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American Polarization and Extremism Are Just a Return to Normalcy

The influence of two wars—the Civil War and World War II—disrupted otherwise normal currents in American politics. The disruptions came so early and lasted so long that commentators mistake the exception for the norm. For better or for worse, the increasing political polarization and extremism we see today is no more than a reversion to the American norm.

The influence of the Civil War on party identification created two political parties as much regionally-based as they were driven by ideology. What commentators take as increasing polarization today is a return to normal patterns of partisanship with the dissipation, after more than a century, of the bitter regional divisions created by the Civil War. The influence of World War II is more diffuse, as much a convenient dividing line as it is a causal factor. Nonetheless, Americans tend to forget extremism in American politics, often violent, was the norm from the 1880s through the 1930s. The social and political homogenization created by, or at least indicated by, the mobilization for World War II muted the extremes.

It may seem odd to argue that ideological polarization is the normal state of American political parties, especially given measures indicating increased polarization occurred only over the last couple of generations. The thing is the disruption of the Civil War occurred so early in the nation’s history, and the half-life of residual ill-will lasted for the better part of a century, that we’ve experienced the exception more than we’ve experienced the rule. Nonetheless, polarization is the normal state of affairs.

After the Civil War, white southerners refused to identify as Republicans—the party of Abraham Lincoln, after all. And while never quite as dramatic as southern behavior, Republicans maintained a residual pull in the North, at least among white Protestants. Almost a century before pasting Democrats in 1972 as the party of “acid, amnesty and abortion” (although a Democrat originated the phrase), in 1884 Republicans ran against the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”

Both parties had thick tails at the extremes of their distributions; there was lots of overlap between the parties. Large numbers of conservatives identified as Democrats, many liberals identified as Republicans. It took almost a century for ideology finally to erode sectional commitments.

The “solid south” began notably to separate from the Democratic fold in the 1950s. The presidential vote in 1964 presaged the final end of Civil War regionalism. In that year’s presidential election, the heart of the former Confederacy went wholesale for Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, the north went solidly for Lyndon Johnson. After that election southern conservatives began voting Republican further down the ticket; northeastern liberals voted Democratic more consistently as well. The overlap of the tails in the ideological distribution of each party began to thin as regional influence on party membership shrank and as each party coalesced more consistently around ideology. This is the normal pull of a two-party system. While the lengthy half-life of the Civil War’s regional bitterness overwhelmed this pull for almost a century, it was the disruption – the exception. Ideological polarization is the rule.

Polarization differs from extremism, although commentators often conflate the two. Reducing partisan variance within political parties naturally increases partisan polarization. That is, the overlap between the parties naturally thins as variance decreases. Less variance within each party means less in common between the parties even if the median member of each party stays put.

“Extremism,” on the other hand, isn’t necessarily even a partisan category. Nonetheless we can think of it as extending out the ideological distribution.

Americans tend to forget the angry, bitter, and even violent extremism on both sides of the political spectrum from roughly 1880 through the start of World War II. We forget the politically-motivated assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. Anarchists targeted leading political and business figures with numerous mail bombs in 1919.

Violence aside, the Socialist Party presidential candidate attracted six percent of the popular vote in 1912, and over 16 percent in 1924 (candidate Robert La Follette received almost five million votes that year).

Extremism during this period was certainly not limited to the left. During the 1920s, membership in the Ku Klux Klan peaked at somewhere between 4 to 6 million members—a significant percentage of the eligible population of the time. During this period the Klan not only advocated white supremacy, but was anti-Catholic, pro-Prohibition (part of its anti-Catholicism), anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant. During this time the Klan’s violence targeted political outsiders, as opposed to the political and business leaders the anarchists targeted. Moreover, the Klan’s violence was concentrated particularly in the South in support of Jim Crow oppression of blacks, with some violence aimed against bootleggers.

WW II wrung out a large measure of this extremism on both sides of the spectrum. Beyond the homogenizing tendencies promoted by the War effort itself, post-War prosperity, government suppression, and additional social pressure to conform stemming from the Cold War, all muted extremism during and immediately after the War.

The return of American extremism, particularly violent extremism, has not been as seamless as the increase in polarization, with episodes punctuating post-War American history. Nonetheless, recent trends herald the return of sizeable blocks of both socialist and nativist constituencies not seen since the 1920s.

Looking around today, the disruptions of the two wars have dissipated; the U.S. increasingly reflects its inherent, longer-run political tendencies. Tendencies that, in the short-to-medium-term can be overwhelmed by more pressing commitments forged in the heat of war. Nonetheless, what we are witnessing today is pretty much who we are politically. Bitter political disagreement is the underlying pull of American politics, no matter how that pull might be papered over, sometimes for decades. The increasing polarization and extremism we see today in America is, for better or for worse, only a return American normalcy.

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