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Understanding Political Polarization

In recent years, Democrats and Republicans have become more divided along ideological lines. Many members of Congress vote along party lines and less bipartisan efforts are made.[1] The American public has expressed their frustrations over the saliency of polarization and believes that the country is too divided. Moderate members are opting out of Congress. In recent years, Republicans that retire from the House tend to be to the ideological left of continuing House Republicans and vice versa for the Democrats.[2]

Polarization is still dominant within our politics and polarizing members continue to be elected. The storming of the United States Capitol that took place on January 6th illustrates how polarized politics has now become dangerous. By understanding some of the histories of political polarization, there could be some possible solutions to address the issue.

Slavery was a contentious issue among the public and members of Congress. An example that illustrates this is when in 1856 on the floor of the Senate chamber, U.S. Representative Preston Brooks insensibly caned Senator Charles Sumner. What prompted the brawl was that Senator Sumner had criticized one of Brooks’ kinsmen for embracing the “harlot [of] slavery… [as his] mistress.”[3]

The election of 1860 was especially contentious. The Democratic Party met in Charleston, South Carolina, in April of 1860 to select their party’s candidate for the presidency. There was a split within the Democratic party over who best to nominate. Northern Democrats wanted to select Stephen A. Douglas while southern Democrats felt that he did not best represent party interests. Without even choosing a candidate, many southern Democrats stormed out of the convention. The Republicans met in Chicago and decided to capitalize on the Democrats’ recent split to win. In order to win, they needed a candidate that could sweep the north as well as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana, and Illinois. They decided that Abraham Lincoln was the best candidate for this. The Constitutional Union party, a newly-created third party, nominated the wealthy slaveholder John Bell. With all the candidates, Lincoln only received 40% of the popular vote but won the electoral college.[4]

Not long after, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Several states followed suit, and, eventually, the Confederacy was formed. Abraham Lincoln being elected to the Presidency caused so much disruption among the people that a new nation was formed.[5]

For the next couple of years, the Union and Confederacy were at arms with each other, waging most of the battles in the Western Hemisphere. In the Confederate Constitution, the institution of slavery was guaranteed. Lincoln, on the other hand, was not initially trying to disturb the “peculiar institution” because initiating emancipation may cause an upset in Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, or Missouri — the only slave states that stayed in the Union. Over time, both governments moved to end slavery. Lincoln had realized that emancipation would have Europe favor the Northern cause, hurting the Confederacy. In 1862, Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation of emancipation, and promised to free all slaves in the “rebel territory” — unless those states returned to the Union — by January 1, 1863. He encouraged Congress to abolish slavery via a constitutional amendment, which was finally achieved in 1865. The Confederacy, although much slower, also shifted towards emancipation. They were short on troops and therefore recruited Black men. None of them, however, ended up serving in battle before the Confederate surrender. This can be described as a slow drift towards emancipation. In March of 1865, the Confederacy promised to emancipate enslaved people in return for diplomatic recognition. Although there was nothing that came of this proposal, it illustrates how the institution of slaery was doomed from the start and how attitudes did drift. On April 9th 1865, with the Confederacy on its final stretch, Grant accepted Lee’s surrender.[6]

In the same year, John Wilkes Booth decided to assassinate President Lincoln whom he believed was planning to overthrow the Constitution and ruin the south. There were at least four conspirators involved in his assassination.[7]

With the abolition of slavery, the United States was tasked with re-establishing itself, a task that led to an era of political disagreement The country entered an era of disagreement about how to handle the country after slavery.

The Gilded Age was another time considered politically polarized, with violence and a highly contentious political discourse. The election of 1896 prompted the rural-urban vote divide. The nation was coming out of the serious economic turmoil caused by the Panic of 1893, and those who lived in urban areas had significantly different interests than those in rural areas. Democrat William Jennings Bryan was chosen to run against the Republican William McKinley. Bryan wanted to end government favoritism toward business interests and the wealthy at the expense of the farmers, but was unable to expand his support beyond the Populist agrarian Democratic base. On election day, voter turnout was 79 percent because the stakes were so high. McKinley dominated the electoral college map.[8] This election was significant for polarized politics because this is when we start to see the divide in the urban and rural voter patterns.

The election of 1912 was another polarizing election, with major issues involving urbanization and industrialization facing the country. Woodrow Wilson, governor of New Jersey, ran as a progressive Democrat. Conservative Republican incumbent William Howard Taft ran again, representing the status quo and big business interests.[9] Former President Theodore Roosevelt ran again as well, this time the former Republican ran as a member of the Progressive Party. He was reform-minded and represented middle-class interests. Eugene Debs ran for President for the third time, standing for the Socialist Party. Roosevelt and Wilson fought for the voters who were in the middle. In the end, ¾ of Americans voted against Taft and the incumbent Republicans.[10] In voting for change, it was obvious people wanted reform but disagreed about how best to get it. However, due to Roosevelt splitting the Republican vote, Woodrow Wilson won and was elevated to the presidency.[11]

The 1960s were another time of high polarization. Faced with continual discrimination and segregation despite slavery being abolished a century before, the Civil Rights Movement emerged through a surge of activism to address these injustices, leading to a series of civil rights legislation being passed between 1954 and 1968.[12] People protested against the Jim Crow policies and to expand individual rights. Protest was necessary because there were many barriers in the way of achieving full equality. For instance, the amount of Black members of Congress was scarce and made it impossible to form a powerful enough voting bloc to alter the institution. The few Black members of Congress had limited influence. In addition, the anti-majoritarian structure of the Senate enhanced the power of the pro-segregation conservatives. The Senate had a tradition of allowing Senators to speak without interruption, and this was a strategy that was employed by obstructionists. The filibuster was their greatest weapon.[13] While major civil rights legislation was eventually passed, it was slowed due to polarizing members who leveraged different rules.

As is evident, polarization has been a long-running issue in American politics. It has always caused people to become frustrated and has been prevalent for many stages of our history. There does not appear to be a direct answer over how best to address polarization, but what we can do is understand its roots.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13]


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