Party rivalry past and present
Maybe we’ve got it wrong – maybe Americans aren’t really so troubled by the rancor in politics today. Maybe it’s always been there -- and for a reason: What better way to get your side out to vote than to trash the other side. Michael F. Holt, a professor of American history at the University of Virginia, has studied partisan politics for decades and his latest book, “Franklin Pierce,” gives us the long view on party rivalry. If you think interparty conflict is bad these days, it was possibly worse in the 19th century -- and voter turnout was far higher then than it is now.
By Michael F. Holt
“It’s clear Washington is broken,” says newly elected Republican Sen. Scott Brown. “There’s too much partisan bickering to solve the problems people want us to solve.”
Public opinion pollsters have been telling us much the same thing for years. Americans are supposedly disgusted with politics and politicians because of the ferocity of partisan combat, the pervasive negativity of partisan rhetoric, and the obstinate refusal of Republicans and Democrats in Washington and many state capitals to cooperate in bipartisan fashion “to solve the problems people want us to solve.”
In short, a majority of Americans, according to pollsters, decidedly prefer interparty consensus to interparty conflict.
Both voters and party politicians in the 19th century, whose behavior and attitudes I have studied for almost 50 years, would have found these laments incomprehensible. For the last six decades of that century voter turnout in presidential and off-year congressional elections soared far above today’s anemic levels, which have been low since 1960 and thus cannot be taken as an index of voter frustration with current hyper-partisanship.
Politicians correctly understood that their ability to generate these since-unequaled rates of voter mobilization, as well as their ability to hold their own parties together, depended on the sharpness, the ferocity, of interparty conflict. Thus rival parties usually voted against each other as blocs in legislative bodies and did all they could to educate voters about the sharp differences on policy that separated them.
Conversely, the kind of bipartisan cooperation voters are supposedly clamoring for today seemed to them, again correctly as the evidence shows, a deterrent to voter turnout and a dissolvent of internal party unity. Conflict, including rancid negative campaigning, was the life-blood of the political system; interparty consensus of the “let’s cooperate to solve problems” type was its death-knell.
The presidential election of 1852, which pitted the Whig Winfield Scott, a legitimate hero of the Mexican-American War, against the Democrat Franklin Pierce, who briefly served under Scott as a brigadier-general and is the subject of a recently published biography by me, illustrates the point.
Since 1960 turnout of eligible voters (including those who refused or failed to register) in American presidential elections has usually ranged between 50 and 55 percent. From 1840 to 1900, in contrast, voter turnout in presidential elections exceeded 80 percent three times and slipped below 70 percent only once. That was 1852 when Whigs and Democrats took virtually identical positions on issues and party lines on governmental economic policy had collapsed in Congress and state legislatures because of the prosperity ignited by the California gold rush and unprecedented levels of British investment in the American economy.
Voters’ response to the absence of difference was widespread and well-noted indifference. “General Apathy is the strongest candidate out here,” wrote a wag from Cincinnati, while a frustrated Whig campaigner from western Pennsylvania complained that trying to mobilize Whig voters “was something like pissing against the wind when blowing sixty miles to the hour.”
Nonetheless, Democrats did a better job than Whigs in getting out their vote. Pierce routed Scott by carrying twenty-seven of thirty-one states, and Democrats won heavy majorities in both houses of Congress as well.
Yet as both Democrats and Whigs instantly recognized, the very weakness of Whig opposition almost guaranteed internal fragmentation among the victorious Democrats. As Tennessee Democrat Andrew Johnson shrewdly noted, “The Whig party is now disbanded leaving the [Democratic] party without external pressure to keep it together.” Because issue-conflict between the parties had abated, he added, Pierce’s administration “comes into power to carry out no Set of measures, nothing in fact to bind the party together with except ‘the cohesive ties of public plunder’ which will soon give out.”
Lacking any domestic policy agenda whatsoever (in the 19th century the Democrats were emphatically the “Party of No,”) Pierce did try to hold the Democratic party together with the distribution of federal patronage. The result was disastrous. Rancorous factional feuds over the spoils emerged in every state. By the summer and fall of 1853 frantic Democrats were writing Washington that their party would be “shivered to atoms” unless Democrats revived partisan conflict with Whigs over concrete congressional policies.
But Pierce, an exemplary leader of the “Party of No,” had no specific program that might arouse Whig opposition and thus reunite feuding Democrats. Indeed, he vetoed much that the Democratic majority in Congress tried to pass.
Illinois’ Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas, in contrast, did have a program that he knew would revive Whig opposition. The result was the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The result of that, in turn, was four years of turmoil over slavery extension in Kansas, the decimation of Democratic voting strength and congressional representation in the North, the defeat of Pierce’s attempt to win re-nomination from his party in 1856, and, most important, the emergence of the Republican party as Democrats’ major opponent. And, arguably, none of this would have happened had not an appearance of bipartisan consensus replaced sharp lines of interparty conflict by 1852.
An inquisitive reader might at this point ask: Why was the popular attitude toward politics and governance so different then than it is today? One could cite numerous reasons. Here, I confine myself to two. First, very few people in the 19th century, except in emergencies like the Civil War, expected the government to solve problems. Most Americans, certainly most Democrats, indeed, wanted to stop the government from doing anything. They elected representatives to say No! Being the “Party of No” was not a slur; it was an encomium.
Second, although visceral ethnic, religious, economic, and regional animosities often determined the electorates of the rival parties, political combat had a monopoly of mass entertainment. Think Major League Baseball, the NFL, NHL, and NBA combined. Each party had loyal fans, but they needed a game, a contest, a conflict to get them fully energized. And that is precisely what rival political parties tried to provide.
Steven E. Levingston
May 7, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Guest Blogger | Tags: democrats vs. republicans, partisan politics, party rivalry
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