American politics is loud, angry, and bristling with us versus them. But is there anything new in our screaming political divisions? Do they endanger the republic, as many observers fear? Or should we all take a deep breath as American politics runs through just another rowdy stretch? We can scan American history to explain what is different about the passionate present—and how the past might guide us toward a better future.
Much of what we deplore today is nothing new: nastiness, violence, intolerance, fraud, twisting the election rules, bashing the government, bias in the media, fistfights in Congress, and even a violent coup in North Carolina. We have seen it all before.
But, yes, there is something different about partisanship today, and it centers on two conflicts that each burned hot throughout American history — the long, hard battles that surrounded race and immigration. In every generation, African Americans dared the nation to honor its founding statements — and then braved the violent backlashes. Clashes over slavery, segregation, racial equality, white privilege, and black lives profoundly shaped each twist and turn in the history of partisan politics. Immigrants faced a different set of challenges as they pressed for a place at the American table. Some Americans always seemed to fear the new arrivals — they came from the wrong places, represented inferior races, clung to un-American values, or professed dangerous religions. Spasms of nativism met each immigrant generation. The conflicts over race and immigration touch every aspect of the American story. They reshape the partisan debates because race and immigration create disruptive new answers to the deepest question in American politics: Who are we?
Today the partisan politics enfolding race and immigration have taken a new and unprecedented form. Historically, each of this country’s two major political parties defended — and, in turn, disdained — a different group on the margins of power. Nineteenth-century Democrats welcomed European immigrants and thrust ballots into their hands almost before they’d recovered from the sea voyage. But the Democrats were also the party of thumping white supremacy and stridently defended slavery, segregation and white privileges. On the other side, the conservative party was more enlightened about race but shouted “Fraud!” as the Irish or Sicilian or Jewish immigrants lined up to vote. At times, the parties broke into internal factions and the clash went on within their ranks. But, one way or another, the parties split up the nation’s most explosive conflicts by picking different sides in the struggles over race and immigration. Then, beginning in the 1930s, a new alignment began to take shape.
African Americans boldly joined the Democrats — once the bastion of white supremacy — and slowly, over decades, became a major force within the party. A second seismic change came from immigration. Between 1970 and 2017, more than sixty million people arrived in the United States, and the number of Americans born abroad leapt from less than one in twenty (in 1970) to almost one in seven people today. By the mid-2000s, most naturalized immigrants had also begun to identify with Democrats. For the first time, black Americans and immigrants were members of the same party.
An unprecedented coalition began to emerge. Democrats assembled African Americans, immigrants, and their liberal supporters. The modern Republican Party gathered people who consider themselves white and native. The most passionate differences ringing through American history are now organized directly into the parties. For the first time, all the so-called minorities are on one side.
The politics grew more treacherous when the U.S. Census Bureau crunched the 2000 census results and made a controversial prediction: The United States would become majority-minority within a generation. White people (who are not Hispanic) would make up 46 percent of the population by 2050 and just 36 percent by 2060. In the past, the parties would have diffused the political impact — each party would have claimed one part of the rising majority. But thanks to the new party alignment, “majority-minority” sounds suspiciously like “majority-Democratic.”
Today’s party division threatens to turn every difference into a clash of tribes. Policy questions — what to do about health care or taxes or global warming — become caught up in the us-versus-them battles. Both parties are deeply enmeshed in feelings about identity because each draws people who see themselves as fundamentally different from those on the other side. To be sure, Americans argue about many different things — as they always have. But, generation after generation, nothing has ignited political passions like the intertwined issues of race and immigration. And now the parties inject those fervors directly into every political debate.
For a long time — by both design and chance — the parties deflected identity conflicts. In the nineteenth century, each recruited very different kinds of groups. In the early twentieth century, each party divided within itself on matters of race, immigration, and gender. By contrast, today’s parties are internally united on all those dimensions and, as a result, zoom them straight into politics. Raise a policy issue, any policy issue, and watch it flow into the clash of identity and culture. Politics has grown so hot because it now boomerangs right back to the primal question: Who are we? To answer “Republican” (much less to shout “Trump”) is practically a slur in some neighborhoods. A white male Democrat is practically an oxymoron in others.
How did we get here? What warnings lie buried in the past? Where should we go next?
Today’s tribal fears will require clear, strong, democratic rules to keep contemporary politics within republican bounds. How do we build such a system?
Reformers can start by remembering two basic historical truths. First, politics is always changing. Today’s rock-solid certainties will sound positively quaint tomorrow. We usually process politics in two years stanzas, extrapolating the future from the last midterm election. But a longer view reminds us how small, steady changes add up. Power shifts, the economy changes, groups drift out of old coalitions, new alignments emerge, new crises shake the established verities, and blue regions run to red — or vice versa.
Second, change takes time. Big shifts often appear to come on suddenly — a bolt from the blue. But, in reality, the storms gather slowly, over many years. Thinking about the future means imagining where Texas or Georgia or Alaska or New York will be, not two years from now during the next election but two decades from now for the next generation. More important, how will Dominican Americans or Chinese Americans or Indian Americans or African Americans or post-millennials evolve as voters? Will the parties court them, shun them, or make the mistake of taking them for granted? Neither geography nor demography is destiny. Parties, presidents, economic crashes, pandemics, and sheer chance will all play their part in shaping the next political era.
James A. Morone is the John Hazen White professor of political science and public policy at Brown University. He is author of two New York Times notable books and the award-winning “Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History.” He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.