The Great American Partisan Divide - The Formation and the Cure

Allan Katz is Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs and Political Science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Portugal. He is the founder of the American Public Square. Stephen Larson assisted in researching and editing this article


THE partisan divide in American politics has received consider-able attention in recent years. The unwillingness of the two main political parties to compromise on virtually nothing has led to a new form of gridlock that will only yield to dire emergency.

Normal governmental functions—such as raising the public debt limit and appropriating monies in the federal budget—were routinely approved by the U.S. Congress a generation ago. However, over the past 20 years or more, these matters have become so contentious that the threat of a government shut-down is now routine, as is the failure of the Congress to responsibly fund basic programs like public infrastructure and social security. Most political leaders prefer to discredit opposing political views with anecdotal stories, rather than engage in rational, fact-based discussions.

This essay will attempt to summarize how, and why, this impasse developed. In understanding its origins, attempts to ameliorate the situation will be explored—with an emphasis on those going forward at this time.

Historical Contours
The basic schism in American politics has philosophical roots. Traditional conservatives and traditional liberals have long been at odds over the role of government and the restrictions on individual liberty that the government can establish.

Conservatives believe in the individual’s right to exercise self-reliance and advocate for limited government involvement. Conservatives cherish personal liberty, seek to preserve the status quo in society, and believe restrictions by government should be non-intrusive, except as they apply to certain cultural norms. Liberals—or “progressives,” as most now prefer to be called—believe in the need for a wider social safety net provided by the government. In order to create that safety net and protect those of more limited means and influence, liberals are willing to cede to government the right to prescribe and proscribe certain types of behavior. Conservatives may oppose the government’s ability to engage in such conduct, regarding it as an infringement on individual rights, or, for instance, the inappropriate exercise of government’s role through the regulation of business activity. At the same time, liberals believe government should allow and protect certain behavior as it evolves away from previous social norms.

A partisan divide has existed since Thomas Jefferson and his party opposed the Federalism of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Parties were virulent in their attacks on opponents, as seen in the young Republic’s early presidential campaigns. Characteriza-tions of candidates and their wives (Andrew Jackson) or ancestors (Martin Van Buren) were vicious. However, the United States was in a state of geographical expansion and population growth, and large portions of the population were barred from voting. Thus, the impact of these elections on peoples’ lives was not immediately apparent. With the obvious exception of slavery, which led to the Civil War, a general consensus prevailed throughout the development of the American political system—except in times of crisis.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) New Deal reconfigured the role of gov-ernment in people’s lives, leading to a massive political realignment amongst the critics of the New Deal. Opponents, such as Huey Long, a southern populist, promoted a more radical redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. In contrast, conservatives proclaimed the New Deal legislation to be an infringement on individual rights. In spite of the opposition, there remained substan-tial common ground between the two parties: within a few years, much of the New Deal legislation became accepted as the law of the land by all—conservatives included.

The Rise of the Division
The contemporary partisan divide began to develop with the emergence of modern American political campaigns in 1960 and the election of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s election—and, more so, the legislative achieve-ments during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson—placed the belief that the federal government would play a central role in rectifying social ills at the center of American political thought.

In effect, a Democratic president and Congress expanded dramatically on the principles born of FDR’s New Deal programs of the 1930s and 1940s. These processes led to a fundamental shift in political alliances and the tone of political campaigns. The “War on Poverty” led to the implementation of a vast number of new government social programs to help the poor. These programs, along with efforts to further eman-cipate African-Americans, through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, attracted large swaths of Republican voters throughout the Midwest and western states, while disadvantageously altering Southerners’ attitudes towards the Democratic Party. Coupling this social revolution with the increasing importance of mass media and the ability to address millions of voters, American politics headed down a road that has led us to the current crisis.

The Republicans offered a stark alternative to this vision in 1964 with the candidacy of Barry Goldwater. By overwhelming numbers, voters em-braced Johnson’s vision and rejected the limited government role presented by Goldwater. His platform included a rejection of Johnson’s promotion of civil rights and Great Society initiatives. Despite Goldwater’s landslide loss to Johnson in the 1964 election, he carried four southern states—a harbinger of the geographic shifts in party affiliation that were to come.

Only four years later, the country was in turmoil. The military difficulties and uncertain moral stakes of the Vietnam War had generated a grow-ing anti-war movement. Young people were rejecting society in larger numbers and embracing a counter-culture that frightened many Americans. Growing racial tensions and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders led to the eruption of violence in numerous American cities. Riots broke out across the country.

In 1968, the presidential campaign of Richard Nixon worked hard to reach voters who had received no direct benefit from Johnson’s Great Society programs, and who were scared by rising crime, riots, and social upheaval among America’s youth. In appealing to those voters, Nixon was assisted by a third party movement led by Governor George Wallace of Alabama—a loud voice decrying Washington and repre-senting those whites in the South and North who were alarmed and angered by integration and civil rights. After being elected, Nixon worked to expand his support through the wooing of what he termed the “silent majority.”

By the Nixon re-election campaign of 1972, even as certain social struggles of the 1960s had simmered, the climate of presidential politics was in certain respects becoming all the more toxic. Nixon accused his opponent George McGovern—and Democrats in general—of favoring “amnesty” (for anti-war protesters), “abortion” (not yet legal in many states), and “acid” (code for permissiveness towards drugs more broadly), which personified the unruly youth culture in the minds of many middle class Americans. Nixon won 49 states in that election—a mere eight years after his party had been thoroughly rejected by the voters in 1964.

The strategy of the Nixon campaign—and its success—inflicted a severe blow to the legitimacy of the Democratic platform. Ever since 1972, national Democratic candidates have had to focus considerable effort on overcom-ing the stigma of being seen as “soft on crime and drugs.”

Yet another event that occurred shortly after Nixon’s re-election further intensified the partisan divide in national politics: the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade. The six-to-three decision of the justices to legalize abortion was morally repugnant to many religious groups who believed abortion was murder. Many such groups had been relatively uninvolved in politics up to that point.

The Republican Party’s active wooing of that previously nonpolitical constituency, and their promise to end abortion in America, was critical to the rise of the so-called “religious right,” which quickly became one of the cornerstones of the Republican Party. With these efforts, the Republicans made abortion a defining issue. It became clear that no Republican national candidate who was not “pro-life” would survive a primary.

Democrats, who were by and large “pro-choice,” mirrored this absolutism, refusing, for instance, a speaking slot to Governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania at the 1992 Democratic National Convention because he was a Catholic who opposed abortion. No Democrat who opposed Roe v. Wade would be able to mount a serious presidential campaign again. Similarly, during the 1992 Republican National Convention, a sizeable pro-choice minority fought the pro-life majority over anti-abortion as a staple in the Republican platform. Nonetheless, both parties staunchly embraced their ideology and intensified the partisan divide.

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