Kruse and Zelizer on “Divisive Domestic Politics” in the U.S.

This past Monday, from 7:00 PM to 8:15 PM EST, the Lawrenceville community gathered via Zoom to attend the yearly Weeden Lecture, which was mandatory for IV and V Former students taking Honors U.S. History and Themes in U.S. History.

This past Monday, from 7:00 PM to 8:15 PM EST, the Lawrenceville community gathered via Zoom to attend the yearly Weeden Lecture, which was mandatory for IV and V Former students taking Honors U.S. History and Themes in U.S. History. Walter Buckley ’56 P’96 ’99 GP’09 established the Weeden Lecture series in 1999 to honor the legacy of History Teacher Chuck Weeden H’65 P’77 ’79 ’87. In its past years, the Weeden Lecture has featured many reputable historians, including five Pulitzer Prize recipients. The 2020 lecture featured returning lecturers Princeton University Professor of History and Public Affairs Julian E. Zelizer and Princeton University Professor of History Kevin M. Kruse.

Zelizer has written and co-authored 19 books, including Taxing America: Wilbur D. Mills, Congress, and the State, 1945-1975, the winner of Ellis Hawley Prize for Best Book on Political History and the D.B. Prize for Best Book on Congress. Kruse’s studies focus on conflicts over race, religion, and the civil rights movement. He won the 2007 Francis B. Simkins Award from the Southern Historical Association and the 2007 Best Book Award in Urban Politics from the American Political Science Association for his book White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2005).

To begin the lecture, Co-Chair of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program Erik Chaput H’20 and History Teacher Regan Kerney H’49 ‘95 ‘98 ‘99 ‘03 ‘11 introduced Zelizer and Kruse’s recent book, Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974. According to Chaput, the book “explores the divisive domestic politics that have come to characterize the last 40 years of U.S. history [and] pinpoints the country’s entrenched polarization in the mid 1970s, a time when...many risks began in the social order.”

Zelizer began by introducing the beginning of Fault Lines, explaining how the book is set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time period when “the U.S. felt like it was on the cusp of falling apart.”

Zelizer shared how before the fracture, between the 1930s and 70s, “there had been a lot of countervailing institutions…that pushed against the fracture and the tension,” including a strong trust in the U.S. government, divides within individual political parties that resulted in bipartisan compromise, a booming economy, and news media that had “a common framework for what was going on in the world.”

However, Zelizer explained how President Richard Nixon’s handling of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal of 1972 fueled government distrust. “In 1964, 77 percent of Americans said that they trusted their government...Within a decade, this number grew to less than 42 percent,” he said.

From here, Kruse spoke about the expanding divide in U.S. politics and people’s everyday lives. He noted that “the media became increasingly fractured over these decades. It changed from a fairly rigid and uniform industry…dominated by [a handful of] major television networks and newspapers” to an industry with more specialized media outlets that provided news through partisan perspectives, like Fox News. Kruse added that the division in the U.S. presented itself through less obvious ways, like how all major news outlets color-coded the electoral map with red and blue for Republicans and Democrats, respectively, during the 2000 election between Bush and Al Gore.

Reflecting on the current political landscape, Kruse explained that President Donald Trump’s polarizing presidency became a way for media networks “to promote Trump as a way of promoting themselves.”

“[President-Elect Joe] Biden’s presidency itself will look a lot different [than Trump’s], but the larger landscape in which cable news networks and social media sources echo and amplify the divisions in our nations...will surely continue for the foreseeable future. America is not done with those fault lines by a long shot,” Kruse said.

The end of the lecture was followed by a Q&A session where Kruse and Zelizer discussed various questions asked by students, including their writing process.

Kruse noted that his collaboration with Zelizer started in 2014 after they both taught a course at Princeton University on “the U.S. since 1974.” The book’s first draft consisted of lectures Zelizer and Kruse gave to their students, which eventually turned into a cohesive piece that they turned in for publishing. Kruse reflected, “The biggest challenge for us was the coverage. This was an unusual book and we had to get everything in. It was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together where we kept on finding new pieces.”

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