What are the fault lines that have fractured politics in America? Julian Zelizer has analysed the historical roots of the present-day political turmoil, divisions, and partisanship in the US for his new book Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974. Maria Armoudian spoke to Zelizer about how America became so divided.

Julian Zelizer is a Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University. He is an expert in American political history and the author of Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Maria Armoudian: Let’s start with the title “Fault Lines” as in earthquakes, as in faults under a looming earthquake which I suppose in this particular book is about a divided, polarized America. Is that how you meant this?

Julian Zelizer: Yeah, that is how we meant it. We are trying to trace over four decades these very deep divisions that have separated different parts of American society and which created the path for where we are today. There are the political fault lines between the two parties as they have moved further apart; the economic fault lines as you have had an increased division between the rich and the poor in this country and an increasingly fragile middle class; the racial fault lines that have continued to haunt this country even after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s; finally, the fault lines we talk about around sexuality and gender which have been front and centre also since the 1970s. So we do want to emphasise how deep the divisions are and how they have influenced the character of our public sphere.

MA: Do you have a sense that these divisions would not be so deep and so pronounced had we not had some provocateurs, so to speak?

JZ: There is something to that. We don’t argue that all of these divisions bubble up from the bottom up, they are not all a product of how Americans feel very clearly on every issue, they are often provoked either by provocateurs or by the way our institutions have worked during this period. So in terms of the institutions, we look at how party politics was remade after Richard Nixon to really promote and incentivise partisanship. And then within this world we look at figures in the media for example, like Rush Limbaugh who is a conservative talk radio host who in the late 1990s worked in the new media environment that had taken form and had really tried to ‘play to the base’ and to stimulate those feelings of division for their own purposes. So there are real divisions and tensions over many of the big issues of this period, but the key is that we don’t have institutions anymore that push against it, we have institutions that actually try to promote this and the people within those make their living and gain their power by fostering division.

MA: Let’s talk about those institutions. Obviously the media institutions are one of them…Do you see this as the chicken or the egg?

JZ: We think the media is actually a chicken, and we tried to trace the history from when you had a few network channels – CBS, ABC and NBC here in the States – really the only sources of news and then a handful of major city papers, to a period that starts with the advent of cable TV in the 1980s and the 24-hour news cycle, moving forward into the partisan era of news that you see take form in the 1990s with Fox News and talk radio, into the era of social media where there are no filters anymore on information and it is very easy to get information out and it is very hard to control what is in our public square. And that history is really important not just because it reflects a divided country or it reflects the polarisation: it actually fuels it. More people get their information about politics from news sources that will only give it to them from one point of view. Politicians employ the media to advance their agenda and as we see with President Trump and Fox News, for example, it is a pretty powerful alliance and it really does help to ferment some of the tensions that we see today.

MA: It is interesting about the provocateurs who clearly benefit from this kind of chaos, and in this new environment that you describe it seems people get rewarded for hostility and punished for sane rational discourse.

JZ: That is exactly right. In the world of the media today, there is very little benefit to giving level-headed, non-partisan analysis of what is going on in Washington. But instead, if you say something provocative with what is called ‘clickbait statements’, ‘clickbait headlines’, you are much more likely to gain an audience. And in the way the news media works today, audiences matter whether you are talking about the ratings for television networks or you are talking about the hits or the likes that social media sites receive, that is why the incentives work that way. It is the same in politics, people talk about the problem of how gerrymandered our districts are. The reason that is a problem is that members of the House of Representatives look back to their electorates and they understand that if they try to play to a centre, they will lose office. So the way to keep your power is to play to the base, to play to the most active in your constituencies. So the incentives help understand why the world works the way it does here in the States.

MA: So if you were going to pinpoint timing, you looked around 1974 for this particular book. Why that era and those years?

JZ: We argue that in the 70s there were some institutions in the post-World War Two period – 1940s and 50s – that pushed against the divisions that existed in that era. For example, the very strong role of the Federal government provided a common thread through much of the country during that period. The era of network news certainly didn’t allay all the divisions in society, but it provided a common point of information. And even unions were very important in the economy and they connected different social groups and different sectors of society through this workplace institution. And what you see in the 70s is a lot of these fall apart as a result of the crises that the nation goes through. We start the book in ‘74 because that is when Richard Nixon steps down from office, he resigns in one of the worst scandals in American history. That moment itself is traumatic and an important moment to begin our exploration of the current period, but it also brings together many of the tensions that had been bubbling up over Vietnam, over domestic relations, over the presidency and we believe that is when the transition happens. You could even see it in the economy for example as we move into our current high-tech service sector-based economy.

MA: I wonder a little bit if maybe that moment when Richard Nixon stepped down in what was then the big scandal which today would probably not be such a big scandal given what we are facing. But maybe what has happened is that it just brought it to the surface?

JZ: I think that is exactly right. That was the discovery of Nixon’s resignation: there were many people in the country that hoped it would heal the nation and that it would resolve our problems of having a president with too much power, that was the idea: the process worked, the system worked. But really Nixon was a product of several decades when the presidency had been gaining a lot of power and we had seen an executive branch that we hadn’t had in the 19th century, and with Nixon it just got in the wrong hands so to speak. And so when he steps down from the presidency, there are reforms, there are efforts to constrain the presidency on making war power and on the budget, but in the end they are of limited effect and the presidency will regain its strength and even get stronger, we argue, by the 1980s and 1990s. And that is why what you are saying is very important to understand and it also helps explain part of why Nixon’s resignation on its own didn’t cure the problem.

MA: You have talked about a particular Supreme Court decision and I want to bring this out because there is a lot of focus on Citizens United as a really detrimental decision that the Supreme Court. But really its predecessor, Buckley v Valeo was perhaps the turning point in terms of issues around corruption and electoral integrity and gaining power for the extremely wealthy. How would you see that?

JZ: It is a really important decision. One of the positive beneficial effects of 1974 and the crisis of Watergate was that it stimulated Congress to pass campaign finance reform legislation. And the legislation included a number of provisions including a public finance system for presidential elections, included limits on contributions, and quite dramatically now in retrospect it also included limits on how much could be spent in elections. All of this was an effort to undercut the power of money in American politics because Congress realised that was part of what was going on with Richard Nixon, some of the scandal involved the impact of money on public policymaking. But the Supreme Court knocked a key part of that down in this Buckley v Valeo decision and they decide that congressional limits on campaign spending was an unconstitutional violation of free speech. The idea was spending money in elections was the same as free speech and the ability to say what you want. And from that point on a key reform of the post-Watergate era is undercut, because while you still have limits on how much people can raise you don’t have the same kind of limits on how much people can spend and the pressure will keep mounting. It also allows wealthy individuals to spend huge amounts on their own campaigns which have become more relevant in recent years with some independent candidacies.

MA: And it turned money into speech which I think is highly significant as well.

JZ: Yeah, in the years that followed Buckley v Valeo between ‘76 and the early ‘80s you see this expansion in Washington of corporations, not just umbrella associations in a particular industry, but even companies set up shop in Washington on what’s called K Street, and they formed lobbying groups and those lobbying groups really depend on these new campaign finance rules to exert influence. And the flood of money started then and it has only gotten worse. Citizens United made it worse, the presidents abandoning the public finance system made it worse, but the origins of this are in that 1976 moment when the reforms were undercut just two years after being put into law.

MA: So that was a new phenomenon…it is sort of like a legalised form of corruption, I suppose, because it has removed the democratic element.

JZ: Yeah, that is the fear of what is going on today. It hasn’t totally removed it and voters can still vote and change the country as we have seen. That said, money is very significant and what it does, not just in elections but in policymaking, it creates a system of unequal access. If you have money and if you have the capacity to donate, the access you get to make your case to a legislator or to the president is much greater than your average citizen has. And that is where inequality is very real in the political system and undercuts some of the elections, and it obviously has effects in elections themselves in that while voters still matter and grassroots movements matter, people with money, organisations with money, can really sway elections. And so this is a problem in our current life that shouldn’t be discounted.

MA: You talk a bit about Jimmy Carter and you showed him as being this sort of antidote to Watergate and all it represented, but your assessment of his presidency is quite mixed. In hindsight, how do you assess Jimmy Carter?

JZ: Yeah, I guess one way to look at him is someone who was more successful on policy than we remember but really not very good on politics. In terms of policy there were a number of accomplishments that were significant over time. He was the first president to put the problem of energy and conservation on the agenda in a very serious manner; he introduces human rights as a permanent concern in US foreign policy; and the Camp David peace accord between Egypt and Israel is quite remarkable given it is one of the few achievements of peace in that region, it lasted for decades. But politically, Carter was never able to rebuild the democratic coalition that had withered in the 1960s, he is not particularly concerned with that part of the presidency and he doesn’t leave his party any more united by 1980 than it was when he took over in 1976. And that has a cost, it helps create a path for Ronald Raegan to come into office and for a conservative movement that had taken form in the ‘70s to enter into the halls of power, and so that is kind of a mixed assessment of what he did.

MA: It is sort of like he was a visionary in terms of the future, but in terms of leadership for politics, for the nuts and bolts of elections and campaigns, not so much?

JZ: Right, and there is a cost to that, meaning you can’t disconnect politics from policy. His achievements came under threat in the 1980s and many of the ideas he was known for still don’t find much support in the new conservative era of politics because Reagan and the Republicans in Congress have little appetite for a lot of what he wanted. So I think Carter saw the cost of not doing more on politics, not doing more to focus on the health of his party as much as the ideas that mattered to him much more.

MA: You also noted the role of oil in the economy and the politics of the world. What was oil’s role in the fault lines and the loss of confidence in the economy?

JZ: Well it was very important that during the 1970s the US went through an energy crisis which includes two major crisis points where OPEC limits the supply and increases the prices of oil, and in 1973 through to 1979 Americans are facing massive gas lines and shortages of supplies. And it fuels a sense that during the ‘70s the US economy was no longer what it had been a decade or two earlier, that we were no longer in the American Century where our economic institutions and companies were the strongest in the world. And the oil crisis is part of a general economic crisis that is very real. Not only were we unable to control our energy usage and energy prices, but the entire manufacturing sector of the economy which depended on that oil is starting to weaken and lose in competition to countries such as Japan and West Germany. And Americans suffered as a result of all this what is called stagflation, a combination of inflation and high unemployment which economists always said couldn’t happen hand-in-hand. And so when Carter finishes his presidency in 1980 part of the reason so many voters are frustrated and what something new is because they are struggling, they are facing high prices, they don’t have enough gas, they don’t have jobs and it felt if you were living in 1979 and 1980, many Americans felt that the bottom had just totally fallen out of an economy which used to almost guarantee that your kids would do better than you would.

MA: Let’s turn to race and ethnicity. You said that most Americans welcomed the dismantling of segregation. Why did it contribute to the chaos?

JZ: Well the shift that happened that we really hone in on in the ‘70s is how the nation has done a lot. Congress has passed the Civil Rights Act which is about legal segregation, it passes in 1965 the Voting Rights Act which is about voter discrimination. But the problem that was on the table in the late-60s is what is called institutional racism, the way in which racist injustice and division is inscribed into our institutions. So even if people are not openly being racist, they participate in a system that keeps perpetuating racial injustice, the way that real estate worked for example and housing is one example that people point to, the way our education system was set up and created unequal access to good education, the way criminal justice worked, constantly created pressures and dangers for African Americans that didn’t exist for the rest of the country as we have seen recently on policing. And this is a problem that we don’t ever form some consensus around, there is no big legislative breakthroughs on how to deal with institutional racism and this is a problem that affects the north as much as the south. So as civil rights activists started to push the agenda into this area, the tensions became much more severe around the country, it was no longer a regional fault line, this was something that was very much inscribed in our politics. And some politicians played to it for their own advantage: we talk about Lee Atwater who ran George HW Bush’s presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis and the way in which he used race in certain advertisements to play on these feelings that still were alive and well in 1988.

MA: So again, we come back to this idea of provocateurs, and provocateurs for their own self-enrichment, so to speak?

JZ: That is right and obviously in the world of politics, power is as much the commodity that is traded as money. And there are just a lot of incentives in this partisan polarisation that we have been talking about, certainly in parts of the Republican party to mesh those with racial division and that goes right through the Trump Administration. But there were actual incentives for the Republicans to do that and they were used more frequently than we remember.

MA: Let’s turn to the cultural issues around gender, sexuality, the family. You noted that feminism really arose from chronic discrimination, particularly in the workplace?

JZ: This is really important. We trace the feminist movement of the ‘70s and the transformation it achieves and the limits of what it achieves. And we really tried to bring in a lot of the scholarship on the workplace. And in a way one of the interesting stories is the feminist movement, the awakening of feminism and it becoming a national political movement, converges in the 70s with this economic crisis. You have more women entering into the workforce as much for pragmatic reasons as anything else, the idea of a single wage-earning family is becoming less tenable by the 1970s. This changes notions of gender, changes ideas of work, and in part it is just a response to the new realities of 1970s America. And it has a big impact, you have feminist organisations taking form and they are increasing in terms of their strength during this decade, you see the proliferation of publications focussing on questions such as sexual harassment at the workplace, and you have some, although it is much slower, increasing presence of female politicians at the national and state level. But the economic part of that story is really interesting and it connected these two aspects of our story.

MA: And then of course the move for equality for gay, lesbian, transgender people as well.

JZ: Yeah, that is a story that usually receives less attention until recently. They usually talk about the Stonewall rebellion which was a riot in New York City at a bar in response to police harassment, but the gay rights movement is quite a powerful force by the 1980s. It starts by talking about issues such as same-sex marriage and the rights of gay Americans on issues such as police harassment, but in the ‘80s it is really a moment where we write a lot about this as a counterpoint to the Raegan revolution. And we really see its power with the Aids crisis. Initially, when this disease starts to ravage the US, what is striking is the Reagan administration totally ignores it. Ronald Reagan won’t talk about it, he won’t even use the word. There is one story we tell where Larry Speakes, the spokesperson for the president is talking to reporters and he makes jokes about Aids: ‘There is no one in the White House who would have this.’ And what is remarkable is that the movement organises ACT UP, which is a group that demands government attention to this issue and by the end of the 1980s the attention is starting to be paid to the issue. And fast forward to George W Bush who is a Republican conservative president, in 2005 he launches a massive initiative to fight Aids in Africa and all of this isn’t just a natural evolution of the country, it is a result of this gay rights movement that puts the issues of sexuality and family directly on the table.

MA: Now of course we have Dick Cheney in that White House who is torn between the cultural wars because of his daughter, who is gay.

JZ: Yeah, he is a really interesting figure. Cheney is a Republican who was first part of the Ford Administration, he is then in Congress in the 1980s, Secretary of Defence under George HW Bush, he is a staunch conservative. But this is an issue where in part because of his family he is not on the same page as the religious right which is such an important part of the conservative movement. And it comes up when he is running as Vice-President and debating, and this issue is brought up by John Edwards in 2004 and it backfires when it is used against him. But why it is interesting is it reflects how this is one question where that red-blue divide starts to soften and some of the cultural changes go well beyond blue states versus red states. And you can see this today and how a lot of the Republican Party has shed that antagonism towards gay rights issues which back in the 1980s were almost an orthodoxy for a lot of the party.

MA: How do you connect all these dots to where we are today? The culture wars, the crises we saw with the integrity of the government, the lack of confidence of the government, deep polarisation – now what?

JZ: We made a world coming out of the 1960s which we are still living in and the first thing you need to do is to understand that our current turmoil, whether you are talking about President Trump, or whether you are talking about these intense battles over social issues such as reproductive rights, are not new, they are not even five or ten years old, they are over four decades old which means they are really baked into our culture, into our institutions and they are going to be around for a while. But if you take someone like President Trump and you look at, for example, why does he govern this way? Why does he use the rhetoric that he does? Why is he so focused on conservative cable television? Why is he playing at issues like immigration restriction and now late-term abortion? It is because this is how the Republican Party has been evolving for a long time and it was kind of predictable that it was going to end up here. So it doesn’t solve the problems but it gives you a better sense of how deeply rooted what we are watching today and what troubles so many people it is. The only solution it points to is you have to look back to the roots. If you are serious and say this is not tolerable and we need to change the way our politics works, it is going to take the kind of thing you saw in the ‘70s where political reform is a big issue that people take seriously. How does money work in politics? How do we handle the districting process? Media organisations have to look deep at how we produce the news and what kind of alternatives do we offer viewers, readers, and listeners. Until those kinds of questions are asked, we might have a tamer version of what we see in 2019 but it won’t fundamentally change, and for us that is what the history really points to.

MA: I think the incentives today are just really strong to keep them. So even if we were to look back and say ‘Okay this is just really abhorrent to me, the integrity, the corruption, the inequality’. But when you look and it, the incentives are so strong for so many people to hold up this system.

JZ: That is absolutely true. In our book there are two sources of potential change that we see in the period we have studied. One is just a major crisis or scandal. The book starts with Watergate and it shows what a scandal of that magnitude can do to the body politic to shake things up and move us in a different direction. So that is obviously on the table given what is going on with the White House under President Trump. The second part of the story which I think is relevant today is that consistently, throughout this period even with the division and disfunction, social movements have been able to reshape our ideas and push politics in new directions. Whether it was the conservative movement in the ‘70s giving rise to ideas such as defending the family though certain principles, or the gay rights movement and the impact it had on Aids research and marriage, to the Parkland students recently who mobilised and have been putting a lot of pressure on the table on gun control. Social movements, like a scandal, have the ability to move us. It is going to be very difficult and the odds are it won’t happen quickly. But the system is never static and the best part of the story is when it changes it is often average citizens who get together and care about a problem who are able to have the biggest impact on our bigger history.

MA: Two questions for you on that. One is: do you think that from Watergate to today, and there have been a lot of other little crises that went along between then and now and now we are dealing with the current one, do you think Americans are really quite inured?

JZ: I don’t know. I mean we have a fragile system and we often take it for granted and I think what we are seeing globally now suggests just how fragile our democratic institutions are, and I think if you are just an American watching presidential politics you see all these assumptions about how things will work or how systems will be checked that don’t actually turn out that way all the time. I don’t know where a lot of the country is on this, I don’t know if they are sensitive to it, I don’t know if they are numb to it, that at a certain level this is what it is, what it is going to be and they will just let it happen. But I think one of the effects of President Trump has been to call attention to some of these flaws and problems and challenges that we are facing, and we have seen that with Brexit and in many other countries, and the best kind of outcome is that actually pushes some kind of discussion and deliberation about doing something about the risks we face.

MA: The other question deals with social movements. We have got idea entrepreneurs and they carry these ideas and broadcast them and people sign on to them. But I don’t think we have ever had a time when we were under such an existential threat because of climate change to the point where I don’t think we have the time. How do social movements function when they need time when we don’t really have time?

JZ: That is the million-dollar question and that is a challenge that is ominous, meaning that it is a particular kind of crisis unlike even a national security crisis, unlike certain economic crises where the last-minute response that we often depend on, or have relied on, won’t work. You reach a tipping point where you can’t reverse the damage, you can only do very little to curb the effects. And climate change is one of those challenges that will affect everything else, from public health to our economic wellbeing. It seems there is still time, and it does seem that at least in party politics in the US, one party is pretty much on board with trying to take government actions right now to try to curb the impact, as are some parts of the corporate sector and some states. It is not hopeless, there is a will there, it is not as if it is devoid of any strong support. But it will take environmental activists who have been changing public ideas successfully since the ‘70s to crack through this gridlock moment we are in. And I do think it is going to be a partisan issue, I think it will come when Republicans feel the consequences of the direction they have taken on some of these issues, a little bit like 1964 after Barry Goldwater lost in a massive landslide to Lyndon Johnson and it opened the door for Democrats to push things like Civil Rights and Medicare that had been locked up for so long. You need a combination of grassroots and dramatic elections, that is the only way this is going to happen, but you are right – it has to open soon we can’t wait ten or fifteen years for it.

MA: Any final thoughts?

JZ: We wrote a book about a period that me and my co-author lived through. We tried to make sense of what we lived through and what many of our readers lived through, but we do believe that studying this history, understanding it more as history rather than just what you remember hopefully will help at least stimulate the conversations we have had today, and even better, actually create some solutions for some of these big challenges we are facing and we hope the history is at least part of that mix.

This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guest and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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