Opening lines: Americans are alarmed about their country’s politics and for good reason. Each week that goes by brings another stunning event in a long ongoing trend—the gradual but consistent shattering of one after another assumption about how politics in America works. With each new surprise and with each norm broken, American politics becomes progressively angrier and more unsettled. New movements keep butting into the public square and more and more of the unwritten rules that governed American politics for decades fall away. Americans no longer know what to expect next from their government. Increasingly worried about their future and their country’s future, many Americans are anxious. They should be. America’s parties are in the process of breaking apart and everything we think we know about how its politics works is about to change. We’re preparing for the next realignment.
Political realignments are part of a historical cycle built deep into the political structure of the American republic. They’re much like earthquakes that occur on known fault lines in the earth—the places in which two of the continental plates floating over the planet’s surface rub against each other. We can’t predict exactly when a quake will happen but, because quakes are part of a long natural cycle built into the structure of the earth, we know about where they will happen, how they will happen, and why they will happen. We watch the pressure build for years as these massive chunks of continent grind up against each other. All the while, the people who live on top of these floating continents go about their lives. People go to work, buy groceries, and play in the park, forgetting all about the powerful force slowly building underneath their feet. One day, the pressure suddenly becomes too much. The two great plates rip past each other, tearing the earth above apart. Structures topple, bridges fall, and the landscape is reconfigured. In a moment, lives get disrupted and the entire shape of the earth is radically changed. Then, the pressure gone, the two chunks of continents rest comfortably in their new position once more. With time, people forget it even happened—until the cycle completes and it happens again.
Having lived our entire lifetimes inside a stable part of a larger turbulent cycle of destruction and rebirth, we mistakenly believe the world we know has always existed and will properly last forever. This stable two-party system built around familiar ideologies is now in the process of collapse. That’s why American politics has become so turbulent. That’s why new movements and ideas have been crowding uncomfortably into the public square. That’s why America’s parties are struggling with feuding coalitions no longer willing to put aside their differences for a common agenda. That’s why it’s been so long since anything important in government has gotten done, leading to the never-ending complaints that American politics is now broken. The next realignment is coming and, depending on our choices as we navigate it, it will reorder everything we think we know about America.
Reviews: “Frank DiStefano does the near impossible. He combines a fascinating, thoughtful, insightful history of today’s dysfunctional, shrinking two-party system with an exciting vision of the future.”—Donna Brazile, former interim chair, Democratic National Committee