On a long list of distinguished books by James A. Morone, Republic of Wrath: How American Politics Turned Tribal, from George Washington to Donald Trump may be read as the third in a trilogy (the antecedents are The Democratic Wish and Hellfire Nation) that are, individually and ensemble, among the finest accounts of the politics of US public policy ever written. Republic of Wrath makes three particularly impressive contributions. First, it examines the nation's political history “with an eye to the people on the margins of power” (339), paying special attention to African Americans, immigrants, and women, and it adds to the march of historical events fresh accent marks on patterns that recur from the first days of the republic straight down to Donald Trump. Along the way Morone pierces the saccharin rhetoric of both the Right (we are, and have always been, one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all) and the Left (we are not a set of red states and blue states but rather the United States, which can do anything if only we stand united). Without succumbing to the single-factor excesses of critical race theory, he leaves no doubt about the centrality of race in US political life, and he gives immigrants and women their due as well.
Second, the book highlights the manifestations of these historical patterns in the US party system, viewing the “tribalism” of the Trump years as a virulent variation on themes long in the making. Morone deftly depicts how, throughout most of this history, divisions within each major political party diffused tribalism. He interprets the inflamed tribalism of the Trump interval as an outcome of a new pattern of partisan alignment in which “for the first time, the parties reflected all the us-versus-them intensity of the American cultural wars” (20), because most of those who regard themselves as “us” (i.e., whites) occupy one partisan basket (Republican), while most of those whom “us” regard as “them” “(African Americans, immigrants, and left-of-center women) are in another. This partisan polarization, intensified far beyond historical norms—“whites on one side, people of color on the other,” viewing each other not only as enemies but also as denizens of “a visibly different tribe” (331)—explains why the nation's answer to its “most profound question . . . ‘Who are we?’” (172)—cannot rise to “all of the above.”
Third, while cherishing no illusions about the promise of partisan harmony and arguing forcefully that debates over clashing visions are essential to democracy in both theory and practice, Morone suggests various reforms—especially systemwide rules of the electoral process designed to rescue voting from the chaos and gaming that have plagued it throughout US history—that could relieve some perversities of constitutional design (e.g., two Senate seats for large and small states alike and the structure of the electoral college) and reduce threats of tribalism to democracy in America. The temporal scope and scholarly depth of the book are extraordinary, and every student of US politics and policy should give it a close reading.
Morone's dissection of the nation's tribalist woes is arguably as good as it gets (or has yet gotten), but it leaves in the explanatory air a bit of mystery that may be captured in a simple question: what took so long? As he shows, the basic ingredients of Trump's politics were on display long before the latter's flamboyant escalator ride in 2015. In 1948 Democrats embraced a civil rights platform, and the presidential election of that year marked an “epochal political moment” (258) that saw both the loss of most of the African American vote by the Republicans “once and for all” (258) and the beginning of the end of the solid Democratic South.
Between 1944 and 1948 the Democratic share of the presidential vote in the Deep South went into free fall—from 83% to 54.7% (16). The nomination of Barry Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate in 1964 ratified “derision toward the smug northeastern establishment, a cry against federal bureaucrats, the call for local independence, a tough stance on law and order, contempt for the urban masses, and attacks on the media”—incursions that defined the party for two generations (268). That same year found California voters rejecting a fair housing ballot measure by a two-to-one margin (289).
When George Wallace, a Trump doppelganger, sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1964, he won more than 33% of primary votes in Wisconsin, close to 30% in Indiana, and 43% in Maryland (275–76). His message, like that of the Republicans, stirred “tribal fervor” against a “racial revolution” in which “a different people were getting a boost at the expense of people like you” (277, 276). In 1968, he reappeared as a third-party candidate, and his law-and-order message attracted a raucous crowd of 24,000 at Madison Square Garden in New York (293). In Chicago, Martin Luther King Jr. was greeted by mobs more “hostile and hate filled” than those to which he had become accustomed in Mississippi and Alabama (290). With these pieces well in place, why did today's hyperpolarization take 50 years to arrive? It may be well to set partisan sorting between “us” and “them” within some larger contextual frames.
One prominent contextual element is a steady decline in trust in government since the 1960s. A series of public disappointments, disasters, and debacles—the Vietnam War, Watergate, stagflation, the hostages in Iran, Iran-Contra, the attacks of 9/11, and the Great Recession in and after 2008, to name the most conspicuous—gave superficial credibility to allegations that government can do no right. Whereas the New Deal had explicitly linked “freedom” to government-led redistribution on behalf of the “common man,” steady post-1960s bashing of the federal government that far transcended the familiar precincts of white supremacy and sought to draw legitimacy from neoliberalist and “public choice” dogmas produced a semantic renovation that shifted “freedom” rightward and into the hands of groups such as today's congressional Freedom Caucus. In 1960, 75% of the public trusted the federal government to do the right thing “just about always” or most of the time. That figure has not exceeded 30% since 2007 and now sits at around 20% (PRC 2022). Deepening distrust of government bred contempt—and, in time, the tribal displays of the Trump years.
A second factor is Ronald Reagan's innovative exploitation of the tax issue to forge a durable perceptual link between governmental faltering and redistribution to stigmatized “welfare queens” and the like, although Prasad (2018: 89) provides an important qualifier to the apparent importance of race and welfare queens in Reagan's political rise. The force of this connection emerges in Morone's account of the confrontation between presidential candidate Barack Obama and Joe the Plumber three decades after Reagan. Candidate Obama, he remarks, dared to honor the “trusty populist canon” about “spreading the wealth,” but he allowed championship of the little guy to morph “into a search for managerial efficiency” once he was in office (348–49). There is more to it than that, however. Obama's advisors recognized at once that talk of redistribution could only damage his campaign, so the candidate and soon-to-be president forswore full-throated visionary proclamations. But then, once elected, he proceeded (notwithstanding the reservations of his advisors) to win enactment of the Affordable Care Act, prompting Thomas Rice (2011: 491) to remark that “for the first time in a very long while, the United States has passed a law that makes the tax system more progressive.” The law, for all its flaws, has reduced the percentage of uninsured Americans younger than age 65 from 18% in 2010 to 11% today.
Third, the degradation of political discourse—conservative talk radio, on-air fulminations by Newt Gingrich and his band of Republican warriors, Fox “News” and other right-wing channels, the internet, the blogosphere, Twitter, and more, none of which are effectively challenged by public regulation (the Fairness Doctrine ended in 1987) or by comparable outlets on the Left—would seem to merit more attention than it gets in Republic of Wrath (323–26). During the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt and his allies worried over the influence on public opinion of the weekly one-hour radio rantings of Father Charles Coughlin, the “radio priest” whose diatribes in the 1930s reached an audience variously estimated at 30–50 million listeners (Brinkley 1982). Today thousands of far-right (grand) sons and daughters of the Father spew their venom 24/7 to legions of what Morone diplomatically calls “low information voters” (338), who have voluntarily, indeed gleefully, imprisoned themselves within prefabricated interpretive cages that sustain and celebrate tribalism. This right-wing media machine surely helps to explain why a comforting nostrum of yesteryear—after bitter resistance to social progress, the cultural arc gradually bends toward tolerance—no longer seems to hold against assaults by “news sources” that compete to enshrine outrage on gay marriage, the right to abortion, and other staples in the culture wars as “properties of the social air” (James 2010: 4).
Tribalism has been further promoted by a fourth factor that Morone addresses only in passing (275–76), namely, the dominance of primaries for choosing candidates for general elections. In 1964 only 14 states chose Democratic candidates in primaries (275), and in 1968 Hubert Humphrey was handed the bitterly contested nomination for the presidency by party elites (300). Primaries, intended to promote democracy and “people power” by prying nominations from insiders' hands, have stacked the deck (particularly among Republicans) to favor outraged zealots who appeal to the 20% or so of the eligible electorate agitated enough to show up at the polls on primary day, thus dimming hopes that nontribal “reasonable” contenders will make it into general elections (Jacobs 2022: chap. 6).
Fifth, the triumph of tribalism owes much to 50-plus years of irresponsible rhetoric and policy on crime. As Morone remarks, the Right has never lost a chance to identify Blacks, immigrants, and assorted urban “others” with “soaring” levels of substance abuse, theft, violence, and all manner of disorder and lawlessness, thus feeding popular demands for, and the legislative supply of, mass incarceration, often of minor drug users, while refusing to entertain effective public regulation of ownership of guns. This too is nothing new: in 1970 Scammon and Wattenberg (1970: 35–44, especially 39) linked crime, lawlessness, race, and civil rights under a rubric, “the Social Issue,” that was driving the US electorate rightward. Meanwhile, a loud contingent on the Left, heedless of the sensibilities of citizens who are convinced that safety, security, and protection stand high, if not highest, among the goods governments should deliver, have rejoined that “law and order are code words for racism.” They called for defunding police; casually equated shoplifting, looting, and burning with “insurrection”; and thereby efficiently ushered many voters into the open arms of Republican propagandists. The inability of a reasonable center to hold in the crime arena set the stage for an ugly cultural jiujitsu executed on Martin Luther King's dictum that individuals should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. The hardened attitudes of Republican tribal warriors purport, now as then, to defend not racism but time-honored American virtue.
These contextual considerations may help to answer the nagging question of what took so long for a Trump to metastasize within the American body politic, and they may also have implications for Morone's thoughtful discussion of reforms that could soften the rougher edges of tribalism. High on that agenda stand repairs to what should be (but never has been) the simple act of voting. The nation has “no firm election rules, no bedrock right to vote, and the opportunity for shenanigans at many points in the electoral process” (341), enabling partisans to exclude political rivals by resorting to “eligibility rules, registration requirements, violence, literacy tests, poll taxes, gerrymanders, barriers for felons, barriers for former felons, shifting ID laws” (10), and also to “carve up the election districts, count the ballots, and certify the winners” (345).
The chaos that has often afflicted voting since the nation's early days should be replaced with systemwide rules of the game: “Secure the right to vote. For everyone. Automatically. Register every American when they turn eighteen. No caveats. No paperwork. No convoluted residency tests” (343)—plus nonpartisan referees to oversee elections (345). To be sure, as Morone makes clear, the abundant complications that undermine the simple act of voting have long worked as weapons wielded by “us” against a long parade of “thems,” so reforms designed to reduce tribalism may presuppose its prior mitigation. Still, the stains with which electoral malpractice have disfigured democracy in America are hard to overstate.
Beyond election reform, Morone urges Democrats to regain a fighting spirit, to rekindle “the energetic us-versus-them battle against the rich and powerful” (262), to set aside wimpy appeals for a clean and efficient government (304–5), to acknowledge that politics is an exercise in choosing between competing values, to cherish partisanship as “oxygen” to democracy (340), to dismiss platitudinous calls for unity and compromise, and to seek electoral gains by forging and fighting for ambitious “visions” of change, especially ones that assail the myriad inequalities—“We have become a country of private jets and hungry children” (350)—fostered by brute facts of the contemporary political economy, such as globalization, neoliberalism, and supply-side economics.
These days, however, inequalities are easier to target in theory than in practice. Even in theory, it is “dauntingly difficult to establish norms of equality in human societies” (Whitman 2017: xii). And in practice, in 21st-century America, one result of the above-noted accumulation of festering incitations to tribalism is contagion and diffusion of self-diagnosed victims—whites, rural folks (Kramer 2016), elegiac hillbillies (Vance 2016), stay-at-home moms, working moms, bakers allergic to gay cakes, small business owners, would-be small business owners, folks who lack a college degree, evangelical Christians, white nationalist Christians, and multitudes of other “ordinary Americans” over and above familiar and by now “traditional” victims such as African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans. Go figure: Jim Morone and Donald Trump both yearn to give voice to “the people on the margins of power”!
Even if one could “prioritize” among the “inequities” suffered by these legions of “victims,” one may also wonder whether the rhetoric of vision, with its various political, corporate, academic, and other embodiments, might not merit a bit of benign neglect. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, Morone observes, triumphed not by promising cost-effective, well-managed, and bipartisan regimes but rather by launching (respectively) a populist assault on economic privilege and “government as a countervailing force to private power” (179) and appealing to uplifting, hallowed American virtues such as patriotism and limited government (347). Context matters, however: Roosevelt's vision sold amid a Great Depression, and Reagan's spoke to a citizenry demoralized by the domestic and international tumult of the 1970s.
Morone astutely explains the collapse of the New Deal coalition, but arguably he does not sufficiently connect that collapse to the emergence of Clinton's studied “New Democratic” centrism in the 1990s (and Obama's in and after 2008), which helped the party to transcend the defeats of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis and to hold the line against Gingrich's rabid brand of Republicanism. That centrism did not prevent these presidents from proposing major health care reforms (failed in Clinton's case; successful for Obama). Nor has Joe Biden's bland centrism, replete with nostrums about unity and bipartisanship, precluded the achievement of several sizable reforms, including the American Rescue Plan, the Inflation Reduction Act, and new infrastructure investment.
Perhaps the whole point of democracy is indeed to “argue over basic principles and take them to the voters” (347). Or—and?—perhaps it is to navigate and seek a plausible balance among differing principles, values, and interests. One arresting argument for the latter view—one that is too often lost in the anatomies of tribalism and its polarizations—is the role of independents, a kind of de facto third party, who sometimes supply, mutatis mutandis, the old-fashioned swing votes that decide elections, such as they did in 2020, when an astonishing 74 million voters sought four more years of Trump, but independent voters were a crucial component of the 81 million votes that put Biden in office.
In some political situations and settings, it is time to “fix the system”; in others, it is time (as Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan put it) to “fix the damn roads.” Today, with trust in government at historic lows, perhaps the best prospect lies in the “aggressive mundaneness,” as Nicolas Lemann (2022: 36) calls it, harnessed by both Maggie Hassan and Catherine Cortez Masto in their successful Senate reelection campaigns of 2022. These senators sought to show, through grassroots campaigning, quotidian public works, constituent service, and (yes) bipartisan proclivities, that, and how, government can work. They point to investments that reformers might make now in hopes of rebuilding trust and therewith constituencies and capital that could inspire visionary change tomorrow (Lemann 2022: 32–46). Readers pondering these democratic dilemmas and disconnects will find brilliant illumination on every page of Republic of Wrath.