The Origins of Extreme Political Polarization, and Who is Responsible


Written by Tim Jones

Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order by James Pierson may be one of the best books ever written on American political history.  It traces the evolution of both political parties from the aftermath of World War I to the present.  What is especially interesting is how, following the death of John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Party turned away from traditional liberalism, when Democrats still believed in American exceptionalism.  JFK would have been considered a raging conservative today, as he believed in lower taxes, a strong national defense, and the pre-eminence of the United States’ place in the world as a force for good.

Liberalism is no longer merely a philosophy of government, as it was during the Progressive Era, but rather an integral part of modern government itself, which is why it cannot be killed by its policy failures, lost arguments, or even lost elections.

Democrats believed back then that progress (“the Progressive Era”) was meant for everyone to get ahead in life through hard work within the American capitalistic system.  They also believed, as did the Republicans, in social safety nets just for the very poor.  Kennedy, however, was initially ambivalent about Civil Rights legislation (that actually began being promoted by his predecessor Eisenhower, a Republican) but opened up to it out of political pressure and expediency.

Following Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson carried on Kennedy’s “legacy” and successfully pushed through congressional passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, with a larger percentage of Republicans supporting it then Democrats.  But Kennedy was mythologized for many years as a martyr by a large number of liberal writers and other opinion-makers, who insisted that sinister right-wing forces were behind his demise, therefore validating their narrative and cementing the image that America is a bad and evil place.  In the book, it categorically and articulately demonstrates how the left successfully inverted what really happened into something that was not true, that in turn changed history for the worse by putting political division on an ever widening trajectory.

Over the course of the twentieth century, liberalism succeeded in rewriting the Constitution, building political coalitions around public spending, insinuating itself within the interstices of government, and gaining control of key institutions that manufacture and legitimize political opinion.

Out of the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the Democratic Party institutionalized identity politics based on grievance along with anti-Americanism – that is, the United States was and still is responsible for all of the problems in the world both at home and abroad.  Despite some basic governing differences, there was always a fair amount of bipartisan consensus, but after the sixties, as the name of the book indicates, it was “shattered,” and never to be the same.

With identity politics as its core political and governing philosophy, the Democratic Party promoted and perpetuated grievance among its constituent groups in order to keep itself in power, as well as to promulgate the power of the State.  Since the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt through the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson, and now with the culmination of Obama’s presidency, Democrats have succeeded in turning the federal government essentially into an operating arm of their party.  The IRS scandal of targeting conservative groups represents how they’ve taken another step in weaponizing the machinery of government for political purposes.

Much as liberalism has been absorbed into the state, so has the Democratic Party, even to the point where we may cease to regard it as independent institution and view it instead as an instrument of the state (and vice versa, to some degree).

Shattered Consensus will open your eyes to how it all began and how we got from there to here.


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