In the election season that ended last Tuesday, it may not always have been clear what candidates stood for, but it sure was easy to tell what they were against. Conservatives hammered away at the fact that their opponents were Democrats, just like the unpopular president. In Massachusetts, whole attack ads were conjured out of ominous repetitions of “Republican” next to Charlie Baker’s picture.
As politics in America continue to grow more negative and more polarized, the words “Democrat” and “Republican” have practically become slurs. This clearly reflects the feelings of voters: Record numbers of them—49 percent of the red team and 33 percent of the blue—said in one survey that they would be unhappy if their son or daughter married someone from the other side. Back in 1960, those numbers were 5 and 4 percent, respectively, which tells you just about everything you need to know about how much more deeply divided we are today.
Here’s what’s strange, though: As much as Americans seem to hate the party they’re against—roughly 40 percent of both Republicans and Democrats said they had a “very unfavorable” view of the opposing party in a recent Pew poll—their feelings tend to be muted, if not actually ambivalent, about the party they’re supposedly for. Sure, individual candidates inspire public displays of support, but the parties they represent, not so much. Fully 42 percent of the American public now call themselves “independent,” rather than Democratic or Republican, according to a recent Gallup poll—more than at any other point in history. “People don’t strongly identify with their parties today,” said Heather Cox Richardson, a political historian at Boston College. “It has become much easier for leaders to get elected by opposing things and creating an enemy rather than creating a big-tent, positive message. When was the last time you saw someone wearing a Democrat or Republican button?”
It wasn’t always this way. The last time America was as politically polarized along party lines as it is now, the clash was fueled by genuine excitement about the parties. Starting roughly in the 1830s and ending around the turn of the 20th century, being a Democrat, a Republican, or a Whig was a huge component of one’s public identity. The “party period,” as it has come to be known among historians, was marked by rowdy and emotional parades and celebrations where people trumpeted their party affiliations the way sports fans today trumpet their allegiance to their favorite teams.
The absence of that spirit today says a great deal about how politics has changed. The two parties have increasingly distinguished themselves along clear ideological lines, which means fewer Americans see their own set of beliefs reflected exactly by either one. And in an era when neither party seems capable of accomplishing its goals, Americans are reluctant to embrace either team while growing ever more enraged at the people they believe are responsible for gridlock.
But if the rejection of party identity is understandable—and might even seem like an appropriate response to today’s acid political culture—it also comes with costs. More than they have for generations, the Democrats and the Republicans actually stand for truly distinct ideas about how to govern. The conflict between them isn’t just a power struggle, but a serious battle over what kind of country we want. And according to some experts, the fact that so many Americans don’t passionately or proudly identify with either side—even if they do hold the other in extreme contempt—contributes to a political culture in which neither party enjoys enough loyalty to govern effectively. To look back at the positive partisanship of the 19th century is to wonder how much less toxic and gridlocked our system might be today if, instead of merely loathing the party we liked less, we could channel our polarization into fervent enthusiasm for the one we liked more.
The founding fathers hated the idea of political parties. They envisioned a new kind of government in which ideas could be debated without the interference of power-hungry factions and corrupt alliances. “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other,” wrote John Adams in 1780. “This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”
It did not take long for his nightmare to come to pass. Political parties emerged almost immediately, and became not only the organizing force behind government, but also a primary way in which people defined themselves throughout much of the country. “Party passions were deeply ingrained in 19th-century American life,” said Richard McCormick, a political historian and the former president of Rutgers University. “They reflected your community, your ethnic associations, your economic associations. Men passed their party passions on to their sons.”
To be a member of a party, as Indiana University-Bloomington historian Michael McGerr details in his book “The Decline of Popular Politics,” was at the core of men’s participation in their local communities. “They marched in the streets, they held massive rallies, they decorated their houses for parades going by,” McGerr said. “Intense partisanship was a cultural norm....Even in a place like New York City, theater owners would complain during presidential elections that their audience numbers were down because people were drawn to this outdoor political spectacle.”
During parades, people carried torches, performed military-style drills in honor of their party, and dressed up their children—boys as Uncle Sam, girls as the goddess of liberty. “They’d have the little kids stand on the walk of the house, to salute and be seen as the parade went by,” said McGerr. “When a Democratic parade would go by, a Republican partisan would turn out all the lights in the house.”
The idea of being an independent, someone who didn’t stand with either party, was looked upon with disdain. “[To be] a partisan was to be a man,” said McGerr. “The first visible independents in the 1870s were derided with such terms as ‘man-milliners’—so, male hat makers, which was clearly a sort of gay slur.”
Today, we might see this kind of us-versus-them division as destructive. In another sense, though, the democracy was astonishingly vibrant: Turnout rates among eligible voters reached levels they haven’t approached since.
Over time, that enthusiasm cooled. Politics became less local and more national, and the patronage system that fueled the party machines of the 19th century weakened. In time, the “independent” label lost its shame. When the Progressive movement took hold at the end of the 1800s, promising a new kind of politics, being an independent started to be seen as a point of pride—an indication that you formed your opinions using reason, rather than taking your cues from those around you.
Today, the political system is drastically different. We choose candidates by voting in messy, hard-fought primaries, rather than trusting party bosses to hash out the ticket in back-room negotiations. Where parties used to be “big tents,” with conservatives and liberals populating both sides of the aisle, they’ve become much more ideologically narrow, leaving out wide swaths of centrist voters. Decades of negative campaigning have left each party tarred with epithets: Voters have to choose between being a tax-and-spend liberal or a fat-cat Republican.
The two-party system itself is widely seen as fundamentally flawed, and being a diehard partisan has few positive connotations—to the point where our political leaders themselves, though clearly and openly aligned with a party, don’t make much of their affiliation. “In this country, politics is not about party anymore,” said Bruce Newman, editor of the Journal of Political Marketing and a professor at DePaul University.
This leaves the United States in a strange position, with a government locked down by parties that people don’t especially love or identify with. Politicians know this: In his first interview as the governor-elect of Massachusetts, Baker distanced himself from the GOP, and said he wasn’t even sure he’d attend the 2016 Republican National Convention. You don’t see this in other democratic countries, according to Newman. “If you go to Europe and Latin America,” he said, “you see that party affiliation is what’s driving politics in just about every country besides this one.”
Political scientists and historians warn against harboring nostalgia for the party period, or casting it as a golden age of democratic participation. For one thing, only white men could vote; whatever is wrong with American democracy these days, it doesn’t exclude more than half of the adult population. Scholars also point out that part of what made people so passionate about politics was that party leaders frequently rewarded such passion with jobs, and that those lively, spirited marches and parades were popular in part because they were the only form of entertainment around. To a great extent, experts say, the zealous partisanship that characterized 19th-century politics was about not ideas or principles, but self-interest and simple competition. “The kind of excitement that you saw back then was really about choosing sides,” said Hans Noel, a political scientist at Georgetown University and author of the 2013 book “Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America.” “You could probably quiz those people who were shutting the lights off in their houses about what the opposing party thought, and they probably wouldn’t know.”
In that light, it’s possible to see something noble in the two parties as they exist today: At least the modern enmity between the Democrats and the Republicans comes down to real ideas, with one side standing up for small government and unrestrained free enterprise, and the other arguing for a social safety net that protects the weak and unlucky. According to Dartmouth College political scientist Russell Muirhead, voters may be missing an opportunity by refusing to identify proudly and unequivocally with either. In his new book, “The Promise of Party in a Polarized Age,” Muirhead argues for what he calls “high partisanship,” in which people take seriously the division between Democrats and Republicans, and align themselves solidly with one or the other based on their principles. “Hidden in the partisan fray, which is often a huge distraction and a counterproductive mess, is a deep difference about...the direction the country should take,” Muirhead said. “It’s not a difference without reason—it’s a difference that citizens should probably think about.”
We might be tempted to hold our noses and step away, but there’s a good argument that engaging with the party we support matters more than it used to, rather than less. At a time when control of the legislature flips based on the very recent achievements and failures of whoever was in control of it last, governing becomes practically impossible unless more voters pick a side and stick with it long enough to see actual results. In the current climate, Muirhead said, “we condemn policies as unsuccessful before we’ve given them enough time to work.” He added: “What loyal partisans bring to a party is patience. A Democrat who voted for Obama shouldn’t be thrown off balance by a few bad months.”
Somewhat counterintuitively, Muirhead believes that if we had more patient and seriously engaged partisans, there’s a chance we could chip away at the political polarization expressed in those findings about people not wanting their kids to marry outside their party.
“The deep ideas that motivate conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, are interesting and worthy ideas,” he says, “and it’s not always easy to know which one’s better, or which one’s perfect. And if you think about partisanship that way, it can instill a little bit of humility in yourself about your own convictions.”