past is prologue

Political Unity Can Also Do Harm. Just Look at American History.

James Monroe and his “Era of Good Feelings” were never what they were cracked up to be. Photo: Library of Congress

The American political animal is an intensely partisan beast — but also one that bitterly complains about partisanship and pines for some elysian period in our past when citizens and lawmakers alike were able to put aside “petty” partisan quarrels and work together for the common good. We saw plenty of examples of this self-contradiction in reaction to Joe Biden’s Inaugural Address with its “unity” thematics, which drew praise (if sometimes skeptical and even fearful praise) from pundits and plain folk alike who professed fatigue at the furious partisan dynamics of the last four years and the extended-into-overtime election — which was capped off with an attempted sack of the U.S. Capitol. You’d think partisans were space aliens who landed from another planet, not the very people upset about partisanship.

A public-opinion finding from the Washington Post’s Dan Balz in 2019 captured this sentiment well:

The long-standing bipartisan Battleground Poll … reported last week that almost 9 in 10 Americans say they are “frustrated by the uncivil and rude behavior of many politicians.” About as many Americans say that “compromise and common ground should be the goal for political leaders.” At the same time, however, the Battleground Poll found that more than 8 in 10 say they are “tired of leaders compromising my values and ideals” and want leaders “who will stand up to the other side.”

It’s a good a time as any to remind these conflicted voters that there are far worse things than partisanship. American history is full of lessons that lawmakers and the country are capable of inflicting terrible injustices and making horrible mistakes when partisan allegiance is put aside. We can begin with that brief period following the founding of the country, which is misleadingly known as the Era of Good Feelings — when partisanship literally disappeared:

The Era of Not-So-Good Feelings

The Founders were outspokenly averse to political parties, at least until they began building parties themselves. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams were intimately involved in building one great political tradition, and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison the other. But in the wake of the War of 1812, which all but discredited the pro-British Federalists, partisanship vanished as the Democratic-Republican Party (or as it was more commonly called, the Republican Party) ruled all. This “Era of Good Feelings” was roughly co-extensive with James Monroe’s two-term presidency. But as the most eminent historian of that period, George Dangerfield, has observed, peace from partisan competition came at a price:

One-party government cannot continue long in a political democracy without resorting to dictatorship or dissolving into anarchy. It is not flexible, not responsive to the people; it tends to produce a crusty political elite; and it is easily ensnared by any special interest strongly enough organized to make its wishes felt.

Monroe’s administration pursued high-tariff, pro-creditor economic policies that intensified the pain of a deep recession that began in 1819. And as Dangerfield noted, it all started falling apart during the presidency of Monroe’s successor, the last of the one-party Republicans, John Quincy Adams:

[B]y the end of Adams’s presidency — itself a curious and instructive example of political anarchy — the old Republican Party was almost completely out of touch with the wishes and aspirations of the majority of the American people.

Popular rage at the policies of the Era of Good Feelings exploded into the Andrew Jackson campaign of 1828, and the Second Party System of Democrats and Whigs that ensued. With that system began the first of many bipartisan travesties against justice and the common good:

The bipartisan agreement to tolerate slavery

There was one significant note of continuation between the Era of Good Feelings and the party system that ensued: an agreement not to disturb the Peculiar Institution of human slavery. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 created a demarcation line between slave and free states (a line the “Slave Power” regularly challenged), but soon enough arguments over slavery re-erupted. They were quelled in Congress by a “gag rule” on anti-slavery resolutions that stayed in place from 1836 to 1844. Before, during, and after the “gag rule,” the two-party system depended on suppression of the slavery issue so that Democrats and Whigs could compete in both the North and South. Indeed, it was the electoral success of a regional anti-slavery party, the new Republicans, that triggered secession and the Civil War. If white gentlemen could not agree on tolerating slavery, why have a United States?

The post-Civil War bipartisan abandonment of racial equality

For those who value “unity” and bipartisanship most of all, a big moment in American history was the “Compromise of 1877,” an agreement alleged to have achieved a great national reconciliation of North and South following the Civil War. Crafted in quiet negotiations aimed at resolving the disputed presidential election of 1876, that compromise essentially gave Republicans another four years in the White House in exchange for abandonment of Reconstruction. Black civil and voting rights in the South soon died, and were not revived for many decades.

Indeed, a bipartisan consensus opposing civil rights continued throughout the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century. As late as 1960, John F. Kennedy was defended by southern Democrats as cool to civil rights. And certain southern Democratic politicians hostile to any desegregation measures stayed in office for a good while, until a bipartisan coalition in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 subdued a bipartisan coalition opposing it. Republican support for federal civil rights measures steadily declined thereafter.

More bipartisan myopia through the ages

The issues on which members of both the dominant parties have “come together” in error are legend. In the late 19th century, the two major parties competed in support of racist legislation to exclude immigrants from
China. For a while Democrats and Republican in the 1930s agreed on limitations in government economic intervention in the economy, and later on isolationist attitudes toward the war in Europe that eventually became World War II.

More recently we have the post–World War II bipartisan national security policies that led to a variety of civil liberties violations, the creation of a massive U.S. military establishment, and the disastrous Vietnam War. Bipartisan myopia recurred with the reaction to the September 11 attacks, which gave George W. Bush a blank check for disaster in Afghanistan and Iraq under the generally accepted but later disputed rubric of a Global War on Terrorism.

You could also argue that many of today’s most urgent debates go back to disputes suppressed by the so-called “Washington Consensus,” the set of post–Cold War domestic and international policies favoring free trade and other market-friendly policies embraced by most governments until recently.

In general, the continued existence of parties is based on enduring philosophical and demographical differences that are sometimes amplified or muted based on deep-seated prejudices. When these parties come together it sometimes reflects patriotic suspension of differences, but sometimes the suspension of dissent when it’s needed most.

It’s unclear where we are right now, but anyone yearning for nonpartisanship or bipartisanship should recognize that unity has led America to take steps back as well as forward.

Political Unity Can Also Do Harm. Just Look at U.S. History.