Incivility and Polarization in American Politics Have Been Much Worse

For all the incivility and demonization in contemporary American politics. there was a period when it was much more savage. Back in the 1830s through the 1850s, congressional battles over slavery descended into violence ā€” duels, caning, pistol-whipping and threatening to slash an opponent with a knife. Of course, this was just prior to the civil war that killed more than 700,000 Americans.

Violence at the Heart of Our Politics

Incivility, demonization and hyper-partisanship were also worse in the early days of the republic, just as the two political parties — the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, were emerging, in the second term of George Washington and the first term of John Adams. Washington, you may remember, warned in his farewell address, against the “baneful effects of party spirit, of the spirit of revenge, of sectionalism, and the worry that if we endure such things it could lead to foreign influence and corruption,” as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin pointed out in The Washington Post. “Somehow we managed to get through it.”

The hyper-partisanship got so bad in Adams’ term that he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which criminalized dissent and violated the First Amendment to the Constitution. Quite a few critics of the Adams administration were fined and jailed for “sedition.” The laws were so unpopular that Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams in the Election of 1800. This was an era of hyper-partisan newspapers that did not even attempt to fact-check.

Indeed, the notion of a national media with professional, fair and objective standards, with universally accepted facts and acting as a unifying force in a diverse nation only developed in the 20th century with the emergence of just three major broadcast networks. If media fragments into partisanship in the 21st century, that may not be an aberration but a return to 19th century patterns.

The country was also intensely and bitterly divided during the civil rights and Vietnam War period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. These divisions crossed party lines and ultimately led to a realignment of political parties.

Ezra Klein has written a book called “Why We’re Polarized” which has gotten quite a bit of media attention. He identifies “incentives” in the political culture and media system that push people and leaders toward polarization. He doesn’t see villains on just one side in the current environment.

One of his toughest conversations about the topic was with Harvard historian Jill Lepore, author of “These Truths.” Click to check it out.

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