In a recent post, I suggested that much of the blame for the quality of the political campaigns resides with the major parties. The view that political parties have become more partisan and that campaigns have increasingly sunk to the least common denominator seems to be widespread. I have called this the politics of distraction, and by shifting the public's attention from the essential to the superficial, it does the nation a great disservice. The mainstream media are also complicit in this shift. We sense that it wasn't always like this--my preference for the discourse in the Nixon-Kennedy debate compared to the Bush-Kerry debate is evidence that I think there was a better time in the recent past.
But even the last half century is too short a time period to think about partisanship in politics. I recently finished Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, by Joseph J. Ellis. The book focuses on the decade of the 1790s when the Republicans and Federalists feuded over the legacy of the American Revolution--whether its objective was to be independent of any central government or simply the British central government. The battle to succeed Washington--who was the only one able to transcend this partisanship--was hotly and venomously contested. Jefferson's scheming in particular contradicts any suggestion that the partisanship of modern times is unprecedented. Better historians than I can fill in the history of partisanship that has been with us since then.
So why does everyone seem to believe that partisanship is getting worse? My preferred explanation is that many people who are alive today came of age during a very unusual period of history in which partisanship was dormant. Not non-existent, but certainly not front and center like it had been before and is now. Consider the arc that began with Roosevelt's landslide re-election in 1936, intensified during World War II, crested during the early years of the Cold War and the space race, began to decline with the assassination of JFK, and ended tragically with Vietnam and Watergate.
During this span, strong presidents kept the nation unified against the external threat of the Soviet Union. Broadcast journalism was just coming of age and served first to unify the country around a common set of middle class values. Legislators worked across the aisle to pass significant legislation in foreign as well as domestic policy. But violence at home and abroad and criminal activity in the Nixon Whitehouse tore the unity apart. In the absence of a stable ruling coalition, the exceptional period was over. Partisanship was free to return, and with more modern technology for organizing and communicating along party lines, it has grown more virulent over time.
I'll offer some more hopeful possibilities for how the situation might be improved in a later post.