Rethinking Partisanship in the Postwar United States

By Charlotte Rosen

In 2016, two Black Lives Matter activists made headlines when they confronted Hillary Clinton at a private fundraiser in Charleston, South Carolina. Holding a sign that contained the words “We have to bring them to heel,” Ashley Williams called on Clinton to “apologize to Black people for mass incarceration.” The sign referenced a statement Hillary Clinton made during her husband’s reelection campaign, where in praising President Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, she referred to the primarily Black working-class youth being targeted by the punitive crime legislation as “super-predators.” Clinton added, “We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” During Williams’s action, Clinton became visibly flustered, frustrated, and then patronizing, accusing Williams of not wanting to hear the facts. Attendees in the video can be heard expressing their displeasure with Williams, saying things like “that’s rude” or “this is not appropriate.”[1]

Embedded in the audience’s irritation with Williams’s confrontation is a pervasive yet misleading historical interpretation of American politics in the post-WWII United States. In its most condensed form, this interpretation of postwar partisanship portrays Democrats and Republicans as polar, warring opposites: Democrats are pro-civil rights, in favor of robust social welfare programs, and egalitarian, while Republicans are hostile to racial, economic, and gender equality and enemies of big government social provision. Historically speaking, such a paradigm presents an “all-roads-lead-to-Reagan” narrative that interprets mass incarceration as the result of the New Right’s victorious ousting of a dying New Deal liberal order.[2] To expose the Clintons’ role in escalating the current crisis of racialized policing and imprisonment, as Williams did, disrupts this powerful historical construct of American partisanship. Two parties and their constituencies that once appeared at historic odds over racialized law and order politics now appear as all too comfortable accomplices in its harmful escalation.

Pointing out unsavory or bad faith liberal policymaking is far from a foreign project for urban historians. From detailing the structural shortcomings of the New Deal’s pro-growth economics, mapping the government’s many-handed facilitation of racially unequal housing markets and urban development policies, and outlining the ways liberal welfare programs criminalized working-class Black and Brown communities, the literature is robust and shows no signs of slowing. Yet, unspoken but powerful discursive boundaries between liberals and conservatives have shaped the way urban historians conceptualize power in the post-World War II era. Bad liberal actors or liberal constituencies are not hard to find in histories of postwar metropolitan inequality, but we have qualified their politically harmful actions as unintended, tightly bound to local or regional metropolitan contexts, and ultimately still not on par with conservatives. Even when expertly dissected, our core lens for understanding postwar history often remains one of partisan difference, with Democrats and Republicans’ epic battles driving our understanding of major political outcomes.[3]

Recent urban historical literature on the development of the postwar metropolis and rise of mass incarceration suggests that the framework of postwar partisanship obscures more than it clarifies. Specifically, this framework has erased an equally if not more important legacy of convergence between white conservative and liberal politicians and constituencies around core ideologies like the sanctity of private property rights, belief in the myth of meritocratic individualism, and the social and political decency of law and order policing.[4] Embedded in this bipartisan ideology is an ostensibly race-neutral and uncontroversial political economy that actually structurally disadvantages working-class Black and Brown communities through criminalization and exclusion. As common sense values for both postwar Republicans and Democrats, property ownership, consumer choice, and law and order stymied racial integration and legitimized new formations of racial subjugation in the late postwar period. By making it harder for analysts to see these norms as bipartisan – and therefore more powerfully entrenched in United States governance and political systems – a rigid partisan framework actually limits our ability to identify the mechanisms that keep white supremacy and capitalism churning in the post-Civil Rights era. As Matthew Lassiter contends, with “red-blue binaries” serving as the “hegemonic framework” of postwar US political history, we miss the unpleasant fact that a “supermajority” of white people found common ground in resisting racial integration.[5] And as Naomi Murakawa notes in The First Civil Right, partisan frameworks reductively paint racial inequality as the product of external “white animus” amid an otherwise “non-racial backdrop,” critically missing the shared norms and ideologies that reproduce hierarchies of racial difference in US political institutions and administrative structures.[6]

Scholarship on the postwar metropolis, and specifically the development of the suburbs, reveals the limits of the partisan binary. On the one hand, this literature has demonstrated that the New Deal era mass production of segregated white middle class property owners did not lead to a clear-cut partisan politics. Although once considered bastions of the New Right, it is now clear that suburbs served as ready incubators not just for conservatism but for more centrist and even diehard liberal political cultures. Yet, despite their differences in political party preference, white suburbanites of all stripes coalesced around a belief in the political purity of individual property ownership and the colorblind myth that they had earned prosperity through hard work instead of systemic white racial privilege. Suburbanites’ investment in the politics of homeownership produced what Matthew Lassiter calls in The Silent Majority a “bipartisan political language” of private property rights and white “suburban innocence” that resonated with both staunch conservatives and a more “volatile center” whose partisan preferences have been historically up for grabs.[7] Indeed, the electoral success of racially moderate and pro-growth New Democrats such as Bill Clinton or the more recent success of Doug Jones in the Sunbelt south remind us that suburban areas normally deemed loyal Republican strongholds were and remain electorally competitive. Even bleeding heart liberal suburbanites, whose partisan affiliation remained firmly Democratic in the postwar period, infused their party with the same free market meritocracy and individual property rights ethos of New South politicians. As Lily Geismer argues in Don’t Blame Us, although suburban liberals outside Boston led seemingly progressive campaigns for fair housing or metropolitan school integration, their foundational belief that their homes were the product of individual effort made their support for civil rights contingent on whether proposed reforms protected their property values and attendant racial privileges. Their perception of markets as fundamental so long as they were stripped of formal discrimination led them to repeatedly push for individualist solutions over ones that would meaningfully address historic structures of racial discrimination.[8]

In highlighting points of ideological convergence among white suburbanites, histories of postwar metropolitan space disrupt traditional narratives of partisan difference. Through zeroing in on what white suburbanites and their politicians actually do, rather than merely taking proclamations of party affiliation at face value, this literature reveals a more central and axiomatic bipartisan commitment to the historical fiction of meritocratic individualism, free markets, and private property as all-encompassing pathways to freedom. In doing so, this body of work actually helps us to make clearer sense of why racial inequality persists in our post-Civil Rights era. Although facially race-neutral, in practice these bipartisan ideologies enshrined racial hierarchies in politics, policymaking, and private markets by masking structural inequality and white complicity. Rather than rooting our analysis of postwar political development in party rhetoric or electoral gains and losses, studies of postwar metropolitan space uncover a more diffuse – and therefore more durable – bipartisan project of institutionalizing racial difference and protecting capitalism. Perhaps most pressingly, they presage the political perils of the Democratic party’s continued appeals to this white, middle-to-upper class suburban center. As Lily Geismer and Matthew Lassiter wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, such a strategy nourishes an unequal status quo and alienates the very working-class voters that are central to Democratic Party success.[9]

Histories of the postwar carceral state similarly suggest the ineffectiveness of partisan framing for making sense of mass incarceration. Naomi Murakawa, Elizabeth Hinton, Heather Ann Thompson, and Heather Schoenfeld dismantle common presentations of liberalism as a progressive foiPl to conservative law and order by revealing postwar Democrats’ expansive role in generating the racialized carceral state. Far from merely reacting or submitting to conservatives’ crime and punishment hysteria, postwar liberals laid the groundwork for the later mass imprisonment of Black communities.[10] Perhaps most shockingly, they did so not merely by bulking up the state’s criminal justice arms but by infusing punitive frameworks into often celebrated liberal social welfare programs. As Elizabeth Hinton demonstrates in From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, postwar liberal administrators embedded racist assumptions about Black “cultural deficiencies” into flagship liberal welfare legislation, such as in President Kennedy’s Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act of 1961 and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and War on Crime, that constructed African American youth as pathologically criminal.[11] The result was that liberal administrations, and Johnson’s in particular, increasingly steered antipoverty programs towards more punitive forms of state intervention in majority Black neighborhoods that swapped social workers and community programs for law enforcement and militarization.

Johnson’s punitive “merger” of welfare with crime control reached its peak in the Safe Streets Act of 1968, which pumped $400 million via the newly created Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) into state governments for the purposes of modernizing local law enforcement and heightening the surveillance and social control in Black urban areas.[12] Nixon would go on to channel LEAA funds in ways that expanded the state’s capacity to criminalize the Black urban poor, and Reagan’s War on Drugs would implement some of the most harmful and racist carceral policies of the era. But scholarship on liberal law and order demonstrates that conservatives in many ways appropriated and expanded upon a liberal project of punitive anticrime policies, namely that of replacing robust social welfare administration with law enforcement, making the rise of racialized mass incarceration a distinctly bipartisan project.

Although mainstreaming knowledge about liberal complicity in mass incarceration and spatial segregation is crucial, the point is not that we should only blame liberals, but rather that partisan frameworks more generally limit our ability to see the causes and mechanisms of postwar inequality clearly. Julilly Kohler Hausmann’s study of welfare and criminal justice policymaking in the 1970s comes closest to modeling a post-partisanship framework by showing how grassroots constituencies and legislators on both sides of the aisle accepted as true the claim that “most criminals were governable only through punishment and incapacitation, and state efforts to rehabilitate them were futile and counterproductive.”[13] This is not to say, of course, that Republicans and Democrats are perfect mirror images of one another when it came to racialized crime politics; there remain critical differences between the two parties and their development over time that consequentially shaped the development of the racialized carceral state. But decentering partisanship cuts through the false binaries of the Democratic Party’s innocence and the Republican Party’s singular cruelty by making the historically co-constituted embrace of racialized law and order politics visible.

Beyond forcing us to contend with the real impact of this bipartisan “common sense,” decentering partisanship also means grappling with the messier historical forces that fueled carceral state expansion and the white supremacist metropolis. Even as this scholarship challenges an easy narrative of white elite culpability for mass incarceration or spatial segregation (bipartisan or otherwise), it also highlights the insufficiency of partisan frameworks to properly account for contemporary crises of inequality. For example, Kohler-Hausmann shows how harmful policies such as mandatory sentencing ironically have their roots in prisoners’ complaints about harm done by indeterminate sentencing. Similarly, James Foreman’s Locking Up Our Own describes how Black lawmakers in Washington D.C. supported punitive anticrime policies as an extension, rather than repudiation, of their civil rights commitment to the “protection of black lives.”[14]

Scholars of the suburbs have also rightfully refuted presentations of postwar suburbs as all-white and elite spaces, and in doing so have explored nonwhite suburbanites’ more complex relationships to property ownership and suburban political culture. Black suburbanites, whose population ballooned nationally in the postwar period, often acquired homes in suburbs out of a desire to escape the white supremacist spatial terrain of the city, achieve upward mobility, and build Black community, even as they faced continued racial barriers in the suburbs.[15] The fact that Black suburbanites’ pursuit of property often led them to strengthen rather than dismantle the unequal racial and class logics embedded in real estate markets cannot be understood absent a deeper analysis of property ownership as a means of liberation in African American communities. As Nathan D. B. Connolly contends in A World More Concrete, Black property ownership must be contextualized within a longer history of racialized political exclusion and structural violence that made property ownership one of the only means of a still limited Black political power.[16]

In other words, that the carceral state or metropolitan disparity is not the straightforward product of political conspiracy, and instead is the result of a more complex and historically-situated series of institutional legacies, unintended and intended policy outcomes, and political decisions, suggests partisanship’s constraints in telling this story. Decentering the explanatory power of partisan polarization, then, also allows us to better grasp how institutionalized and racist frameworks around law and order policing and Black criminality amplified some policies over others in ways that could coopt the intentions of more transformative reforms.

Once untethered from expectations about partisan political behavior, our narratives become less about revealing that liberals were racist or elitist or warmongers too—although such work has and continues to be vital— and more about diagnosing the shared ideologies, norms, and frameworks that keep white supremacy and capitalism afloat regardless of whom is in office. Even in our current moment, where Trump’s daily and terrifying legitimization of fascism and white nationalism might suggest a renewed need for partisan analysis, disrupting partisan frameworks is critical. Decentering partisanship reminds us that our work will not be done when Trump leaves office or when pundits deem the most visible manifestations of racial violence eliminated. As historian Dan Berger warns in his trenchant critique of the “First Step Act,” the much-celebrated bipartisan prison reform bill passed last November, the historic maintenance of a bipartisan “middle ground” that preserves the sanctity of policing and prisons ensures that reform efforts barely undo the carceral status quo and often serve to bolster it through repackaged forms of surveillance and criminalization.[17] Although it might be tempting to dig into narratives of postwar partisan polarization, approaching this same history with an eye for shared assumptions and bipartisan collaborations – what goes unquestioned or appears as orthodoxy to the majority of those involved – will offer a more clarifying, if less politically sexy, narrative of American state governance.

In clarifying where and how “liberalism and conservatism overlapped,” urban historians and historians of the carceral state should see our scholarship as ground zero for reconceptualizing the bigger postwar historical narrative of United States politics. This does not mean ignoring real partisan difference or discarding deep analyses of party politics entirely. The discrete political agendas of Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, or northeastern liberals and southern segregationists, continue to deserve analysis. But a bipartisan lens is crucial for making sense of the postwar era’s most defining markers of institutional racial and economic inequality, including the crisis of mass incarceration, rampant resegregation of public schools, the return of Gilded Age levels of income inequality, and much more. With scholarship on the postwar carceral state and metropolitan politics as our guide, urban historians should see partisan convergence not merely as added historical complexity but as a framework for theorizing – and potentially reimagining—20th century American state power.

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Charlotte Rosen is a doctoral student at Northwestern University studying US urban history. She is currently researching crime and prison politics in late-twentieth-century Pennsylvania. Prior to graduate school, Charlotte worked for a housing justice nonprofit in the Bay Area. You can find her on Twitter @CharlotteERosen.

 

 

Featured image: Black Lives Matters activist Ashley Williams confronting Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton during a South Carolina fundraiser in February, 2016. Image originally featured here.

[1] “Mrs. Clinton Campaign Speech,” January 25th, 1996, C-SPAN, https://www.c-span.org/video/?69606-1/mrs-clinton-campaign-speech; Eugene Scott, “Black Lives Matter Protestors confront Clinton at Fundraiser,” February 25th, 2016, CNN.com, https://www.cnn.com/2016/02/25/politics/hillary-clinton-black-lives-matter-whichhillary/index.html.

[2] Matthew Lassiter, “Political History Beyond the Red-Blue Divide,” The Journal of American History 98, no. 3 (2011): 761.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); Lassiter, “Political History Beyond the Red-Blue Divide;” Julilly Kohler Haussman, Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017); Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[5] Lassiter, “Political History Beyond the Red-Blue Divide,” 763.

[6] Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right, 8.

[7] Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority, 1, 304, 319.

[8] Lily Geismer, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014). See also Lila Corwin Berman, Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[9] Lily Geismer and Matthew Lassiter, “Turning Affluent Suburbs Blue Isn’t Worth the Cost,” June 9th, 2018, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/09/opinion/sunday/affluent-suburbs-democrats.html.

[10] Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime; Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right; Heather Schoenfeld, Building A Prison State: Race and the Politics of Mass Incarceration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018); Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History,” The Journal of American History 97, no. 3 (2010): 703–34.

[11] Hinton, 39.

[12] Hinton, 98, 103-135.

[13] Julilly Kohler Haussman, Getting Tough, 210.

[14] James Forman, Jr., Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), 11.

[15] Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 8.

[16] Nathan D. B. Connolly, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014)

[17] Dan Berger, “What the Latest Bipartisan Prison Reform Gets Wrong and Why It Matters,” November 16th, 2018, Truthout.org, https://truthout.org/articles/what-the-latest-bipartisan-prison-reform-gets-wrong-and-why-it-matters/.

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