Even in this most partisan and dysfunctional of eras, we can all agree on one thing: Washington is broken. Politicians take increasingly inflexible and extreme positions, leading to gridlock, partisan warfare, and the sense that our seats of government are nothing but cesspools of hypocrisy, childishness, and waste. The shocking reality, though, is that modern polarization was a deliberate project carried out by Democratic and Republican activists.
In The Polarizers, Sam Rosenfeld details why bipartisanship was seen as a problem in the postwar period and how polarization was then cast as the solution. Republicans and Democrats feared that they were becoming too similar, and that a mushy consensus imperiled their agendas and even American democracy itself. Thus began a deliberate move to match ideology with party label—with the toxic results we now endure. Rosenfeld reveals the specific politicians, intellectuals, and operatives who worked together to heighten partisan discord, showing that our system today is not (solely) a product of gradual structural shifts but of deliberate actions motivated by specific agendas. Rosenfeld reveals that the story of Washington’s transformation is both significantly institutional and driven by grassroots influences on both the left and the right.
The Polarizers brilliantly challenges and overturns our conventional narrative about partisanship, but perhaps most importantly, it points us toward a new consensus: if we deliberately created today’s dysfunctional environment, we can deliberately change it.
About the Author
Sam Rosenfeld is assistant professor of political science at Colgate University.
“For anyone who cares about our political future enough to learn from its past, The Polarizers is absolutely essential reading.” — Washington Monthly
“A timely and significant contribution to the literature on political sorting and polarization that defines the current state of the two major American political parties. . . .A readable and well-structured history of our current party system. . .Highly recommended.” — Choice
“Partisan and ideological polarization are defining features of our time, but they are more often denounced than understood. In The Polarizers, Rosenfeld sheds much-needed light on the origins of present-day politics—revealing the human actors who took deliberate steps to bring about the political alignment we know today. His readable, deeply informed narrative should change the way we think about the recent past and even our own times, showing the era of polarization to be not a fall from grace but a plausible response to the very real problems and dilemmas of the old political order. Rosenfeld’s new research and new insights brilliantly challenge much over-crusted conventional wisdom about polarization, and offers hints as to how conscious political action can help redress the flaws of the current party system much as past actors took steps to cure the ills of the past.” — Matthew Yglesias
“A delight for policy wonks and politicos, Rosenfeld's insightful study of the development of political parties since World War II is highly instructive for our current moment.” — Kirkus Reviews
“As Sam Rosenfeld shows in The Polarizers, the irrational-seeming “extreme partisanship” and “tribalism” that contaminate our politics today originated in the principled efforts of writers, activists, and politicians who thought the two parties needed more polarization, ideological fixity, and internal discipline. . . .Today that course seems fatefully misguided, but Rosenfeld is right to point out that what came before wasn’t always better. . . .Rosenfeld has very good pages on the 1964 Democratic convention, when members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, led by the activists Bob Moses and Fannie Lou Hamer, challenged the Dixiecrats.” — Sam Tanenhaus
“A thorough and detailed study that introduces readers to the myriad figures who contributed to the development of what Rosenfeld deems the ‘polarization without responsibility’ of our present times.” — LSE Review of Books
“To some political junkies, reading Sam Rosenfeld’s book will be an exercise in almost unbearable nostalgia for that world of political stability and comity and the kind of genuine debate that can only come with mutual respect between those of differing political points of view. . .[The Polarizers] is a tribute to the meticulousness of his scholarship in reconstructing such a difficult and complicated history, one that was complicated, at least in part, deliberately.” — The Weekly Standard
“I’ve read a lot of books on polarization, and Rosenfeld’s is the best I’ve seen at painting a picture of what American politics looked like before Republican meant conservative and Democrat meant liberal, and why polarization seemed like a good, necessary thing to many of the people who drove it.” — Ezra Klein
“A remarkable achievement. . .As a political history of the post–World War II era, The Polarizers provides a comprehensive analysis of both parties’ development. The fact that Rosenfeld manages to cover both parties in this regard is impressive.” — The Journal of Politics
“We live in a polarized nation, and we vote in polarized elections. Sam Rosenfeld, in his excellent The Polarizers, shows us how we got here. . . . Rosenfeld has produced a smart, fine-grained, and thorough analysis of one of the most consequential changes in modern American politics.” — The Journal of American History
“The Polarizers is distinctive. . . for how Rosenfeld has recast familiar events in terms that shed important new light upon historians’ understanding of recent party development. Rosenfeld’s writing is accessible, and his volume concludes with a helpful bibliographic essay. Specialists will appreciate his challenge to preexisting assumptions; a more general audience will also benefit from this insightful exploration of why our political system functions—or fails to function—as it does today.” — American Historical Review
“Using impressive, indeed herculean, amounts of archival work, Rosenfeld shows that as more and more Americans became politically aware and as, in the wake of the polarizing 1960s, people found ideological cohesion around economic and cultural issues, a growing number of ideologically driven and issue-based activists worked to ensure that the Democratic and Republican Parties respectively represented their cohering interests. Rosenfeld’s analysis is built upon a surprising irony: the very partisanship that so many pundits now lament was something that pundits of an earlier era wanted! The Polarizers is a provocative book that unlocks the black box of partisan polarization.” — Andrew Hartman
“Many observers complain about partisanship in contemporary politics, but Rosenfeld provides a careful and fascinating history of the people who created our current system. Frustrated with the way that bipartisanship had created gridlock in the 1950 and 1960s, partisan entrepreneurs such as Paul Butler believed that strong and ideologically cohesive parties would offer a better way to govern. They believed that partisanship promised to make a stronger democracy. Through tremendous archival research, Rosenfeld shows how this all happened and provides a fresh perspective on the roots of our current system.” — Julian E. Zelizer
“Less an elegy than an illuminating genealogy, The Polarizers places today’s sharp partisanship in historical context. Moving fluidly between fascinating particulars and systematic analysis, the book’s rich account of persons, motivations, and mechanisms illuminates central transformations within American political life, all the while offering acute judgments about the party system, past and present.” — Ira Katznelson
“A comprehensive analysis that is meticulously researched and presented in compelling fashion. By drawing on a vast array of primary and secondary sources detailing the thoughts, motivations, and strategies of Democratic and Republican elites, The Polarizers will be of interest to both political scientists and historians. Indeed, Rosenfeld’s ability to highlight the intricate details of individuals’ conscious decisions to push the American party system toward polarized ends while not neglecting to situate these decisions within a broader context is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book. For those interested in the history of American political development and how the current party system came to be so rancorous, The Polarizers is a must-read.” — Political Science Quarterly
“The main strength of The Polarizers is its richly detailed account of how the institutional Democratic Party changed. . .This book’s clear, excellently researched account of the activists’ step-by-step triumph leaves the reader with the impression that, despite a few dramatic episodes along the way, the Democrats’ conversion into a consistently big-government and socially liberal party was nearly inevitable. . .Still, [Rosenfeld's] accurate account of the GOP’s evolution is noteworthy.” — Law and Liberty
“The Polarizers is a work of both intellectual and political history. . . .Rosenfeld digs deep into the dynamics of both parties, from the initial skirmishes to the many other factors that pushed the parties apart. His research is prodigious. . . .As Rosenfeld aptly documents, both parties had strong and persuasive advocates pushing them to become ideologically coherent entities.” — Norman J. Ornstein
“Rosenfeld’s archival work here is revealing. . .Using a vast array of archival sources, he documents how polarization is largely the result of the initiative of a few key individuals wishing to instill national ideological unity in the parties in the face of competing pressures for local constituencies.” — Perspectives on Politics
"Rosenfeld’s compelling text offers a gripping account of a fascinating period of party change throughout the United States." — Journal of Contemporary History