Politics in America will forever be different

United States

Torben Lütjen

To person

teaches as visiting professor of political science at the Max Kade Center for European Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, USA. [email protected]

"I didn’t come along and divide this country. This country was seriously divided before I got here," said US President Donald Trump in February 2017 at the end of an extensive press conference in the White House. Wherever he is right, even the master of the "post-factual" is right. Indeed, the polarization of American politics that was so evident in the 2016 presidential campaign did not begin with Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with his predecessor in the White House, Barack Obama. And even before the presidency of George W. Bush, during whose time the division of America had long been the main topic of all political discourse, something had already fallen apart in the country. What currently seems to culminate in a hyperpolarization of American society has a history that goes back a few decades, in which structural developments and basic institutional conditions simultaneously came to a head and interacted with specific decisions of political actors, influenced each other and rocked each other up to that existential confrontation, that determines US politics today.

Much had to happen to bring the US into the current state of hyperpolarization. It is true that the deep political division in American society is drastic enough in itself and only viewed from the immediate present. But it appears downright spectacular when you relate it to the image of US politics that has long been widespread inside and outside the United States. Today one reads with amazement the almost surreal assessment of the political scientist Robert Dahl from the 1970s: "Unlike parties in many European countries, both Republicans and Democrats in the United States advocate much the same ideology. (...) To a European accustomed to the sound and fury of clashing ideologies, American party battles seem tame and uninteresting. "[1] Such and similar statements - starting with Alexis de Tocqueville - could easily be strung together. So what happened that turned the "country without ideologies", which was envied for its comparatively consensus-based political culture, into such a cauldron of ideological debate?

Southern realignment

The search for an answer to this question leads into the 1960s. At the beginning of that decade there was an agglomeration and aggravation of existing and new problem and conflict situations in the United States. Despite all the simultaneity, there was probably a kind of historical domino that first had to fall in order to set a chain reaction in motion: the realignment of voter ties in the American South, the so-called southern realignment.

Until then, a one-party system had practically prevailed in the area of ​​the old confederation, under the sign of the dominance of the Democratic Party, which guaranteed the maintenance of a system of de facto racial segregation there. Nationwide, this turned the Democrats into a highly fragmented alliance with two antagonistic centers of power: the conservative South and the liberal Northeast. However, the Republicans were similarly fragmented. Both parties each had significant liberal and conservative party wings and for this reason alone were hardly able to pursue an ideologically coherent policy.

That changed when the liberal wing of the Democrats, despite the risk of internal party split, managed to support the plans of the black civil rights movement in the south in the early 1960s and to enforce the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1964/65, which the catastrophic conditions of racial segregation at least partially eliminated. [2] It is true that this policy was initially supported by a large majority of Americans. In the southern states, however, it led to an alienation of voters from the Democratic Party. In what was a long-term process, they turned their backs on her and began to vote for Republicans.

With this change of sides, the electoral bases of both parties changed as a result: the Democrats lost the conservative south, and at the same time the former liberal party strongholds of the Republicans in the north-east of the country disappeared. In short: while the differences between the parties grew, the extreme dualism within the parties, which now appeared and were perceived much more clearly as "conservative" and "liberal", dissolved. This eliminated a specifically American anomaly and created the prerequisites for an ideologically more distinctive and tougher party competition in the first place. [3]

"Westernization" of US conservatism

At about the same time, a radical-libertarian tendency grew stronger in the Republican Party, believing that any expansion of state steering functions was a betrayal of American principles. This political trend had already formed in the years of the New Deal, in the course of which the US government under President Franklin D. Roosevelt began in 1933 with a series of economic and social reforms such as the introduction of social security and the regulation of the financial markets in response to the Great Depression had reacted. Initially they remained politically marginalized, but the supporters of this movement were given a boost and abandoned the post-war consensus that had determined domestic politics in the United States, especially in the 1950s.

The language of the libertarian-conservative wing of the Republicans was shrill and at times hysterical, the historical analogies, at least from a European point of view, daring: from the welfare state to socialism it was never far for the advocates of the small government. Incidentally, this analogy persists to the present day, when the Tea Party activists interpret the introduction of general health insurance under US President Barack Obama as an attempt to pave the way for socialism or other totalitarian political models.

The hero of this variety of American conservatism was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. During his tenure from the 1950s to the 1980s, he stood not only for the fight against big government, but also embodied the "westernization" of the Republican Party and the myth of the frontier, the settlement boundary that has shifted steadily to the west in American history, along which western civilization encountered untamed wilderness, so that qualities such as bravery, initiative and hardship towards oneself and the environment were necessary to survive. So the fight against merged biggovernment with the rough individualism of the American West and, moreover, the conservative ideology was also linked to myths of American popular culture.

In 1964 Goldwater ran as the Republican candidate for the presidency - and lost significantly to incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson. In his crushing defeat, however, the germ of later triumphs lay. On the one hand, five of the six states he won were in the south of the United States, and that already signaled the incipient reorganization of the majority there. On the other hand, the Senator also scored points in some of the fastest growing regions in the west and southwest of the USA: There, in the affluent suburbs, where many believed they were the sole smiths of their fortune, found his message of lower taxes and resistance enthusiastic supporters against "Washington bureaucrats". In this respect, Goldwater not only stood for the habitual, mental westernization of the party, but also cast its shadow over future Republican voter potential with its success. [4]