Michiko Kakutani reviews Ronald Brownstein's The Second Civil War

Mr. Brownstein contrasts the current age of “hyperpartisanship” with the “age of bargaining,” during which Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson (at least until his landslide victory in 1964) worked and negotiated, usually by necessity, with opponents on the other side of the political aisle. While this system tended to make for incremental, rather than revolutionary, reform, Mr. Brownstein says, “it compelled political leaders who held contrasting views and represented differing constituencies to talk and listen to each other.” It could also lead to big, overarching policy making: most notably, a bipartisan strategy for resisting the Soviet Union and contesting the cold war.

During what Mr. Brownstein calls “the age of Transition,” Nixon warred with the Democrats over foreign policy but cooperated with them on many domestic issues, leading to an extension of the Voting Rights Act, the end of the draft, the 18-year-old vote, the Consumer Product Safety Act and a variety of environmental legislation. Reagan’s presidency, he says, “unleashed ideological energies that widened the distance between the parties and escalated the conflicts between them.”

But at the same time, he adds, Reagan’s “political and personal tendencies were integrative, not divisive,” and he “mostly sought not to deepen ideological or partisan differences but to transcend them in an appeal to shared assumptions” about “individualism at home and American exceptionalism in the world.”

As for President Bill Clinton, Mr. Brownstein credits him with trying to rebuild a political majority for the Democratic Party by synthesizing priorities from the left and right and integrating ideas from a broad spectrum of thinkers and interests. But if Mr. Clinton managed some important centrist achievements ”” including a crime bill, the passage of Nafta and welfare reform ”” he also personally became (especially in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal) a flash point for controversy, which “accelerated the trend toward a political alignment that divided the nation more along lines of culture than class.”

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One comment on “Michiko Kakutani reviews Ronald Brownstein's The Second Civil War

  1. Irenaeus says:

    The real tipping point occurred with the rise of Newt Gingrich at the beginning of the 1990s. Newt didn’t want to fix the House; he wanted to discredit and destroy it as the surest way to bring himself and his followers into power. Newt didn’t believe his opponents were mistaken or misguided; he believed they were evil. (He reveled in branding opponents “corrupt.”) He didn’t just want to gain and keep control of Congress; he wanted to de-fund the opposing party.