When the tenor of politics is inflamed, partisan bickering precludes historical perspective. As attacks and recriminations pile up, politicians and pundits focus on the contests at hand and resort to history only as a rhetorical conceit to sharpen an argument lifting it above the reproach of those unable to question the validity of the historical analogy. When television pundits compare American occupation of Iraq to the Vietnam War, or editorial pages insist on the similarities between Vermont Governor Howard Dean and South Dakota Senator George McGovern, they invoke blunt historical images to support foregone conclusions: the U.S. is leading a misguided campaign in Iraq, Governor Dean rendered himself unelectable by tacking too far to the left. This shorthand brand of history is the currency of political discussion. And when the public is not informed enough to question the pundits and their historical references, certain assumptions about this countrys past are accepted, and become calcified in American memory. Two recent books telling the stories of the Republican and Democratic parties are valuable because they popularize a complicated and infrequently told strain of American history. By making political history accessible, they disarm it as a tool of partisan competition tendentiously prepackaged for desired effect and claim it as public domain.
The two recently published volumes, presidential historian Lewis Gould’s Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans, and journalist Jules Whitcover’sParty of the People: A History of the Democrats, attempt the most comprehensive look at the two major parties in several years. While not written in conjunction, their synchronous publishing provides at least a shared end date for the histories. The pair arguably constitutes the latest serious attempt at charting a comprehensive history of the two parties since historian and John F. Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. produced his History of U.S. Political Parties in 1973. At 3,544 pages and four volumes, Schlesinger’s work was plainly unreadable.
The effort and scope of Schelsinger’s work are evidence of the common desire to tell an exhaustive history of American political heritage. More important, however, may be the moment he chose to compile his history. In November of 1972 Richard Nixon had been reelected as president with a popular vote margin of 18 million, carrying every state but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in a landslide victory over Senator McGovern. This overwhelming and rare mandate for the President and his party marked the beginning of an age of Republican political dominance that, in many ways, would stretch to the end of the century. What began with the unabashed conservatism of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign for the presidency had come into being with Nixon’s 1972 landslide reelection. Journalist Kevin Phillips’ 1969 book, it seemed, had been presciently titled: The Emerging Republican Majority
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that, following the Clinton hiatus, the collective political consciousness has a chance to reflect on history before plunging ahead into yet uncharted realms of conservative control of American politics. Now in control of both houses of congress and the White House, the Republican party is in a unique position of power. In the 2002 midterm elections, the GOP became the first party in control to gain seats in the House of Representatives in an off-year election since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934. The confirmation of the shaky mandate George W. Bush took with him into the Oval office following the election of 2000 has many conservative commentators predicting total Republican dominance of national politics in the near future tax-cut advocate Grover Norquist’s best guess is that the House will remain in GOP hands for the next ten years at least.
Gould and Whitcover’s volumes offer a reader access to the roots of contemporary political realities. In Gould’s history of the Republican party, for example, one can chart the evolution of the GOP from its status as the “party of the Liberator,” celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of Blacks from slavery, to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan’s “southern strategy,” when those presidents consciously wooed southern whites by signaling their hands-off approach to racial intolerance and discrimination in the south. Gould describes Reagan’s 1980 campaign kickoff speech at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site, sixteen years earlier, of the murder of four civil rights workers by anti-integrationist whites. Reagan’s speech that day “could be defended as racially neutral but which a southerner unhappy with black progress could also interpret as an affirmation of his opinions.” Couched in the rhetoric of ideological support for small government, today’s Republican dominance of the south began with a concession to ex-segregationist sentiment.
Whitcover’s work serves more to de-mythologize the Democratic leadership of the twentieth century, highlighting the shortcomings of presidents whose record has become a matter of faith to many. Perhaps his greatest contribution is a synopsis of Bill Clinton’s eight year tenure. Whitcover dissects Clinton’s strained relationship with the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization of prominent elected Democrats intent on organizing the party around a centrist agenda as a means to mount a challenge to Republican dominance across the country. Caught between an old constituency of labor groups and supporters of government spending, and New Democrats demanding free trade provisions and decreased government expenditure, Clinton sided with both and managed to please neither. His attempt to accept the modernizing principles of the DLC, however, confirmed suspicions that the party was in need of new ideas.
Clinton’s acrobatic attempts to appear the champion of every cause are easily forgotten by a party nostalgic for its eight years in the White House. He is widely held to be the most influential and respected member of the Democratic Party, and he is routinely called in to appear with local Democratic candidates campaigning for office. Many have willfully forgotten the former president’s shortcomings and dismiss criticism of his tenure as partisan smear rather than historical fact. Similarly, Reagan’s legacy among Republicans has been enshrined and remains unassailable. When introducing the “Ronald Reagan Dime Act,” legislation proposing to replace the image of Franklin D. Roosevelt with Ronald Reagan on the coin, Representative Mark Souder (R-Ind) noted “I believe he represents conservative values …better than anybody else we’ve had in American history.” Most citizens, Congressman Souder included, could benefit from a historical review of the third party system. Perhaps then the swooning that surrounds any mention of Presidents Reagan or Clinton might be accompanied by discussion of facts available only when their tenures are viewed in context: Reagan launched his campaign on a “southern strategy” of dubious morality, and Clinton largely failed to promote an ideologically coherent policy position. Spoken out of context, these seem like partisan snipes. But as part of a greater survey, they can be approached as part of a non-partisan historical record.
As readable, popular surveys, Gould and Whitcover’s works counteract the politicization of history by balancing the hit-or-miss dialogue of partisan politics with thoughtful historical analysis. Their prose is only graceful enough to assure their readers keep awake, but not so nuanced that the audience is worried they are being subjected to any significant argument. With sentences like “The Congress that followed during the remainder of 1890 provided important and constructive laws for the nation,” and “Roosevelt’s decision to run was a crucial moment in the history of his party,” it is clear that artful prose was sacrificed in favor of breadth of scope. In what seems like a conscious avoidance of playgrounds of conjecture, the books omit sweeping introductions and conclusions. Instead, Gould and Whitcover expound on the existing record of the parties’ histories recounting the events and outcome of each presidential election and mentioning noteworthy changes in congressional leadership. In a sense, the two volumes are well annotated catalogues of historical election returns. Pressed to cover so much information, neither author manages to shape an intriguing voice. They are not thoroughly footnoted, and what notes do appear reference newspaper articles and other minor party histories.
Grand Old Party and Party of the People are valuable as tools for popular education, not as elements of scholarly inquiry. They answer no great question nor propose history look upon their subjects in dramatically new ways. But their very intent, to educate readers about the texture of American political history, is enough to be considered revolutionary. There is little opportunity to reflect on the treatment of history in contemporary political discourse. Campaign commercials touting a candidate and televised debate between pundits paid to provoke one another poison the well from which voters drink. If Gould and Whitcover tell the stories of the Republican and Democratic parties without much nuance, perhaps they do the climate some good. When political pageantry trumps reasoned discussion, what the public needs from time to time is a good dose of plain history.