Our Scrappy Democracy: More Conflict Than Consensus

The bipartisanship that marked politics for three or four decades after the end of World War II led American historians to assume consensus rather than conflict defined the entire course of American history. Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition, published in 1948, described the main tenet of this historical school: A belief that the nation’s history was characterized by broad agreement on fundamentals, such as private property and personal liberty. 

Hofstadter and other “consensus” historians mistook the specific — the years during which they wrote — for the general — the broad sweep of American history. Their interpretation still influences contemporary views of the past. It is commonplace today to assume that our current political dysfunction — epitomized by the age of Trump but not caused by his presidency — is unique, reflecting a clear break with the tradition of partisan cooperation between political parties that marked the growth of the United States from a small, agricultural nation in 1789 to superpower status after World War II.

Senator Arthur Vandenberg, Republican of Michicgan

During the years 1945 to 1980, a liberal consensus predominated as most Americans took for granted the benefits of a powerful federal government and majorities in both parties accepted the legacy of the New Deal. The rapid transition from World War II to confrontation with the Soviet Union thrust America onto the international stage. No longer could there be a return to the isolationism that marked much of previous American foreign policy. The Cold War — during which the Soviet Union was seen as an existential threat — forced cooperation between Republicans and Democrats as virtually all heeded the dictum of Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Michigan Republican, to stop “partisan politics at the water’s edge.”

The workings of intra-party alliances also fostered consensus. Democrats consisted of a coalition of northern liberals, union workers, and southern segregationists. Republicans represented an amalgam of pro-business and small government conservatives, midwestern farmers, and eastern internationalist liberals like Wendell Wilkie and Dwight Eisenhower. Democrats and Republicans were pushed to the center where their disparate elements could find agreement. At the same time, a broader alliance of progressive northerners, liberal Republicans, and southerners dominated national politics, agreeing to sustain the New Deal and confront the Soviet Union. Relative economic prosperity greased the wheel of political accord. 

Senator Robert Taft, Republican of Ohio

Even this view of the post-war era as an age of consensus ignores the fragile nature of the Democratic coalition, always susceptible to fracturing along racial lines, and the threats to the harmony of the Republican Party represented by diehard conservatives led first by Senator Robert Taft of Ohio in the 1950s and then the insurgency of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who wrested the 1964 Republican presidential nomination from the Eastern wing of the party. Goldwater’s crushing defeat represented the last triumph of consensus politics, which fell prey to the emerging Civil Rights movement and the divisive Vietnam War. The “Southern Strategy” of Richard Nixon and the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 led to a shift in the geographical bases of the political parties, with the Republican Party taking control of the once solidly Democratic South. Now, in 2019, we have political parties that are more unified internally, farther apart politically, and more intent on winning elections than governing harmoniously. American politics today, in short, is marked by political dysfunction, though to be clear, as I have argued elsewhere, Republicans bear far more responsibility for partisan gridlock than Democrats. One example of Republican intransigence: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refusing to allow a vote on President Barack Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland for a seat on the Supreme Court. 

The consensus school of history never accounted for one glaring problem: The Civil War. But, leaving aside that internecine conflict, has consensus really marked the American past? The United States may have been founded in a burst of compromise in the drafting of the Constitution, but partisan rancor soon replaced harmonious governing. President George Washington viewed his role as rising above political infighting, but his second term saw the emergence of political parties coalescing around the differing visions of his two most prominent advisors: Alexander Hamilton, who favored an industrialized America governed by the financial classes, and the agrarian dream of Thomas Jefferson, who saw an America of small farmers. 

Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, the “Great Compromiser,” introducing the Compromise of 1850

Constant threats of disunion, which as the years went by came to dominate politics, undermed the political system’s ability to solve the problem of slavery and govern effectively. The Constitutional Convention succeeded only by compromising on the divisive issue of slavery and glaringly never mentioning the institution in the Constitution. In 1814, New England Federalists, unhappy over the War of 1812, met at Hartford to contemplate seceding from the Union. After that, all the threats of secession came from Southern slaveholders. The South was mollified constantly by Northern concessions: First, when Missouri was admitted as a slave state in 1820; again, in 1832-1833, when the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were modified to satisfy South Carolina’s nullifiers; and, then, in the Compromise of 1850, when most of the vast territory acquired from Mexico was organized without prohibiting the extension of slavery and a draconian Fugitive Slave Law was enacted. The Compromise of 1850 passed only because its numerous parts were voted on individually, allowing Southerners and Northerners to vote only for the parts they liked. An omnibus bill could not have passed a deeply divided Congress, symptomatic of a process that only delayed by a decade the fateful settling of the slavery issue. Finally, in the 1850s, the continued encroachments of the “Slave Power” led Northerners to stand firm against the extension of slavery, culminating in Southern secession and war.

Later came the disruptions caused by rapid industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. Labor unrest, class conflict, and cycles of boom and bust dominated the era from the end of the Civil War through the Great Depression, and the nation’s politics reflected these seismic societal changes. Only, after New Deal reforms brought on economic stability did the political consensus following World War II emerge.

Conflict and political dysfunction, rather than consensus, are typical of American politics. The political harmony after World War II was an anomaly, and the current political dysfunction and political gridlock is more representative of the American past than the bipartisan spirit of the post-1945 era. The administration of Donald Trump is the apotheosis of our current national political polarization, and Trump’s election in 2016 reflected the trends of partisan politics over the last four decades. Since 1980, the Republican Party has moved to the right, become more hospitable to Southern whites, and less committed to bipartisan governance. Trump’s presidency is not the cause of dysfunction, but a mirror of the intense political polarization that marks the American saga. 

Posted May 7, 2019


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