Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros1RecensionsTimothy Shenk, Realigners: Partis...


Timothy Shenk, Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy

Léa Chevrollier
Référence(s) :

Timothy Shenk. Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022, 464 p., ISBN : 9780374138004, $ 30.

Entrées d’index

Par rubrique :

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1The state of American democracy in the last couple of years has been the subject of intense debate among journalists, academics, and politicians alike, as evidenced by the reception of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die (2019) which was widely greeted as a major work testifying to the erosion of democracy and democratic norms across the world. More recently, President Joe Biden’s November 2nd speech ahead of the midterms has contributed to this now popular narrative according to which American democracy is on the brink of a major crisis, as he has warned Americans that these elections were ultimately about “the durability of our democracy” and adding that “[w]ith democracy on the ballot, we have to remember these first principles. Democracy means the rule of the people, not the rule of monarchs or the moneyed, but the rule of the people.” But while many commentators continue lamenting the growing gulf that seems to be separating ordinary people from elites, Timothy Shenk, historian and editor-in-chief of the left magazine Dissent, argues that the American political system seems, at the same time, caught in a state of paralysis, leaving us “with the worst of two worlds, a system that feels like it’s both sliding into stagnation and teetering on the brink of a total meltdown” (5). Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy makes clear from the outset its intention of tackling the issue of the history of American democracy, which it defines as “a history of arguments over where to draw the golden line between the rulers and the ruled” (4). The book is in fact intended, in the author’s own words, as a “biography of American democracy told through its majorities, and the people who made them” (7) that offers an historical overview – spanning the period of the drafting of the Constitution to the insurrection of the Capitol – of some major political figures – the “realigners” of his title, whom he also refers to as “the democratic elite” – who have been defined by their “ability to form electoral coalitions that bind millions of people together in a single cause” (7). According to Shenk, these are indeed the people who “do the work that crystallizes the inchoate mass of public opinion into lasting change, from writing platforms to drafting legislation” (8) and “you can’t understand American democracy […] without taking a close look at the people who have walked the golden line between the rulers and the rules” (6-7). The basic question underlying this book asks how majorities are formed. Shenk’s approach is essentially top-down, as he focuses on elite (and more often than not elitist) figures and how their ideas have contributed to the formation of majority coalitions. This democratic elite is drawn from both sides of the partisan divide, ranging from James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to Phyllis Schlafly and Barack Obama. All of them are well-known political figures who have had a major impact on the political debates of their time, but also, as Shenk argues, on the political coalitions that have underlain the political success of the Republican and Democratic parties.

2The first four “realigners” Shenk deals with in his book were all politicians, that is to say insiders to the political system. What characterizes all realigners is specifically their willingness to actively shape the political field they find themselves in. The first chapter (“Guardians”) is devoted to a duet composed of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who, driven by a desire to “restore order to a country they feared was spiraling into anarchy” (20), came to the realization that this could be done by instigating a political system that would indirectly hand power over to the people and thus amount to a “third way between democracy and aristocracy” (20). This led to the creation of an aristocratic system which was based on elite rule rather than on popular power and would come to be known as “representative democracy.” This type of system was distinct from pure democracy insofar as “pure democracy seeks to abolish the elite [whereas] representative democracy is designed to legitimate one” (21). Madison and Hamilton eventually split over the question of federalism, leading Madison to form the Republican (or Democratic-Republican) party which he envisioned as the natural party of the majority, and which he opposed to the Hamiltonians, whom he considered as the party of “the opulent” (34). And so it happened that Republicans effectively pulled off the first realignment in American history, “creating a strong and durable majority that kept the party in power while slowly choking the life out of the Federalists” (39).

3Chapter two (“Partisans”) then turns to Martin Van Buren, whose greatest achievement was the creation of the Democratic Party, also known at the time as “the Democracy” (44). As Shenk explains, Van Buren strongly believed in the necessity of political parties, which could “restrain the forces of aristocracy [by] giving the public a champion in the battle to preserve self-government” (48). His Democratic Party was meant to stand for the people, which were perceived as being under threat by “a shifting cast of outsiders” (56), which included “the money power,” radical abolitionists, and members of the slavocracy.

4The next chapter (“Libertators”) takes over from where the previous one ended by focusing on Charles Sumner’s fight against the slave power. Presented as a “liberal,” Sumner is credited with initiating “an electoral realignment that forged a coalition of free states, powered mass democratic politics, dedicated to abolishing slavery” (83). Considering himself the representative of African Americans in the Senate, he worked within the system to effectively put an end to white supremacy. In “Organizers,” Shenks turns to Mark Hanna, a millionaire Cleveland industrialist, who effectively ran Republican William McKinley’s 1896 presidential campaign against the Democrat William Jennings Bryan and is widely remembered as being the mastermind behind McKinley’s eventual victory. Turned into an incarnation of plutocracy by cartoonists during the campaign, Hanna strove to “turn the GOP into the party of business, building a coalition of workers and bosses united by their shared commitment to prosperity” (128). Following Hanna’s lead, the GOP thus “cast itself as a voice for both capital and labor, bound together – or so it claimed – by shared interests” (134). Under his guidance, the Republican Party brought together a coalition of workers, businesses, and newly enfranchised women into a party designed as the party of business. At this point, Shenk turns to the Great Depression, which was responsible for undermining this “cross-class coalition that had kept Republicans in power for a generation” (159), and (boldly) argues that “the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt was more a mirror image of Mark Hanna’s GOP than a repudiation” and that, in fact, “[b]oth were designed with the interests of white male breadwinners in mind” (159). The key difference between the parties lay in the fact that “Democrats shifted the balance of power from capital to labor, trading the Chamber of Commerce for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)” (159). While Shenk’s argument is in keeping with the work of historians who have argued that the New Deal fell short of undermining the logic of capitalism, it appears to us that his argument is liable to criticism inasmuch as a shift of emphasis from capital to labor seems to amount to more than just a minor disagreement over means to achieve similar ends. One could in all likelihood consider this to be a major paradigm shift that made the Democratic Party quite different, ideologically, from the Republican Party. This question, of course, is open to debate.

5The fourth chapter then gives way to a short interlude (“The Party of Everyone”) that deals with FDR’s heterogeneous New Deal coalition but also with the later inflection of democratic “liberalism” under the influence of people like Adlai Stevenson. Both parties were pushed further apart by the arrival of activists who sought to move their party further to the left or right of the ideological spectrum. As a result of this growing polarization, the parties eventually “traded the core of their old coalition, with Democrats picking up the Northeast and Republicans gaining the South and West” (166). In turn, this led to a change in the meaning of liberalism and conservatism, “establishing a bond between technocracy and social justice at the same time it fortified the populist strain in the American right” (167).

6In his next three chapters, Shenk turns to people who mostly worked from outside the parties to influence the political process, or at least strove to cast themselves as outsiders to the political system. Chapter five (“Prophets”) is devoted to W.E.B. Du Bois who, throughout his life, “sought to mobilize Black voters to trigger an electoral realignment, gain political power, and compel Americans to live up to their supposed ideals” (174). Convinced that education was the path toward a better future for his race, Du Bois approached “the Negro Problem” from different perspectives at different times of his life. Shenk describes these strategies as “liberal, socialist, and separatist” (174) and shows how Du Bois turned from promoting a democracy guided by the “talented” to embracing the NAACP’s integrationist ideal, to announcing “I believe in Karl Marx” and calling on Americans to create a “separate, pseudo-socialist economy within a disintegrating capitalist system” (190) and eventually ended up calling for an electoral boycott, “exhort[ing] Americans of all races to give up partisan politics” (203).

7“Insiders” deals with Walter Lippman, a vocal promoter of the newly popularized doctrine of “liberal democracy.” Shenk explains that Lippman’s “silk-stocking socialism” (219) envisioned a state supervised by an educated and public-minded elite and was in fact common trend within “the ballooning class of young professionals” (219). But Lippman soon abandoned this socialist path and, by 1916, had become a leading progressive intellectual whose “Great Society” concept reflected the managerial turn which was already underway in government. Just like Du Bois, Lippman came to believe that “democrats should give up the dream of abolishing elites and focus on making a ruling class that served the general welfare” (227). In John Maynard Keyne’s work, he found “an authentic third way between laissez-faire and socialism” (232) which would inspire his alternative vision of liberalism and which, to a large extent, inspired both Democratic and Republican elites during the post-New Deal years. Gradually, and with the help of intellectuals like Arthur M. Schlesinger, New Deal liberalism was replaced by a type of “qualitative liberalism” which sought to move away from the New Deal’s focus on class conflict and the working class. By the 1960s, the liberalism of the New Deal, as well as the New Deal coalition itself, had come to an end. In Shenk’s opinion, liberalism today “still bears an unmistakable resemblance to Lippmann’s creed: technocratic, hungry for bold leadership, devoted to an expansive notion of the public good, and reluctant to speak the language of class conflict” (252).

8Chapter seven (“Insurgents”) turns to Phyllis Schlafly whose belief that the grassroots of the Republican Party could and should take control of the party led her to spearhead an effort to “build up a conservative infrastructure outside the party” (262), which, in turn, resulted in her acting as an effective bridge between the GOP and the grassroots right. Her attacks on “kingmakers,” and later “globalists,” translated her willingness to challenge the Republican establishment and push the GOP in a more populist direction and eventually led her to endorse Donald Trump as the country’s “last hope” in 2016.

9Finally, chapter eight (“Politicians”) deals with Barack Obama’s presidency and how the candidate-turned-president effectively straddled the lines between activist and politician, and between outsider and insider. The chapter also offers an intake on the evolution of Obama’s thinking, starting with a long-overlooked manuscript the young Obama wrote with his friend Robert Fisher while at Harvard, and in which they offered “a blueprint for escaping from stale ideological debates, restoring the New Deal coalition, and saving American democracy,” while depicting themselves as “pragmatists stripped of all illusions” (296). Tellingly, both believed that “a bold political vision might be able to bring Roosevelt’s majority back together by forging an inter-racial coalition of the working-class” (307). By the time he entered national politics, Obama had found a way to reconcile his willingness to present himself as a game-changer with his innate pragmatism and tendency toward moderation “by arguing that incremental reforms could yield radical change,” thus making the case for a form of “radical centrism” (315). Shenk then divides the Obama presidency into three phases and ends with his legacy, showing how he transformed and divided the Democratic Party. In the wake of his presidency, the leftist faction, spearheaded by figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, appeared to have gained important ideological leverage within the Democratic Party, while the establishment seemed convinced that the future of the party rested with the rise of the “coalition of the ascendant.” This was evidenced by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, during which she strove to rebrand herself “as a champion of a diversifying nation,” putting forward “a moderated version of Black Lives Matter’s call for racial justice” (333) so as to reach out to activists on the left. In Shenk’s opinion, both Sanders’s near upset in the 2016 primaries and Trump’s victory in the general election contributed to push the Democratic Party’s center of gravity still further to the left.

10The book ends with a rather bleak recognition that, in the end, “[i]f there’s an abiding winner in the long history of American democracy, it’s the people with money” (345), while at the same time hinting at the vital importance of democracy’s appeal which “has always been more about hope than about experience” (346). Shenk thus offers a fresh and innovative outlook on the evolution of party coalitions throughout American history. It is especially interesting for scholars working on political parties and electoral coalitions and for people eager to comprehend the ways in which major political figures have been able to influence the composition of the parties’ electoral bases through ideological inflections. Though it focuses on individual politicians, Shenk also shows that these people don’t act in a vacuum and are always tied to broader currents of thought and networks of people. Finally, his book obliquely joins the current debate about the state of American democracy by somewhat undermining the view according to which the American system finds itself today in an unparalleled state of crisis. American democracy, Shenk shows, is not static, but evolves under the influence of people who put pressure on the system both from the outside and the inside.

Haut de page


BIDEN, Joe. Televised speech on Democracy, 2 November 2022, Washington D.C.

LEVITSKY, Steven, and Daniel ZIBLATT. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown, 2019.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Léa Chevrollier, « Timothy Shenk, Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2023, consulté le 25 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Léa Chevrollier

Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier 3, laboratoire IRIEC.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Haut de page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search