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Historians Kruse and Zelizer speak on political partisanship

<p>Julian Zelizer and Kevin Kruse / Office of Communications</p>

Julian Zelizer and Kevin Kruse / Office of Communications

In a panel discussion held in the Friend Center, history professors Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer spoke on their investigation of how the partisan divide in American political life came to be.

Promoting their new book, “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974,“ the two professors discussed the intellectual origins for the modern Democratic and Republican parties and how historical social movements, technology, and the media enabled the election of Donald Trump. African American Studies department chair Eddie Glaude moderated the panel.


According to Zelizer, the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs, “fault lines” — areas of intense political disagreement — “aren’t always a bad thing.” Partisan political parties, he said, help to prevent intra-party division through providing voters with distinct policy agendas. 

To Kruse and Zelizer, the real problem is what one member of the audience referred to as “fault chasms” during the Q&A: when issues of partisanship become so severe that the government is unable to address a crisis, or when leaders, under the auspices of their parties, take actions that would normally fall out of the realm of traditional discourse.

One historical explanation Kruse and Zelizer gave for the current partisan divide is, perhaps surprisingly, MTV. According to Kruse, MTV and other new television networks of the 1980s focused on what he called “narrowcasting,” a play on “broadcasting.”

“Instead of trying to go broad, [networks] were focusing really narrow,” he said. 

They said that the new preponderance of niche television ultimately led to the advent of ultra-partisan networks such as as MSNBC and Fox.

Even C-SPAN — in theory, one of the least partisan networks on television — was used for political purposes, they said. Zelizer recalled a story of Newt Gingrich, who, before ascending to Speaker of the House, used the continuously rolling cameras to deliver inflamed speeches to an empty chamber.


“It looked like Democrats had no response,” Zelizer said.

Zelizer and Kruse said that the 1980s and ’90s saw issues of race and social justice emerge as political fault lines. They spoke in depth about the now-infamous Willy Horton advertisement, which they viewed as the antecedent to the President’s tweets about Mexicans and immigrants.

However, according to Kruse and Zelizer, during the Bill Clinton administration, there was one issue of true bipartisanship: the development of what Glaude called “the carceral state.”

“What you see from Democrats — Joe Biden too, it should be noted — is an embrace of ‘law and order,’” Kruse said.

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During the Q&A, members of the audience asked how these fault chasms can be resolved. Zelizer, for one, believes that without serious reform within our political institutions, they won’t.

“We’re not going to get over these tensions,” he said. “There are some arguments that should not be conceded because they’re just wrong.”

The panel was held on Thursday, Feb. 28, at 4:30 p.m. in Friend Center 101.