We’re now one year into the Trump era, and politics seems more nasty, divided and polarized than ever. A government shutdown is imminent over immigration policy. Congress hasn’t passed a single, major bipartisan bill. President Trump’s approval rating among Democrats has fallen to 5 percent. Some reports suggest that a quarter of Americans have real animosity toward the other party. You’d be forgiven for wondering why we can’t just go back to those halcyon days of bipartisanship. Remember when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill would supposedly come to compromise over drinks?
Here’s the thing: By some measures, the United States is more partisan than ever, but that more peaceful and unified past, that golden age of unity, was … pretty much never.
In other words, contending forces within the parties have at times kept race and immigration from dominating, say, presidential elections. But they also often kept progress on those issues from even making the public agenda. To the extent that we can trace the deep divisions of today to the civil rights era, we might understand them not as signs of contemporary dysfunction but as the results of finally addressing long-standing injustice and discrimination. The immigration issue is more complex, but cross-party unity has at times lent itself to overt discrimination. Superficial unity at the expense of full citizenship for all Americans is hard to defend. It’s worth noting that policies aimed at curbing racial discrimination in American life and immigrationpolicy were also bipartisan efforts. But it’s far from a foregone conclusion that periods of unity were more just or equitable.
These issues are difficult and divisive. It isn’t a trivial difference that they now separate the two parties from each other, where they once were points of internal contention. Partisan differences over fundamental issues of identity and justice certainly contribute to a sense that Republicans and Democrats live in two different worlds. But the thing is, looking closer reveals that Americans have pretty much always lived with major differences in experiences and opinions. Furthermore, periods in which the two parties were less clearly “sorted” have produced immigration policies that excluded whole nations and racial groups, and — in many cases — what amounted to an elite consensus to do nothing about violence and inequality.
Before we let nostalgia for compromise go too far, we might consider that finding common ground politically has sometimes made things worse.
Right. The heterogeneous, ideologically diverse parties that dominated American politics between the end of Reconstruction and the realignment that posted the Civil Rights Act far, far more often combined to produce exclusionary policies than policies premised on equal citizenship. As in the Jacksonian era, national politics can suppress questions of racial justice from being addressed, but this is very different than conflicts over racial justice disappearing. And even if you thought that this party system was desirable, it couldn’t be put back together. There’s no reason to think that the polarized, more ideologically coherent national parties we now have are going away, or that either one is going to stop becoming viable anytime soon.