Reflections on “The Second Civil War” by Ronald Brownstein

At the end of my review (see below), I said two things were missing from this book. The first is everything that had happened in American politics since 2008, when the book was penned. The second is the uniquely American socio-cultural factors that led to what the author calls “the great sorting out” of the American electorate supporting Congressional hyper-partisanship between roughly the late 1960s and 1995. In this essay, I address the second issue first, and then, imagining myself to be Ronald Brownstein, project what he might say about the election of Donald Trump. The two problems are related.

From the left, there is the politics of identity, the earliest example of which, the women’s movement, has deep socio-cultural roots but in modern terms begins with the suffrage movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In America, the African American experience emerged from roughly one hundred years of political and economic suppression between the civil war and the 1960s. 

These historical examples of identity politics began to fragment in the mid-1970s when the left, seemingly helpless against growing economic disparity in the United States, retreated to academia. To preserve the relevance of humanities, they began offering courses in ever-narrower identities. Although these teachings never demanded the abandonment of “wider issues” (e.g., women’s rights as compared to “lesbian’s rights”), it was only natural that this would happen. People have limited time to devote to any one matter. 

I can recommend several books covering these issues well. They include Mark Lilla’s “The Once and Future Liberal” (2017), Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness” (2018) along with his “A Left that Dares to Speak its Name” (2020), and Cathrine Mayer’s “Attack of the 50ft Women” (2017) illustrating how modern identity politics has hobbled the broader women’s movement in the United Kingdom. 

If the left has, inadvertently,  turned the Democratic party into a herd of cats, the right has more deliberately unified the Republican party under a banner of racism, xenophobia, and social intolerance. There has never been a serious left in the United States. The right is another matter.

America has always been a racist nation, beginning with its treatment of the continent’s own natives. The extreme communist left has never been a significant force in American politics, but the Nazi (and pre-Nazi) right has been a force locally since before the Civil War and today has gained substantial strength.  

In school, we Americans all learn we are a melting pot. Yet as each of the various races and ethnicities arrived in North America, they were beset by bigotry promulgated by those already here. Blacks were imported as slaves and have suffered the worst of the racism down to the present day, though one can argue that native Americans were treated even worse. In the latter half of the 19th century, the Irish and Italians were set upon by the English and Scottish already here. The later (early 20th Century) Eastern Europeans were terrorized by the Western Europeans, and all persecuted the Chinese and Japanese when they arrived on the West Coast.

From the time of the Russian Revolution, the left in the U.S. was heavily suppressed while the right was left free, especially in the South Eastern States both to organize and commit violent crimes against black Americans, and later (down to today) to utilize that organization for terror purposes against everyone who isn’t perceived as both white and Christian. 

In 2020, there are three political classes with a real voice in the United States: liberals, conservatives, and right-wing extremists. There are a handful of left-wing extremists, but they do not have anywhere near the right’s political presence and organization. The extreme left is as intolerant as the right but has a different set of issues, not racial or cultural, but economic. The left has no political representation. Bernie Sanders is about as close as they get, and he is a mild democratic socialist. By contrast, the far-right has always had some political representation in state and national legislatures, governors (George Wallace), and now the President.

Of course, not all conservatives are Nazis any more than all liberals are communists or socialists. But the right is more closely connected than the left because both conservatives and Nazis advocate meddling in others’ personal lives. In contrast, on the left, real communists do likewise, but the liberals do not. Therefore, the left is more politically diffuse, while the right is more concentrated, which brings us back to Donald Trump.

What Brownstein calls “the great sorting out of the American electorate” was a crystallization and concentration of the electorate on the conservative side. The liberals have always been and still are a diffuse collection of various viewpoints, inevitably given the nature of liberalism, toleration for differing views. The shift went through many stages, especially in the South East, where racist, “conservative Democrats” were replaced by racist Republicans. 

In the lead-up to the 2000 election (Bush vs. Gore), Karl Rove realized there existed a crystalized conservative block, which would tip every election if it could be persuaded to vote in large numbers. In 2000 Democrats still outnumbered Republicans in most of the U.S. (today, the two parties each register roughly one-third of the electorate with ostensible independents making up the other third). The strategy worked again in 2004 with help from propaganda (the “swift boat” controversy) propagated by the media, social and otherwise.

In 2008 came the reaction to both Bush’s conduct of the Iraq war and the mortgage crisis (2006 in the U.S. followed by the rest of the world in 2008), the election of Barack Obama. The racist elements of the U.S. electorate went wild. Gun sales leaped (and are jumping again as Trump comes to the end of his first term), incidents of racial, ethnic (especially anti-Muslim), and anti-LGBT attacks increased nation-wide although school shootings, fueled less by bigotry and more by bullying, stole many of the headlines.

Obama, having served two full terms, looked forward to handing the reins of power to Hilary Clinton, or at worst a conventional Republican. What happened surprised everyone. Donald Trump (thanks to Steve Bannon) went Karl Rove one better. Trump discovered he could win (first primaries and then the election) not merely by consolidating and bringing out the “conservative vote”, but by giving voice to the nation’s most ardent racists and bigoted groups: anti-gay, anti-black, anti-Muslim. Trump didn’t entirely succeed. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. But in four critical states, Trump tied enough of the conservatives and extremists together to put him over the top in the Electoral College. 

The extremist subset of the “conservative vote” had not participated en masse in national elections because neither Republicans nor Democrats (except for the “deep south”) supported their extremism. Trump did support and encourage it. That has been the secret of his success even to this day, now a week before the 2020 election! 

Review: The Second Civil War by Ronald Brownstein (2008)

The Second Civil War is a book about hyper-partisanship in American politics, how (and why) it got to be the way it is, and what might be done about its problematic consequences. In 2020, no matter your political persuasion, we can all agree that American politics is hyper-partisan. But Mr. Brownstein isn’t speaking of Donald Trump (#45), or Barack Obama (#44), but George W. Bush (#43)! The book ends in 2008 before the election of Obama!  

A well researched and well-written book is mostly about the relation between the American presidency and Congress, House and Senate. It begins back at the last election of the 19th century and moves rapidly forward, giving us more detail through the presidencies of the mid to late 20th century ending with Clinton and Bush #43. There were partisan periods in American politics before, but also a long period from the early 20th century through roughly the Carter presidency when the parties were so diverse that one could not tell, by policy preferences, who was a Democrat and who a Republican.  

All of this began to change in the late 1970s with various rule changes adopted by the House and Senate. The parties became more distinct and disciplined. In 1995 under Clinton, Newt Gingrich who, using the new rule-base established in the prior generation, crystalized the combative partisan style that still characterizes the political parties today.  

In parallel with the evolution of the parties in Congress, there was (according to Brownstein) a great political “sorting out” of the American electorate into more rigid conservative and liberal camps. Brownstein covers this shift in popular focus from bread-and-butter issues to cultural issues that define the parties’ difference today, especially Republican conservatives. He does not give us reasons for this shift (except to say that it was cultural) but focuses on its effect, the acceleration, and solidification, of partisanship in Congress. It was Gingrich who most took advantage of this cultural change.  

Back in the day when the parties were indistinct, it was painful for a president to get anything done, especially in domestic programs. In today’s hyper-partisan environment, it is also difficult for a president to get anything done unless his party has a significant majority in both houses, something that hasn’t happened since the partisan divide began!  In his last chapter, Brownstein suggests what might be done to result, eventually, in a congress and administration empowered to pass significant legislation while each party retains its distinct character. I do not know if the Obama administration made any attempts at easing the partisan divide, but they were not particularly successful if it did. Clearly, Donald Trump has made the divide even more profound than it was under Bush #43.  

Two things are missing from this book. First, everything that has happened since 2008 (for which the author cannot be faulted). Second, the history and socio-cultural factors that drove the development of hyper-partisanship within the electorate. Partisanship in Congress evolved and sharpened steadily over 30 or so years from 1970 to 2000. This evolution could not have occurred (particularly on the conservative side) without electoral support, and the electorate, over that time, was happy to give it. I will deal with both of these issues from a 2020 perspective in my blog.

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