Power  /  Book Review

Timothy Shenk’s ‘Realigners’

Since the 18th century, American politics has functioned via coalitions between competing factions. Can alliances survive today’s partisan climate?

On political questions, Mr. Shenk is a realist. Even if you believe that the unique threat of “antidemocratic forces” requires “a fundamental overhaul of the political system,” he writes, “the path to reform starts with building a majority under the current rules of the game. Because you can’t save democracy without first winning some elections.” (Italics mine.)

What follows are nine discursive but highly readable chapters on the politicos and intellectuals who have envisioned ways of building coalitions to achieve their ends. The book’s aim, as Mr. Shenk hints along the way, is to shed light on the question: Why are durable coalitions all but impossible to form in 21st-century American politics? “Polarization” is the easy one-word answer, but a study of coalition-building from the 1780s forward may, Mr. Shenk contends, show us the way back to a more practical and healthy political life. 

Statesmen of the early republic had to accommodate themselves to the whole idea of parties, which they generally thought intrinsically bad. “Neither Republicans nor Federalists,” Mr. Shenk writes—the party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, on the one hand, and that of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, on the other—“accepted that the other side had a right to exist. They were parties against parties, cures for the temporary insanity that had overtaken the country.” They soon learned how to use temporary alliances to achieve limited aims—Madison was especially adept at cobbling together part-time allies and former enemies to defeat the Federalists. Coalition-building is a skill that can be learned.

Other chapters treat President Martin Van Buren’s quiet machinations to keep Democrats in power for a generation; Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner’s relentless search for ways to abolish slavery; and Ohio Sen. Mark Hanna’s talent for messaging (as we would say now) in the service of President William McKinley and the Republican Party. 

The book’s second half includes alternately admiring and scathing portraits of the radical intellectual and civil-rights campaigner W.E.B. Du Bois, the Olympian columnist Walter Lippmann, the insurgent anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly and Mr. Obama. These chapters are meant to chronicle the collapse of the New Deal coalition—a loose alliance between labor unions, black Americans, Southern whites and the intelligentsia—and the rise of activist-driven politics in which machines have little power and each party survives by anathematizing the other.