Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Post-War America

By Renick, Timothy | The Christian Century, October 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Post-War America


Renick, Timothy, The Christian Century


Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Post-War America

By Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos

Oxford University Press, 408 pp., $29.95

Politics have always been dirty. For every triumph of cooperation and principle, there are dozens of instances of division, mudslinging, and vitriol. All students of history understand this fact.

It seems, though, that in recent years American politics have taken a particularly dark and nasty turn. Jason Chaffetz, a freshman Republican member of Congress from Utah, publicly vowed that he and a group of colleagues would "take the government down" if congressional leaders did not acquiesce to their demands, and months later he won reelection with 76 percent of the vote. A bipartisan bill to establish a task force to develop a plan to address the nation's deficit failed to pass the U.S. Senate because eight original Republican cosponsors of the legislation voted against their own bill upon learning that President Obama was in support of the measure. Midway through his second term in office, Obama faces a nation in which 25 percent of the population believe that his presidency is illegitimate because, they maintain, he was not born in America, 17 percent hold that he is a practicing Muslim, and according to one poll--this is not a joke--10 percent believe he is the Antichrist. Is this really politics, even dirty politics, as usual?

Doug McAdam, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, and Karina Kloos, an activist and scholar of social movements, think not. In Deeply Divided, the authors argue that contemporary American politics have taken an extreme turn that has ground previously functioning political processes to a halt, all but eliminated bipartisanship and compromise, and helped to create the greatest inequality in wealth that the United States has seen since the 1920s. They write, "The events of the past six years--serial budget crises, government shutdown, willful sabotage of presidential appointments, etc.--have told us all we need to know about escalating paralysis and government dysfunction." The ten Congresses between 1948 and 1968 averaged almost 1,400 pieces of legislation enacted in each two-year period. By comparison, the most recent Congress enacted a grand total of 284 pieces of legislation in the same amount of time. Can we be surprised that one in three Americans now identify "government/Congress/politicians" as the nation's most pressing problem?

McAdam and Kloos tell the story of how we reached this distressing state. Starting with the example of the post-World War II United States, the authors draw a vivid picture of just how different American politics used to be. Over the course of Franklin Roosevelt's four decisive presidential election victories--the last one with 98 percent of the electoral vote--most opponents of his social welfare programs retired, modified their views, or were voted out of office. By the end of the war, there was a widespread consensus in both political parties that government is the primary instrument for economic growth and justice. In addition, as the nation emerged from the war against Nazi Germany and its ideology of a master race, "policy makers across a broad array of institutional arenas took seriously the need to broaden access to the American dream."

By the time the 1960s rolled around, political scientists were writing about "the triumph of the center" and positing that modem American democratic structures, by their very nature, produce a consensus that converges on moderate political positions. There seemed to be little reason to question the theory. Contemporary accounts of the 1960 presidential election--with the victory of a young, first-term senator from Massachusetts over a two-term sitting vice president--often portrayed it as a political watershed, signaling the ascendance of a new generation over the old political guard. But John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were both pragmatic moderates with similar positions on the critical issues of the day. …

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