Wilton columnist: Polarization is not new

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Polarization is a word we’ve all had to get familiar with. Most of us feel strongly that political polarization is much greater than it has been in the past. Is that a good or a bad thing? What does it bode for the future of our nation?

Our founders had no experience with political parties when they wrote the U.S. Constitution since parties came into being only after its ratification. Yet there were very strong political splits all along, splits between:

those who favored the Revolution and those who did not; those who favored a loose and weak confederation of states and those who did not; those (many) who feared a strong central government and an imperial Presidency, and those who felt that a unified nation under strong leadership was necessary for America to find its way in the world.

And it was indeed a fearsome world even in the more isolated New World. The U.S. was surrounded on all sides by the major powers of Europe: England to the north and on the seas, France to the west, and Spain to the south. Would they soon start nibling at delectable portions of the U.S., gradually consuming the whole? What but a strong central government could stop them? But would, as Europeans of the time condescendingly predicted, a strong Presidency turn into a dictatorship?

The debates were long and rancorous, and none more so than over slavery. The hardest issues, like slavery itself, got kicked down the road by the founders even as they also wrote into the Constitution measures designed to protect slaveholding states against abolition of their “peculiar institution”: the three-fifths rule affecting number of congressional seats assigned to the slaveholding states, two senators per state without regard to population, the electoral college that today gives voters in states small in population many times the voting power of those in populous states - no wonder so many of our Presidents in the first half of the 19th Century hailed from the South!

Journalist Ezra Klein wrestles with polarization in his new book, “Why We’re Polarized.” He writes that the Republican and Democratic parties for much of the 20th Century were each composed of a diverse collection of perspectives: liberal and conservative. Each party had to find a balance overall in order to keep its members together, and the result was a frame of mind that led to compromise across the aisle - not always, of course, but often enough that deals could be struck and progress made.

Democrats had the special burden of preserving in their fold the “Dixiecrats” whose overriding demand was that nothing be enacted changing racial conditions in the South, ranging from civil rights legislation to even federal anti-lynching laws. And Democrats from FDR forward heeded those laser-focused Southern demands: whether it be racially segregated government-sponsored housing in both the North and the South, the license given Southern whites to re-enslave their African-American fellow citizens through Jim Crow laws, unpunished spates of Ku Klux Klan violence designed to keep them further in line, or the absurdly difficult literacy tests from which whites were exempted that kept African Americans from voting.

When the Democrats under LBJ pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Dixiecrats commenced a withdrawal from the Democratic Party and gradually found a welcoming home in the Republican Party as it itself morphed into a more white-centric form. From that has come, in Klein’s view, specific identity-based polarization. The Democrats are unable to respond so much in kind because their base remains a coalition of many groups based on liberalness (more so and much less so), race (both white and black), ethnicity, and many other features that deny it that same laser focus.

Laser focus in the modern era, taking advantage of those South-favoring provisions built into the Constitution, gives the Republicans opportunities even as their white-only focus narrows the numbers in their base as the population of our nation diversifies more and more.

What will the future bring? Will Republicans feel the need to broaden their base and both parties return to the 20th Century model of diversity within, in which compromise across the aisle becomes possible again? Whatever the answer, Klein still points optimistically to the distance we’ve come in so many areas as compared to those less polarized days in which racial injustice was rampant and many of those features of our country that we most admire today were only a dim vision on the horizon.