Theory of Change #068: Timothy Shenk on what history can teach us about making political change
Most movements to make political change fail, what do the ones that succeed have in common?
American politics is becoming increasingly destabilized by far right radicalism. But this escalation is actually the symptom of an even bigger problem: That our two major political parties have been stuck in a trench warfare system for decades.
It's been nearly 40 years since a presidential candidate won more than 55 percent of the national popular vote. It's been 51 years since someone had more than 60 percent.
In all this time, neither party has been able to create a mass movement for their ideas. Republicans haven't done so because they've openly embraced a minoritarian political strategy based on winning rural states with lots of religious White people. But Democrats haven't built a movement for progressive ideas either, and that's a critical mistake for people who ostensibly want to protect democracy.
So why have Democrats lost interest in mass movements and large coalitions? It's a very important question and one that my guest on today's show, Timothy Shenk, attempts to answer in his new book, Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here today, Tim.
TIMOTHY SHENK: Thanks so much for having me.
SHEFFIELD: All right. So your book is very, very discursive with lots of different people in it.
SHEFFIELD: How would you describe your book in a sentence or two? And then we'll go from there.
SHENK: So it's a biography of American democracy that I try to tell through the rise and fall of the making of the country's dominant electoral coalitions.
And this is a story that really goes back to the drafting of the Constitution. So that's where the book begins and runs, in my case, all the way down to the storming of the Capitol in 2021.
SHEFFIELD: Okay. Okay. And then so with, you were saying a biography of democracy, but it's using it's not just focusing on one person or one character, it's focusing on a lot of characters.
And there are all sorts of different ways you could tell the story of American democracy. You could, for instance, focus on activists who are pushing for the most expansive conception of what the government could deliver. Or you could just tell it as a story about the extension of suffrage rights of more people voting and how that takes place.
But in my case, I want to shift the focus to both the parties and in a lot of cases, specific individuals who have visions for building majority coalitions, and then against all sorts of odds, succeed in building a majority that at the national level that is strong enough to, in some cases, push through transformative changes in American life.
SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. And as you note in the conclusion, most of the people that you profile in the book do not really succeed in their efforts. And we'll get into that as we go on in the episode here. But I mean, I think essentially probably the number one takeaway that I had from the book was that change is hard, as the saying goes.
And you, you just go through in chronicle it over hundreds of years throughout different activists and different politicians and, as they emerge, political consultants as well. So let's maybe get started with the I think as you note correctly, the biggest change in American history was the abolition of slavery and the integration of people who were formerly subject to a totalitarian system of governance in which they had no power whatsoever.
That's the biggest change in American history. But it's something as you noted, that really began in the beginning of the country. And you focus a lot on that with the Constitution and the role of slavery in there in forming it. So, maybe talk a little bit about that.
The role of slavery within the constitutional convention in the colonial era.
SHENK: Absolutely. So it's an essential divide that you can see right from the beginning of the country's history, as in in Philadelphia in 1787 when the delegates are arguing over what the shape of the new government can should be.
James Madison points out that the divide that keeps us starting itself again and again and again is between the free states and the slave states, but the extraordinary change that takes place in American history between that small, cloistered room in Philadelphia and 1787, where literally the windows are nailed shut to prevent any word of what the conversations that are taking place inside from reaching the outside world.
Well, that's where you begin in 1787, where, oh my gosh, you get these people together and they're arguing about slavery. By 1860, you'll be in a world of mass democratic politics where yes, it is a suffrage that is still, the right to vote is still severely restricted by contemporary perspectives. It is overwhelmingly for White men, and yet at the time you have a pervasive conversation about the place of slavery in the United States that seems to be drawing in the entire country, so that in 1860, more than 80 percent of eligible voters turn out to show up at the polls for an election where everyone knows the key issue is whether slavery will be.
Continue to remain an essential part of the United States, or as Abraham Lincoln put it, be put on the road to ultimate extinction. And so that transformation from an issue that's dividing a narrow political elite to one that runs through the country at large, is in a sense, the defining story of American politics in the first century of the country's existence.
And of course, one who's legacy we're still living with today.
SHEFFIELD: Yes, definitely. And it's notable also, when you are going through some of the history that as the constitution was, being debated, there was a lot of skepticism toward it. But I guess before we get there, maybe let's go to the idea that.
Of the articles of Confederation, like what was the problem with that, and why did people want to get rid of that?
SHENK: So lots of different problems from lots of different perspectives. The group that I zoom in on, and really that the book focuses on—if you're telling the story of American democracy, they're just many, many different ways you can focus on it, obviously, so the question is, who do you choose? Who do you pay attention to?
The book is called Realigners because I decided that the way to make a potentially enormous subject manageable was to focus on the tiny group of people who are in charge of crafting a given party's message at a given time. So it's necessarily a focus on a pretty elite group.
And this, again, this begins with the Constitution, where the people I'm studying are the ones who are drafting the Constitution itself. And their concerns with the government, well there are a few, one is that it's just not powerful enough to impose order, either order at home in the sense that they would prefer it, and also to make the United States a major presence on the global stage.
So they're worried that you have all these riots, these protests, this discontent, this upheaval manifesting itself, for instance, in mobs rioting against tax collection. And they're worried that there is a sort of disorder that's creeping into American life that will lead to chaos, which they fear.
Not just because this is a group that's disproportionately wealthy and would like to hold onto its stuff, thank you very much. But also, some of them have dreams of a Grand American empire. And unless you have a sort of coherent national state that can impose order at home, then you're never going to get a strong American presence abroad.
And even if you don't have people saying, aha, we want to take over the world today, there is a sense that in a world of hostile empires, the United States needs to be able to stand up against France, against England. And so for this Republican “small R” Republican experiment to survive, there's a sense that the grownups need to be put in charge, that things have gone off the rails with the country, and that in order to restore stability at home, you need to have a national political elite at the helm of a government strong enough to bring the discontent to heal—but that is also, and this gets to an important point for the book, able to claim that it speaks for the will of the people as a whole, because that turns out to be a really crucial source of legitimacy and therefore of authority for a government.
When you can no longer say, oh, why is the system the way it is? Because I'm a king and God told me that this is how it's going to be, right? You need a replacement for this old idea of the divine right of kings, what happens, divine right of the people, in a sense, steps in, in its place.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and one of the things that you note is that a lot of the most influential framers of the Constitution, they were concerned about democracy.
And you're one of the few people that I've seen in a discussion of American history, who's noted correctly that, while the framers of the constitution drew heavily on the Greco-Roman traditions, they explicitly were against the most democratic Athenian tradition, which was that most offices were not decided by voting. They were decided by lots. Because that was the best way to make everyone have an equal chance of winning. And that was why the Athenians did that. Whereas the American founders, they didn't see elections that way.
Why don't you talk about that a little bit?
SHENK: Yeah. So there's this older notion of democracy that at the time is associated with Athens, sort of classical Athens as this sort of quintessential instance. And the idea there is that democracy really means equality of power. And you're right, it's symbolized by the idea that the responsibility for government decisions, for holding government posts, will just be determined by lottery. It'll just be pure luck.
And the notion that a James Madison, for example, has, is that we can have, in a sense, a new type of democracy where the goal isn't to abolish those hierarchies, but rather to legitimize them.
And the way that we'll be able to legitimize this hierarchy is by having a governing class, what some described as a natural aristocracy who will be able to say, we got this role, not because we seized it, not because we inherited it, not because we forced it on anyone, but because the public at large provided its consent.
So that in a sense, this new governing elite will trace its authority entirely from the consent of the governed. And that's almost something that's so obvious. We take it for granted today. But it is a historic shift and I think that more than anything else in our constitution, more than checks and balances, more than anything you learn in social studies when you're in middle school, that this ability to say, we are government that derives this authority ultimately from the people that counts for the longevity of the system.
That's why we have a government today that more or less resembles this sort of original blueprint drawn up more than two centuries ago.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and just as a historical matter, the United States Constitution is the oldest representative democracy constitution in the world.
And it does suggest that civility was the number one goal. And they achieved that to some degree. Including by deliberately making taking action harder than it could be. And that, I think we're up against that in the present day, but I don't want to get ahead of us here.
SHENK: Yeah. I will say too, so one good thing to keep in mind is for anyone who wants to change the world to a perspective that you and I share, that it can be easy to assume if we just let the people speak, that the sort of world will sort itself out accordingly. What was just a surprising moment for me when I was researching the book was discovering that James Madison in 1787 to Philadelphia, he's totally open to the idea of having a popular vote determine who gets to be president of the United States.
You think about this as like a progressive demand today. It's like, oh yeah, abolish the Electoral College. Do away with the work of the founders.
Well, Madison, who more than any other single person is responsible for the Constitution as we know it today, thinks that's totally acceptable in 1787. Doesn't get his way. Ultimately, this goes back to slavery. Because in a system where you have an Electoral College and the three-fifths compromise, then having this sort of state-level decision gives slave states a boost that gives them more power than direct popular vote would.
But the reason why Madison, of course, himself a slave owner, the reason why he's comfortable with the popular vote is he says that, yeah, we'll open the presidency up to a popular vote, but it's not going to go to just anyone. The idea was that the wider the potential electorate, the more likely that the public at large would just defer to whoever the natural meritocracy chose for them. That the system would sort itself out so that the finest would not inevitably, but more or less routinely rise to the top.
So starting with the realization that a sort of total agenda of democratization of a type that I do support today, I want to get rid of the Electoral College. I'd love to abolish the filibuster, that is a useful move for all sorts of reasons. But until we reckon with the insight of James Madison, that democracy as we understand it today by itself is not inherently radical or even reformist, then we're not going to get anywhere.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And to that point, you quote an anonymous American who was apparently writing did somebody in 1776, and this person, seems to have been somebody who was concerned about the future state of American politics. But at the time, basically here's what they wrote.
They said: “The rich, having been used to govern, think it is their right. And the poorer commonality, having hitherto little or no hand in government, seem to think it does not belong to them to have any.”
And that, to me really is a great example of what Madison was saying, that you can have a national electorate, but as we've seen in contemporary elections, that you need massive amounts of money in order to carry your message out to the public. So you're going to need a lot of money. And then a lot of people, they don't feel like that they can, that they're really entitled to something better.
I mean, that's something that some of the people that you talk about in the book run up against, against that problem over and over again. Did you have any thoughts on that?
SHENK: Other than that, this is the defining like struggle for American reformers from 1776 down to the present?
I think that's absolutely right. And I think that’s the start of any serious attempt to reckon with both just how American democracy works, which as a historian I care about, but I'm co-editor of Dissent. I'm very proud to be associated with the longest running democratic socialist journal in the United States.
It's something that those of us on the left, I think that we also have to take seriously when formulating our own politics. And there can sometimes be a notion that all you have to do is say the right things, i.e. the stuff that you already believe, and that the coalition would only form itself around you, if not for the obstruction of people who are willfully standing in your way, but reckoning with all of the obstacles in between the world as we would like it to be and the world that we live in now and realizing that—Saul Alinsky has this line that there are two types of power in the world. There's organized money and there's organized people.
People think that on the left you can pretty much trust on organized money not being there for you in a serious way. So organized people, to my mind, this is our best shot. It doesn’t mean it's a guarantee, but of the present options available, it’s the best one that we have.
But that means taking very, very seriously the question of how to mobilize as much of the people as you can on your own side. That has to be the beginning of something.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, exactly. And to that end, when some of the people that you talked about in the book, the ones who succeeded at getting the changes that they wanted, at least to some degree or another, they did it by getting people to agree with them who didn't necessarily have the same motivations.
And I think that the first time where this really happened in, in a democratic sense, as close as it could be in the early, highly restricted franchise of the United States was with the rise of Andrew Jackson, somebody who hadn't come up through the political system in a traditional sense, but he understood how to speak to the public in a way that was able to get him support.
And one of them was his, one of his key phrases was this idea of the Money Power.
SHEFFIELD: Talk about Andrew Jackson a little bit in this context, if you could please.
SHENK: I mean, Jackson's fascinating because he's both sort of the representative of the birth of a kind of populist strain in American politics. The outsider taking on a corrupt elite at the same time that he rise into the power on the back of what becomes the first really organized mass local party in American history, What we know today as a Democratic party, but at the time it was called the democracy. And it's this fusion of a sort of outsider populist soul with the body and the machine of an emerging political establishment, a political machine.
That's really what allows him to ride into Washington against the sincere opposition of an older political establishment that just a few years earlier thought that it would be in control of the city and the nation for the foreseeable future. And with Jackson, you see what emerges over time—he takes office in 1829 as the voice of a national sentiment against this elite, but that by 1832 when he is running for reelection, he zoomed in on an enemy, and this is called the Money Power.
And it stands in for a sense that this rich New York financial elite is not just running the economy, but that it's reaching its tentacles into our democracy that we ordinary Americans, by which of course he means essentially an audience targeted at sort of like the White property-owning men of the United States, importantly, not just in the South, but in the North as well. That this tiny cabal is taking power away from you. And the only way that you can grab it back is through politicians representing you through the democracy.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And the other thing about it was that what the audience individually thought was the Money Power, it was different depending on where they were or what their situations were. And it didn't matter to him what they thought it was. What it mattered was that they were going to support him.
SHENK: Yeah. Every politician at a major level ends up being a kind of Rorschach test, and also this like blank screen onto which you project your own hopes, your own fears, your own desires, and especially in a country as broad and diverse as the United States in this early period where you don't have a national media in a real way to make sure that you're following a consistent line on everything. There's a kind of useful ambiguity that can set.
And this will become increasingly true for Democrats when they emerge as a party with strong roots in both the North and the South, where by the 1850s when they're running candidates for the President, you would get the sense almost that one person is an anti-slavery critic in the North and a defender of the South peculiar institution when you go below the Mason-Dixon line.
And one of the great triumphs of the early Republican party, which emerges at its core as an anti-slavery party, is to make that kind of hemming and hawing and going back and forth on slavery impossible.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and I guess what's kind of interesting, for Jackson is that it's hard to say that there was necessarily an ideology behind what he was doing. It wasn't really ideological.
And so in that sense, there's a certain amount of poetry in that he basically created this idea of campaigning and building a popular support. But he actually didn't have an ideology that he was pushing.
SHENK: Yeah. And this is something that you'll find whenever you pay attention to politicians, is that there can be a kind of pragmatic brilliance, like you see the genius in how they act, not necessarily in how they speak.
And of course when it comes to politics, sometimes having a coherent ideology can, especially if it's the wrong one, can be a major hindrance because it prevents you from seeing how things are changing.
And one reason why so many of the lives that I study in the book and in ways that are often disappointing to the people who might succeed for a while, who might win one election, but that doesn't guarantee you a permanent hold on power. Because the same lessons, the same worldviews that can be a very useful tool in one set of circumstances, well, conditions change. And if you don't evolve with them, then you're going to be left behind by history.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, exactly. And we'll get into that further, but I guess one of the other aspects where that is true is in the perpetual struggle to end slavery. So it was something that a lot of people from the very beginning wanted in the United States. Let's start before the Constitution in terms of why some people felt like that it should be abolished. I mean, you talked about the three fifths compromise, but maybe talk about it in the constitutional framework of how this idea is sort of promulgated below the surface for a long time.
SHENK: Yeah. And the core of the opposition really springs, you see it mobilizing in the 1770s, from the idea that it's very hard in a country supposedly founded on the notion that all men are created equal to justify slavery. Of course, there are folks who do it, including Thomas Jefferson, but you see by the 1770s, 1780s, the beginning of an anti-slavery movement in the United States that is real. That is quite significant by historical standards, a break from a norm where throughout human history, slavery had been treated as a maybe unfortunate, but more or less inevitable fact of the human condition. Now, I having noted that the emergence of this anti-slavery campaign in the 1780s, 1770s, that's really, really significant.
But the fact is that going into the 1850s, anti-slavery politics is distinctly marginal in Washington and in the sort of American national system writ large, so that you have not just Democrats, but the chief opposition party of the Whigs. Both of them are North-South coalitions that depend for their existence on pushing the debate of about slavery to the margins of the national conversation.
And so the extraordinary transformation that takes place over that decade of the 1850s in a sense is that you take the populist spirit and the institutional innovations of the Jacksonian period, including the making of a mobilized mass political machine, and turn that into, instead of using all its energy to prevent people from talking about slavery, using it to focus energy on that conversation and taking it from the margins to the center.
And when you do it, it turns out to be explosive enough to lead the country into a civil war that basically nobody saw coming in 1860.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And the way that they did it basically was that, as you noted, that the moral argument, it was not something that most White Americans were particularly interested in.
They didn't really want to have that discussion. And whether that's—I'd say it's probably more that most people don't like having philosophical discussions about anything. And so just as a campaign tactic, it was a failure in that regard trying to say to people, because as you noted, a lot of people thought, yeah, slavery's wrong. It's immoral, but you know, what are you going to do about it?
That was basically, it was where things stood. And what the innovations were, and you talk about several people who were involved with that in the book, Frederick Douglass and Charles Sumner trying to reorient to not just say the moral argument against it, but also other arguments as to why slavery should be abolished.
SHENK: Yeah, and the really profound transition that they make.
You can almost capture it by saying that where Jacksonian Democrats said that the Money Power was the enemy. The Money Power is the thing that you, as ordinary Americans, is standing in the way of the country that you want and the country as it is today, that's threatening everything that you care about. Republicans will say, no, no, it's not the Money Power. In the same way, it's the Slave Power. And there will be some people who say oh, the Money Power is the Slave Power. They're the same thing that you have kind of in a sense, Wall Street and the sort of planter class clasping hands and uniting against ordinary Americans.
But more broadly, it's a sense that the Slave Power is serving the interests of this narrow plantation elite in the South, and that it is endangering the country. It's taking your government away from you, and in very material ways, standing in your own path of your own self-interest. So for example, this comes across most clearly in the battle over Western territories, where by the 1850s, there's a sense in both the North and the South that if those regions are going to keep their model alive, if you're going to have a country of small time farmers, essentially in small time businesses in the North versus a slave society in the South, both of them think that they have to expand in order to continue existing.
And so it forces a choice. No longer can you say, oh, if you're in the North, listen, you might oppose slavery, but it doesn't affect you in any real way. So you can object to it, but you'll hold your tongue because you care about something else. No, your own self-interest is now brought into the battle over the future of slavery, and when combined with a moral critique that is real and that does have power, that fusion of self-interest and moral vision turns out to be enormously powerful.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it really was. And the part of that argument was to say that, with building up the idea of the Slave Power is that, if you as a farmer or a laborer or just some non-rich person living in the North, you cannot advance in these new territories, new states because these slaveholders are just going to move there.
And they have free labor people who will do all the work for them, for nothing. And they're going to undercut you on a price. They're going to take all the land and you'll have nothing. And it was a persuasive argument to a lot of people.
SHENK: Exactly. This focus on the Slave Power is what turns slavery from somebody else's problem into your problem.
And that is the quickest way to mobilize people on your behalf, is when you're pointing to something that in their lives right now, they want to change.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, now was there resistance from some people at the idea of the development of the Slave Power idea?
SHENK: Oh, of course. Especially from anyone who was doing quite well under the old political system, thank you very much. There are people who say that it's a fringe conspiracy, that it's something—the funny thing is that there's some people who, quite funny and tragic, they point out, listen, if you really run an election over slavery, then this is the fastest route into civil war. This is something in the Lincoln Douglas debates of 1858.
So Abraham Lincoln, sort of a rising Republican politician at the time, running against Stephen Douglas, who is arguably the central Democrat of the period. Even though he wasn't President, Douglas warns the voters of Illinois in 1858. If this guy gets his way, it's going to tear the country apart.
And Lincoln quite sincerely, I think, says no, what are you talking about? Like, yes, we're going to have a fight, but we can resolve this democratically. We're not going to abolish slavery right away. We're going to put it on the road to ultimate extinction. Maybe that takes decades, maybe I won't see it in my lifetime, but this is a matter of principle that we can deal with peacefully within the normal rules of democratic politics.
And Douglas is one who says, nope that’s playing with fire. If you put slavery on the agenda, we're going to have a war about it. And if your side wins, guess what, Abe? (Who is saying at the time that after slavery's brought, after slavery's abolished, his preferred solution is colonization, which is essentially taking African Americans who have only known living in the United States and saying, go somewhere else.)
Douglas is going to say, no, that's not realistic. That you either are going to have essentially a multiracial democracy or nothing, like that is the choice. Either we keep the status quo or we embark on a change that could lead to both to war and toward a fundamental transformation of American life. Turns out that for the consequences of what Lincoln was envisioning, Douglas was a much more reliable guy than Lincoln himself.
So that in a sense, no one, at least in mainstream American politics is quite committed. They're not ready to commit to the full project of what opposing the Slave Power entails, but the force of events drags him along anyway.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. And well, and then of course the Civil War does in fact break out, just like Douglas predicts.
And as a book of politics, you rightfully don't focus on the military aspects of that much. And so that will take us to the Reconstruction era. And Reconstruction, you're very right to note, up until that period in world history, nothing that radical at that scale of a social upheaval had ever been attempted in human history of that scale.
Like there had been, of course, individual tribes or countries that had been enslaved, but these were small, ethno-states in the ancient world or things like that. And in the conquests of colonization, those typically tended, it was never all at once. It was a gradual move into and area and kind of take it over, over time. So nothing like that had been done at this scale.
And I feel like, do you think that that's something that is appreciated enough among historians?
SHENK: Historians, yes. I don't know about sort of the public at large, but I, I say this or my supervisor in graduate school, the single historian who had more influence on me than anyone else is at Eric Foner, who's truly, truly one of the greatest in the profession. And who's single most important book is the best history of Reconstruction that's come out in my biased view, I would say ever.
And so, I have from the very beginning, as in like literally my first-year history class in college. Maybe this just reflects my own provincialism, but I understood both the radicalism and the centrality of Reconstruction in American history.
And I think it would be hard to find a sort of credentialed American historian today who would disagree with that perspective. On the other hand, if you go into the wider republic, because it's a messy, complicated, and ultimately tragic history that doesn't have the neat narrative resolution and the intrinsic drama of the Civil War, that it's you're never going to be able to compete with that in public consciousness. The story of Abraham Lincoln, the ending of slavery, this in a sense, just beautiful culmination of so much of the best in the American political tradition like that, that's extraordinary.
And Reconstruction just forces you in a way that I think is essential. But honestly, I feel like a little choked up talking about it now, to see the sort of ideals that seem so close to realization in the 1860s, how quickly they lead to the, just the world of the Gilded age, robber barons and Jim Crow.
It's brutal, and it's one that we have to reckon with as Americans, but I can understand why people would want to look away.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it's not a happy ending basically.
SHENK: And I would say that part of the problem is that Reconstruction forces us again to think about the tension between our commitment to sort liberalism understood as, or freedom and respect for difference and opening up rights to the large number of people with the tension between that and democracy.
Because just the factor of that is that African Americans were a major presence in the population, in the electorate of the South, but they were not in the South as a whole, a majority, so that most Southerners in 1860 did, most White Southerners did not own slaves, and those who did, there is a tiny, tiny number that own a significant number of slaves.
This means that in a sense, the swing vote in the South, it's not former slaves who are quite clear that they want the rights that they deserve as fully as full American citizens. And it's not a planter class that would like nothing more than to go back to exactly the way the world was in 1860 as much as humanly possible.
The swing vote are these mostly non-slave-holding small-time farmer Whites who have to decide for themselves what's in their self-interest. And I don't think that we should be shocked, from a democratic perspective, if they are not ready to leap into like a multiracial coalition in 1866.
So that one consequence is that Reconstruction governments are more or less imposed by force from the North on the South, that you get the ratification, for instance, of the 14th Amendment guaranteeing birthright citizenship under the Constitution. That's not a choice that Southerners have. If they want to go back into the union, ratification of the 14th Amendment is a pre-condition, so you have a sort of egalitarian project that is enforced not through democratic means, but more or less at the barrel of a gun.
And that is part of a broader political culture of violence in the Reconstruction South. One that's driven by a campaign of homegrown White domestic terrorism aimed at asserting racial supremacy. But that is also confronting the fact that if you're looking for democratic legitimacy for the full-bore Frederick Douglass, Charles Sumner project, it can be hard to find on the ground in much of the South.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I think the person who really bore kind of the emotional and psychological brunt of this personally, individually was W.E.B. Dubois. But Dubois, the early civil rights activist and thinker and philosopher, et cetera, I mean, he's such a fascinating character, and I think really kind of the person most that I thought you did a great job of highlighting, his experience with all of that. Tell the audience a little bit about his story here.
SHENK: Yeah. He's an overwhelming force in American intellectual and political life. So he is born in the 1860s when Andrew Johnson is president. Lives until 1963, actually dies the day before the March on Washington in that year.
So almost from Andrew Johnson to Lyndon Johnson. Just like a remarkable trajectory during which time he writes literally dozens of books, plays, like run down the list. He has as full a life of the mind as you could possibly imagine in a way that makes me able to say dopey phrase like life of the mind with actual sincerity, because it's W.E.B. DuBois that we're talking about. He becomes the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard.
His life touches on everything from history, sociology, politics, run down the list of things that you could discuss. To me, why he figures as a major subject in the book is that one of the subjects that DuBois came to time and again during this very long life filled with a lot of insightful work was how American democracy functions. Literally as a teenager when he's writing these sort of stringer part-time articles for an African-American newspaper that's explaining local politics in the North, down to thinking about the possibilities that the March on Washington might open up this question of democracy, how to realize what he sees as the sort of promise of American ideals while grappling with just the reality of American life.
This is one of the central questions of his intellectual work. And as someone who, for much of his lifetime, is one of the leading figures in African-American life and by his own life, it's almost kind of the self-appointed chief political strategist for Black America.
It's a question that someone who, the intellectual in him is drawn to these debates about the nature of democracy, and that the pragmatist in him who is concerned more than anything else with advancing the conditions of African Americans and the age of Jim Crow, is just aware of the political requirements he comes to that time and again.
So of course the story of DuBois has been told many times before, but what I got to do with the book was tell it through the lens of, or so tell it with the center of this question of democracy, both as an abstract ideal and a pressing political question, which, yeah, just because DuBois is an extraordinary thinker, it can make for an extraordinary tale.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And at varying points during his life, he changes his position over and over, thinking that large-scale change and civil rights can happen and will happen. And then, coming to realize, no, it's not going to happen. And then, a few years later, something else, another development comes, he gets more faith and I mean he just has this cyclical it's almost like, he personally experiences these larger themes that you're focusing on with all these other characters, you know, individual lives. He lived for so long that he experienced these directly himself.
SHENK: And I think that anyone who invests in politics, we've gone through our own version of that cycle where there are times when it's really easy to believe that change is coming and there are times when it seems impossible. And he just had the advantage exactly of living for a very long time and being able to explain those reasons so eloquently.
But he also had just this, the, just the fact that you are a brilliant person, confronted with what at the time it was fair to think of as an intractable problem. So what do you do? And he came up with all sorts of different strategies for beating it and some of which ended up being profoundly influential for, among other things, the civil rights revolution that did so much to destroy the system that he spent his life campaigning against.
But on the other hand, we all know that the realization of formal legal equality in the 1960s as enormous and accomplishment as that was, did not translate to a material transformation for too many people. So that we are still living, I think today in the shadow of a civil rights revolution, which just accomplished so much, but also left so much for us to do.
SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And the other thing for him also is that DuBois, in a lot of ways is sort of the beginning of kind of a disenchantment with among progressives or socialists with democracy itself. And the idea that the public they won't accept our ideas, and so we have to come up with some other way.
And he most famously devised this idea of the Talented Tenth which ultimately, I think, I think you could say was not a good idea. Like it was a failure. And he realized that to some degree sometimes in his life and other times he, he just kept coming back to it.
SHENK: I mean, well he comes up with all sorts of different ways to give up on American democracy. Like I mentioned that he dies the night before the March on Washington in 1963. I didn't say that he was in Ghana where he had moved a few years before, after joining the Communist party as a sort of ultimate “fuck you” to the United States and the American establishment more than anything else.
Not so much because he had turned away from American ideals, but because he'd given up on the possibility of ever seeing them realized. And one way you can tell the story of DuBois’s life is by, think of all the different ways he had come up with for why there was no way that the United States would ever give him the country that he wanted it to be.
So you mentioned the Talented Tenth, that's an idea that the African-American race will be saved by mobilization of its elite. That's well-known today, what I think is forgotten is that even in The Souls of Black Folk, an extraordinary book in all sorts of ways. DuBois’s solution for sort of what to do with the problem of Jim Crow, his ideal is basically we will reach out for, to make an interracial alliance of the elite. So the Talented Tenth of Black America will be able to extend a hand to this counterpart in White America. And we will come up with a system that is rational and efficient and that reflects the best of both societies.
So that in a sense, his swing vote at the time, the person he's writing that book for, it's a White liberal Southerner, like for instance, Woodrow Wilson, born in Virginia. Yes. He's a governor of New Jersey but is the type of person who DuBois sees as persuadable, and that's striking today, given that Wilson is, I think, remembered nowadays as sort of one of the figures for—he segregates the federal workforce. He's a decided friend of the South when he's in power.
But in 1912, Dubois actually endorses him for president because he sees him as yes, like a White man, yes, a child of the South, but as someone who is a fellow product of the American intellectual elite he can do business with.
Now he quickly comes to regret that. But as we can see, the person who will in The Souls of Black Folk say: ‘Listen, I'm not opposed to all suffrage restrictions. I think it is perfectly fine to have restrictions, at least rhetorically. It'll draw it based on ignorance, draw it based on criminality, keep the sort of worst to the dregs of society from the polls. That's fine. Just don't have your discriminations based along racial lines.”
That is a very, very progressive type of elitism that even as he struggles with American democracy throughout his life, it never leaves him entirely so that the person who is quite skeptical about the practice of American democracy in 1903 will 60 years later for a different set of reasons, also have a sort of profound skepticism about what the country can accomplish.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and the other thing also about DuBois is that he's a forerunner in contemporary left wing politics. DuBois, he did not have a lot of, he didn't have direct experience with large-scale campaigning. And that's very different when you look at the way that Republican right-wing contemporary politics has arisen and established itself. That from the very beginning this tradition came out of campaigning, it came out of how do we win an election? Whereas with DuBois, for him and the people who rightfully admired his intellect and many accomplishments, they didn't understand that there were lots of facets to politics that he personally didn't get because he had never experienced it.
SHENK: I absolutely agree with that, and to me, a striking difference between Dubois and my own political hero, Bayard Rustin, who is the person who actually organizes the March on Washington, which has come up multiple times already, is that Rustin was someone who, listen, it's hard to imagine a more marginalized figure in American life than he was.
He was a Black, gay ex-communist in Eisenhower's America, but also one of Martin Luther King's chief advisors and one of the great tactical geniuses behind the Civil Rights movement. He was entirely a creature of organizations. He was someone who's deeply familiar with the Civil Rights Movement on the ground. Also the American labor movement.
He's also palling around with Michael Harrington and the Democratic socialist in New York at the time. So he's someone who is immersed in movement culture and drawing on DuBois’s intellectual legacy in key ways, but testing it against and modifying it based on experiences in real world politics in a way that I think you're absolutely right.
Dubois could almost, there is still like always like the man who wanted to be part of the thinker, who wanted to be part of the ivory tower and sort of quivered at getting his hands dirty with real politics. Someone like Rustin was a profound thinker in his own right, but someone who believed in engaging with actually existing democracy as well.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And there, I mean, and that tension, as the civil rights movement moved along, it kept coming up over and over, that there were, people who didn't like that Martin Luther King was, had kind of a pluralistic approach to his activism as well, that he, as a lot of people know that, he was, when he was killed, he was trying to go to boost a strike a worker strike by sanitation workers in Tennessee.
And there were people who didn't like that, that they thought that he was detracting from the civil rights for Black American struggle. And to him, he thought that, well, if you don't expand who you are helping as Black civil rights activists, then why should they help you? Why would they?
SHENK: And this is an essential debate that you see unfolding. Among others, you can read Stokely Carmichael, later as Kwame Ture, and Charles Hamilton in the book that gives Black Power's name “Black Power.” And that coins the term more or less of systemic racism.
They're not critiquing so much as like, actually they're going after Rustin quite directly. They say that, listen, you can do some stuff by working within the Democratic Party. Sure. But really what we need to do is like mobilize African Americans as an interest for themselves, the way that Irish Americans, German Americans, go down the rest. We're used to interest group organizing in the United States. So what we need to do as African Americans is we'll get our group sorted first, we'll claim our own identity, and then we can reach out from there. So that, yes, majoritarian politics, that'll be there eventually, but it's not the first order of business.
And then the real contrast ends up with being with someone like Rustin who says that especially in the case of African Americans, that's not an option. That if you try and play the game like everyone else has, then you're going to end up mobilizing too much of the country against you. And Rustin, in a brilliant article of 1965 called from Protest Politics says that in a sense it's a valid victory for the Civil Rights Movement. It says we've accomplished so much. But guess what? Now the hard thing starts because dismantling Jim Crow's a legal institution in the South.
Rustin says, listen, if we want to change the sort of quality of life for most African Americans, then this legal transformation is only the beginning, that we need a fundamental social and economic reform that can only come about in the United States by mobilizing a mass electoral coalition, and that African Americans by themselves, we just don't have the numbers to get it done. That we are a minority, and we need majority support.
So that requires a tight focus on the requirements of coalition politics, which Rustin believes can actually be met. That you can build an alliance essentially grounded in the working class, the multiracial working class out of a bold series of economic reforms.
But according to Rustin, that means being very, very careful about how you deal with issues that could potentially divide that coalition. And as a Black gay ex-communist growing up in the United States, he's quite familiar with, among other things, the potentially explosive character of racial politics if it's handled in in the wrong way.
SHEFFIELD: And that maintaining that unified front. That was ultimately why you did see a lot of these huge positive changes in the 1960s and 70s, whether it was with civil rights, whether it was with women's rights, whether it was with a greater ability to state your political views if you had radical left political views, like these were things that you could go to jail for it. And there were many people who were socialists who went to jail just simply for being socialists. They weren't trying to engage in violent revolution or anything, they just got jailed for it.
Over time though, that coalition that they had built across class, across sex, across race, it began fraying once we got into the 1970s. And I mean, let's talk about that a little bit. Some of that was the work of the political right beginning to understand the power of organizing, but it wasn't entirely that.
But let's maybe start with the right wing version of that, and then then we'll go to the left.
SHENK: Yeah. So one point to note is that the type of sort, strong class-based political organizing that Rustin holds as ideal, there's a moment American life when the electorate is more or less divided along economic lines, and you have a decided majority of working-class people behind one party at the Democratic Party. Now that is the story of the New Deal in 1936. For instance, FDR, when he is running for a reelection, wins an even bigger landslide than in 1936 than when he was the guy who was just not-Herbert Hoover campaigning in the worst part of the Great Depression.
So a profound, significant moment, American history, but also a real departure from the norm. Throughout American history, the standard has been for the two parties, and so it's worth noting just one that we have this two-party system that's not standard in world history as a whole. It's much more commonplace to have multiple parties running at any given time rather than just many parties, rather than just two. So it's weird in the United States that we just have two parties, but those parties have traditionally been divided along the lines of religion, ethnicity, region, culture, you name it, almost anything except for class.
But there is this moment, roughly 1930s into the 1960s where this class breakdown is a pretty reliable predictor. Not universally reliable, but pretty reliable predictor of how you're going to vote. But if 1936 is a high point, that means that almost instantly you see it starting to slip away, and that the crisis of that New Deal coalition really becomes undeniable in 1968, the year when, just four years after LBJ wins reelection with more than 60 percent of the vote, Hubert Humphrey, his successor, is barely able to scrape together 42 percent and the rest of it goes to, in the first case, Richard Nixon, but then also George Wallace. So you are suddenly in a new country where the explosive potential, not just of racial politics, but of sort of a broader set of issues that get mobilized.
It's partly economic, it's partly cultural. It's a whole tangle of concerns where race is essential but not the entirety of the story. That sort of sledgehammer to the New Deal coalition, it's taken by 1968. And then so much of American history since then is a question of, okay, what happens now that this old electoral coalition is falling apart and we're not quite sure what's going to replace it?
SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. And I mentioned that the political right also played a role in trying to develop organizational power. And they did it both at the, sort of, at the mass level, but also at the intellectual level. So at the intellectual level, you have the development of what they called fusionism, this idea that you would vote for reactionary policies for multiple reasons. You could vote for them, and they didn't care what your reasons were. In fact, they would give you three different, completely unrelated reasons to support these ideas.
And these three, they called them three legs of the stool, which was, that you wanted to oppose the Soviet Union and communism. The other one was for sort of religious or cultural reasons. And then the third one was that you didn't want regulation from government, you hated regulation and you wanted to keep as much of your money from taxes as possible. And they didn't really care which you chose.
But what this development of fusionism was that they sort of used each of these three motivations to sort of educate the other ones to that, that I think was the sort of critical insight of fusionism. Because even though your average person probably never heard of fusionism, the ideas, the sort of intellectual filtration did come to them over time. I mean, what’s your take?
SHENK: Yeah, it's a rare case of an intellectual justification. So in this case, provided by a lot of folks chiefly around National Review. So Frank Meyer sort of lays out the concept and Bill Buckley embodies it in a sense that it's a rare case of seeing intellectuals provide that kind of justification for coalition politics in a way that just doesn't come across. Normally, intellectuals tend to be more concerned about theoretical consistency than about providing a kind of messy justification for different groups getting along with each other.
But yeah, this idea that, all right, what is the justification for a coalition that could include big business, religious conservatives, Southern Whites who are hostile to integration, and also staunch anti-communists? This is a pretty good, at least we can all agree on this baseline. Although I'd say that that's a justification that could help explain why, for example, a Barry Goldwater could get the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 has a trickier time with someone like George Wallace, although there will be folks in the National Review circle who end up saying that, listen, the Wallace vote is an essential part of any Republican majority at the time.
In 1968, someone like Buckley isn't comfortable with the idea of having a George Wallace in his movement. He's much happier with a sort of Goldwater right perspective, but over the long haul, the Republican party builds its sometime majority. It's never a proper successor. It's sort of the scaled-down FDR majority, partly because it can never crack into Congress in the same way, at least until 1994, but it builds a pretty thumping presidential majority by figuring out a way to get that sort of core, Barry Goldwater right conservatives on board, the big chunk of the George Wallace vote, and a lot of traditional Republicans together in a majority that, so I mentioned 57, about 57 percent of the vote goes to either Nixon or George Wallace in 1968. By 1972, it's going to be more than 60 percent of the vote goes just to Richard Nixon.
And that's a sign of you've really assimilated, you've brought those George Wallace voters on board in a major way. And then the change that will come with Reagan is that Nixon wins in 72 on a platform that is broadly centrist on economic issues and takes a really hard line on the culture war. What Reagan will do by 1980 is show that a more explicitly conservative economic policy isn't necessarily death at the polls.
He's not going to call for the privatization of Social Security, but he's going to be distinctly to the right of where Nixon was on economics. He's going to win in 1980, and is going to do it by an even large na larger numbers in 1984. So that much more than Nixon's victory is a kind of vindication for the conservative movement.
SHEFFIELD: And then one of the other developments, I think also that kind of frayed or kind of led to the end of kind of left wing race-class coalition was, in my opinion, the rise of legal formalism. Legal formalism to me was the death knell of progressive change in America, because you can see it with the Civil Rights Movement, that the civil rights movement was originally designed to be democratic. That the goals were democratic, that they wanted people to vote for candidates who would vote for certain laws or they wanted to pass certain ballot initiatives. It was like they, they wanted legislative outputs.
But what happened is that gradually, as the Supreme Court began to rule more in favor of civil rights, the emphasis, the organizational impetus of left wing politics shifted away from popular support to legalistic support in this idea of legal formalism, which is that, well, there is a single objective way in which a law could be said to be true, and we happen to know what it is.
And gosh, by golly, it is lining up exactly with our political beliefs. And of course the problem with legal formalism is it's bullshit. It is not a coherent legal theory. It's not a, it's not even a description and it's like completely false in terms of the history of law. That law as a matter of, as a historical phenomenon is never regarded as this sort of fixed, mythical thing that, oh, if we just study it hard enough in our classroom, we can know what the truth is, and we'll all agree, we'll all come together. And it's total nonsense.
SHENK: It's bad as legal theory. It's worse as an account of legal history as in how the law actually works. And it's somehow even worse as a justification for politics. And of course, as you know from reading the book, someone who very strongly agrees with you on this and wrote most of a book, what was meant to be a book about it back when he was in law school was Barack Obama.
This, by the way, is my favorite research find, is sort of this lengthy manuscript that Obama drafted with his best friend at Harvard Law School, a former economics professor by the name of Robert Fisher. It is a manifesto for transforming American politics that includes as a foundational principle that a turn to the courts exclusively is just never going to get progressives what they want, because ultimately, judicial victories can't sustain themselves unless they're backed up by political victories, because you're not going to get a progressive legal revolution if Republicans are the ones appointing judges.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And that was to me one of the great disappointments of Barack Obama is that he had this insight that was 98 percent of the truth but then he completely abandoned it. Talk about that a little bit.
SHENK: It’s really complicated, because I don't know if he would—a fun thing that came out after the book was released, I had a piece in the New York Times that discussed this manuscript that he wrote and tried to use it to explain the arc of Obama's career more broadly. And Obama ended up being asked about sort of what he thought about his own career and what this book said is, or what, judging his later career by what he said at the beginning.
And according to Obama, he's been consistent the entire time. I would push against that, but he sees himself as sticking more or less in the 2020s to the position that he held in the 1990s. And I would say a mark for consistency is that the Obama of 1991, yes, he has this really strong critique of legal liberalism, but he's also someone who puts himself in that Rustin tradition.
The person who's really important, a major influence is the great sociologist William Julius Wilson, who was at the University Chicago when Obama was in Chicago, writing books on race class, capitalism, in politics the intersection of those questions, which are so much of concern for Obama when he is a community organizer who spends his days trying to build, among other things, alliances between working class Whites and African-Americans in the inner city, trying to come up with some sort of solution to the very immediate problems that they're facing.
And he leaves community organizing behind, he says, because ultimately, he decides that this isn't going to be able to achieve scale of the change that I want it to. And by 1991, we can see him saying that the solution for the problems that both Democrats as a political party and African Americans are facing today is a new electoral majority that brings working class voters of all races together, that this has to be the foundation of any lasting change. And that the way to achieve that is going back to that Rustin model for a big program for economic transformation that can bind these groups together based on self-interest and that appeals to morals, appeals to the law.
None of that by itself is going to get the job done. It could be useful as a component of the strategy, but it's not the essence of the thing. And you might think that this is just so different from the Obama than we ended up getting. But when you look at how he campaigns in 2004, the Barack Obama who's saying that there's no Red America, no Blue America, that's not a dopey celebration of American patriotism. That's a self-conscious effort to take the sting out of polarized culture wars that he says destroy the New Deal coalition and that he wants to bring back.
Even in 2008 when his campaign is on the ropes after the revelation of Jeremiah Wright, “God damn America,” and all the rest, he gives a speech on race in America that after its discussion of racial politics, trying to situate himself above this divide that he draws between Jeremiah Wright on one side and his grandmother at her least racially enlighted on the other.
He then moves at the close of the speech to say, and do you know who benefits from racial division? Not ordinary people. It's the few at the top who want to divide us so that we stop pursuing our common goals. That economic pivot is right there, and even in 2012 when he's running for reelection, David Axelrod sits him down at one point, according to Axelrod’s memoir and says, listen, I know that there's a broad suite of issues that you care about ranging from Guantanamo Bay, to gay marriage, to go down the list, and those are important. But the way that we are going to win election in a tough economic climate is by casting you, Barack Obama, as the champion of a hardworking middle class who is trying to defend the American dream while a vulture capitalist like Mitt Romney is circling the country with a glint in its eye, that this is the only way you're going to win.
And of course, Obama's going to be undeniably a progressive when he runs in 2012. Among other times, this will be the first occasion when he explicitly endorses gay marriage. But that central economic message, which you can see him being drawn to, right at the star of his career, is still the thing that is motivating his reelection campaign in 2012.
Now, I do think there's a really profound change in Democratic conversation after the election for lots of reasons, but it's striking how much continuity there is in this story as well.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think that's a good point. Yeah, rhetorically Obama doesn't seem to have changed much, but you know, in terms of his actions they seem to have changed.
Well, I guess he couldn't enact anything early.
SHENK: Well, that's part the problem is he can do some stuff after 2012. He can keep calling for economic transformation and saying that the defining issue by our time is economic inequality. But when he doesn't have a Democratic majority in the house and the Senate, you're not going to get anything done.
And you will have folks like Chuck Schumer by then who is saying, and this is a famous quote in progressive circles, for every vote that we lose in Pennsylvania coal country we’ll pick up two in the Philadelphia suburbs. And he's saying that Republicans have gone insane, Democrats can be the party of business now. And as a consequence, a sort of tragedy of this period, I think, is that the Obama coalition becomes a stand-in for, among other things, a flight of affluent, college educated voters into the Democratic party, and a continued erosion of that Rustin coalition that Obama said he wanted to bring into politics in the first place. And that was responsible for electing him to the presidency twice.
And it's so frustrating to see someone who understood that project from the beginning and who was able to bring it together into practice twice, sort of lose the plot by the second term. So that 2016 ends up playing out the way that it does in good measure because of the flight of those, in the first case, overwhelmingly White working-class voters. But by 2020 and increasingly multiracial struggle with the working class that you see on the Democratic side.
SHEFFIELD: Well, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that rhetorically, he was, approaching this, I think correctly at the same time you had a book that was published, which people seem to have only read the title, called The Emerging Democratic Majority.
And the point of that book wasn't that Democrats will inevitably win forever. It was that there are some demographic groups that are increasing in population and if Democrats can continue to maintain their current voting coalition, these people coming up will naturally align with their interests, and so Democrats will win.
But the, everybody ignored the first point of that book from Ruy Teixeira and John Judis, which was they have to maintain their current coalition.
SHENK: You can't go off a cliff with White people who didn't go to college and expect to win durable majorities at the national level.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And the other thing also is that as the Democratic party and the progressive movement centralized in both DC and New York, which unfortunately is way overrepresented in this country on the left. These two power centers emerged, which were heavily secular, heavily educated, entirely urban.
And you're seeing this continual erosion of minority votes for Democrats since that, since the 2008 Obama election, that now, Donald Trump had a record high of Republican support among Black Americans, among Hispanic Americans.
He did better than Mitt Romney, did better than George W. Bush. AndAsian Americans, there's a subset of them that are coming to think that, maybe the Republicans are right about stuff. But because Democratic and progressive politics has sort of become rarefied and credentialized obsessed, network obsessed that now they're deliberately creating this political culture that focuses entirely on what words you're allowed to say and things like that.
And the right wing argument about cancel culture is completely specious. I mean, they love canceling people. I can say that as a former conservative activist, they love canceling people. But at the same time, there is a grain of truth there in that a lot of people, they don't like this continual debate about, well, what is appropriate to say at appropriate, at a time when I'm not trying to be offensive to some group or whatever.
SHENK: Yeah. The thing I would add to that, well, so one point is that it's easy to follow into a type of like permanent despair over the state of the Democrats for lots of reasons.
But I will say that 2022 is a good point of optimism in the other direction of sort of defying historical norms, Democrats, listen, it's not enough of an electoral victory, it's not an electoral victory in the house. No, they lost, but they lost by less than what would expect given broader conditions.
And one reason why is that the sort of erosion of Democrat support with Black and Brown working-class voters more or less stopped. Things didn't get worse. They didn't get drastically better, but they didn't get worse. And a mistake that folks on my side of the debate, I think too often make is to argue that because we want this working-class coalition as a matter of principle, and because we think it would be, it's sort of the best electoral foundation for good policymaking. It's to say that this is the only way that Democrats can win.
And I think the fact is that Democrats did pretty well in ’22 with a message that leaned heavily on sort of non-material questions. Like, for example, the state of democracy. This is obviously the important issues, but it's not the type of sort of meat and potato question that you would expect from a certain type of old-school leftist advising Democrats on what to do next.
And so that's just one point to say that it's easy to, we shouldn't be deterministic about this. I also want to say that what's striking to me digging into the history of this is that the transformation that you're talking about, sort of the growing importance of a sort of college educated, activist elite and how politics sort of warps itself to fit the concerns of that group at the expense of lots of other folks, that this is a very old point in American politics, oh, going back almost to the 1960s, so that you see a lot of political scientists talking about Barry Goldwater supporters and John McGovern supporters as the first instance of this.
It's like the ideologues have entered in a major way and they're losing track with the public at large. And I think there's a lot to be said for this, but it's useful to remember and maybe its inspiring in a way that the points we're making now, we are not the first generation to discover them. We might be the first to be able to do something in a serious way and change the course. But this is a critique that has been around for quite a while.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And when you look at the way that the political Right handles this dynamic, so, as I mentioned earlier the development of Fusionism, that was sort of like the intellectual foundation for what they were doing.
But then they also focused on the grassroots level, which was to build up organizing within churches and radicalize right-wing pastors or, just non-political theological conservatives and fundamentalists. They got people and they invested in media, populist media that a lot of people don't realize, like these channels like TBN or various websites like Daily Wire or whatever, like you can say, yeah, those are dumb, the people who watch them are dumb.
But you know what, a lot of people watch them. And it's really fascinating that as political movement that styles itself as the party of the people makes no attempt to have popular media. It's really weird.
SHENK: We want to, it's just very hard.
And one excuse, which it is an excuse, but it's not entirely invalid, is that it is a lot easier when there are rich people who are willing to give you money to fund your experiment. And that there are some of these enterprises are doing quite well for themselves on a sort of just pure balance and loss profit statement.
Bench Shapiro’s bank accounts doing okay. But there is this entire institutional framework of sort of conservative organizing in DC especially where these are people who have never had to be responsible for raising their own cash or making their living in a free market. They're just subsidized by a donor class that likes the ideas that they're putting forward.
And I will say that an important point to remember about 2016, one of the reasons why Trump wins, well, he takes on a lot of the key convictions of that old conservative establishment. What some on the right call Conservatism Inc.
Which was fine to just run their version of the Reagan playbook again and again and again. And a key move that Trump makes is like how do you win over White working-class voters? Well, one way is by explicitly breaking with a type of Paul Ryan agenda that says that entitlement reform, cutting Social Security and Medicare, this should be a central priority for the Republican party.
Trump says, of course not. No, we're going to defend these institutions. We're going to repeal Obamacare. Sure, but we're also going to give you better healthcare. Everyone's going to get everything that they want. And that's laughable as policy as it turns out. But at least as broadly orienting the principles of the Republican Party in line with a coalition that had already become increasingly blue-collar anyway, it turned out to be a really savvy electoral move in a way that I and many others on the left didn't see, didn't appreciate the significance of at the time.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and he's resurrecting that again with Ron DeSantis right now and attacking, correctly pointing out that DeSantis, wanted to partially privatize Medicare and wanted to raise retirement age, et cetera.
I mean, these are effective techniques and the conventional Republican professional class really is powerless against them.
SHENK: Yeah. And the thing is, if you go back to the 1960s, Kevin Phillips of Richard Nixon aide, who writes the book The Emerging Republican Majority which outlines this plan for bringing George Wallace voters into the Republican party.
He says explicitly that free market economics is not going to get you there, that it needs to be a kind of culturally conservative New Deal, is what he envisions as sort of the appropriate policy framework for this new Republican coalition. And there's a sense in which the victory of the conservative movement with Reagan, it can be a policy win in lots of respects, but it, I think slows the creation of a conservative majority in line with what Phillips envisioned, precisely because it commits them to an economic program that's so at odds with the quite obvious material interests of the people they're trying to appeal to.
And you see, or one reason why Democrats are, and liberals are talking about Reagan Democrats in the 1980s is this idea, yes, they like Reagan personally, they're not fans of what the Democratic Party is today, but they haven't full bore converted to the other side, partly because they see Republicans as still, at the end of the day, the party of business.
And a question now in our very messy political climate today is there a party of working people? Is there a party of business? Democrats will say they're the party of working people. Some Republicans will at the same time. And this is, it's confusing, it's complicating, but I think that this is also a moment of opportunity for progressives who want to do something to reverse a tide that's been running against ordinary Americans for so many decades.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and it's there, there's an issue though, fundamentally, I think between that a lot of progressives, they are aware of polling showing that the public agrees with their issue positions. And so they think that that's all that you have to do. Like the, all you have to do is say, well, I want this stuff and you want it too!
SHENK: And if you don't agree with me, then you're a dumb dumb who's going against your own interest and you deserve what's coming to you. That's the worst version of the response.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And it's also not motivating because I think, for among the successful people that you've talked about in the book is that they made people feel like they were getting something more than just some policies. That they were part of something, that there was a movement. That they were being part of something bigger than themselves.
And if you're a progressive activist, you kind of feel that way for yourself. But you have to understand that the general public isn't ideological in any real shape or form. And to that point, one of the quotes you used in the book is from Eugene Debs, who was a socialist politician in the early 20th century. And he was in jail when he wrote this statement, he was in prison. But he was running for president from prison.
And he wrote the following as sort of his last presidential campaign material that he was allowed by the censors of the government to send to the public. And what he said was:
“I hope for everything and expect nothing. The people can have anything they want. The trouble is they do not want anything. At least they vote that way on Election Day.”
I think that's such a powerful sort of distillation of the dilemma that people who want progressive change face. What's your response to that?
SHENK: And it's true and it makes eminent sense if you're DuBois coming at the end of, I believe it's his fourth presidential campaign at the time, after decades working in this cause—
SHEFFIELD: You mean Debs, Debs.
SHENK: Sorry, sorry. Debs. The feeling that the sort of destination is farther away than ever, but with the longer perspective of history, we know that barely 10 years later, this is going to be the high point of that New Deal moment.
It's not going to change everything, but it's going to be a transformation for working people. The type that Debs gave his life to advance the interest of working people. So much of politics is avoiding the despair that we talked about with DuBois.
And I think that anyone who follows this stuff can fall into is being aware in a sense, knowing the scale, the challenge that you're facing prepares you to avoid giving up because you're not expecting transformation right away. You know that it's all going to be hard, and that every victory will be partial. It can always be reversed. And that with the best of intentions, you can end up in a place that you did not want to go.
But that there is all sorts of signs of things changing better, changing for the better over time. And that despair is always so tempting, but it does no one any good. And that at the end of the day, for those of us on the left, we have to believe in our country enough to think that it could actually be saved. Otherwise, what is the point of this?
So it requires a kind of baseline faith in other people, partly because we are, at least I think of myself as committed to a movement whose purpose is to take money and power from the very small number of people who have a lot of it and distribute it more fairly to the rest of society.
And that reflects a faith that people, when you give them decent choices, will not always, but enough of the time, be able to come over to your side. And there's so many reasons to despair, but in the long perspective of American history, I find a lot of reason to hope as well.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and ultimately, I think coming to the realization that that famous quote from Martin Luther King about the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice, King himself did not believe that. He used it as a rhetorical point to inspire people and to understand that, if you want to build change, you need to understand that the moral arc of the universe bends toward those who bend it.
And that that's ultimately that, change is hard. And understanding that you will fail, but you will definitely fail if you don't try.
SHENK: Yes. And acknowledging there are all sorts of ways to change the world that don't involve working through electoral politics. You could go through culture, for instance. You could go through commerce.
There are all sorts of different ways to make a difference. But I do think that if your goal is a type of broad scale structural transformation, that electoral politics is the best bet we have. It might not work. We have to be candid about this. But of the deeply imperfect choices facing us today, this is the best one that we have.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right. Well, let's maybe wrap with kind of a discussion of the idea of popularism. So this is a kind of a very intra-left inside baseball topic, but basically there is now a debate between people who say that: ‘Well, I want to have progressive social change, but the public isn't there for it right now. So what we have to do is get elected first, and then we can push these other things.’ And then there's other people that say: ‘No, we have to push for the right changes first, because you guys kept saying you're going to get elected and then none of these things ever happen.’
Is this a debate that politicians are having or only primarily writers and podcasters?
SHENK: I think it's something that within Democratic circles, questions of how to win elections are taken very seriously. But I would say that I think that there is a smart version of popularism that is sort of motivated by people who are driven by people who I think are acting in good faith.
And then there's a kind of incoherent one where popularism just turns into, I would like to have policies that play well in my New Jersey suburban district that I want to get reelected to Congress, which means cut taxes for blue states. Let's get on board with that.
And I think a consistent version of popularism actually fits with a kind of left politics that does take a really bold position on economic issues, or at least could be brought around to that perspective.
The one point where I probably diverge from populism in a major way is, or at least some versions of it is the assumption that public opinion is static. Or at least I would say that when obviously I care about winning elections. I wrote a book where this is the driving theme, but I think we have to be aware that the bounds of public opinion are always changing and that it's easy to assume that things are fixed and static when in fact there's a lot of flux.
When I teach to my students at GW [George Washington University], I point out among other things, just the transformation in the sort of approval for gay marriage, which for instance, has already come up a couple times in our conversation today from an issue that George W. Bush runs in 2004 on a Republican party platform that's promising a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Jump ahead to today when a non-zero number of Republicans in the Senate will vote in basically in favor of a bill for gay marriage, enough to get it past the filibuster hurdle in a deeply, deeply polarized country. That is an extraordinary transformation. Or again, when Barack Obama in 2008 is not going to touch that issue, too worried about breaking the Democratic Coalition just four years later goes to endorse it.
And that, I think it shows the capacity for an evolution in public opinion that reflects itself in politics necessarily but isn't always driven by politics, right? That is one of those cases where it's so much a story about changes in the broader culture ultimately dragging politicians along with them.
So that, I think that the really important thing to keep in mind is just what are we looking for from our politics at any given time? Because the one area I think that we have to. The point we have to recall is that it is so hard to get everything you want simultaneously. Looking at the long view of American history, I just didn't find any case where, from a progressive perspective, you're able to do everything everywhere, all at once, to coin a phrase.
But that if you are strategic, you can pick the cases that will make the most difference for the greatest number of people. And that's something that it is not revolution tomorrow, but it is a transformation in daily life that can make the world a more just place. And to me that is worth the effort.
SHEFFIELD: I agree. I think a great place to end it here. Let me put the book up on the screen. So, we've been talking today with Timothy Shenk. He is the author of Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy. And you're also on Twitter as well.
Let's put that up on the screen for those who are watching. And if you're listening that's tim_shenk, S-H-E-N-K. So thanks for being here.
SHENK: Thank you for having me. It was a blast.
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