Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy by Timothy Shenk • Farrar, Straus and Giroux • 2022 • 464 pages • $30
In 2002, Ruy Teixeira and John B. Judis published their now much-derided, oft-caricatured book, The Emerging Democratic Majority. Canvassing the American electorate, they sensed a shift in the political winds. The centrist politics of the Clinton years, combined with demographic changes that favored traditionally Democratic voters, heralded a new dawn for the Democratic Party. As Democrats delivered much-needed reforms to ease the transition into the post-industrial age, the party would become a dominant political force in the early twenty-first century.
Six years later, Barack Obama seemed to make good on that thesis, winning states that Teixeira and Judis had identified as gettable back when they seemed reliably red (Virginia, Colorado) and cobbling together what became known as “the coalition of the ascendant”: a group of young, Black, Latino, Asian, liberal white, and college-educated voters who seemed to be laying the foundation for Democratic dominance for the next generation. The 2016 election neatly dispatched with that idea, putting Republicans in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, and leading Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to herald a new era of “unified Republican government.” And then, within a few short years, both Ryan and his majority were gone.
For two decades now, national politics have been stuck in a wobbly equilibrium, swaying a bit toward Democrats, then Republicans, then back again. Yet every quiver has been read through the lens of realignment: This time, observers believe, the logjam will break, and a new era of one-party rule will emerge. And why wouldn’t they think so? For most of American history, that’s how party politics worked. That is, until recently, when the system creaked to a stop, leaving us with the ping-ponging party control that has defined twenty-first–century U.S. politics.
In his lively and ambitious new book Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy, historian Timothy Shenk argues that the task facing Americans now is to get that system up and running again, to refire the engines of realignment and build a coalition that can dominate national politics for a generation. To make his case, Shenk, an assistant professor of history at George Washington University and co-editor of Dissent magazine, maps political alignments and realignments from the very first days of the United States through the presidency of Barack Obama.
Shenk is particularly concerned with those responsible for building coalitions: the realigners. These realigners—a term Shenk coined to describe this group—emerge from the “democratic elite,” the operatives, activists, and intellectuals who populate the space between the rulers and the ruled in a democratic society. Not mere middlemen, the realigners do the hard work of sharpening the ideas and massaging the coalitions that help one party to dominate long enough to turn their ideas into policy and institutions, and to allow the country to change in meaningful, if not always laudatory, ways.
These realigners, ranging from Charles Sumner and Mark Hanna to W.E.B. Du Bois and Phyllis Schlafly, may be flawed characters. But in Shenk’s telling, they serve as the linchpins of the American system. Shenk’s realigners are the doctors of democracy: When a sharp break happens in U.S. politics, it is the realigners who reset the bone and allow the country to move past the crisis. And what America needs now, he argues, is a democratic elite who can engineer a new era of big, stable electoral majorities. Such coalition politics would act as a “corrective” to tribalism, a bulwark against stagnation and excess populism. “There are plenty of visionary proposals out there for remaking society,” he writes in the introduction. “What’s missing is a plan for building a coalition that could turn those dreams into reality.” What’s missing are the realigners.
Realignment is not a new topic for students of American politics. Generations of political scientists have sifted through district-level data to pinpoint precisely when party systems transform. And historians have offered sweeping studies of party development, from the presidents and politicians who sit atop the system to the grassroots activists constantly agitating for change. What Shenk offers is something else: a new way of thinking about the people who build the systems in which both the rulers and the ruled operate, and who take grassroots activity and harness it for long-term change.
Often when authors write about these democratic elites, they do so skeptically. These are, after all, the operatives who co-opt passions and ideals and turn them into watered-down party politics, who build political machines that run as much on corruption as on coalitions. But Shenk makes a persuasive case that such democratic elites are key to the functioning of the American system. “Pure democracy seeks to abolish the elite; representative democracy is designed to legitimate one,” he writes in an early chapter that sketches out the growing rift in the early years of the republic between what would become the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.
The high-minded intellectual debates between Federalist Alexander Hamilton and Democratic-Republican James Madison, set in a time when both were convinced that their side would win out and a party system would be unnecessary, quickly give way to a different kind of realigner: Martin Van Buren. Before becoming President, Van Buren made his reputation as a wily political operative, one who understood the nascent party system in a way few others did. For Van Buren, partisanship was not an evil to be avoided but a useful tool for organizing an increasingly large and diversifying electorate.
Partisan politics may have been rough-and-tumble—perhaps never more so than in the 1840s and ’50s—but it provided an arena for navigating political differences in relative peace. Only relative, though: For instance, Shenk follows Charles Sumner, an architect of post-Civil War Reconstruction who helped ensure civil rights would be a key priority of the new Republican Party, through his long career as an activist and senator. During that career, he not only regularly switched parties (or rather, the parties he belonged to regularly dissolved), but also was beaten nearly to death on the floor of the Senate after delivering a speech opposing slavery. It would be three years before he recovered enough to return to his seat full-time.
The specter of violence haunts Shenk’s narrative: Sumner’s beating, presidential assassinations, lynchings, even the attack on the U.S. Capitol in 2021. There are questions about the relationship between realignment and violence that remain unanswered in this book: Is violence the failure of politics or a regular feature of it? Is it part of breaking the bone or resetting it? And what should we make of the political violence now muscling its way to the center of American politics? Shenk suggests that strong, stable political coalitions could move the country off the path of future insurrections. It is an optimistic read, but one that makes clear how high the stakes for coalition-building really are.
A book about realignment must inevitably deal with the most significant realignment of the twentieth century: the rise and fall of the New Deal order. It can be a challenge for authors, especially those of a liberal bent, because it represents both a complex political system and a lost golden age. The era of Democratic dominance that began with Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932 and broke on the shoals of Vietnam, civil rights, and inflation in the late 1960s and ’70s has intense nostalgic appeal for liberals. For more than three decades, the party held together a powerful and perverse coalition, one that drew together Black Americans with white Southern segregationists, industrial workers with elite intellectuals, conservatives with leftists.
Though the party realignment occasioned by Franklin Roosevelt’s election fits cleanly into his argument, the complexities of the New Deal coalition stop Shenk in his tracks. In a swift interlude, he pauses to explain that “the strongest and strangest coalition” in U.S. history was an unplanned and unpredictable political force, a “brittle colossus” and an “accidental empire.” Realigners on the left and right have attempted to recreate it in the half-century since its collapse to no avail; in fact, they still struggle to make sense of it.
In a way, so do historians. For a few generations, many historians saw the New Deal coalition as the political ideal, an impressive and progressive political achievement that favored pragmatism over passion, technocracy over ideology. It was an era when politics worked: not for everyone, not all the time, but well enough for a country as sprawling and diverse as the United States. And it was a system flexible enough to allow for internal reform, so that by the mid-1960s, it had begun to dismantle racial segregation and disenfranchisement while still delivering growth and prosperity.
Shenk, too, sees the New Deal coalition as something rare and wondrous, but also imperfect and far more limited than an earlier generation of historians appreciated. Unable to limit himself to one perspective, he tells the story of the coalition through two realigners. Through W.E.B. Du Bois, he demonstrates the limits of economic and racial justice within the New Deal coalition; through Walter Lippmann, he demonstrates the blinkered vision of liberal elites in the Cold War era.
It’s a smart move, because it allows Shenk to marvel at the New Deal alliance without venerating it, to show the costs of creating “the party of everyone,” as Adlai Stevenson dubbed the mid-century Democratic coalition. While the New Deal era retains its golden-age aura in contemporary politics—recall the cover of Time after Barack Obama’s election, with the new President styled as Roosevelt under the headline “The New New Deal”—it cannot be the model for liberals today. As Shenk shows, it required a kind of compromise, in terms of civil rights and civil liberties, that feels unconscionable now.
Unconscionable, and unachievable. The collapse of that order—blamed on the Vietnam War, or the New Left, or Black radicals, or inflation—ushered in a new era of conservative rule in the United States, under both Republican and Democratic presidents. From Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, another realignment was in the making. For too long, historians treated that conservative turn as an aberration, not realizing that it was instead the New Deal order that was, as the historian Jefferson Cowie has put it, “the great exception.” The further we get from the New Deal era, the clearer it becomes that Shenk’s brittle colossus may have only been possible in that particular historical moment, when the United States was more racially homogenous and less ideologically sorted. A liberal, multiracial coalition today may require something altogether different.
If the example of the New Deal coalition has limited utility for recent realigners, it’s not for lack of trying to replicate it. From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama to Joe Biden, politicians have attempted to learn from that big-tent coalition, to cobble together those near-permanent majorities. But after the Reagan-Bush landslides of the 1980s came the muddled pluralities of the 1990s, then the blade-thin margins of the twenty-first century. In that period, the Democrats have tried again and again to rebuild their majorities, but the effort has repeatedly failed.
The Republican Party, meanwhile, has turned to counter-majoritarian politics, scrambling to pull together victories with near-majorities held together by a blend of racial animus, tax cuts, and seething hatred for Democrats and liberals. Absent a new realignment, Shenk warns, “Republicans will alternate between demagoguing the latest flash point in the culture wars and shoveling cash at their megadonors, while Democrats will keep promising structural transformation only to crash against the limits of what their increasingly upscale electorate is willing to sacrifice.”
Which leaves a puzzle not yet answered by Shenk’s analysis. It is clear that he believes a new majority must be established; in fact, he argues that is the only way out of the current political morass in which we are entangled. But what is not clear is why all the attempts to create that majority have failed, or how realignment works when large parts of the country no longer feel beholden to electoral politics. The country has certainly been down that road before—U.S. history is littered with stolen elections, local coups, disenfranchisement, and violence—but in Shenk’s telling, realignment has repeatedly saved the day.
The question is whether it still can. If one part of the story of U.S. democracy is its durability, the other part is its fragility. Shenk focuses on the people who manage to cobble the system back together rather than the forces that tear it apart. And that is ultimately his message: that if democracy has long been fragile, it has also long been fought for. Rescuing and rebuilding the political system has required constant work, but history shows that improvement is possible—and perhaps more importantly, that people have power to create the coalitions that preserve, and even improve, American democracy.