What in the World is Going on in American Politics Right Now?

Why is American politics so crazy right now? Short answer: Because it’s always been crazy.

In a great historical review in The American Interest, Frank J. DiStefano shows that the rise and fall of political parties and periodic realignment are just par for the course:

In reality, American parties are temporary coalitions forged as tools to self-govern our republic at specific moments of crisis. They bind fractious collections of people who disagree about many things but agree on how to solve the biggest problem of their age. They rally around a unique ideology forged from sometimes clashing principles important to its different factions. And unbeknownst to them in the moment, they are significantly affected by the waves of moral renewal, called Great Awakenings, that have pulsed through American history. The failure to understand the interweaving of these Awakenings with shifts in the party structure over time is one of the great deficiencies of standard American political history.

American party systems always decline when the debate that created them fades away. The Federalist Party’s demise, the Whig collapse, the Bryan revolt, and the launch of the New Deal were all the result of the decline of the great debate that defined the previous era. Nor is it reasonable to expect parties to address problems we never designed them to address. The parties of the early republic simply weren’t equipped for the problems raised by the American frontier. The Jacksonian parties weren’t prepared for the intensification of the debate over slavery. The Civil War parties couldn’t grapple with the problems of industrialization. The Populist and Progressive Era parties weren’t designed to navigate through the shoals of the Great Depression. When just the right kind of force comes along to strike parties obsessed by irrelevant debates, those parties naturally collapse.

The difference between a collapse and a renewal lies in how we respond when a realignment looms. If we do nothing, seeking to ignore the challenges before us, some disruptive force will eventually strike our weakened parties provoking their collapse. A period of turmoil will follow, as all the factions and interests of America stumble about in the dark, possibly for years, while they search for new allies to create new majorities. Worse, since party collapses are uncontrolled, once our parties fall apart, we have to simply hope whatever new alliances and ideologies emerge from the rubble are ones we like, instead of ones that divide us in troubling ways around destructive ideas. If we act, however, we can seize the moment instead. We can renew our politics first before our parties collapse on their own. This way, we not only avoid the crises and the turmoil. We get to choose the shape we want our next parties to take.

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