Nonfiction: Can Americans Get Along?


Their premise is that what they call “fault lines” have always existed but until recently were held in check by a “robust federal government, a thriving middle-class economy and a powerful union movement.” They hammer home their “fault line” metaphor with Stakhanovite repetition. Almost every chapter is organized according to the rules familiar to any public speaker: “In the first part I tell ’em what I am going to tell ’em; in the second part I tell ’em; and in the third part I tell ’em what I’ve told ’em.”

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Kruse and Zelizer, who have based their book on a course they created at Princeton, begin with the story of the unraveling of the “somewhat forced ‘consensus’ of the postwar era” in the 1960s and ’70s, quickly moving through capsule histories of the series of “crisis” events and issues that reordered the outlook of Americans — Watergate, stagflation, racial equality, feminism, gay rights and more. Stepping in to exploit these unleashed fault lines, according to the authors, is “an aggressive new conservative movement … amplified by a fragmented partisan media.”

But are Americans really divided by fault lines? Interestingly, there is a great deal of research that shows it is the political parties that are polarized but not the American people. Political scientists describe this situation as “party sorting.” That is, the Democratic and Republican Parties have devolved into two separate groups that offer ideological and policy conformity with almost no overlap. Remember liberal Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller of New York or conservative Democrats like Zell Miller of Georgia? They almost don’t exist anymore (Joe Manchin of West Virginia excepted) because neither party in its current iteration would have them. The actual fault lines, it might be said, are between the parties, not between two groups of the public.

For the past 25 years, according to Gallup, over a third of Americans have identified as moderate, and the number of independents reached an all-time high in 2013. Even the famous 2014 Pew Survey on polarization noted that the majority of Americans “do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views.” Where fault-line-like division is most pronounced is among the most politically engaged Americans. Examples of these folks abound in “Fault Lines.”

So if the real story is that the political parties have sorted ideologically and are appealing to the most ideologically engaged voters, who happen to be the most outraged, what is to be done? Kruse and Zelizer argue for Americans to build bridges “that can bring us closer together,” although they are also refreshingly frank about the cant of postelection remarks on coming together — noting the ritualistic aspect whose constant repetition is, in fact, an acknowledgment of division.

Kruse and Zelizer begin their book with Obama’s farewell address. They might have ended it with two points the Obama speech made as well: “Hold fast to the faith written into our founding documents” and “regardless of our party affiliation or particular interest, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.” Embracing both of those points might do the trick. Then again, it might not.



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