We have Occupy Wall Street to thank for the already grating tendency among pundits to sort the American people by percentages. The possibilities for such categorization are endless. There are, of course, the 1 percent of Americans who make more than $516,000 a year and the 99 percent who do not. But there are also the 21 percent of Americans who identify as liberal and the
79 percent who do not; the 28 percent of Americans who hold an undergraduate degree or higher and the
72 percent who do not; the less than
1 percent of the population that watches the O’Reilly Factor on a given night and the more than 99 percent that does not; and the 39 percent of Americans who attend religious services on a weekly basis and the 61 percent who do not.
One could go on.
And one could add to the list of divisions the 10 to 20 percent of Americans who are active, committed partisans and the 80 to 90 percent who are inactive, uncommitted, independent, and generally moderate and flexible in their views. These rough estimates come from the Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina, who in a series of books has argued (seemingly in vain) that the American people are not nearly as politically divided and “polarized” as talk-show hosts and newspaper columnists have made them out to be. The empirical data seem to back him up. As the authors of Unconventional Wisdom: Facts and Myths About American Voters put it in 2008: “On most things political, Americans hold a broad and largely moderate consensus.” It is only when you enter the ranks of the actively partisan—the bumper-sticker owners, sign holders, precinct canvassers, phone bankers, partisan-media-consumers, small- and high-end donors, and bloggers—that you see major differences on social, economic, and diplomatic affairs.
The Case for Polarized Politics is a book by, about, and for this 10 to 20 percent. The author knows his subject. Since he left the Army in the late 1960s Jeffrey Bell has been an activist and analyst of conservative politics whose work in both areas is indispensable. One of the original Reaganites, Bell wrote the California governor’s briefing book during his failed 1976 presidential campaign and helped persuade him to embrace the supply-side policies of tight money and low taxes at the outset of his more successful run in 1980. In between those years, in 1978, Bell unseated the liberal New Jersey Republican Clifford Case in a Senate primary. While the Columbia graduate went on to lose to Princeton’s Bill Bradley in the general election, Bell’s primary win was nonetheless a sign of the coming Reagan Revolution. In the post-Reagan decades, Bell has turned to consulting, served as president of the Manhattan Institute, wrote the excellent Populism and Elitism (1992), and published op-ed essays and articles on politics for National Review and this magazine. You should read them all.
Bell’s thesis in Populism and Elitism was that politics is a contest between people who think the average man and woman are capable of deciding things for themselves and people who would rather leave such decisions to nonordinary elected officials, bureaucrats, economists, judges, and social workers. The reason for Reagan’s success, Bell argued, was that the fortieth president trusted the average person to make his own choices about where he lived, where he sent his children to school, and how he spent his income. Reagan, and other market populists like Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and William Gladstone, stood for the values and interests of the middle-class workingman against aristocracies of wealth, privilege, power, and credential.
Two decades later, Bell’s argument has not changed so much as it has broadened and deepened. He closed Populism and Elitism by noting that “the ability of the Reagan and Bush administrations to change the federal judiciary has been important, but by itself it can only move politics to a new, more intense stage of a values battle that is already a generation old.” Bingo! The Case for Polarized Politics traces the development of this clash from the watershed year of 1968 to the rise of the Tea Party and beyond.
On one side are American social conservatives who believe that the central proposition of the Declaration of Independence is true: Every human being is born equal. On the other are the global followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for whom “people in the state of nature are completely free, bound by no laws,” and “institutions and laws erected by civilization are inherently a force for repression.” Whereas social conservatives seek a limited government that does not tread on the natural rights of individuals, the global left—whether in America, Europe, or Asia—seeks an expansive, centralized state that levels material inequalities and bulldozes over the institutions and moral codes which purportedly stand in the way of true freedom, happiness, and authenticity.
Why has the left been so much more successful elsewhere than in the United States? Bell’s answer is polarization. And the cause of political polarization is the persistence of a social conservatism based on the teachings of the Founders. America, in this view, is exceptional not in the size of our economy or in the scope of our global responsibilities, but in the fact that we, and we alone, are a creedal nation. The American belief in moral truths that apply in every time and every place undermines the left-wing notion that morality is historically determined and subject to revision and relativism. If not for the social conservative movement, there would be no polarization because the left would reign unchallenged. America would undergo “a peaceful social revolution, utterly changing the face of society in ways that would have been both recognizable and pleasing to Rousseau and his heirs.”
The argument that the descendants of Jerry Falwell are the only thing preventing America from turning into a larger and warmer Denmark may strike some as ironic and others as self-congratulatory. But it is also a less shocking proposition than one might think. Foreign visitors from Tocqueville on have noted the high degree of religiosity among our people. The separation of church and state enshrined in the First Amendment has coincided with, and perhaps fostered, a delirious array of sects and confessions. Decisions by the Supreme Court, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Carter administration in the 1970s prompted millions of people of faith to enter politics, under the auspices of the Republican party, to reverse policies like Roe v. Wade and create spaces free from the influence of liberal elites. In so doing, these religiously observant voters became the base of a Republican party that would control the presidency and/or at least one house of Congress for 28 of the last 32 years.
Would there have been an Age of Reagan without this great migration of the faithful? I doubt it. But I doubt, too, that Republicans would have had such success had they not also appealed beyond their base to tens of millions of American independents and suburban moderates who may not be socially conservative and who may be too busy with work and family and community to worry about Du Contrat Social. The conditions in which elections take place—the state of the economy, the conduct of wars, the public’s attitude toward the future—matter a great deal more than polarization. So do the personalities and qualities of individual candidates.
The challenge for Republican politicians, most of them social conservatives, is to find a way to stand for the values of the American Founding without coming across to the public as overly sectarian or extreme. The political field is littered with Republican candidates who failed this test. Still, readers of The Case for Polarized Politics—indeed, anyone concerned with the future of American constitutionalism and limited government—can take comfort in the fact that there are many more candidates who have passed it.
Matthew Continetti is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon.