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Today’s politics is a throwback to the ’90s — the 1890s

Current climate rivals nationwide polarization of the late 19th century

Pro-Trump rioters breach the Capitol on Jan. 6. The former president is a polarizing figure and attitudes toward him have reshaped modern voting patterns, Rothenberg writes.
Pro-Trump rioters breach the Capitol on Jan. 6. The former president is a polarizing figure and attitudes toward him have reshaped modern voting patterns, Rothenberg writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — We are now in a period of intense partisanship and polarization, with each party painting the other as extreme, untrustworthy and even dangerous.

But while current levels of partisanship may seem unique, another rarely mentioned period in American history, from the late 1880s to the mid-1890s, produced comparable levels of polarization and partisanship.

As historian Richard Jensen noted in his 1971 book, “The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888-1896”:

“Partisanship ran deep in the Midwest. The Civil War was a living memory; more than anything else it fused the loyalty of Republicans to the ‘grand old party’ that had saved the Union and abolished slavery — just as it fused the loyalty of Democrats to the poor man’s party which had defended constitutional liberties in an era of despotism and corruption. … Men spoke of political attachments in the same breath as loyalty to religion.”

These days, the country is polarized along many lines, ranging from religiosity and race to education and geography. 

Traditionalists, including white evangelicals, have had an almost religious commitment to the GOP and former President Donald Trump. The same goes for those who live in rural America and for white men without a college degree. 

On the other hand, urban Americans, nonwhites, and younger and secular Americans find Trump intolerant and his party narrow-minded.

The animosity between the two camps has shattered friendships and divided families. Most Americans either love Trump (and now vote Republican) or hate him (and vote Democratic). All of this is very reminiscent of Jensen’s description of the late 1880s and early 1890s.

As for Jensen’s comments about newspapers, editors and writers in the late 19th century, it could have been written today, though cable TV “news” programs and the internet would have to be added to his list.

“The midwestern papers flourished because they were semi-official party organs and furnished the main channel of routine communication between party workers and the rank and file,” Jensen wrote.

Fox News, One America News and NewsMax are not traditional “news” organizations, but they surely qualify as “semi-official party organs” since they promote narratives that demonize Democrats and nurture Republicans. 

Mainstream cable networks CNN and MSNBC make a greater effort to follow traditional journalistic standards, but too often they have sounded like Democratic critics of the GOP.

Jensen’s description of media bias in the 1880s and early 1890s rings particularly true:

“The news was almost as biased as the editorials. The weaknesses of the opposition grew into fatal flaws, their blunders magnified into heinous crimes against American liberties, and their policies metamorphosed into evil designs of conspiratorial juntas. The editor’s own party rarely stumbled, its principles remained ever pure and self-evident, its rallies were uniformly crowded to the rafters (while the opposition inevitably suffered poor attendance), and the party was always marching to victory. When victory did come it was due to sound principles, superior organization, invincible leadership, and the basic good sense of the people. If perchance an election brought defeat, the causes were unnatural: heavy rains downstate, overconfidence or treachery in the ranks, vile frauds at the polling places, or wicked deception by the enemy.”

The reaction of Trump loyalists to the 2020 results duplicates what Jensen described was occurring 130 years ago. To many Republicans, only “vile frauds at the polling places” could have resulted in Trump’s defeat.

Jensen also observed that the “prevalence of party loyalty was evident in the focus on national issues in races where national problems had no bearing.” A classic example of that today was the decision this summer of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, to send the state’s National Guard troops to the southern border, even though Rapid City, S.D., is almost 900 miles from El Paso, Texas, as the crow flies. Noem clearly sought to use a national issue to demonstrate her partisan loyalty, just as politicians in the 1880s and 1890s did. 

Jensen also observed that during the late 19th century the “strength of partisanship was also manifest in the relative absence of ticket-splitting. In legislative, state, and presidential contests rarely did more than 5 percent of voters split their tickets.” 

We have witnessed the same trend recently.

Between 1956 and 1988, at least a quarter of all districts saw voters cast their ballots for the nominee of one party for president and a different party for the House. In 1984, 43.7 percent of all districts split their tickets. 

But since 2000, that percentage has been sinking. In 2012, only 6 percent of districts split their tickets, while only 8 percent did so in 2016.

According to calculations by Daily Kos Elections, there were split results in only 16 House districts in 2020 — or just under 4 percent.

Finally, Jensen noted, “Turnout was doubly important since the two parties were very evenly matched in the 1880s, both in the Midwest and in the nation at large.” 

Here again, the current situation echoes the earlier period. Today, the Senate is split evenly, and Democrats hold a narrow single-digit advantage in the House. The last two presidential elections turned on a handful of states that were narrowly decided. 

Many political analysts believe that the percentage of swing voters is shrinking and that the key to winning elections now is turnout.

So how did the country move past the partisanship and polarization of the 1890s? The election of 1896, won by Republican William McKinley, produced a new partisan alignment that ushered in decades of GOP dominance. 

As political scientist James Sundquist noted in his classic “Dynamics of the Party System”: 

“The massive swing to the Republicans in the North was predominantly urban. In rural counties in the Midwest and even in the East, the Democrats showed relatively slight losses from their strength in 1892. But in the urban centers the shift was decisive and lasting, and it was reflected in state as well as national elections.

Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan, emphasized Sundquist, “failed disastrously to win over the urban element of his ‘toiling masses’ coalition.”

Jensen made the same point when he argued, “The largest cities provided the greatest Republican gains in 1896, thanks to their ethno-religious composition, their industrialized and commercialized economic base, and their relative freedom from the constraints of traditional party loyalties.”

I don’t know whether 2024 or 2028 will turn out to be another realigning election (and if one of them does, who will benefit). But Jensen’s observations about the period from 1888 to 1896 surely present food for thought and remind us that what seems unique — in this case extreme polarization and partisanship — often is not. 

The political behavior of urban — and particularly suburban — America could well prove to be the key to whether and how our politics changes.

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