American politics has seemed to hit an historic low spot. We are more polarized than at any time, with little interaction between persons of different parties, and few compromises required from elected officials. Just prior to the midterm elections, twenty-three state legislatures were controlled by Republicans, thirteen by Democrats. That left only fourteen -- barely more than a quarter -- with any chance for meaningful negotiations among representatives. Even worse, campaigning and even debate on the floor has become exceedingly negative. Dick Bond of Kansas recently observed, "What has happened now has been uncommonly extreme and harsh." We seem stuck with castigating each other, blocking, rather than reaching common ground.
But this kind of polarization has occurred before in American history, and for similar reasons. In the 1920s it often seemed like we were two nations: while big cities like New York or Chicago opened up social mores in everything from drinking to sex, small towns fought over evolution and the Ku Klux Klan had millions of members nationally. Indiana, not Mississippi enjoyed the largest membership of any state.
The KKK is worthy of mention, as it drew its name from the Greek word kuklos or circle; a shape that defines who is inside and who is not. During the 1920s Americans became local, each drawing into their own kuklos. The New Yorker's founding editor, Harold Ross, proudly declared that his magazine was "not for the little old lady from Dubuque." Gotham's residents lived one kind of life, rural Americans another one entirely. These insular lifestyles would never meet, always in conflict.
Yet this should not have been. This was the first era with mass media, as America went to movies and turned on the radio. Experts, then and now, declared the obvious: national networks would foster a national culture.
Recent research, however, has told a different story. Instead of nationalizing, forming a common identity, media allowed us to become local. Outlets soon became fractionalized, emphasizing the particular, not the general. In Hal Barron's exploration of the rural north, Mixed Harvest, he uncovered a complex pattern: "As well as drawing farm people closer to a national popular culture, many radio stations catered specifically to country audiences and helped create a...culture that was distinctly rural." Radio station WLS out of Illinois switched from a general to a rural format in 1928; yet, in a 1938 U.S. Dept. of Agriculture survey of Midwestern farmers, 69 percent listed it as their favorite radio station, with the next contender getting only 5 percent. Its most popular program was "National Barn Dance", a competitor of the Grand Ole Opry, which played religious and sentimental songs like "Down by the Old Mill Stream." Listeners wrote in, "The Barn Dance brings happy memories of our youth." Radio was reinforcing local mores, not changing them.
Today, the internet is having a similar effect. It permits private interests to flourish, separates as much as it unites us. Devotees of every segmented pursuit can cluster exclusively with fellow acolytes. Similarly, politics, like so much else in American life, now becomes fractional, and local feelings and attitudes come to the fore, with weak party identification, and no sense of joining together to solve national issues.
Even worse, politics has become a unique outlet for our anger, an expression of our local resentments. The great stage is now a site for voicing all the pent up slights, all the private fury stored in our unique kuklos. Politicians no longer champion what they've accomplished; instead they appeal to insular hurts, labeling their opponent as not just wrong, but foreign and evil.
It will be some time, therefore, before we get past this cycle; the technological revolution is in its infancy. Until that matures, we will continue to exult in the local, and use politics to express our rage at all those other places, other ideas, other cultures, other peoples. The twenties gave us the Scopes trial and the Klan; this era will also be combative.