Polarization has become known as the great challenge for American Democracy in the Twenty-First Century. Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman include it among their Four Threats. So long as polarization is portrayed as a problem, the solution remains simple, although difficult to achieve. The solution to polarization is described as compromise and moderation. But what if polarization is not a problem? Maybe polarization is a symptom of a more endemic problem within the wider political system. In this light, political moderation and compromise allow for the ossification of these problems within the political system.

Previously, I have seen the emergence of political polarization as a threat to democracy. I have begun to view this as a bit naïve. Clearly, there are principles where moderation and compromise are never appropriate. Slavery is an idea where compromise is not possible. But there were moments in history where some believed it was necessary to compromise with the slaveholders of the South. The abolitionists of the North were viewed as a source of polarization and instability for the Republic. In hindsight, the extremism of Charles Sumner and Frederick Douglass were admirable.

Let me be clear democratic governance requires compromise and moderation to succeed. However, compromise and moderation are only possible with those committed to democracy. Any compromise in the principles of democracy makes the political system something less than a democracy. I do not want to glorify political extremism for its own sake. The inability to compromise on issues of public policy becomes an impediment to democratic governance. But the sources of polarization have historically been about principles fundamental to democracy rather than public policy. They have revolved around the principle of political inclusion.

Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman use American History to explain Four Threats they have identified to American Democracy. American History is often described as a narrative or a story. I interpret the history of the United States as a process of democratization. Thomas Paine sets this narrative in motion in his short work Common Sense where he establishes American independence as an inflection point for liberalism and republicanism. Francis Fukuyama exemplifies a conservative interpretation of liberal democracy where this process culminates in the political mood of the current era. But other theorists, most notably, Robert Dahl envisioned a further process of democratization to take place in liberal democracies. He referred to these countries as polyarchies to imply the process of democratization was not yet complete. Indeed, it may never be fully realized.

American historians have typically focused on the moments when the process of democratization has progressed. The Revolution, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement have drawn significant scholarship because they represent moments of crisis where the United States made progress as a nation. Mettler and Lieberman break from tradition to examine moments from American history when moments of crisis setback the process of democratization. They identify four threats to American democracy:

  1. Political Polarization
  2. Conflict over who Belongs in the Political Community
  3. High and Growing Economic Inequality
  4. Excessive Executive Power

Mettler and Lieberman use historical examples to explain how these threats undermined the process of democratization in the United States. Indeed, they did not simply forestall progress but reversed previous gains. They represent moments of democratic backsliding. Key to their analysis is the convergence of all four threats in the current political climate. The authors examine six episodes in American History where these threats brought about setbacks for American Democracy. They examine the 1790s, 1850s, 1890s, 1930s, 1970s, and 2010s. Some of these are obvious examples like Nixon’s presidency when he ultimately resigned from office. The 1850s offered a prelude to the Civil War and represented an intense era of polarization. The 1890s were the most insightful because it legitimized racial segregation in the South.

I want to highlight their analysis of the 1890s because it is remarkably original. Few scholars have taken the time to highlight the significance of this era in American history. I have already described this as the period that legitimized racial segregation in the south. Let me clarify: It represents the legitimation in the North of Southern racial segregation. The process of segregation had begun earlier with the end of Reconstruction. Some might even go earlier to the failure of Grant to send federal troops to enforce election laws in Mississippi near the end of his presidency. Mettler and Lieberman recognize an intensification of segregation policies in the 1890s culminating in an armed insurrection in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 when white supremacists forced elected officials to resign and named new officials.

Mettler and Lieberman identify an overlooked moment in American politics in the South. “In North Carolina in 1894, Republican and Populist leaders combined ranks to create a Fusion slate of candidates that achieved stunning success. The Fusionists took the majority in both chambers of the state’s General Assembly and sent Marion Butler to the US Senate and several representatives to the US House. Unlike the Democrats, who had starved public services, the new state legislators immediately enacted a reform agenda that included increased funding for public schools from elementary through higher education, established institutes for training teachers, and limited the legal interest rate.” A fusion politics of impoverished whites and African Americans represents a lost opportunity in American history. In 1896, Fusion candidates won the Governorship and large majorities in the legislature “leaving the Democratic Party nearly decimated: it retained only 26 seats out of 120 in the House and only 7 out of 50 in the Senate.”

The Republican Party remained the party of abolitionism in the 1890s. African Americans were a key part of their coalition in the South after the Civil War. Race remained an important divide between the political parties after the Civil War and it produced intense polarization. They write, “Political polarization escalated to historically high levels in the late nineteenth century; in fact, the percentage of congressional votes in which one party voted against the other was even higher than in our own polarized era.” The Republican Party had a political incentive to defend the government in North Carolina from a white supremacist insurrection. But they did not. They abandoned their African American base for the sake of compromise and moderation. Why?

Let me explain… The 1890s are a complex example of democratic backsliding. Mettler and Lieberman emphasize the growth of economic inequality during this era but fail to recognize how its presence did not contribute to political polarization but rather disrupted it. The Republican Party was known for its opposition to slavery, but it was also the party of big business. The Fusion candidates in North Carolina were Republican but stood against the economic policies of their party. Economic populism was never a natural fit for the Republican Party. It helps to remember William Jennings Bryan was the nominee of the Democrat Party in 1896 and 1900 against McKinley. Bryan was the embodiment of populist politics.

Mettler and Lieberman often take sides in their book. They side with Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans over Hamilton and the Federalists. They prefer Bryan to McKinley. They explain, “With Bryan running against Republican candidate William McKinley, American voters faced a genuine choice between two divergent alternatives.” Bryan represented “what he called the “toiling masses” of farmers and industrial workers,” but the authors forget he was incapable of representing African Americans because he was a Democrat. Sometimes there are no heroes. McKinley was the best bet to take a stand against white supremacy during this era and he chose not to do so.

The polarization of the 1890s diminished because the McKinley administration failed to act as white supremacists undermined democracy through the weaponization of the law and through unapologetic violence. The Republican compromise with white supremacy allowed for racial segregation to persist for another seventy years. Conciliation was not a tool for democratization in this case, but rather allowed for the ossification of laws and customs designed to undermine democracy in an entire region of the country. This example allows us to entirely rethink the concept of polarization. And it undermines the case of Mettler and Lieberman to regard it as a threat to democracy.

The 1790s are another interesting case because the authors use this example to isolate polarization as an independent threat to democracy. But the authors overlook some commonalities in their other two examples. They overlook the omnipresence of the second threat in the political environment. While they acknowledge, “Federalists’ dislike of immigrants, who they believed supported the Republicans, led them to enact three “anti-alien” policies,” they do not mark the presence of the second threat during this era. This omission is even more surprising because the emergence of Jeffersonian Democracy is among the most lasting legacies of this era. The expansion of the suffrage was a key part of the Democratic-Republican agenda and an important step toward democratization. And the Federalists stood in opposition to it.

Nonetheless, I dislike the demonization of the Federalists and the glorification of Jefferson. The process of democratization in the United States has been messy. It is puzzling how Federalism was the political philosophy of New England, a region with stronger roots in democracy than Virginia. Years later, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about Democracy in America based on his experience in New England. The town meeting became the embodiment of democratic governance for many and it was the descendants of the Federalists who became the abolitionists. The early signs of abolitionism are evident in the political thought of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Finally, George Washington established a tradition of term limits for executive authority that has become a hallmark of democratic legitimacy around the world.

Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman show clear bias in their portrayal of the Federalists. They diminish the decision of Washington to step away from the Presidency when they write, “Washington, who had never envisioned the emergence of such polarization nor the abandonment of deference to political leaders, chose to retire rather than run again.” They make an implicit assumption Washington wanted a third term without any support or documentation. This is an opinion which runs contrary to mainstream scholarship. And it is unnecessary to demonize the Federalists to show some of their policies set back the process of democratization. Moreover, it was a series of presidencies from Virginia (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe) that had their own challenges, most evident in an entrenchment of policies favorable to southern slavery during a period in which the North had begun a process of manumission and gradual abolition.

It is an injustice to focus too much on what I did not appreciate. The book is an example where political science can introduce examples from history to better understand democracy. The United States is an important example because it claims the world’s oldest working constitution. It is a remarkable example of republican stability despite its deficiencies. Moreover, Mettler and Lieberman make a significant contribution because they show how distinct threats embedded within the political culture can undermine democracy and constitutional governance. They offer a new perspective to examine democracy, not just in the United States, but around the world. And yet, it is also an oversimplification which deserves even greater exploration for clarification.

I contend their examples show polarization is not a threat to democracy. It is better understood as a symptom of undemocratic tendencies within the political culture. Fortunately, American History makes clear there is no single outcome past eras of polarization. The 1890s reduced polarization through acquiescence and compromise with white supremacy. During the 1850s, abolitionists were unwilling to compromise with slaveholders and it ultimately led to the Civil War. These are terrifying outcomes. But the 1790s were different. The Federalists gradually came to accept Jeffersonian Democracy. John Quincy Adams served as the Secretary of State for James Monroe during this Era of Good Feelings. Unfortunately, his legacy was tarnished in the election of 1824 when he won the Presidency through the machinations of Henry Clay. Sometimes there are no heroes.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

Follow me on Twitter @DemParadox

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