by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University

The other day, I was grading a student project when I noticed that they had written something that seems widely believed these days.  The student argued that Americans are more divided along party lines than ever before.  I understand why my student wrote that…and I disagree.

At first, the case for us being more divided than ever seems a strong one.  Consider one particular metric:  the percentage of us that would not want our son or daughter to marry someone that supports the other party.  Political Scientist Lynn Vavreck of UCLA compared American National Election Studies data from 1958 to her own data from 2016.   During this time, the percentage of Democrats that did not want their son or daughter to marry outside the party shot up from 33% to 60%.  Among Republicans, it increased from 25% to 63%.  Clearly, the fact that most partisans do not want our sons and daughters marrying outside the party is a sign of some deep divisions indeed.

In some ways,  we may indeed be more partisan than in 1958, and our often-toxic political climate is not helping.  The current resurgence of inflation and the pending overturn of Roe v Wade threaten to further deepen these divisions.  In no way do I mean to dismiss my student’s observation, nor those of others who have expressed similar views.  It fits with their life experiences.  Our party cleavage is indeed deep these days, but surely not the deepest it has ever been.

Perhaps the most obvious example would be the Civil War.  As James L. Sundquist demonstrated in his landmark book Dynamics of the Party System (Brookings 1983), the period immediately before Civil War witnessed the most dramatic party realignment in U.S. history.  Prior to the Civil War, the existing, dominant two parties—Democrats and Whigs—were each divided over the “slavery question.” Sundquist called this a “cross cutting cleavage” because it cut across existing party alignments.  As the abolitionist movement grew, mainstream politicians increasingly spoke out in opposition to slavery’s expansion into new states or territories.  The Republican Party formed under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln as a party opposed to the expansion of slavery, though the party did not officially back the abolition of slavery in the confederate states until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and slavery was not effectively abolished in the South nor in border states until the war’s end and the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.  Speaking of political violence, the Ku Klux Klan formed that same year.  For decades, the Klan was politically well-connected in many states, not just in the South.  Together with their allies, politicians and businessmen in so-called “Citizens’ Councils”, the Klan terrorized African Americans for a number of reasons—not the least of which was to keep them from voting, notwithstanding the 15th Amendment that supposedly guaranteed that right.

Slavery and postwar Reconstruction realigned the party system along a new cleavage, according to Sundquist.  The Whigs disappeared, and the Democrats re-aligned as party strong in the South, parts of the West, and New York City.  The “solid South” remained a one-party, conservative Democratic region until President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ushered in a new realignment.  This time, Southerners began an on-again, off-again process of realignment that was not complete until the early 21st Century.  It took nearly two generations and change happened much more slowly at the state and local level, but today most white Southerners vote Republican.  Previously split between the two parties, African Americans realigned to the Democratic Party much more quickly after ‘64.  While certain African American voters are of course not Democrats, as a group these voters have become one of the Democrats’ most reliable voting blocs, much as rural whites (in and out of the South) have become one of the Republican Party’s most reliable ones.  Not without reason, many Democrats today accuse Republicans of circulating conspiracy theories and seeking to pass unnecessary “voter security laws” which Democrats see as actually being voter suppression—specifically, suppression of African American voters.  My colleagues and I review the evidence on these laws’ impact in our new book, Much Sound and Fury or the New Jim Crow (SUNY 2022).

Nor were the parties any less divided in the late 19th Century.  Martin Scorsese’s movie Gangs of New York (2002) offered a fictionalized dramatization of this era.  With many cities and some entire states dominated by corrupt political machines, political parties were often represented by violent gangs.  Often based on racial, ethnic, and religious differences, gang warfare, injuries, and deaths were common.  Gang leader “Bill the Butcher” Poole (called Bill Cutting in the movie) formed the Know-Nothing Party to oppose immigration, particularly that of Irish Catholics.  At their peak in 1855, the Know-Nothings claimed the allegiance of 43 members of Congress.  Poole died after being shot by gang (and political party) rival John Morrissey in 1853, who of course was Irish Catholic.  Gangs of New York includes fictionalized elements, but the Discovery Channel made a companion series called Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York, which is historically researched and factual.

To sum up:  the founder of a major political movement in the United States was a violent, racist gang leader who was assassinated by a rival gang leader.  How is that for a party divide?

Vestiges of the political machines lasted for more than 100 years in American politics, and their influence spread well beyond New York.  Consider my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri.  KC politics also has its origins in a rivalry between U.S.-born Protestants and Irish Catholics, represented by two factions called the Goats and the Rabbits.  The Pendergast machine was able to unite them, then dominate KC politics from the 1920s to the 1940s.  Tom Pendergast had close ties to the Mafia, and also controlled the police department.  Known as “the Senator from Pendergast,” Harry Truman would never have ascended to the Presidency had it not been for his relationship with the machine, though Truman later turned against them.  KC was a wide-open town during Prohibition due to the close relationship between the machine and the Mafia.  The city also saw its share of assassinations, including the 1933 Kansas City massacre.  It also produced some great jazz music.

During the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and 70s, voters in Kansas City’s predominantly African American wards began electing civil rights leaders to public office, instead of Mafia-backed candidates.  One such candidate was civil rights leader, Missouri State Representative, and former police officer Leon Jordan.  Jordan was gunned down while locking up at his Green Duck Tavern on July 15, 1970.  The crime appeared to have Mafia ties, but no one was ever charged.  The relationship between the Kansas City Mafia, the Teamsters’ Union, and politics continued into the 1980s, when the FBI indicted Teamsters President Roy Williams of Kansas City.  Williams went to prison due to crimes that connected the Mafia to the Teamsters Pension Fund, including a plot to take over a Las Vegas casino.  Williams himself said this was all connected to the 1975 disappearance of Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, to whom Williams was a close associate.  Rivalries among Kansas City Mafia families also led to the end of the city’s River Quay entertainment district in the 1970s, after several bombings.  As for political involvement, former Kansas City Mayor Charles Wheeler told me in an interview that the Mafia, represented as the “North End Democratic Club,” had their own lobbyist to the Missouri General Assembly as recently as the early 1970s.

Finally, no discussion of our deep, partisan divisions would be complete without mentioning the Vietnam War era.  The circumstances leading up to, during, and after that era are thoroughly chronicled in Rick Perlstein’s excellent three-book series:  Before the Storm (Hill & Wang 2001), Nixonland (Scribner 2008), and The Invisible Bridge (Simon & Schuster 2014).  Each book focuses on a different Republican candidate for president.  Barry Goldwater never became president but his candidacy dramatically reshaped American politics.  Richard Nixon ran for president three times, was elected twice (once in a landslide), and is the only U.S. president to date to resign the office.  Ronald Reagan built upon the political climate developed by Goldwater and Nixon to shift the GOP rightward and become a popular two-term president.

Through exhaustive historical research, Perlstein documented the political and cultural climates that accompanied the careers of these three politicians.  By the latter part of the Vietnam War era, the U.S. was so deeply divided that many commentators believed that U.S. democracy may not be viable.  American cities were in such bad shape that the South Bronx looked like a war zone and Cleveland’s polluted Cuyahoga River burst into flames and burned for several days in 1969.  Of course, resistance to the draft and other social changes like “womens’ lib” (feminism), as well as resistance to the resistance, all tore Americans apart, reaching deeply into families.  Popular culture chronicled these divisions, perhaps most notably in the celebrated TV series All in the Family, featuring Archie Bunker.

This time period saw plenty of political violence.  As with today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement, the vast majority of anti-war protests were peaceful, as were the counter protests, though angry words were exchanged.  But sometimes, violence did break out.  Four Kent State University students were killed by Ohio National Guard troops in 1970.  As Perlstein notes, the students had been taunting and hurling objects at the soldiers, though this of course did not excuse the shooting.   Three years earlier, California Governor Ronald Reagan referred to student “radicals” as “trash” and encouraged campus officials to crack down on protests.  Students at Columbia University took over the university for several days in 1968, occupying the university president’s office.  This was one of several demonstrations after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., some of which turned violent.  At the University of Kansas, a week of protests in 1970 began with the shooting and killing of one student by police and culminated in an arson that severely damaged the Memorial Union building.

The KKK and other white supremacists were also very violent at that time.  They did not like court orders requiring busing between schools to relieve de facto segregation, so they blew up the school buses.  The most famous incident took place in suburban Detroit, but bombings also destroyed 24 school buses in Denver.  They happened in other places, too.  The fight over busing also got ugly in South Boston.  Many of the nastiest fights were well outside the South, forcing the entire country to acknowledge that racism was not a regional problem.

So… no.  This is not the most divided our political climate has ever been.  I do not mean to dismiss the depth of our current political cleavage, nor the challenges it will continue to face, but the fact remains—America has never been a stranger to political violence.  Let us hope that one day, this will all be history.


About the Author

Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter