By Michael Barone
Consensus is elusive in an electorate without the shared memories of the Great Depression and World War II.
Can we all get along?” Rodney King’s famous plea is being asked today by many Americans on all sides of the political fight. Their question reflects something real—a politics that is more hyper-partisan, bitter and abrasive than in the past. The usual reference point is to the 1950 and 1960s when the baby boomers, who today remain the arbiters of political discourse, were growing up. I call the period the Midcentury Moment.
This was an America that generally seemed united by common values, shaped by the shared experiences of deprivation in the Depression 1930s, the mass mobilization in the wartime 1940s and the unexpected prosperity in the postwar 1950s.
Politicians in Washington during the Midcentury Moment actually did gather at five o’clock to sip bourbon and branch water in Capitol hideaways and then roll out bipartisan compromises on the floor the next day. Genuine friendships and constant communication were established across party lines, despite great enmities—remember that this was also the era of Joe McCarthy.
So why can’t politicians get along as they often did then? I see three reasons:
1. The prayers of the political scientists were answered. During the Mid-century Moment, Northeastern liberals (with large labor-union and Jewish constituencies) and Midwestern conservatives coexisted in the Republican Party. Southern conservatives (with all-white electorates), Northern liberals and big-city machine hacks coalesced in the Democratic Party.
This lineup made it easier to get along across ideological and party lines: Liberal Republican Sen. Jacob Javits could join liberal Democratic Sen. Hubert Humphrey on civil rights, while Humphrey joined the anti-civil rights Southern Democrat Sen. Richard Russell on farm subsidies.
But political scientists and pundits at the time complained that American politics was irrational. Surely it would be tidier to have one clearly liberal and one clearly conservative party, giving voters a clear choice. Gallup repeatedly asked voters if they favored such a realignment, and about half said they did.
Well, that realignment has taken place. The Democrats are now a coherently liberal party, and the Republicans more reliably conservative than in the past—though subject to eruptions of incoherence, as during the recent shutdown fight. The result is that there are fewer prominent contested issues that prompt officeholders to cross party lines.
2. The generations who experienced the Great Depression and a world at war have died out. Voters with vivid memories of the 1930s and ’40s were disposed to give large majorities to presidents whose policies seemed to produce peace and prosperity—57% for Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, 61% for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and for Richard Nixon in 1972, 59% for Ronald Reagan in 1984. Such large majorities gave at least the appearance of consensus.
Since 1984, fewer and fewer voters remain who knew that earlier era, making consensus more elusive. The highest popular-vote percentages achieved since 1984 were the 53% for George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Barack Obama in 2008, and each received a lower percentage four years later. Consensus is elusive in an electorate without the shared memories of the Midcentury Moment.
3. Cultural fragmentation. For about 50 years, America shared a universal popular culture—the radio of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, the movies of the 1930s and 1940s, and the television of the 1950s and 1960s. The reach of these media was amazing. Radio ownership increased to 61% of American households in 1932, from 27% in 1928—a period when one-fourth of households didn’t have electricity. Movie attendance in 1930, when talkies became dominant, was 90 million weekly, in a nation of 123 million. Television ownership increased to 88% of American households in 1960, from 9% in 1950.
With only three or four radio and TV networks, and movie theaters controlled by half a dozen studios, the way to huge commercial success was to produce content that appealed to just about everybody. Popular entertainment exuded a sense of Americanness that long rang true.
A universal popular culture provided politicians with a common language and frame of reference through which they could speak convincingly to the nation as a whole. Franklin Roosevelt’s rather formal oratory was supplemented by the friendly, familial tone of his radio fireside chats. Harry Truman’s plain-spokenness and Dwight Eisenhower’s somewhat stiffer discourse also resonated with a national audience. John Kennedy’s stylized rhetoric was leavened by the ready wit of his televised news conferences. The next four presidents, more or less clumsily, also spoke in this universal American idiom.
Ronald Reagan, the master communicator, had made his living in each of the three dominant media—radio, movies, television. He always knew his lines, and they came naturally to him, reflecting the values he cherished from his days as a liberal Democrat in Republican downstate Illinois, and from his days as a conservative Republican in increasingly Democratic Hollywood: tolerance, decency, respect for ordinary people, their troubles and their often unheralded achievements.
Today’s world is one of niche popular cultures, available on hundreds of cable TV channels and the Internet. Rush Limbaugh and Jon Stewart are gifted entertainers and political commentators, but they do not seek a universal audience as Will Rogers did. Current pop-culture hits like “Duck Dynasty” on TV or “Gravity” in movie theaters have largely non-overlapping audiences, which are tiny in market share compared with “I Love Lucy” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Thus, the language of a universal popular culture is no longer available to politicians. For a case in point, consider the Reagan re-election campaign’s “Morning in America” ad (which is on YouTube). It was brilliant then, but it wouldn’t work today. The voice-over is full of statistics (Reagan loved them) showing how prosperity and growth had returned: an assurance to those who remembered the Depression that the economic gloom had lifted.
Then look at the pictures. The first is a view of San Francisco—anathema to cultural conservatives today. Then you see an old lady in a styleless dress gushing over a wedding (opposite-sex variety). Flags go up and down—some cultural liberals today would wince. After that, the Capitol lighted at night—a symbol of those politicians in Congress that most voters these days detest.
America’s Midcentury Moment was just that—and American politics has returned to its combative, partisan, divisive default mode. In the 1790s, Americans were divided over a world-wide war between commercial Britain and revolutionary France. Political strife was bitter. In the antebellum years, Americans were deeply split over issues from the Bank of the United States to slavery in the territories. For three generations after the Civil War, Americans North and South lived almost entirely apart from each other.
The Midcentury Moment emerged as the result of three unexpected developments, two of them unwelcome—depression, war, postwar prosperity—and was communicated through the language of an unusually vivid and unusually universal popular culture. Absent these things—and it’s hard to see how they could return—our politicians aren’t likely to all get along.
Mr. Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner and an American Enterprise Institute resident fellow. His latest book, “Shaping Our Nation: How Surges of Migration Transformed America and Its Politics,” has just been published by Crown Forum.