Depressed About our Polarized Country? We’ve Figured it out Before.


A few weeks ago, I received an email from an old friend.  Attached was a press clipping describing the fix the author perceived our country to be in: Unprecedented, with no parallel in American history. 

I responded to my friend that we had been here before. However, he felt there’d “never been a time when opposing sides do not share common facts or are not committed to a common goal.”  He added, “Your optimism is laudable but misplaced.”

As it happened, I’d been obligated to lead a discussion in a book club on a book of my choosing.  Long before my friend’s email I had settled on the book, The Upswing, How We Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, by Robert Putnam.  The Upswing followed and answered Putnam’s earlier work, Bowling Alone.

The title for Bowling Alone came from Putnam’s realization that while the bowling industry continued to prosper at the turn of the 21st Century, it did so without the bowling leagues popular in mid-century.  He used this phenomenon of solitary bowling as a metaphor for the cultural changes beginning in the 1960s which saw the decline of community organizations and the fragmentation of civil society.  While participation in the sport continued, the participants bowled alone rather than in sociable clubs.  I thought The Upswing would engender a lively discussion of our country’s plight.

I responded to my friend that we’ve been here at least twice before.  Once was prior to the Civil War and another happened at the end of the 19th century when the Gilded Age consolidated economic power in the tiny slice of the billionaire class and spawned the creation of Jim Crow laws.  

Both eras contained excesses pushed by “elites” valuing individual gain over community benefits.  Immature leaders dominated politics and lacked a focus on governing for the longer term good of society. The cure happened when what I think of as “the adults” brought a maturity to politics and they realized, at last, that politics was worthy of their attention.  

The so-called Progressive Era political movements reversed the excesses of capital and racism, but it took a half century.  And it took the “adults,” middle-class citizens who finally chose to engage and organize. In both Antebellum and Gilded Age eras citizens ceded politics to those ruthless and determined enough to capture the spoils.

Steve Kornacki’s podcast The Revolution illuminates a chapter in the post-Progressive Era’s revanchist politics, specifically the Gingrich revolution in the House of Representatives. Kornacki requested interviews with Gingrich who chose not to respond.  Then after releasing his six-episode series without an interview with Newt, Newt calls and says, “Nice podcast, do you want an interview?”  

In the subsequent interview, Kornacki pressed Gingrich on his partisanship and confrontational style, a fixture of Gingrich politics.  Gingrich responded that the narrow and irreconcilable divide in American politics today (Movement Conservatism vs New Deal Liberalism) required these bare-knuckle tactics.  Until a watershed election such as 1932 or 1860 settles how we think about the ends of our politics, politics will remain bitterly divided.  

I think that’s a good frame for this 2024 election.  This year’s election could, like 1932 or 1980, settle the issues for a while or for several generations.  It’s not a battle between democracy or authoritarianism.  It’s a contest between two alternative views of how democratic a society should organize itself and the compromises inherent in each.  

Movement Conservatism, at its root, leans toward libertarianism, individual responsibility, voluntary associations, and a minimalist government.  Its heroes are Burke, Hyak, Rand.  The New Deal, at its root, reacted to the excesses and concentrations of the Gilded Age and Jim Crow laws.  

We’ve had a “New Deal” coalition a number of times in history (Lincoln, the Roosevelts) and the domination by Movement Conservatives (McKinley, the 1920s Republicans). Such an enduring coalition can happen again.  I prefer one solution, but each has its strengths and weakness.

Starting with the “precinct project” lead by F. Clifton White in 1961 we’ve invested billions in Movement Conservatism.  White’s goal of excommunicating the “Rockefeller Republicans” (now referred to as RINOs, Republicans in Name Only) succeeded in nominating Goldwater.  The following decades the Movement Conservatives funded by billionaires built the propaganda mechanisms fueling “conservative policy” and, with the end of the fairness doctrine, produced the decline and fragmentation of media.  

What White and his billionaire friends began in 1961 has by now built a Movement Conservative echo chamber with millions of followers and alternative facts.  Sixty years of investment, billions of dollars, and now a country evenly divided between progressive and Movement Conservative values — and Biden vs. Trump.

At times like these, I remember the Progressive Era and the investment of the adults of that time in community associations like the Municipal League and the League of Women Voters. Their 50-year investment produced the wealthiest society in history, one with more equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity, expanded rights, elimination of de jure segregation. That long era also produced the reaction we see on Fox News and Newsmax each night.  

Movement conservatism has pluses and minuses.  On the positive side, individuals now have more choices, choices people were denied during the conformist ’50s.  The vast diversity of choice today owes its existence to the liberation from the middlebrow culture depicted by Sinclair Lewis.  But the drive toward individualism has its darker side, too.  Economic bullies manipulate markets for their benefit.  Wealth has become concentrated at the top, and unstable inequalities multiply.  

We live in a time of asymmetric information, with stark winners (few) and losers (many). I fear that future politics will be the province of the woke and MAGA kids. Reversing this will take years of tedious work.  And until we adults start the walk, mere talk won’t move our country to an upswing.

Fred Jarrett
Fred Jarrett
Currently enjoying retirement after of public service and a long career, Fred’s been an active participant our region’s political life for over five decades. Most recently, Fred lead the executive branch of King County government, the King County Executive Leadership Team and the Executive’s Best Run Government Initiative. Previously a state senator, he served four terms in the state House of Representatives, after stints as Mercer Island Mayor and as a city council and school board member. Mr. Jarrett has also had a 35-year career at The Boeing Company.


  1. It doesn’t seem exactly right to frame this as a battleground of policy ideas. That appears in the scene, but today it’s just historical context that’s painted on the banners. Does it matter that the Marxists besieging one side are about as realistic to the other as Martians? No, it really doesn’t, because it’s just a verbal icon. Today’s differences are driven by discontents that are symptoms of serious disease in America that were disguised and maybe exacerbated by a post-war boom, blooming in the context of the social media info swamp. It doesn’t look very promising to me.

    • Did you intend to put “Marxists” in air quotes? I ask because some – many, actually – of the rightwing commentators whose remarks I have noted like to refer to any Democratic Party or left-of-center politicians/voters as “Marxists”, when not calling them other scurrilous epithets (cf. “pedos”, “ant-fa”, yadda-yadda).

  2. Fred.
    Are you seriously suggesting… No in fact, you actually are saying… That movement conservatism advocated and brought a society in which “individuals now have more choices, choices people were denied during the conformist ’50s.”
    I’m simply astonished at the idea. I’m too polite to laugh in public.

    Could you offer any specific examples to support your statement?

    You think, for example, the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley (1964) was a product of movement conservatism? And supported by it? Like Ronald Reagan stopped by to give his support? Was Lenny Bruce part of movement conservatism? And Timothy Leary? Or that Griswold contraceptive case? Stonewall? Etc etc etc

  3. Fred,
    I just reread your article.
    I am still astonished by your characterization of Movement Conservatism:
    “The vast diversity of choice today owes its existence to the liberation from the middlebrow culture depicted by Sinclair Lewis.”
    I would love to hear some examples as maybe I completely misunderstand your words.

  4. Agree w/David Sucher. I don’t see the benefit of Movement Conservatism in the “vast diversity of choice.” 🙂 But more importantly, I don’t see Movement Conservatism being well represented by Trump. Maybe in the first term, but unlikely in any second term. Your choice of historic examples is useful, but more to highlight the differences than the similarities.


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