By: Gabrielle L. (’18)
Without a doubt, the vicious polarization of the 2016 Presidential Campaign and the subsequent election of the Trump administration increased talk of today’s ‘historically-unparalleled’ political partisanship. In fact, in Barack Obama’s 2017 farewell address, he referred to his inability to reverse the 21st century hyper-partisan trend as “one of the few regrets” of his presidency; the challenges of today’s congressional gridlock are well acknowledged by both the government and public. Despite this, although modern Congress is often criticized for exhibiting a hyper-partisanship incomparable to any other time period in our nation’s history, political science metrics suggest that current congressional polarization actually marks a return to historical norms.
"There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know." -Harry S. Truman
Political scientists Poole and Rosenthal’s widely-accepted metric of DW-NOMINATE scores can be used to measure political ideologies and thus the political divide between liberals and conservatives in Congress. By comparing the ‘overlap’ region throughout time, the region in which conservative-Democrats and liberal-Republicans lie, congressional polarization can be tracked throughout history.
Figure 1. and 2. illustrate the unprecedented overlap in congressional voting in both the House and Senate starting in 1945 and continuing throughout the immediate post-WWII years.
The spike in the overlap region during the 1940s and 1950s continues until around the 1970s for both the House and Senate, when the number of representatives overlapping for each party again begin to decline. By the 1980s, both graphs demonstrate a return to the trend of negligible overlap. Excluding the 1940s and 1950s, and the mild spike in the 1920s and 1930s for the Senate, the percentage of overlapping House Democrats and Republicans is practically non-existent, demonstrating the similarity of hyper-partisanship patterns throughout history. In other words, Congress has been extremely polarized since the year 1867, contradicting the media’s claims that Republicans and Democrats in Congress have never been more at odds.
As shown by the lack of congressional overlap in the graphs in the late 19th century, the Gilded Age, characterized by the closeness and alteration of majority parties, can be seen as the historical precedent of today’s hyper-partisanship. Proponents of the hyper-partisanship of the modern era (roughly from 2000 to present day) point to the rarity of two Presidents failing to win a majority of the popular vote within such a short time span as evidence for the unparalleled-divide that wracks our nation today. Nevertheless, two out of the five Presidents who have failed to win a majority of the popular vote, since the first recording of the popular vote in 1824, were elected during the Gilded Age. Moreover, these two Gilded Age Presidents failed to win the popular vote within an even shorter time period than the two Presidents of today’s era (12 years between Hayes and Harrison during the Gilded Age versus 16 years between Bush and Trump in the modern era). This similarity shows that, although one has to look far back in our nation’s history to find it, there exists a historical precedent to the current pattern of polarization.
Adding to the similarities, the majority party in the House of Representatives switched six times during the course of the Gilded Age in which there were thirteen Presidential elections, whereas the majority power has only switched three times in the period from 2000 to today. In both cases, the rapid power fluctuations between the Democrats and Republicans in Congress suggests a relative equilibrium or stalemate pointing to the sharp division of political ideologies within American society.
Thus, when using a broader historical perspective, it is clear that the current political divide is not historically unique. Politics in the Gilded Age experienced a similar political turbulence to our nation today, marking today’s hyper-partisanship as a variation on an old theme rather than an entirely unprecedented phenomena.
Bump, Philip. “The unprecedented partisanship of Congress, explained.” The Washington Post. January 13, 2016. Accessed October 21, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/01/13/heres-why-president-obama-failed-to-bridge-the-partisan-divide-graphed/?utm_term=.5ba2bd3e7058.
Han, Hahrie, and David W. Brady.“A Delayed Return to Historical Norms: Congressional Party Polarization after the Second World War.” British Journal of Political Science 37, no. 3 (2007): 505–31. doi:10.1017/S0007123407000269.
“Party Divisions of the House of Representatives* | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives.” Party Divisions | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives. Accessed October 21, 2017. http://history.house.gov/Institution/Party-Divisions/Party-Divisions/.