THE BLOG
12/13/2010 09:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Politically-Polarized Sesquicentennial

A theme has emerged, in recent years, of America as a nation almost hopelessly divided, politically. This theme is most often reinforced by such superlative declarations (by "journalists" who really should know better) as "America is more politically divided than ever," or "this is the most politically polarized Washington has ever been," or similar such alarmist rhetoric. It has even gotten to the point where many see such statements as truisms -- statements so obviously true that they are seen as irrefutable. This is a gross error, born of the fact that most "journalists" simply have no concept of their own country's history. Because while we are indeed currently politically divided and somewhat polarized, this is actually our normal state as a nation -- and on the polarization scale, we're nowhere near the "most divided" we've ever been. Far from it.

The most obvious refutation of such facile statements about our current divisiveness is the sesquicentennial season we are about to enter. One hundred and fifty years ago, America had just elected as its new president Abraham Lincoln. In response, between the time of the election and the time Lincoln was to be sworn in to office, seven states seceded from the Union. Lincoln had famously warned the situation was dire in a speech delivered a year and half earlier:

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South.

Can anyone today say -- with a straight face -- that we are more politically divided now than we were back then? For the next four years or so, we will have constant reminders of our Civil War past, as the 150th anniversaries of individual events during the war are commemorated.

Even today -- a century and a half later -- the divisions that slavery and the Civil War revolved around still cut deeply. In the South, planned events marking important Civil War dates are already causing these divisions to be exposed once again. Southerners (some of them) insist they are merely celebrating their forefathers' history and heritage, while others insist that any "celebration" of anything to do with the Civil War is in itself an outrage, due to the fact that the war was fought to preserve the "heritage" of slavery. Some memories are not easily forgotten, it appears, by Americans.

Even our own political divide today is somewhat ironic, when looking back at the Civil War era. Because the South has only now emerged from a political situation which has seemingly been carved in stone since Reconstruction. For a full century after the Civil War was fought, the South was a Democratic stronghold. There's a basic reason for this -- Lincoln was a Republican. Democrats were the ones who waged epic filibusters in the Senate against Civil Rights in the 1960s, remember. The political culture in the South was so biased against Republicans that it spawned the original political "dogs" label -- the "Yellow Dog Democrats." The first recorded use of this phrase (originally colloquially spelled "yaller dogs") was in 1900, in the following quote from Theodore Hallam: "...when the Democratic party of Kentucky, in convention assembled, sees fit in its wisdom to nominate a yaller dog for the governorship of this great state, I will support him."

This all changed during the Civil Rights era. Lyndon Johnson supposedly said, when signing one of the most important Civil Rights laws, that his signature meant he had "lost the South for a generation" for the Democrats. Richard Nixon picked up on this opportunity, with what became known his "Southern strategy" -- a subtle (and, at times, not-so-subtle) appeal to white Southerners using coded language (like supporting "states' rights") -- which was later used effectively by Ronald Reagan, and then the Republican Party as a whole. The strategy, as a quick look at today's political map shows, has been astoundingly successful. Southern Democrats are as an endangered political species now as New England moderate Republicans. But for a century's time, the voters in the South were solidly Democratic, due to their defeat by the hated Republican Northerner Abraham Lincoln. The media may forget these things, but sometimes, the voters do not.

The Civil War is the best and most fractious example of our country's divided past, but is by no means the only one. Our country -- from its very inception, leading right up to the war -- was just as divided over slavery. We have the structure of the House of Representatives and the Senate as almost a direct result of the South's fears that slavery would be outlawed by the new federal government. Our bicameral legislative setup was a result of a compromise reached between North and South when formulating our Constitution.

Later, as the country expanded, other compromises were struck in an effort to postpone what now seems to have been an inevitable conflict over the slavery question. The most famous of these was the Missouri Compromise, but there were plenty of others either attempted or enacted to forestall the fundamental question of whether owning human beings should be legal. And this was no academic question, as anyone familiar with the phrase "Bleeding Kansas" can attest to. In the run-up to the Civil War, there were increasingly bloody skirmishes which played out in various locales -- including even the floor of the U.S. Senate. From the Senate's website comes the story of Senator Preston Brooks using a walking cane to savagely beat Senator Andrew Butler:

Sumner was addressing copies of the speech at his desk when Brooks began his attack, striking the northern senator repeatedly with a walking cane, which splintered with the force of the blows.

Although two House members intervened to end the assault, Sumner, who had ripped his desk loose from the bolts holding it to the floor in his effort to escape, was rendered unconscious. He regained consciousness shortly after the attack, but it would be three years before he felt able to resume his senatorial duties.

After this incident, hundreds of citizens sent Brooks canes in the mail, to show their support of his vicious assault on a fellow senator. Think about that the next time some blow-dried television "news" anchor blurts out some inane "we're more divided politically than ever before in American history" nonsense. While it's not completely inconceivable that a senator today would physically thrash an opponent on the Senate floor (what with some of the campaign rhetoric we've heard of late) -- and while it's just as conceivable that a senator who did so would be showered with commemorative gifts from supporters -- nothing on this scale has yet occurred. Shouting "You lie!" at the president isn't even in the same ballpark, really.

But while slavery was a divisive issue for Americans for centuries (as it, indeed, still is), it was not the only thing which has divided us politically -- at times, even, to the point of violence. A cursory look at the history of union organizing in this country proves this to be incontrovertibly true. Anti-war protestors have borne the brunt of political violence -- and unconstitutional political retribution, as well. Look into the history of the Espionage Act -- the same law now being considered for use against Wikileaker Julian Assange. Originally enacted during World War I, it was used to chuck pretty much anyone in prison the government felt like. This period of legislative and enforcement insanity included so many examples of abuse of First Amendment rights, it's hard now to even credibly believe such things happened in America (just one example: a filmmaker imprisoned for showing British soldiers in a bad light -- in a movie about the American Revolution -- because Britain was now our ally in WWI). Over and over again, in wartime, America simply jettisons inconvenient parts of the Constitution -- in an effort to suspend our inherent divisive nature for the duration of the larger conflict.

America has always been a contentious bunch of rugged individualists -- it says so right here on the label. Our national mythology raises the ornery nature of freedom-loving egalitarians to near-Olympian proportions. Our country's birth had soaring moments of oratory, it is true -- but it also had some pretty ugly collective violence against people who supported Britain in the debate. Look up the history of "mob" as a verb (or "being mobbed") if you've never heard this side of our history. People were literally tarred, feathered, and run off their land because of their political beliefs (which were, much to the displeasure of the mob, insufficiently treasonous towards Britain).

During it all, the media went along for the ride. Sometimes, the media even drove the effort. Once again, it has become common today to denounce certain organs of the media as being no more than thinly-disguised party platforms. This is almost always accompanied by heartfelt pleas to return to a simpler, kinder day of yore when the media was scrupulously non-partisan and journalistic integrity ruled the land. Once again, this is mostly hogwash. The media exists -- as it always has -- to sell papers, sell ads, and make money. The secondary reason has almost always been to expound the opinions of whoever happens to own the printing press. It is only a tertiary (at best) priority for the media to disseminate information to the body public.

Once again, this myth of some sort of golden age of the media is easily disproved. In fact, doing so only really requires three words -- "See: Yellow Journalism." For those with gauzy memories of an independent press during the Eisenhower era, consider how many newspapers (to say nothing of the contemporaneous radio personalities) fully supported McCarthyism and all the Red-baiting of the time. But my favorite disproof of the myth of our supposedly-neutral press' glorious (if fictional) history comes from Alexis de Tocqueville's masterwork Democracy In America, which was researched circa 1830. Tocqueville quotes from "the first newspaper I saw on arrival in America," which turns out to be an excellent example of what I'm talking about:

"In the whole affair the language used by Jackson [the President] was that of a heartless despot exclusively concerned with preserving his own power. Ambition is his crime, and that will be his punishment. Intrigue is his vocation, and intrigue will confound his plans and snatch his power from him. He governs by corruption, and his guilty maneuvers will turn to his shame and confusion. He has shown himself in the political arena as a gambler without shame or restraint. He has succeeded, but the hour of justice draws near; soon he will have to give up what he has won, throw his false dice away, and end his days in some retreat where he will be free to blaspheme against his folly, for repentance is not a virtue that it has ever been given to his heart to know." (Vincenne's Gazette.)

Can anyone honestly tell me that Fox News is any worse than that? Or even any different in purpose? Later in the same chapter, Tocqueville generalizes about the 1830s American media:

However, with their sources thus restricted, the power of the American press is still immense. It makes political life circulate in every corner of that vast land. Its eyes are never shut, and it lays bare the secret shifts of politics, forcing public figures in turn to appear before the tribunal of opinion. The press rallies interest around certain doctrines and gives shape to party slogans; through the press the parties, without actually meeting, listen and argue with one another. When many organs of the press do come to take the same line, their influence in the long run is almost irresistible, and public opinion, continually struck in the same spot, ends by giving way under the blows.

Note that: "gives shape to party slogans." But such partisanship was a two-edged sword, back then, as well; which returns us to our main theme here. Tocqueville relates the following charming story of American rugged individualism:

At Baltimore during the War of 1812 there was a striking example of the excesses to which despotism of the majority may lead. At that time the war was very popular at Baltimore. A newspaper which came out in strong opposition to it aroused the indignation of the inhabitants. The people assembled, broke the presses, and attacked the house of the editors. An attempt was made to summon the militia, but it did not answer the appeal. Finally, to save the lives of these wretched men threatened by the fury of the public, they were taken to prison like criminals. This precaution was useless. During the night the people assembled again; the magistrates having failed to bring up the militia, the prison was broken open; one of the journalists was killed on the spot and the others left for dead; the guilty were brought before a jury and acquitted.

Our whole history is littered with such examples. No matter what the prevailing political opinion of the day may be, there are always dissenters who loudly (and, at times, violently) protest the direction the country is heading in. American hotheadedness is nothing new. Even in modern times, it's nothing new. Rioting in the streets happened in the Vietnam era (as well as many peaceful marches, I should mention). Dissent is as American as apple pie -- although at the time it is never seen in such positive terms by the majority (or by the establishment, take your pick). But, although every generation likes to feel special and unique, there really isn't anything happening today in the political world that hasn't happened previously -- in much starker terms and in much more intense manifestations. From farmers "mobbed" off their lands, to union organizers beaten, to anti-war protestors unjustly imprisoned, to "un-American activities" committees, to Civil Rights activists murdered -- America has traveled an almost-constant and continuing road of such struggles. From the creation of our bicameral legislative system, to the Kansas-Missouri Act, to "separate but equal," to the introduction of the Senate filibuster, and right up to today's issues; we have a long history of compromises, some of which don't work, some of which work for a while (in some fashion) only to fail later, and some of which still enjoy success today. And from revolutionary pamphleteering, to muckraking yellow "journalism," to fiercely partisan newspapers with the words "Democrat" or "Republican" in their mastheads, to rabid anti-Semites or Red-baiters on the radio, to the hundreds of television channels we can choose from today; we've always enjoyed turning political debates into a form of entertainment in this country -- and, historically, the rule of thumb has been: "The more partisan, the better!"

Comparatively, the Tea Party Republicans and Fox News are pretty weak tea indeed. Even the New York tabloids are nothing more than a continuation of a very long tradition in American media.

We're about to be reminded of all this, for the next four years; as we wend our way through the 150th anniversary of the one time in our nation's history that our contrarian nature developed into open warfare. Arguments will be fought over whether this event or that should be "celebrated heritage," or "condemnable injustice." Such arguments will be fought on the pages of Southern newspapers, on television shows highlighting extremists of one stripe or another, and on progressive webpages. Which is all as it should be, and as it pretty much always has been in America.

The one thing I do sincerely hope for (in the next few years) is during all of the Civil War memorializing, some "journalists" may regain some sense of historical perspective, and stop saying such patent nonsense as: "We're more divided politically than we've ever been as a country," or: "The polarization in Washington is without precedent." Perhaps it will take the anniversary of Fort Sumter, or Gettysburg, or even our deadliest day as a nation -- Antietam -- to change this growing habit of proclaiming the absolute falsehood that we are somehow in some especially divided period of American history. Because far from being any sort of truism, in fact it is an absolute falsehood that denies some of our most colorful history. And the sooner the "journalists" realize this, the better.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

ChrisWeigant.com

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