Partisanship and American Politics and History
October 28, 2015 § 4 Comments
I am reading Andrew Schocket’s fascinating new book, Fighting Over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, for a directed reading I’m doing with a student on Public History. I’m only about 45 pages into the book, but so far, it is very compelling reading, and also re-confirms my decision to walk away from a planned research project into the far right of American politics and its view of the country’s history.
Schocket argues that since the 1970s, Americans and American life and culture have become more partisan. He points to the internet, the dissolution of the Big Three networks’ monopoly on the news, self-contained internet communities, and the rise of ideological political spending outside of the two main parties (i.e.: the result of SCOTUS’ incredibly wrong-headed Citizens United decision). He also notes gerrymandering, and the evidence that suggests Americans are moving into ideologically similar communities.
I have never really bought this argument. This country’s entire political history has been based on political partisanship. Sure, the Big Three networks have lost their monopoly, but the bigger issue is the end of the FCC’s insistence on equal time for opposing viewpoints on the news. But even then, newspapers were little more than political organs in the 19th century. Self-contained communities in both the real world and the internet really only replace 19th and 20th century workplaces where people were likely to think similarly in terms of politics. True, Citizens United is a new wrinkle, but it doesn’t really change much in terms of partisanship.
We are talking about a country where the initial founding was controversial, as evidenced by the 20% of the population who were Loyalists during the Revolution. Then, during the first Adams administration, the Alien & Sedition Acts were passed for entirely partisan reasons. I’m not sure you can find an example in US history of a more partisan moment than one where those in power attempted to outlaw the political discourse of their rivals. This country also nearly came apart in the 1860s over what was, in part, a partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans didn’t get elected in the South in the ante-bellum era. The South did not vote for Lincoln. Many Northern Democrats, the so-called copperheads, had Southern sympathies. Or there’s the tension between Democrats and Republicans in the early 20th century over the power of corporations. Or how about the battle over America’s place in the world after World War I? What about the McCarthyite era?
In short, while we live in an era of intense partisanship, this is nothing new for the United States. Partisanship is, in many ways, as American as baseball, apple pie, and Budweiser.
One can stand this thesis on its head and argue that the post-WWII consensus was really the extraordinary political era.
Clearly, the Founders are more an icon to the contemporary right than to the left, simply by the natures of their ideologies. What is disturbing is how ahistorical that picture has become, removed from its context and with any hint of conflict (except over slaves) removed. Sometimes to amuse myself, I’ll introduce selections from Paine’s “Agrarian Justice” into an online discussion about the Founders. The usual reaction from the left is delight that such writings exist, from the right denunciations of Paine or his writings as somehow illegitimate when discussing the Founders.
We have a similar argument in Canada right now, in light of the past decade of Conservative mis-management, that the post-WWII welfare state and push for equality was the anomaly in our history, like this argument for the US in the post-WWII consensus (which, I might add, was not really all that peaceful, given the Cold War, McCarthism, Nixon, etc., in terms of internal politics).
The book I mention in this post talks about that essentialist, rightist ahistoricism. I love the idea of Paine in that mess!
[…] book, Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution. (I wrote about this book last week, too). The term “Founding Fathers” presumes there was once a group of men, great men, […]
Your argument is spot-on about the “founding fathers.” One minor point of potential disagreement, though. In Victorian times and right through the Cold War the blank-and-white myth you suggest was taught at every level, but my experience has been that in recent decades schools and colleges have presented a more accurate, nuanced approach.