How Polarized Are We?

Observing the political carnage over health care reform, I am struck all over again at what a polarized country we have become. Health care is incredibly complicated, but that ought to create opportunities for compromise and collaboration. Re-engineering a machine with a million moving parts, there are probably ten million approaches that have some claim to plausibility. But no, the debate continually narrows itself into a shouting match over a single detail-“death panels,” or “public option.” (It will be something else next week, if the whole effort doesn’t fall apart before next week.) It’s hard to get anything done on such a complex subject when you have two sides that so deeply distrust each other.
It is not the first time in American history that we have been so polarized.
In 1800, when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson competed for the presidency, the election was marked by rabid distrust between Federalists and Democratic Republicans. Both sides fought as though the fate of America lay in the result, as they sincerely thought it did. Rhetoric was at least as strident as today, and all news was reported in highly partisan newspapers that made no pretence of objectivity. Yet, when Jefferson was elected he governed in a far more moderate way than the Federalists had expected. The only violence to come out of the election was the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. (Edward Larson’s A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign tells the story well.)

On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 resulted in the Civil War. Then, too, the nation was deeply divided, and rhetoric was extreme. When John Brown raided Harpers Ferry in 1859, he was condemned as a terrorist by much of the nation, but lauded as a saint and a hero by a significant part of the rest. With such absolutely polarized opinions, there appeared to be no option but to fight it out with guns.
The difference between 1800 and 1860 seems pretty obvious: slavery. There was no political compromise on slavery-no way to split the difference, no way to be a moderate.
Compare the split reaction to John Brown’s raid with the unified horror over Timothy McVeigh’s assault on the federal building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh acted on an extremist version of the Republican distrust of government, the sense that control from Washington, D.C. must be fought ferociously. (We hear echoes of this in the health care debate.) But nobody lauded McVeigh as a hero. We have not reached polarization of that level yet, and God helping us we won’t.
Right and left certainly do have different overarching visions of society, but I believe the differences are more like those of 1800 than those of 1860. I’m hoping we’ll eventually get past the divisive rhetoric and manage to get some business done. No sign of that yet.


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