But concerns about partisan polarization advance unrealistic — and ahistoric — expectations of political consensus. In reality, partisan identification and behavior is deeply intertwined with the practice of American democracy and has been since the 1830s. The difference: Partisanship in the antebellum era was venerated for giving life to the world’s largest mass democracy; today, party behavior is denigrated as corrupting, unpatriotic and even pathological.
On the surface, partisan tribalism stands in stark contrast with historical memory of the post-World War II Cold War consensus politics, which produced ambitious bipartisan projects from the Interstate Highway System to Medicare and civil rights legislation. But this brief era was an exception in the longer history of partisanship that shows parties matter. Since their formation in the antebellum era, parties remain the best entity voters have to organize and influence public policies. The danger is not the parties themselves. Rather, it is the narratives of parties as illegitimate tools of sabotage that polarize America into mutually alien red and blue societies, and not as healthy democratic rivalries.
Starting in the Age of Jackson, modern mass political parties have produced a kind of brand-like attachment, replete with symbols, slogans and traditions that attract voters over generations. Parties articulate values and interests in direct and often exaggerated contrast to those of the opposing party. Just as voters turn to parties to advance a particular agenda, so too do voters look to their preferred party (or intraparty faction) to help navigate complicated political issues.
At their best, parties advance a vision for the whole country and earnestly seek support among all Americans. At their worst, they make impossible the kinds of reasonable compromises necessary to operate the government.
The contours of antebellum politics were shaped by these positive and negative partisan impulses in the early 19th century. As the United States expanded westward and industrial capitalism developed, ordinary Americans debated the cultural and economic consequences of this change for American life. Intense partisanship emerged, especially after the Panic of 1819, as states granted voting rights to all white men regardless of property holding. By the 1830s, the Democrats of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren fought against the Whigs of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster on issues that included banking, tariffs, immigration, infrastructure development and liquor control.
Candidates in both parties contested seats in every county in the United States. Machines that enforced partisan loyalty in return for the spoils of office established local and regional strongholds that persisted for decades. Parties held elaborate barbecues and torchlight parades, and depended on rival paramilitary bands to rally voters, claim the public streets and intimidate the opposition. A rite of passage into adulthood for many young men was to join the local political party, typically following the partisan footsteps of the father.
The introduction of slavery’s extension as an explicitly partisan issue in 1854 destroyed the Jacksonian party system — but not its spirit of partisanship. By November 1860, with the country inching toward civil war, the old parties had completely fractured and collapsed. Most Americans knew by late summer 1860 that many Southern states would probably secede if the Republican Abraham Lincoln were elected president. But they still behaved like old partisans as they navigated the sectional conflict. They still looked to trusted local party leaders for guidance and applied the established practices of party organizing and rallying to mobilize and influence policymakers in this sectional crisis.
Consider the old Whigs. When the party broke up in the early 1850s, Whigs went in three directions. Deep South Whigs generally became sectional Democrats. Northern antislavery Whigs helped form a new Republican Party. And a third coalition of anti-immigrant and Upper South Whigs gravitated toward the American Party in 1856 and then the ad hoc Constitutional Unionist Party in 1860. They had no new permanent party home. And yet these ex-Whigs voted against the Democrats as strongly as before.
At times the negative impulses of partisanship could blind voters to the deeper crisis at hand. The party spirit was so strong in the mind of Richard C. Vaughan, a longtime Whig from Lexington, Mo., that he exclaimed upon Lincoln’s ultimate election, “No matter what sad disaster may follow, I shall regard it as a less grievous affliction than the continuance of that party in power.” To Vaughan, “that party” was the Democratic Party.
On the brink of the Civil War, most American voters turned out at record rates in the election of 1860 to do exactly as they had done for decades: vote as partisans. And when the old parties died or fractured, they kept the partisan spirit alive by voting against the parties and factions they had long despised. With exceptions only at the margins, the tribal spirit of party overcame other considerations.
Political partisanship did not cause the Civil War in 1861. Sectional division over the extension of slavery brought on secession and a Civil War. But American voters naturally turned to political parties and long-standing partisan identities to navigate the complicated challenges of the war and Reconstruction.
In the decades that followed, tribal loyalties continued to guide voter behavior as ever before. Newly enfranchised African American men drew upon a long tradition of informal slave politics and invigorated the party system by fighting for their right to vote for the Party of Lincoln. Occasional upheaval from third parties such as the Populists of the 1890s led to realignments. But voting habits once established were reinforced by kin, community, religion, ethnicity, class and geography — and persisted for decades.
We have much to learn from this vigorous party spirit. Yes, we need changes to strengthen our voting infrastructure, create fair legislative districts and encourage more — not less — participation in the democratic process. But waiting for a bipartisan gentleman dealmaker to guide the country through difficult debates over health care, immigration, tax policy and other issues perpetuates a narrative of partisanship that treats those with different viewpoints as irrational obstructionists and illegitimate saboteurs.
Ironically, then, by denying the utility of partisan politics, we end up polarizing society into stereotyped “red” and “blue” America, where bipartisan negotiation and comparison become impossible. We should instead draw inspiration from our old partisan experiment in representative democracy. It may not have been what James Madison had in mind in 1787 when he complained of “faction.” But partisan politics worked plenty well for Van Buren, Henry Clay, Stephen Douglas and Lincoln. And it worked for American voters building the world’s largest representative democracy, one that could survive even a Civil War.