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Stuart Rothenberg: How today's politics is a throwback -- to the 1890s

Stuart Rothenberg, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

We are now in a period of intense partisanship and polarization, with each party painting the other as extreme, untrustworthy and even dangerous.

But while current levels of partisanship may seem unique, another rarely mentioned period in American history, from the late 1880s to the mid-1890s, produced comparable levels of polarization and partisanship.

As historian Richard Jensen noted in his 1971 book, “The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888-1896”:

“Partisanship ran deep in the Midwest. The Civil War was a living memory; more than anything else it fused the loyalty of Republicans to the ‘grand old party’ that had saved the Union and abolished slavery — just as it fused the loyalty of Democrats to the poor man’s party which had defended constitutional liberties in an era of despotism and corruption. … Men spoke of political attachments in the same breath as loyalty to religion.”

These days, the country is polarized along many lines, ranging from religiosity and race to education and geography.

Traditionalists, including white evangelicals, have had an almost religious commitment to the GOP and former President Donald Trump. The same goes for those who live in rural America and for white men without a college degree.


On the other hand, urban Americans, nonwhites, and younger and secular Americans find Trump intolerant and his party narrow-minded.

The animosity between the two camps has shattered friendships and divided families. Most Americans either love Trump (and now vote Republican) or hate him (and vote Democratic). All of this is very reminiscent of Jensen’s description of the late 1880s and early 1890s.

As for Jensen’s comments about newspapers, editors, and writers in the late 19th century, it could have been written today, though cable TV “news” programs and the internet would have to be added to his list.

“The midwestern papers flourished because they were semi-official party organs and furnished the main channel of routine communication between party workers and the rank and file,” Jensen wrote.


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