefulness and optimism, in the sense that precisely because Sanders so out performed expectations, expectations that Bernie Sanders himself had, or how he was going to do in primary campaigning against Hillary Clinton. I think he answered that race when no one else– a bunch of people who could have represented a challenge to Hillary Clinton left and were perhaps prior to 2016 considered more viable National political figures, like Elizabeth Warren. The field was cleared. They were not going to run and take on Hillary Clinton. He did. I think he originally thought of his campaign as a “message campaign”, but he did well enough, and I think about halfway through the process he thought, “Well, wait a minute, what if we actually win?” In any case, he didn’t win, he came much closer to winning than anyone expected, and that had an immense effect during the campaign on Hillary Clinton’s own policy agenda– on her College tuition program, on her approach two other big domestic issues– she moved in response to Sanders, in a way to try and shore up that kind of activism and vocalization she was feeling to her left. After she lost, you have seen only more so, the Democratic Party’s center of gravity shifting left on those issues. Positions like Medicare-for-all, single-payer healthcare, free college; now you have sitting members of Congress introducing bills to abolish ICE. Part of the story of the post-election resistance, which is broader than left-wing progression, part of that story is an incredible amount of energy on the left reflecting generational changes where younger Democrats, or younger Democratic voters who don’t have a particularly strong allegiance to party or establishment, are more comfortable with aggressive ambitious stances on these issues. If you see the kind of people who are jockeying to position themselves in the 2020 presidential race, everybody is positioning themselves by getting around positions like a jobs guarantee, and Medicare for all, etc. The party is moving in the direction Sanders wanted his campaign to go as a message campaign, the party is responding to the same kinds of energy that he tapped into in 2016. On the other hand I will just say, what would have happened had Sanders managed to actually succeed in taking the nomination is very hard to game out. That kind of polling that people look at is suggestive. Things look different once you go through the gauntlet of general election campaigning against the other party, once the forces of partisan competition and hyper-polarization that we experience are directed singularly at that candidate. We still haven’t had a Republican or conservative movement assault on Bernie Sanders’ style politics in a general election campaign. Prior to that they were cheering Bernie Sanders on.
BE: The buzzword would have been “communism”, “commie”, “red scare”.
SR: Exactly. I would have sung an even more skeptical tune about Sanders had the general election ended up differently. Obviously it turned out, Trump ekes through not with a majority vote or a popular vote, but he managed to win the election with precisely indecisive margins in these Midwestern industrial states. They were precisely the kinds of voters that he did better than previous Republican nominees with, and that also were demographically the people you said you work with at the car company. A slice of that electorate might have been potentially up for grabs for Sanders in the general. But you have to think about all the other– you have to think about the freak out that you said– you probably would have seen Mike Bloomberg jump into the race with a third party, kind of “look at the crazies the two parties have nominated.” A technocratic billionaire– how would that have affected the election? It’s very far for me to game out; it would just be a question of random math of whether it would hurt Sanders or Trump.
BE: How do you account for people seemingly to vote directly against their interest? I’m talking about low income, lower to middle class whites for Trump. How can you account for people voting so antithetically?
SR: I’ll just say I’m not a behaviorist. There’s a subset of American politics that studies American voters’ political behavior. But I can say with some confidence of that field going back to some classics of research of the late 1950s 1960s– this book called The American Voter–ordinary people are busy; they are engaged and other things; they’re not consumed by politics and following politics and thinking about public policy; their voting behavior has a lot to do is cues and positions on issues, or the party they’re affiliated with, or other leaders or spokesmen that they identify with. A huge amount of what they’re doing in going to the polls and voting is expressing group identity; it’s not about the policy positions of the issues; it’s about–these days because the parties have become so sorted along demographic lines–it’s ” I’m a Republican because I’m the kind of person that Republicans are.”
BE: I’m the kind of person you can have a beer with…
SR: Right, and that gets tied up. Even when you have a candidate who you don’t want to have a beer with, the identity, there’s some important salient identities that intersect–gender, class, race, and ethnicity– and the parties have come to have identities that connect to those social identities as they exist in society. They’ve become fairly powerful, and so you get much less switching parties and how you vote for one office to the next or one election to the next. They’ve become more congealed sense that Republicans are a certain kind of person and I am that. Or democrats are a certain kind of person and I am that. That’s how people vote, and what Trump showed is just how powerful those are, even if you get a completely unusual candidate. The forces for ordinary voters of voting the party that they always voted for meant that a bunch of the kind of moderate or suburban educated Republicans that Hillary Clinton’s campaign thought they could peel off, because they were personally repulsed by Trump, in fact most of those people in November held their nose and voted for Trump. On the flip side, a bunch of Voters who kind of don’t vote in elections regularly on the Republican side, were super activated and mobilized by Trump’s politics of group identity, that he was explicit in saying “vote for me and vote for the Republicans because we are the party of the people you are and against the kinds of people you are worried are taking over the country.”
BE: This move to group identity of the homogenization, we see in so many walks of life and across both American and global culture. I feel as if that homogenization is a great threat to independence and a great threat to that intellectual independence and I think the threat to that intellectual independence is growing ever more with the evolution of technology and social media and whatnot. Are we as a people becoming congealed into this one singular identity? I’ve heard something that most people go to their computers in the morning to kind of affirm their own opinions, and check Twitter and Facebook to see what kind of opinions they’re allowed to have and take into their day, that are acceptable to the most possible people. That’s how they’re living and talking about things.
SR: It’s interesting. If it were the case that we were all congealing into a conformist mode, you probably want to see this level of potent division in politics and political culture, but I will say it gets harder for me to speak with any sense of expertise at all outside of the United States. In American politics, there’s a great new book called The Increasingly United States that is about the nationalization of American politics and political identity. I think some of what you’re talking about speaks to that; it used to be, again, for variety of reasons, people to the extent that they were involved and engaged in politics and public affairs, they were often engaged in local affairs– local and state politics, or local and state Civic organizations and activism– and that people’s political identities differ depending on what kind of level they were engaged in, so they would vote for one party for state and local elections and maybe for Congress, and vote for the other party for someone for president– this was especially true in places like the South where they’re essentially was no two party competition. People started voting for Republicans for president. But it happened all over the place, there was more of a rich diversity a political identity, public engagement, the kinds of issues people cared about across different contexts, whether it was local politics or state politics or national politics. What else happened over the course of the last 50 years has–again technology has largely been a part of this–everything about our life and Communications and sense of things has gotten nationalized because there’s no barriers to interacting with people across vast geographic space, and the parties have sorted so regionally you don’t get these weirdnesses– you don’t just have people being Democrats because of the Civil War, even though the Democratic party nationally had moved to the left, etc.–all that’s been sorted out. People’s partisan identities and their sense of who the good guys are and who the bad guys are in American public life has become oriented around all these hot button National level issues, things like healthcare, taxes, the role of government, but also abortion, guns– all those kinds of issues. All those kinds of issues are the province of state and local politics– infrastructure, transportation, etc– that aren’t the kind of salient points for people’s identity. But that means that people A) don’t get engaged in state and local politics to anywhere near the level they follow national politics and even the Internet, which should foster some degree of localism and local engagement, but people on Twitter are talking about politics nationally and presidential politics especially, and it means that all these state and local elections and races and public elected offices are– nobody’s paying attention to who they voted for, they’re just following the party line. At the state level, politics is way less accountable. Politicians are way less accountable than they used to be because nobody’s paying attention to what they’re doing, and they’re just following their own national partisan preferences to elect these people on state and local levels without paying any attention to what their agenda is.
BE: I was going to say I have two more questions but now several more are springing to mind. One thing that strikes me is the impotency of the media and of maybe people in general in calling out this true moral and intellectual impoverishment of the proclaimed Republican ideology. If we’re talking about pure reasoning– reason as Kant defined it: A leading to B leading to C and being connected– it seems as if rational argumentation has vanished from the Republican Party, that we live in a post-fact era, truly. I just don’t know how one combats that, if we’re without appealing to reason, and if these people are incapable of it. Are there true conservative intellectuals left and how can they possibly justify what’s happening right now?
SR: I’ll bracket that on the media. The media are participants in the mainstream political at the national level find themselves– and have been for a long time but it’s acute under the Trump era– they’re in a real bind, and epistemological one, as you’re talking about. They’ve inherited from the Progressive Era a set of norms about political objectivity, needing to profess an absence of bias. But the notion of objectivity turns into the commitment to balance so that there always needs to be spokesman for both sides, there always needs to be this equivalence– implicit or explicit–when they’re talking about problems in American politics. There are reasons to commit to some of those principles, or why those emerged as important parts of a national…
BE: That’s extremely well put, and I just ask you to repeat it: “objectivity has been replaced by more of a commitment to balance.” Facts be damned.
SR: Right. Not because that shift or the conflation or confusion of balance and objectivity. It doesn’t happen because media figures have made a mistake; they’re just conceptually confused. It happens because realistically a commitment to “objectivity” or Kantian reason or making sure that everything being said by public officials in politics is held to some standards of objective truth– that’s very hard to do.
BE: It’s called journalism. Or it once was.
SR: I think realistically, what you get as a substitution for that moment by moment, day by day news cycle, as there’s demand for producing for political coverage, is a distorted version of that. Balance in our coverage and in our talking to can substitute for the labor of figuring out who’s right or wrong and what the truth is. You certainly see this the most in cable news, where there is a need to be booking people and producing content on a minute-by-minute basis. It’s a huge problem. It’s something that I think over the course of decades, journalists got more and more comfortable with balance as being practiced, as they would get them close to disinterest and absence of bias. I agree with you that it’s not an asymmetric problem with politicians and parties– they lie and always have– but the modern conservative movement and the practices of the Republican Party involve, or have involved, a willingness to distort the truth and a whole ecosystem of counter-establishment conservative media entities that is willing to advance highly distorted arguments. The presence of that and the asymmetry of the situation puts journalist in a real bind. I do sympathize with the dilemmas of big national journalistic institutions filled with professionals who have trained with the notion that an absence of political bias is important to be faced with the situation like they’re facing now. False equivalence is a huge problem and something I think more and more they’re needing to avoid, but they are struggling. I don’t think the answers are simple when half the country, or almost half the country, did support and votes for one party that continuously produces a gale force dishonesty in public discussion. How major national media organizations deal with that is a difficult question. The more aggressive they get in combating that of course, the more Republican party Elites will do what they’re already doing, which is getting their voters to completely shut out from their cognitive experience, the voices from the non conservative media. That’s part of the difficult toxic dynamic of this: the journalists do their job to report accurate truth, the more half the country will be inclined to shut them out as “fake news”.
BE: A great man who preceded you as a professor of political science at Colgate, Joseph Wagner, he taught me about cognitive dissonance theory, actually spent about 6 months discussing it. It seems incredibly applicable to what we see happening now. You have these two groups of people and there varying 7 degrees to 7 degrees on either side. There are those who, when presented with a new fact, are willing to accommodate that fact by readjusting their pre-existing level of beliefs, and there are those whose minds clench against it and push back, and a new fact only reinforces those preexisting beliefs. I have a couple questions. Is this how Revolutions start? In your experience as a historian, when fact can no longer be appealed to and there is this huge division as to what human dignity means and whom it should be accorded to, are we now confronted with the recipe? I’ll qualify that with this: given the scandal and lack of disregard we’ve seen for Democratic norms, what guarantee do we have that our votes will be counted in the 2018 critical midterms? And that, should Democrats take power of the house or senate or both, the election results will be deemed valid, because at this point I don’t know. Maybe that’s a better point to ask: is that where Revolution happens?
SR: Yes. The current moment we’re in, as you’ve probably noticed it’s a cottage industry right now for Democratic doom books, for democracy not the Democratic Party, All sorts of best sellers right now from political scientists.
BE: Madeleine Albright’s book…
SR: Yeah, and How Democracies Die by Levitzsky from Harvard. There’s a bunch of them.
BE: I just read Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism and the similarities of what we are experiencing now in America are frightening.
SR: On one hand, yes, the current moment reveals the absence of institutional and cultural safety nets that people assume were there. I would say in this instance, Trump’s personal incompetence and indiscipline, while it’s part of what explains how he got to the position that he got to, is also a kind of saving grace, I think. A much more disciplined and effective and savvy version of Trump could be doing way more damage to American political life in his position. His presidency has revealed how much someone like that could do with the support…
BE: Than say if Steve Bannon were president..
SR: Well, I don’t know about that (laughs). He would need to stop wearing double shirts and appearing so slovenly. Just someone quicker than…
BE: You’re saying a more disciplined autocrat.
SR: Yeah. There’s potential there.
BE: Which is scary.
SR: It’s definitely scary. For a set of institutional reasons, leaving Trump aside, things were no great shakes before that because disciplined, parliamentary-style parties don’t fit well with a political system like we have. So I think long-term, for American politics to work well, we’re going to be needing to see some major institution reform. But for the immediate question, like the 2018 election, Hugh Hewitt, who is a right wing commentator…
BE: Great right-wing name…Hugh Hewitt!
SR: He wrote a book in the Bush era, as a kind of guide for Republicans to win elections, and it was filled with lots of thoughts about how there’s this rampant voter fraud out there, etc. The name of the book was If It’s Not Close, They Can’t Cheat. I think he meant, like, if it’s not close, they can’t steal the election. That would be my advice to Democrats right now. You’ve seen a real move at the state level towards more stringent voter ID laws. All of this long predates Trump. You’ve seen more recently, in the wake of Shelby County decision, a more aggressive voter roll purges, that might produce at the margins a lot of people absent from the rolls, when they show up. All of which is really bad. You then also have, of course, Russia and election “meddling”, an antithesis of our leadership at the national level working to stop that from happening in future elections. Obviously we have that going on. All of which is cause for alarm. At the same time, take some optimism or solace that Donald Trump is in remains historically unpopular for a president in his position. The polling and indications are it’s not going to be a close election; it’s going to be a large wave here for Democrats. It’s more just a question how much gerrymandering, but especially the kind of geographical distribution of voters in our political system gives a huge defensive wall to Republicans to be able to control of the House even in the face of a large wave. I continue, as a citizen and someone with his own party allegiance, I’m optimistic that Democrats will still be able to take the House in November. I’m also optimistic that we are not so far down a road of democratic decline that, if they win there’s going to be any trouble getting them seated or recognized as the majority party. I think Congressional Republicans are well aware that there’s a distinct possibility that they’re going to be losing power in November.
BE: I go back to Merrick Garland, you know? I don’t know how you can legitimize that. I’ll ask you one more question, and it’s good to hear optimism from you, and this has been a fascinating conversation. I appreciate you taking the time. As a historian, do you believe that human beings are truly capable of learning from history? I ask this because, just 70 years ago, we had a hyper-nationalist leader by the name of Adolf Hitler, not unlike our current president who kept a book it’s been affirmed by his ex-wife he kept a book of his speeches on his nightstand table. Hitler killed 6 million Jews and birthed a World War. In this country, just about 70 years ago, we interned 120,000 Japanese Americans. We’re now seeing hyper nationalism as its advanced by Trump–we’re seeing Muslim bans, we’re seeing people in cages– it doesn’t really suggest that we’re capable of reflecting upon and taking lessons from history.
SR: Things, if they get better over a period of time, don’t get better just because people are learning from the past and reasoning accordingly. To a certain extent, I do have a sort of more characterological more than intellectual feeling of optimism. As scary and as frightening a lot of what Trump has helped to reveal about American politics, and the potential, the potentialities of American politics, what people are willing to countenance and collaborate with, I also take solace and his unpopularity, in the massive outpouring of activism in engagement we’ve seen since the election; the antithesis of what you might have seen, which is the kind of retreat along the people who are opposed to what he’s doing, into a sense of the kind of alienation and cynicism and hopelessness, you’ve seen the opposite. You’ve seen an impressively sustained, and likely will be reflected in November as well, a period of engagement and vocalization. To tie into what we talked about earlier with media and truth and the death of reason, my read of History– this goes back to quoting old influential professors– Barbara Fields was a historian who I took a class with as an undergrad, and she was talking about race and the construction of race historically in the United States, kind of demolishing a lot of myths we have behind the science we have behind any of that. The students were saying, it would be very important if we could get this information out there, we could end racism by revealing how it’s all a construction. And Fields just said, look, she wishes that were true, but she said, unfortunately the truth will not set you free. The truth does not set you free; the only thing that sets you free is struggle and power. That’s what it’s going to take. The media is not going to save us. Some revelation itself, yet more Trump malfeasance or outrage, etc., is not going to save us. The kind of organizing and engagement and politics that I think we are seeing in the Trump era… if anything is going to save us, that’s going to be what it is.
BE: That’s a really good note to end on, and I feel a little bit better. I’ve been talking to Sam Rosenfeld, he is the author of The Polarizers: Post-War Architects of Our Partisan Era. Sam, thanks so much for your time.
SR: This was a pleasure. Thanks, Ben.