US political polarization, past and present

Thomas Nast cartoons from the 1870s

Polarization in American public life is based on identity politics. That is, we Americans are more divided over who we think we are than over what we think needs to be done.

This isn’t anything new. We’ve always been more divided over race, religion, ethnic culture and region than over econom.

Or rather, clashes over economic interests have taken the form of clashes over race, religion and regionalism.  For example, the antagonism between native-born Yankee Protestants and immigrant Irish Catholics was not over questions of theology.

During the Gilded Age period lasting from the end of Reconstruction to the beginning of the New Deal, the Democratic Party got the votes of Southern white people, Catholics and Jews, and the Republican Party the votes of Northern white Protestants, plus African-Americans in the parts of the country where they were allowed to vote.

Even when I was growing up in the 1940s, Jews and Catholics were barred from many elite clubs and college fraternities.  Most universities had quotas on the number of Jewish students that could be admitted.

It was taken for granted that no Catholic, no Jew and no white Southerner could be elected President, let alone a woman, an African American or an atheist.

During the Gilded Age, leaders of both political parties were committed to support of corporate business and suppression of organized labor. 

Bribery and corruption were common and out in the open.  So was election fraud.

Class warfare during that era was actual warfare.  The most extreme example was the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia in 1921, where coal company supporters bombed militant coal miners from the air.

But none of this produced a realignment between Democrats and Republicans.  Opposition to corporate domination, such as it was, took place within the two political parties or, more rarely, through short-lived independent parties.

We worry today about a resurgence of fascism, but the Ku Klux Klan was fascist before “fascism” was a word. The Klan was authoritarian and racist, its power rested on terrorism and lawless violence, and it perfected a system of government later taken up by fascists and Bolsheviks.

The nominal structure of democratic government and independent business remained in place, but the “Invisible Empire” had its own hidden parallel structure which had the real power. 

The Italian Fascists and German Nazis used the same system of dual power, as did Soviet Communists.  The Nazis in many ways admired the USA as a model racist country, in our eugenics, miscegenation laws and Jim Crow laws and in our ethnic cleansing of the native population.

The Klan’s power was not limited to the South.  In the 1920s, its power extended nationwide and its enemies included Catholics and Jews as well as African-Americans.  The Klan’s power was also directed against labor organizers and left-wing radicals.

Such was its power that, in 1924, the Democratic National Convention voted down a resolution to condemn the Ku Klux Klan by name.

Not that anti-black racism, antisemitism or anti-Catholicism were limited to the Klan.  As late as 1960, we Americans were still debating whether a Catholic—any Catholic—should be considered for President.

If you look on the positive side of things, you can reflect on how far we’ve come from the polarization and prejudice of a century ago.  

If you look on negative side of things, you might think about how polarization and prejudice have been the American norm, and how we may be reverting to the norm.  The linked articles discuss polarization and prejudice in the present day.


The Politics of a Second Gilded Age by Matt Karp for Jacobin.

Our Radicalized Republic by Maggie Koerth and Amelia Thomson-Deveaux for Five Thirty-Eight.

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