- - Tuesday, May 14, 2019


By Frank J. DiStefano

Prometheus Books, $26, 480 pages

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In this compact and well-written history of our nation’s political and ideological systems, Frank J. DiStefano, former litigator and Republican congressional aide who earned his spurs during the “Contract with America” years, examines the shifts, alignments and realignments of our political parties, a dialectic process which has been continuously at work from the earliest days to the present.

He explores the tensions between Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, the Whigs and Jackson’s Democrats, the demise of the Whigs, the periodic moral awakenings and enthusiasms, “the Civil War parties of North and South, the Populist and Progressive Era parties that reformed America out of the Gilded Age, and our New Deal era parties of today.”

Mr. DiStefano’s New Deal era is that period running from the Depression through WWII to the present — the dominant era of all our lifetimes, with its programs and policies still largely providing the political norms that shape our national life.

Through the 1950s and into the ‘60s, Democrats depended on the New Deal playbook for their programs, while the job of the opposition party was largely accepted as one of managing those programs more efficiently. And the settled wisdom between both parties was that only crackpots believed the New Deal could be undone.

But at midcentury, an eclectic band of thinkers and writers set out to do just that, believing “they could change the assumptions that had come to support the entire American political system.” And in so doing, they gave shape and substance to a formal conservative opposition, which despite various ongoing internal splits and squabbles, proved sufficiently unified in principle to elect a conservative president.

The leader of that movement, the man who made the presidency of Ronald Reagan possible, was William F. Buckley Jr, “among the most consequential figures in twentieth-century political history.”

According to Mr. DiStefano, one of the most important of the Buckley achievements was providing a coherent basis for Republicans no longer to view themselves solely as critics of Democratic policies and positions, “but also to offer [them] a positive agenda of their own built around an alternative ideology of what government should and shouldn’t do.”

Mr. DiStefano gives a good, concise account of the Buckley years and their permanent contributions — moral, economic, intellectual — to the national debate.

There’s also a respectful treatment of contributions made by Richard Nixon and his administration to that debate. True, Watergate has largely eclipsed the positive accomplishments of those years. But in the area of foreign policy, we still live in the age of Nixon and Kissinger. And in the extraordinary landslide victory of 1972, the forerunners of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” came out in record numbers to deliver a blow to the increasingly distorted New Deal ideology, especially in terms of our culture.

As Pat Buchanan put it in his book “The New Majority (1972),” quoted here by Mr. DiStefano, the landslide Nixon win was “a victory of traditional American values and beliefs over the claims of the counter-culture, a victory of Middle America over the celebrants of the Woodstock Nation.”

The reality of that election, Mr. Buchanan wrote, “makes the long-projected realignment of parties a possibility ” But then came Watergate, and that realignment would have to wait. But the seeds had been planted, and will be contained within the new synthesis.

That synthesis, Mr. DiStefano believes, is very near at hand. “We live at one of history’s great turning points,” he writes. “Monumental change really is afoot. An old order really is falling away and a new one is emerging. We don’t know what the future looks like, other than it won’t follow the rules of decades past.”

“The anger, the bitterness, the dysfunction, the inability of our parties to grapple seriously with the difficult problems the nation faces — they’re just tremors . symptoms of the beginning of the greatest shift in American politics in our lifetime.”

It could well be that the symptoms Mr. DiStefano describes signal the beginning of a period of great change — a period that many believe is already upon us. Or those tremors might reach sufficient intensity to frighten politicians into beating a retreat back from the future into the sanctuary of good old New Deal politics. There are many possibilities. Hillary Clinton may try again. Donald Trump may enter Holy Orders.

But just in case, we might do well to study Mr. DiStefano’s thorough account of our nation’s historic realignments; and based on that history, what’s likely to come.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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