I’m usually the first person to be skeptical of any invocations of the “good old days” and nostalgia for times past. In my experience, that nostalgia is usually driven by someone for whom those were good old days and misses a wide swath of people for whom those days were significantly less than good. However, I’ve not been able to dismiss a nagging feeling that politics used to be less hostile than it is right now and that it’s bad no matter which side of the aisle you’re on.
In my memory, there used to be a greater diversity amongst political parties. Republicans and Democrats disagreed, were sometimes uncharitable towards each other, but there was a lot less hatred and a lot more willingness to partner across political divides.
It turns out, I wasn’t wrong.
We’ve been on 40-year trend towards the aggressive levels of “negative partisanship” we see right now. Polling experts Fivethirthyeight have tracked the growing dislike between Americans for people of the other party and they cite three primary causes for the ever-widening gap between us.
Broadly speaking, there are three trends that we can point to. The first is the steady nationalization of American politics. The second is the sorting of Democrats and Republicans along urban/rural and culturally liberal/culturally conservative lines, and the third is the increasingly narrow margins in national elections.
The combination of these three trends has turned Washington, D.C., into a high-stakes battle where cross-party compromise is difficult, and both sides are increasingly holding out for complete control.
According to this account, local elections used to matter more and what it meant to be a Democrat in Minnesota, might look very different from what it meant to be a Democrat in New Mexico. As national parties solidified their identities and embraced a particular set of cultural values, these distinctions began to melt away into the national party identities we see today. Our political conflicts then become more about the threat of “the other side” than the things that divide us within our group.
I recommend reading the whole piece, because there’s a lot of interesting analysis. 40 years of hardening ourselves against each other is a lot of mess to undo. If we want to return to a state where politics divides us less, or chart a new path to unity, we need to first understand how we got here.
Photo by 1STunningART on Adobe Stock