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How polarized is America?

Brian Kaneb | Wednesday, August 29, 2012

When Richard Mourdock ran against Sen. Dick Lugar in the Republican primary last year, he told CNN he thought bipartisanship should consist of “Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.” The blunt comment reflects an attitude that will clearly not help the gridlock in Washington, but it nonetheless gives us insight into the current political atmosphere. This controversial interview proved to be but a minor speed bump on the way towards the nomination for Mourdock, as he beat Sen. Dick Lugar by 21 percentage points just two months later. This raises an interesting question: Is the current political atmosphere really more polarized than the political atmospheres of previous national elections? I believe not.

It appears as if the Founding Fathers faced more partisan challenges than we do in modern times. John Adams himself admitted to a serious fear of the antigovernment rebellions of the 1790s and thought he may have to “order chests of arms from the War Office” for defense. Partisanship was also at play in the election of 1800, as Adams actually hired a public relations advisor, James Callendar, who actively engaged in partisan banter. It is no wonder Thomas Jefferson declared the political atmosphere of that time to be split “two parties, which mutually accuse each other of perfidy and treason.”

All this paled in comparison to the conflicts leading up to the Civil War. You may remember the Kansas-Nebraska Act from your high school history class, which essentially nullified the Missouri Compromise by allowing the citizens of these two new states to vote on slavery. The results were disastrous, as thousands of people flooded into Kansas in particular to manipulate the elections and clashes resulted in dozens of deaths. This violence spilled into Congress as well. After Sen. Charles Sumner called Sen. Preston Brooks a “pimp” for supporting slavery, Brooks burst onto the floor and nearly beat Sumner to death with a cane. The Antebellum Era was undoubtedly a unique period, but it nonetheless furthers the notion that we have faced more divided times.

Even Franklin Roosevelt was no stranger to partisan attacks. Though he enjoyed enormous popular support, his political rivals grew increasingly radical as he pushed the New Deal. For example, Fr. Charles Coughlin, a former supporter, founded a radio program that consistently decried Roosevelt and reached up to an astounding 40 million viewers. He once called Roosevelt a “great betrayer and liar … who promised to drive the money changers from the temple” but “succeeded [only] in driving the farmers from their homesteads and the citizens from their homes in the cities.”

What is my point? We have been through more difficult times. While we think of Congressman Joe Wilson yelling, “You lie!” at President Obama during his 2009 State of the Union Address as an unrivaled feat of partisanship, nothing is further from the truth. All that is left to do is elect politicians who are willing to focus on the real issues.

Brian Kaneb is a junior studying political science. He can be reached at bkaneb1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.