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Column: Have American politics hit rock bottom? Here’s what historians say

A portrait of Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who was beaten unconscious on the Senate floor in 1856.
Partisan divisions are not as bad today as when Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was beaten unconscious on the Senate floor in 1856.
(Library of Congress)

There’s unrest in the streets and vicious partisan division in Washington. Vast numbers of people are out of work. The reality TV billionaire who occupies the White House is tossing aside fundamental democratic norms, even hinting he might not accept the election results. He’s been impeached, to no avail. And all the while, a deadly virus is stalking the nation.

Surely this must be the most dramatic, dangerous moment ever in American politics. Surely we are more bitterly divided than in the past and facing the most consequential election ever.

But is that really true?

“Every generation thinks of itself in the superlative. Best, worst, most corrupt, most stressed, most polarized. It’s a form of collective narcissism,” says H.W. Brands, a professor of U.S. history at the University of Texas at Austin. “But not all the generations can be right. Are we more polarized than ever? Not more than the election of 1860, which caused a third of the states to leave the union. Is this the most consequential election ever? If it stops short of causing a civil war, then no. Is politics more bitter now than ever? No. No one has been killed in a duel or beaten nearly to death on the floor of the Senate.”

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The last thing I want to do is downplay the seriousness of our present mess, but it was mildly comforting to be reminded in conversations with several historians in recent days that, as bad as things are, they’ve been just as bad if not worse in the past.

Brands’ reference to abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner being beaten unconscious with a cane in 1856 by a pro-slavery member of the House of Representatives is a reminder of just how deep fissures can get. And Brands was not alone in mentioning the fraught, pre-secession election of 1860 and the subsequent Civil War, in which some 750,000 Americans died. All the historians I spoke to cited those events.

And there have been other times, too, when tensions ran dangerously high. In some cases, it was not clear that democracy would survive.

Jack Rakove, a history professor at Stanford, pointed to the final years of the 1700s, a period of intense and bitter partisan competition between the Federalist Party and the opposing Democratic-Republicans. The election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson tested for the first time whether the United States would be able to transfer power peacefully from one political party to another. The outcome was by no means certain.

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David Greenberg, a professor of American history at Rutgers, offered 1968 as another time of extraordinary turbulence. President Lyndon Johnson had decided unexpectedly not to seek another term. There was growing anger and division over the war in Vietnam. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April, followed two months later by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Riots broke out at the Democratic convention in Chicago. Then, in November, Richard Nixon was elected president.

“I think there was a sense that revolution was at hand, that the wheels were coming off, that something crazy was going on,” said Greenberg. “There were ominous feelings about what lay around the corner for America and for the future of democracy.”

Other historians pointed to periods of violent labor unrest in the late 1800s as well as to the Great Depression as moments of crisis and anxiety in the United States.

Yet, in each case, the nation survived.

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Of course, today we’re facing what Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz called a “triple whammy” — the pandemic, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and a wave of racial unrest — just at a moment when we have a president whom historian Robert Dallek calls a “malignant narcissist” and a “psychological mess.” (Dallek compared the election of Trump to the election in 1920 of Warren Harding, whom he called “an inconsequential and unqualified nonentity.”)

Wilentz noted that the country had Abraham Lincoln to guide it through the Civil War, and that when it faced the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt rose, somewhat unexpectedly, to the challenge. “We’ve been very lucky,” Wilentz said. “But as with gamblers, so with great nations: Your luck can run out.”

The historians I spoke to expressed concerns about voter suppression and potential violence in the weeks ahead. Several said they believe Trump will challenge the outcome of the election even if he loses fairly.

But for what it’s worth, they expressed mostly confidence — though tinged with concern, caution and caveats — that the United States would muddle through.

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Dallek put his hope in the institutions of democracy; Wilentz (quoting Bill Clinton) cited the character of the American people. Greenberg reiterated that we shouldn’t buy into the myth of an “utterly stable American history with a clear arc of progress.”

“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs and dark moments and doubts about our future as a nation,” said Greenberg. “I think we can gain perspective by taking the long view of history.”

On a related subject, it is my view that Trump is the worst president of my lifetime. But is he the worst president ever? I don’t know the answer. In the coming days, I’ll put that question to historians, and we’ll see if the long view of history cuts Trump some slack.

@Nick_Goldberg


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