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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

Fox News, One America News and NewsMax are not traditional “news” organizations, but they surely qualify as “semi-official party organs” since they promote narratives that demonize Democrats and nurture Republicans.

Mainstream cable networks CNN and MSNBC make a greater effort to follow traditional journalistic standards, but too often they have sounded like Democratic critics of the GOP.

Jensen’s description of media bias in the 1880s and early 1890s rings particularly true:

“The news was almost as biased as the editorials. The weaknesses of the opposition grew into fatal flaws, their blunders magnified into heinous crimes against American liberties, and their policies metamorphosed into evil designs of conspiratorial juntas. The editor’s own party rarely stumbled, its principles remained ever pure and self-evident, its rallies were uniformly crowded to the rafters (while the opposition inevitably suffered poor attendance), and the party was always marching to victory. When victory did come it was due to sound principles, superior organization, invincible leadership, and the basic good sense of the people. If perchance an election brought defeat, the causes were unnatural: heavy rains downstate, overconfidence or treachery in the ranks, vile frauds at the polling places, or wicked deception by the enemy.”

The reaction of Trump loyalists to the 2020 results duplicates what Jensen described was occurring 130 years ago. To many Republicans, only “vile frauds at the polling places” could have resulted in Trump’s defeat.

Jensen also observed that the “prevalence of party loyalty was evident in the focus on national issues in races where national problems had no bearing.” A classic example of that today was the decision this summer of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, to send the state’s National Guard troops to the southern border, even though Rapid City, S.D., is almost 900 miles from El Paso, Texas, as the crow flies. Noem clearly sought to use a national issue to demonstrate her partisan loyalty, just as politicians in the 1880s and 1890s did.


Jensen also observed that during the late 19th century the “strength of partisanship was also manifest in the relative absence of ticket-splitting. In legislative, state, and presidential contests rarely did more than 5 percent of voters split their tickets.”

We have witnessed the same trend recently.

Between 1956 and 1988, at least a quarter of all districts saw voters cast their ballots for the nominee of one party for president and a different party for the House. In 1984, 43.7 percent of all districts split their tickets.

But since 2000, that percentage has been sinking. In 2012, only 6 percent of districts split their tickets, while only 8 percent did so in 2016.


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