The question “How did we get here?” rests at the core of any many works of history. Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer‘s latest book is no exception. Yet in this case, the question is especially pressing. In Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974, the scholars seek to explain how the country has become racked by such intense political polarization. Overall, their study showcases innovative approaches to the major—mostly domestic—events of the recent American past, while providing ample historical grounding for comprehending the nation’s current state of division and despair.
Both Kruse and Zelizer are Princeton University political historians and, individually, the authors of multiple award-winning books. Zelizer is most widely known as a commentator on CNN, a voice of reason, sanity, and verified claims—rare in the world of cable news punditry—while Kruse has gained relative fame, recently, as the most popular academic historian on Twitter. Known for his snarky humor and epic, relentlessly evidence-based takedowns of Dinesh D’Souza, a right-wing filmmaker and “scholar”, Kruse is, as the Chronicle of Higher Education calls him, “history’s attack dog”. Despite the differences in their public personas, Kruse and Zelizer write their eminently readable book in a single, clear voice — no easy task for joint authors. Not surprisingly, for a work that seeks to cover nearly 50 years of history in less than 400 pages, Fault Lines at times reads like a textbook. But its timeliness and valuable insights will ensure that it will receive a wide readership outside of upper-level college history courses.
The book’s declension narrative begins with the Watergate scandal, which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Kruse and Zelizer argue that Americans’ resulting loss of faith in their political institutions was the first major fault line to develop, augmented by journalists’ new emphasis on holding politicians accountable by fixating on uncovering scandals. Drawing on cutting-edge scholarship, like Robert O. Self’s All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s and Daniel T. Rodgers’s Age of Fracture, and contributing original research of their own, Kruse and Zelizer direct their attention to Washington politics and various social and political movements, from women’s and gay liberation to anti-abortion, AIDS, and civil rights activism, paying close attention to the role of media and technological revolutions in driving Americans farther apart.
Kruse and Zelizer also delve into popular culture, albeit sparingly, usually in an attempt to illustrate larger social trends (e.g., they discuss 1970s Americans’ conflicted views about homosexuality by mentioning varying portrayals of gays and lesbians on such shows as The Streets of San Francisco, Marcus Welby, M.D., and Soap). Their analysis of changes in the media landscape in the late ’70s and early ’80s, with the advent of cable, is especially deft. They use their section on MTV’s rise, for example, to draw attention to the music channel and other new networks’ practice of “narrowcasting”, an effort to attract distinct segments of viewers, which inadvertently helped to dissolve the likelihood of Americans enjoying a shared media experience.
Outside the world of music videos, Kruse and Zelizer frequently invigorate well-worn topics with fresh framing and insights. This includes the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal of the late ’90s. Rather than getting bogged down in the muck of the scandal itself, Kruse and Zelizer highlight the controversy and Clinton’s resulting impeachment to make an important point about the influence of newly emergent right-wing media outlets like Fox News and the Drudge Report.
Kruse and Zelizer rightly emphasize this fluctuating media landscape and technological innovations, in general, as crucial elements in enlarging the ever-widening chasm between Americans. Such shifts drove the “culture wars” of the ’80s and ’90s, and, with the growth of the Internet and social media’s dominance by the end of the first decade of the ’00s, encouraged people to retreat to the comfort of their preferred echo chambers of political opinion.
As they turn to the ’00s, Kruse and Zelizer detail events that remain etched in most living Americans’ memories. They offer a particularly cogent and nuanced look at the Bush administration and its War on Terror. Only time will tell how well the book’s take on the Obama and Trump years (comprising nearly 20 percent of Fault Lines’ text) will stand up to future historians’ scrutiny. One must admire, though, Kruse and Zelizer’s withering, and well-sourced, critique of congressional Republicans’ campaign to undermine Barack Obama’s presidency at every turn, rather than work with Democrats to craft viable proposals that might appear—gasp!— bipartisan. This strategic choice, Kruse and Zelizer demonstrate, was corrosive, but perfectly comprehensible, as Congress came to function more and more as both a fomenter and reflection of the country’s divisions. The GOP’s deployment of scorched earth, party-over-country tactics, Fault Lines astutely demonstrates, marked a new, extreme moment of political polarization, and, in part, assisted in laying the groundwork for Donald Trump’s norm-shattering campaign and presidency.
To their credit, in an age when nasty memes and screaming pundits have replaced thoughtful political discourse, Kruse and Zelizer reject polemics and heated language in favor of a prose style that is judicious and fair, and at times, overly anodyne. For example, they neglect to point out directly that Trump lies with regularity and recklessness and that these lies are an essential weapon in his political arsenal. Also, in regard to “birtherism,” a movement embraced by Trump, and whose adherents refused against all reason to accept that Barack Obama is an American citizen, Kruse and Zelizer pull their punches, to the detriment of reality, and merely state that a number of people considered birtherism racist, without confirming the obvious truthfulness of that assertion.
Despite the depressing state of the modern United States, Kruse and Zelizer conclude on a guardedly hopeful note, proposing that the political mobilization and protest movements that have emerged in recent years might revitalize American democracy. After all, they claim, in the post-Vietnam and Watergate periods, the country reinvented its institutions and managed to survive. They then suggest that today this could happen again. While Kruse and Zelizer admit that such an outcome is far from certain, it is still an odd and unconvincing note to end on, especially since it seems to belie the story of political and social deterioration that they have devoted their book to telling. Still, these historians’ understandable desire to inject an inkling of hope into an otherwise gloomy situation is forgivable. In sum, Fault Lines cogently explicates the development of the crippling antagonisms that Americans must alleviate in order for the United States to solve its current—and long-in-the-making—democratic crisis. Indeed, finding a resolution is a most urgent task.