Polarization, USA

By L. Benjamin RolskyFebruary 3, 2019

Polarization, USA

Fault Lines by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer

WAR EBBS AND FLOWS around us according to the instantaneous rhythms of the internet, the updated status, or the carefully crafted tweet. In this maelstrom of information, “going viral” takes on a valence all its own as an image or news headline sprints from screen to screen, from tablet to phone to computer in narrative unison. While much of this machinery has produced admirable moments of accomplishment and cooperation, it just as often has incubated narcissism, misogyny, racism, and greed within the American electorate broadly considered. How did we get here? And why? What socio-economic, cultural, and/or social forces have produced such a divided public? For American historians Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, our contemporary moment can be best explained according to the United States’s numerous fault lines: culture, race, gender, and technology.

In their new book, Fault Lines, Kruse and Zelizer do an admirable job of creating a narrative out of the chaotic events of the recent past according to the themes of crisis, consolidation, and polarization. Using the post-Vietnam crisis of legitimacy as their jumping-off point, the authors trace the country’s current divisive state through various periods of cultural fragmentation. In many ways, the Vietnam War abroad came home with a vengeance as American citizens came to see their government, its policies, and its representatives as corrupt and deserving of unrelenting scrutiny. Soon thereafter, the development of the personal computer, the VCR, and the audio cassette tape came along with the Reagan administration’s decision to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine. As a result, division coursed through the body politic as new content flooded the marketplace in ways unimaginable only a decade before. “The fragmentation created a world with fewer points of commonality in terms of what people heard or saw,” argue Kruse and Zelizer, “even as computing and cable technology emerged as the medium through which most people consumed their cultural goods.”

Compared to the fault lines of race and gender, the disintegration of a largely centralized media landscape laid the groundwork for how Americans would consume their news and entertainment for the foreseeable future — even if it took 24 hours to do so. From here, Kruse and Zelizer illustrate how Supreme Court appointments, accusations of infidelity, “compassionate conservatism,” and 9/11 further divided the nation along various lines of cultural fracture. What we learn from this analysis is that despite the electoral successes of Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the story that Fault Lines narrates is how such successes unfolded upon ideational terrain largely defined by conservative interests and agendas.

“Clinton’s move to the center on several issues — most notably NAFTA, welfare reform, and the crime bill — had helped the Democrats find their way back to the White House,” the authors contend, “but at the price of abandoning much of the progressive policy agenda that had long served as a core rationale for the party and a chief reason for much of its support.” If there is any meta-story or overarching narrative afoot in Fault Lines it is that American public life, and its operational terms, have been determined largely by those on the right from a variety of social and political vantages including advisors, speech writers, and strategists. While much of this work has taken place in the open on behalf of particular presidential candidates, the truly impactful theories of electoral politics have unfolded behind closed doors.

Citing a now-famous conversation between a reporter and a senior George W. Bush advisor, Kruse and Zelizer draw our attention to how conservative operatives understand the world of politics. For the senior advisor, journalists were stuck “in what we call the reality-based community,” and as such, “believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality.” “That’s not the way the world works anymore,” the advisor emphasized, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality […] we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too […] we’re history’s actors.”

By the time Barack Obama became the United States’s 44th president, the electorate and its various representatives had become so polarized that the idea of an agreed-upon “fact” had all but disappeared when subjected to categories such as “red and blue states” and the filibuster. Continuing this train of thought, Obama’s presidential successor, former reality television star Donald Trump, went so far as to take full advantage of such confusion by adding fuel to the proverbial fire when it came to the fault lines that divided the electorate. Kruse and Zelizer claim that the president’s behavior was “a stark departure from the recent norms of American politics and government,” yet in the very next sentence they observe the tactic of divide and conquer had been part of the conservative operative playbook since at least the time of Nixon’s “positive polarization.” Trump understood that in a media climate with multiple competing outlets, the lines between reality and fiction were constantly blurred “with an insatiable demand for content.” In this sense, the president has most certainly taken advantage of our socially mediated present, but he has done so by using the playbook of conservatives past by reducing politics down to “the social issue” in the name of cultural warfare.

In essence, Kruse and Zelizer have composed the standard work for those teaching courses on the recent American past and the forces of polarization that have produced our contemporary divided public. The book is most valuable, however, in its assessment of conservative mobilization since the 1970s and the ways in which such “narrowcasting” has deployed various forms of media in stoking the flames of cultural division as a form of electoral politics. In fact, Kruse and Zelizer could have foregrounded the culture wars even more in their analyses instead of assuming their existence as part of the socio-political backdrop of the period. As I have written elsewhere, historians and scholars of religion must begin taking these rhetorical tactics more seriously if we are to better understand how America’s New Deal consensus has been largely dismantled and replaced by a new economic covenant — one that valorizes the free market and private enterprise as the ultimate arbiters of social value.

The culture wars have never been simply about culture, but rather the ability to control the means of cultural production over a given period of time. Culture is not valuable for its own sake, per se, but rather because it draws our attention to power — specifically political power, in the public square. “I want them to talk about racism every day,” said former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. “If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” Thanks to Kruse and Zelizer, we now know how and why this has worked from within our divided present, an age that pits citizens against one another seemingly in a form of all-out war. The big question remaining is whether we’re ready to deal with the sources of such manufactured anger on behalf of a republic mesmerized by political spectacle and consumed by a vindictive form of retributive justice.


L. Benjamin Rolsky is a Research Fellow in Religion Studies at Lehigh University.

LARB Contributor

L. Benjamin Rolsky is an affiliated fellow at the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University, and a history teacher at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, New Jersey. His work has appeared in a variety of academic and popular venues, including the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, The Marginalia Review of Books, CNN Opinion, and the Religion and Cultural Forum at the University of Chicago. His research and teaching interests include religion and politics, popular culture, and critical theory. Rolsky’s book, The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond, was published by Columbia University Press in 2019. Rolsky is currently researching a project that will explore the history of the Christian Right as an artifact of the culture wars in the recent American past.


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