A Polarized America

In the last 30 years, Americans have become increasingly divided over politics. The gap between the policies endorsed by the Republican and Democratic Parties is growing, as is the animosity between people who identify with different parties. Partisan politics first came to a head in the election of 1800. The First Party System of the United States featured the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party (also called “Jeffersonian Republican”). The Federalist Party grew from the national network of Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who favored a strong united central government, close ties to Britain, a centralized banking system, and close links between the government and men of wealth. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who strongly opposed Hamilton’s agenda, founded the Democratic-Republican Party. The Jeffersonians came to power in 1800, and the Federalists were too elitist to compete effectively. The Federalists survived in the Northeast, but their refusal to support the War of 1812 verged on secession and was a devastating blow when the war ended well. The Era of Good Feelings under President James Monroe (1816–1824) marked the end of the First Party System and a brief period in which partisanship was minimal.

There is not an Era of Good Feelings today. Donald Trump has made sure of that. He has polarized this nation more than ever. The Republican Party, which can be traced back to the Federalists, and Democrats, whose origins are in the Democratic-Republican Party, are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is more profound and more extensive – than at any point in the last three decades. It could be the most polarized the United States has ever been except for the Civil War. These trends manifest in myriad ways, both in politics and in everyday life. Partisan animosity has increased considerably since the beginning of the Clinton presidency in 1992. In each party, the political polarization has more than doubled since the “Republican Revolution” of 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”

We have been so ingrained to think about polarization: black and white, Republican or Democrat, Christian and Atheist, gay and straight, etc. Politics like sexuality is a spectrum, but when people in a political party are afraid of having their ability to compromise and come to a mutually agreed solution becomes a weapon against them, we become so polarized that we can’t see the truth of what needs to be done. Republicans couldn’t even vote for the impeachment of a president who clearly committed treason, bribery, and election fraud because they were too scared of that the president and voters would turn on them. They simply couldn’t do the right thing for this country because of political affiliation. Joe Biden said last night in the ABC town hall that the political parties in America need to come together and not be afraid of retribution from the president. He talked about getting people together and working out solutions instead of temper tantrums and stalled legislation. The polarization of American politics is nothing new.

If we look back at the contentious election of 1800, we see that the Federalist incumbent John Adams ran against the rising Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. The extremely partisan and outright nasty campaign failed to provide a clear winner because of a constitutional quirk. Presidential electors were required to vote for two people for the offices of president and vice-president. The individual receiving the highest number of votes would become president. Unfortunately, Jefferson and his vice-presidential running mate Aaron Burr both received an equal number of electoral votes, and the House of Representatives voted to break the tie. When Adams’s Federalists attempted to keep Jefferson from the presidency, Adams set the stage for the first critical constitutional crisis of the new American federal republic. However, rationality prevailed, and the first peaceful transition of political power between opposing parties in U.S. history occurred. The election had far-reaching significance and resulted in the 12th Amendment. Jefferson appreciated the momentous change, and his inaugural address called for reconciliation by declaring that, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

However, before Jefferson was inaugurated, there was a lot of uncertainty and political divide. On January 25, 1800, there occurred an impressive exchange on Washington politics. Abigail Adams, the president’s wife, and one of the contenders for John Adam’s replacement offered their impressions of a partisan in a “curious conversation” over supper that night. The give-and-take was frank and unrestrained. Jefferson said he avoided attending the House of Representatives, writing, “I am sure there are persons there who would take a pleasure in saying something, purposely to affront me.” He complained and worried about a partisan Congress, adding that he found “more candor and liberality upon one side than there is upon the other.” Abigail Adams was equally candid, noting prophetically, “Some are mere Brutes, others are Gentlemen— but party Spirit, is a blind spirit.”

The problems with parties are now the worst it has ever been as opponents deride politicians for even attempting to compromise. Today’s increase in partisanship in the U.S. also has significant harmful effects. Most importantly, polarization and partisan conflict lead to inaction, as “my way or the highway,” ideologically rigid mentalities lower the probability of achieving the compromise that should be at the heart of legislative functioning. We saw this “destroy the village in order to save it” mentality with the shutdown of the U.S. government, which has occurred five times since 1990. Partisans on both sides increasingly see institutions in the U.S. not as beneficial and necessary but as part of an effort by the other side to gain advantage and to perpetuate its power and philosophical positions. Liberals and Democrats today, for example, have lower trust in “traditional” family and religious institutions. They question the problems of the current economic system that intensifies inequality in the United States. Republicans have lower trust in the scientific process, higher education, the mass media, and the role of the government. These skeptical views of institutions and social structures skew us toward distrust, anger, and internal infighting — not actionable efforts to fix problems and address threats.

A healthy skepticism of the way things operate in society is often warranted. But our society must continue to function, and that functioning requires an underlying agreement in the legitimacy of societal institutions. This is particularly true today when there are increasing external threats to our society and way of life from all sides, ranging from rogue states to terrorists to changes in weather and climate patterns to shifting world economies and massively unstable populations. At some point, the United States must balance the partisan conflicts resulting from differences in views of the world with a broader agreement on how we, as a society, adapt to external threats and achieve societal objectives. What will it take to do that? Presumably, we need leaders who don’t focus as much on taking advantage of and stoking partisan differences as they do looking at the larger picture. That’s a difficult challenge, but one to which the American public may well be quite receptive. Bipartisan cooperation is a perspective that Joe Biden has long advocated. 

While it is usually easier to criticize than to make efforts to agree on solutions, we are going to need more emphasis on cooperation in the years ahead if our society is to thrive and survive. If Donald Trump is elected for another four years, the divide may be so great when he leaves the White House that it can never be salvaged. We are at a crossroads. I hope that Joe Biden can heal the wounds of partisan politics, but I do not doubt that Donald Trump will widen the divide and the work to destroy our most sacred institutions of democracy. Nikki commented yesterday, “I’m so tired of thinking about Trump every day! And worrying worrying worrying. His Supreme Court pick is horrendous for gay rights and women’s rights. Exhausting.” I couldn’t agree more. I think we will have a collective case of PTSD by the time Trump leaves the Oval Office. We just have to hope there is an United States to salvage when he finally leaves office.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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