With today's acrid party polarization, even casual observers are aware that mundane government operations are becoming extraordinary. Symptoms include government shutdowns and the collapse of civility in public life. Yet compared with earlier periods in American party development, our current stakes are simply “not so great,” according to Jeffrey S. Selinger (p. 177). Polarization before the Civil War continuously posed a far greater threat of violent disunion.
Embracing Dissent challenges us to view democratization in the United States with fresh eyes. The reigning scholarly consensus holds that the unwelcome early rise of parties gave way to their practical uses and later celebration with the advent of mass politics in the 1830s. This narrative was established by Cold War historians such as Richard Hofstadter in The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780–1840. By contrast, Selinger treats seriously the bleak assessment of parties by George Washington, James Madison, and later generations of party builders such as Martin Van Buren and Abraham Lincoln. In their own time, concerns arose from a clear-eyed appreciation for the structural fragility of the United States. Party systems that emerged were flexible enough to bend with various crises. But Selinger demonstrates that the
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