Five Best Books on American Political Parties

From a Wall Street Journal books column by Michael Kazin headlined “Five Best: Books on American Political Parties”:

 The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States. By Richard Hofstadter (1969)

1. Richard Hofstadter was one of America’s wisest, most eloquent historians. In this book—the last to be published in his lifetime—he made sense of a transformation central to our political life: the one that saw a nation founded by leaders who despised “factions” evolve, 50 years later, into a republic in which Democrats and Whigs wooed voters with florid promises, vicious and witty attacks on their rivals, torchlight parades, and lots of free food and drink. A booming population made the demand to enfranchise all white men hard to resist. As the voters, rather than state legislatures, came to decide presidential contests, it was left to the parties to construct the machinery of mass persuasion and mobilization if they hoped to triumph. Hofstadter gives a masterly account of the early republic’s fierce debates about the virtues and flaws of partisanship. But he firmly sided with those who argued that democracy could not work without the institutions that competed for the public’s favor. The United States, he reflected, “gave the world its first example of the peaceful transit of a government from the control of one popular party to another.” He would be appalled to learn that there would come a time when many supporters of a president defeated at the polls sympathized with an invasion of the Capitol bent on violating that tradition.

Affairs of Party: The Political Culture of Northern Democrats in the Mid-Nineteenth Century By Jean H. Baker (1983)

2. “Political culture” is a spongy term. Jean Baker wisely defines it as the ways most white men in the North became attached to what they called The Democracy: through the books they read in primary school, the speeches they heard at campaign rallies and the minstrel shows that played to millions in the decades before and after the Civil War. The strong meld of Jacksonian populism and unyielding racism helped make Democrats the majority party until the late 1850s. It then gave them a potent weapon to oppose and eventually defeat the Reconstruction process led by their Republican foes

The Future of American Politics By Samuel Lubell (1952)

3. This book, Samuel Lubell explains, “tells the story of the political revolution that Franklin Roosevelt wrought.” Lubell made his living mainly as a deadline journalist, first for newspapers in the District of Columbia and then for the Saturday Evening Post. Yet his account of how the New Deal coalition took national power and held onto it for decades put most academics writing on the subject to shame. Few political-science professors can match Lubell’s vigorous and perceptive commentary. He initiated the practice of analyzing votes in key counties and precincts in swing states to project who was likely to be elected president and why. He also had a keen eye for small details that revealed the evolution of a party’s following. In 1948, Lubell returned to a United Auto Workers local in Detroit that he had visited eight years earlier and noticed that “the strike photographs had come down from the bulletin boards and had been replaced by idyllic snapshots of the union’s annual outings and sporting events. . . . In 1940 the flavor of the local was one of street barricades and sit-down strikes; eight years later, it was almost like a lodge hall.”

When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History
By Daniel Schlozman (2015)

4. Many scholars of political behavior study mass movements. Others devote themselves to explaining the parties. Few write books as readable as Daniel Schlozman’s “When Movements Anchor Parties,” about how the two groups can come together to create powerful coalitions that influence policy in ways neither group intended. When a sizable insurgency “anchors” itself to a party, it usually advances the ends it was created to serve. Yet to do so, the insurgency has to disappoint the radicals in its ranks and diminish their influence. By binding its fortunes to the Democrats in the 1930s and ’40s, industrial unionists secured a fivefold gain in membership and a durable voice in the party’s future. But they had to abandon their cherished dreams of a labor party. They also had to expel, from their national body, the pro-Communists who had organized the big strikes that did so much to build the movement. Similarly, during the 1980s, Christian Right activists placed their hopes in the Republican Party to build a “family values” agenda. They compelled nearly every GOP politician to take a pro-life stance and to oppose same-sex marriage. But neither Ronald Reagan nor the two Bush presidents sought to evangelize the citizenry on these issues. Antigay zealots attracted steadily smaller audiences and had largely lost their clout in the party by the time Donald Trump took office.

The Populist Vision Five By Charles Postel (2007)

5. “Third parties,” Richard Hofstadter famously wrote, “are like bees. Once they have stung, they die.” Charles Postel’s history of the People’s Party of the 1890s and the agrarian movement from which it sprang makes clear that a brief, buzzy life can have lasting effects. The populists put pressure on the major parties to enact the income tax (originally imposed only on the rich), introduce aggressive regulation of the railroads, and bring about other egalitarian changes. The political rebels nurtured a rich counterculture that included feminists, education reformers and liberal theologians. The populists, in short, had reason to view their influence with satisfaction.

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