How much polarization can American politics withstand before our government starts to break down? The following incidents tell us a lot about what can happen when partisanship and ideology replace civil discussion and pragmatism. Thousands of protesters gather outside the President’s home and hint that they will drag him out into the streets. When a member of the cabinet attempts to give a public speech, he is hit with rocks thrown by Republicans in the crowd. Critics of government power warn that we are headed toward dictatorship. Partisans on both sides of the aisle accuse their opponents of subverting the Constitution. They accuse them of being more loyal to foreign governments than they are to the United States.
I wanted to include links in the paragraph above, to provide more details about the events in question, but its very hard to find sources that give a balanced description of politics in the 1790s. It was an ugly time. Led by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, the Republicans (sometimes called Democratic-Republicans) suspected that the Federalists, led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, wanted to turn back the clock and deprive the American people of the freedoms they had won in the recent revolution. You can read about the events mentioned above in Chapter Five of Empire of Liberty, a recently published volume of The Oxford History of the United States, which I am currently listening to as an audiobook.
At the moment, in 2010, there are a lot of dire warnings about the rise of polarization and growth of partisanship. Often, such warnings are accompanied by references to the good old days, when partisans were still prepared to cross party lines to get things done. Often, those good old days are the early years of the Republic, when our wise and temperate Founding Fathers guided our young nation from strength to strength. My point of course, is that memories of the good old days tend to be cut from whole cloth, regardless of whether we’re talking about the 1790s or any decade more recent.
Interestingly, a lot of writers now talk about the 1980s as a better time, when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill could reach across the aisle to get things done. As the author of a dissertation about Reagan’s foreign policy, I can assure you that politics back then were no less vitriolic than they are today, although still far less polarized than they were in the 1790s.
You often hear that cable television, talk radio and the blogosphere are responsible for the deplorable state of American politics. The 1790s provide a good illustration of how the printing press alone can provide more than enough fuel to pour on the fire. Even in the short run, the rise of cable, talk radio and the internet haven’t had that much of an impact, at least for those with a certain opinion of the 1980s. From where I stand, the tendency to blame things on technology says more about the place of technology in American culture than it does about politics. Americans are very eager to explain social trends, both good and bad, in terms of technological change. As you might guess, I don’t buy it.
It is very hard to resist the ideal of high-minded, non-partisan politics. The framers of the Constitution clearly envisioned a world in which there were no political parties and the national interest served as the only basis for government. Yet those same Founding Fathers soon became the leaders of bitterly opposed factions. What they had in common was that they all believed they were acting in the national interest and that their opponents were responsible for a dangerous rise in partisanship. Sound familiar?