Is This The Worst Polarization in US History?

by Will on October 14, 2013


Nate Silver writes:

But the degree of polarization in the Congress is higher than at any point since the Great Depression by a variety of measures, and is possibly at its highest point ever.

Is this accurate?

Probably so as far as the period since the Great Depression is concerned. Antagonism over Civil Rights in the 50s and 60s was more intense than anything on the landscape now — many people lost their lives — but that conflict occurred almost entirely between different factions of the Democratic Party, and congress was not where it played out for the most part. How about before the Great Depression?

Two periods stand out as marked by much more severe congressional polarization: the 1790s and the 1850s.

One rough indication of this would be the presence of actual physical violence in congress. There was a notable instance of this in 1798, when congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont spat in the face of congressman Roger Griswold of Connecticut, and the two then came to blows on the house floor. This motif recurred even more shockingly in 1856, when congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina caned Senator Charles Sumner of Massachussetts nearly to death at the capitol, as angry punishment for Sumner’s delivery of a speech called “The Crime against Kansas” two days earlier. Were we truly witnessing the worst congressional polarization in US history right now, we might expect another such incident. Harry Reid is, recall, a former pugilist.


Both of these incidents were manifestations of quite bitter political rivalries. During the 1790s, the administrations of George Washington and John Adams received harsh, paranoid criticisms for their alleged corruption, aristocratic leanings, and pro-English bias. There were several violent uprisings. An opposition press published often uncivil denunciations of the leadership. These disagreements were ostensibly about policy, but were colored by suspicions of disloyalty and treason — the Federalists were said to be closet monarchists, striving to undermine the republican experiment and return the country to English rule, and the Jeffersonians were painted, with some justice, as contrarian cranks and naive dupes of the French Republic. In the 1850s, conflict erupted when the slave power went to outrageous lengths to preserve their political power and lay the groundwork for the further expansion of slavery. These ardent defenders of “states’ rights” sought to force slavery on Kansas at gunpoint, the wishes of Kansans be damned, and to invalidate as much as they could prohibitions of slaveholding in northern states. This rapidly caused a vigorous backlash and the breakdown of the second party system, as non-southerners became unable to ally with the fire-eaters, the emergence almost overnight of a new political party to counter the slavers, and, we all know, the largest war the world had ever seen up to that point.

To what degree do our present straits resemble these two previous periods? There are some superficial similarities to the 1850s, given the geographic distribution of the two parties’s constituents. However, in the 1850s, the issue of whether slavery would expand was a momentous one. Without new slave lands, the profitability of slavery, and the value of the slaves, would decline and disappear. There is no issue of similar import today driving present disagreements, which are largely over symbolic and even totally imaginary issues. In this, our moment resembles the 1790s. The Jeffersonian critics of the 1790s believed themselves to be taking stands on deep principles, but they were deluded and paranoid in their perceptions. The “despotism” allegedly threatened by the First Bank of the United States, the national debt, the tariff system, and the excise tax also never appeared. Indeed, when Jefferson assumed the presidency, he quickly realized the practicality of the system the Federalists had put in place, and altered little of it.

It is encouraging as we face the present fiasco to recall how these other two episodes ended. The Jeffersonians ascended to power in 1800 — but only because the three-fifths clause made southern votes more valuable than New England votes. And the fire-eaters not only did not achieve their aims; their actions condemned their beloved slave society to extinction. Disagreement is normal and productive, but dysfunctional polarization is not a stable equilibrium, and cannot hold for long.

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