‘Mad Men’ should make you feel better about politics today

April 17, 2013

The season premiere of “Mad Men” ended with Don Draper staring at the front page of the New York Times from Jan. 1, 1968. “World Bids Adieu to a Violent Year,” reads the headline. (The Times story, by Murray Schumach, is real; you can read it here.)

Zou Bisou Bisou. (Jarry Jaffe/AP)
Zou Bisou Bisou. (Jarry Jaffe/AP)

As in “Mad Men,” a sense of dread pervades the article. “Nations said farewell to a year of violence, tension, and economic uncertainty,” it reminds readers, who will soon discover that the new year brings even more lurid violence than the one just past. The accompanying photograph shows two people, backs to the camera, umbrellas open against a snowstorm, walking through a deserted Central Park. It’s bleak.

That was America, 1968. By comparison, the America of 2013 is downright quiescent. “No one is burning down cities,” says author Rick Perlstein, whose “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America” is a history of the political convulsions of the earlier time. “The national guard isn’t shooting anyone. You don’t have thousands of people on college campuses pledging themselves to sedition against the United States. You don’t have civil rights activists being murdered or churches being bombed. You don’t have draft resistance. You don’t have a string of political assassinations. In that sense, what’s happening now doesn’t compare to the 1960s.”

In fact, the 1960s marked a low point of congressional polarization; as the country was coming apart, Washington was working overtime to pull it together. When today's Beltway graybeards long for the comity of the “Mad Men” era, they are recalling a political system in which polarization flowed into Washington, was more or less homogenized by the establishment, and then flowed back out as consensus. What we have today might be called the “Mad Congress” era: Relative calm flows into the capital, angry polarization flows out.


Congress, you're terrible at your job. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

The volatility of the 1960s is worth keeping in mind as we consider polarization today. America in 2013 is not more divided than it has ever been -- just the parties are. And that’s a very different, and preferable, problem.

Sean Theriault, a political scientist at the University of Texas who specializes in party polarization, has run the numbers comparing the 90th Congress, in 1967-1969, with the 112th Congress, in 2011-2013. The percentage of party-based votes has increased dramatically. “The Senate was 27.2 percent as polarized as it could have been in the 90th Congress,” he told me. “In the 112th, it was 42.1, an increase of 55 percent. The House was 24.2 percent as polarized as it could have been in the 90th Congress. In the 112th, it was 54.8 -- an increase of 126 percent!”

In both the House and Senate, says Theriault, the author of “The Gingrich Senators: The Roots of Partisan Warfare in Congress,” the Republican Party has moved much farther right than the Democratic Party has moved left, a conclusion endorsed by other political scientists. In the Senate, “Republicans were responsible for 78 percent of the polarization,” he said. While in the House, “the Republicans were responsible for 76 percent of the polarization.”

These numbers explode many of the easy assumptions of contemporary political punditry. For one, the political unity of yesteryear largely relied on a combination of extremist views and poorly functioning parties. Congress wasn’t very polarized partly because the Democratic Party was populated by conservative Southern racists who used their powerful committee chairmanships, accrued through seniority, to block civil-rights and other liberal legislation.

“The country was very divided in 1968 over civil rights and race relations and the Vietnam War, as well as the emerging youth culture,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “But it wasn’t nearly as divided along party lines. You had pro-war and anti-war, pro-civil rights and anti-civil rights, and social liberal and conservative factions in both parties.”


Congressional polarization, VoteView.com

Polarization is not a synonym for extremism: Moderate parties can be highly polarized while extreme opinions can find support on both sides of the aisle. In the era when Washington was less polarized, political consensus rested on a foundation of bigotry that most would find abhorrent today. It’s frustrating to watch the two parties bicker endlessly over raising taxes, but it’s far better than watching them agree on buttressing segregation.

One interesting question is whether the polarized nation of the “Mad Men” era helped produce the polarized Congress of today. “These issues -- especially civil rights and some others that were the progeny of the civil-rights movement, like feminist issues -- contributed to the realignment of the parties that led to the high polarization we have now,” says Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of “Party Wars: Polarization and the Politics of National Policy Making.”

Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University, makes the connection more vividly. The two eras are not so much apples and oranges, she says, as “perhaps unripe versus ripened pear.”

Commentators who hope against hope that the two parties will somehow “work together,” or that the president will fix everything by choosing “to lead,” need to keep Binder’s orchard in mind: Pears don’t unripen. The 1960s should be seen as an anomalous period, not only for the types of fissures in the country but for the unity in Washington. It’s abnormal for political parties to be at once so heterogeneous and indistinct from one another.

The great political sorting that moved Dixiecrat Senator Strom Thurmond from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, and brought much of the white South with him, is well documented. But to believe that such party polarization will soon reverse itself, you would have to believe that Southern conservatives will return to the Democratic Party or that liberals will begin winning Republican primaries. That simply won’t happen.

We like to say that hindsight is 20/20. But nostalgia isn’t. Remember that next time you hear some white-haired politician yearning for the Washington of his youth.

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Brad Plumer | April 17, 2013