Is Post-Partisanship Possible?

Rick Perlstein is the author of the New York Times bestseller "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America" (Scribner). "Nixonland" has been named one of the three best books of the year by the editors at and a New York Times notable book for 2008, and has been named on year-end "best of" lists by over a dozen publications.

His first book, "Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus," won the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Award for history and is newly available in paperback from Nation Books. It appeared on the best books lists of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune that year, and also became, in the wake of the Clinton Wars and the 2000 Florida recount, one of the very few books to receive glowing reviews in both left-wing and right-wing publications. From the summer of 2003 until 2005 he covered the presidential campaigns as chief national political correspondent for the Village Voice. He has also published The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo: How the Democrats Can Once Again Become America's Dominant Political Party, an essay with responses from commentators including Robert Reich, Elaine Kamarck, and Ruy Teixeira. In 2006 and 2007 he wrote a biweekly column for The New Republic Online; his Nation article "All Aboard the McCain Express" was featured in "Best American Political Writing 2008." From March, 2007 to March 2009, Perlstein was senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future, for which he wrote the blog The Big Con. He is now at work on a third and final volume in his Backlash Trilogy, covering the years 1973 to 1980.

He received a B.A. in history from the University of Chicago in 1992, where his cultural criticism was published in the Baffler, and spent two years in the PhD program in American culture at the University of Michigan. Moving to New York, he worked for two years as an editor at Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life. Perlstein's articles have appeared in publications including Newsweek, Slate, the Village Voice, Newsday The Nation, The New York Times, The New York Observer, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Arizona Republic, the London Review of Books, Newsday, Columbia Journalism Review and The New Yorker.

  • Transcript


Question: Has Obama succeeded on his promise of being a “post-partisan” President?

Rick Perlstein: Well, the problem with Obama’s post-partisan agenda is that he came into it. He came into his presidency at a time when millions of Americans, perhaps even tens of millions of Americans don’t consider a democrat president legitimate. Don’t consider liberalism legitimate. Don’t consider the idea of the state forming new programs to help people legitimate. So, he’s in a situation a lot like, you know, Abraham Lincoln faced in 1860 when you had millions of Americans who didn’t even consider what was going in Washington to have anything to do with them.

So, the big question for me was always was this post-partisan idea, this idea that you could kind of bring adversaries across a table and get them to agree to each other and agree with - to get them to agree with each other and achieve social progress, was that a deep-seated belief of his or was that, in a certain sense, a tactic? Not a cynical tactic, but a tactic. And I would be very with him if it were a way of thinking about politics, if it were a tactic, because the job of transformative leader is not to **** the center, but define their own values as the center, as common sense. And if he, you know, I believe in the agenda he’s putting forward. For example, universal healthcare. You know, for example, you know, cap and trade and green jobs as a way to, you know, solve our energy problems while growing the economy. I think these are reasonable while liberal goals and if he presents them as reasonable and the reaction to them as one could knew they were going to - because there are these millions of people that don’t consider a liberal president legitimate - was irrational, extreme, that presented him an opportunity to say, “My program is rational, but my opposition has chosen extremism, has chosen unreason,” and be willing to take the hit, that there's always going to be a minority of the country. Thirty percent, 35 percent, even 40 percent who disagrees with him radically. Disagrees with him strongly, but if he’s still willing to pass his program with that 60 percent margin, the rest of the country will eventually catch up. The reactionaries will understand as they did with Social Security, as they did with, you know, women getting the vote, freeing the slaves, you know, Social Security. That actually these things were in their interests. They’ll accept them as part of the established order of American society, and in fact, 20, 30, 40 year down the road the Republicans and the Conservatives will be campaigning to save universal healthcare just like they campaign to save Social Security.

But the problem is this doesn’t really work unless you make this kind of tactical shift. If people say that you're illegitimate and your liberal agenda is extremist socialist destroying the America that we all grew up with, you have to be willing to say, “This is unreasonable. This is extreme.” And if you aren’t able to say, “This is unreasonable and this is extreme,” then you're granting your opposition an undue influence. You’re basically negotiating with the unnegotiatable. And as Abraham Lincoln said quite eloquently in this 1860 speech at Cooper Union, you can’t win that way.

Recorded on: October 19, 2009