Sunday, January 1, 2023

Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy (Timothy Shenk)

America’s two major political parties have evolved in their core beliefs and voter makeup since the establishment of the Republicans in the 1850’s. Throughout our country’s history, there have been two major factions that have competed for control over government at various levels. While occasional usurpers come along regardless of the strength of the political parties, in the end, Americans often face a choice between one party or another. These parties are made up of coalitions of voters that make up a wide swath of economic, ethnic, or geographic interests and are realigned from one party to another every so often. These realignments happen because of various events (think of the Great Depression and abolitionism as two examples). But often, they feature a prominent person at the forefront of driving a shift in political party alignment. Timothy Shenk covers these in detail in his book Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy.

Shenk discusses these political realignments in a chronological order, starting with James Madison and continuing through the present day with Barack Obama and the populism that is bubbling up on the American right. In addition to Madison and Obama, the reader is introduced to Mark and Ruth Hanna, who helped build the modern organization of a political party on a national level. Mark, the father, was the leading voice of bringing the Republicans back into the White House in the late 1890’s after the nonconsecutive terms of Grover Cleveland. Ruth, his daughter, was one of the leading voices of the women’s suffrage movement and helped to maintain Republican control of the White House through the 1920’s before the Great Depression (a realigning event) created a new coalition of Democratic rule. 

Realigners is at its strongest when it discusses some of the forgotten (to many) names that have helped guide and shape the coalitions, like Charles Sumner, the Hannas, W.E.B. DuBois. While Shenk’s personal politics and worldview can leak through into his writing and cloud some of his arguments, the book is engaging and well-researched and showcases how Republicans and Democrats have shifted over time and how the current system (or mess, depending on your opinion of the two parties) reached its current point.