Searching for common sense in politics

Thursday, December 15, 2016

America Divided: A Historical Perspective

It's 2016 - 240 years since the USA became an independent nation - and there are signs that America is more divided than ever. There is no better indicator of national division than the presidential election. Here are some tidbits that exemplify the partisan divisions (some figures taken from this Wikipedia article):

1. We've now had eight straight presidential elections where the two major candidates were within 8.5 percentage points of each other. That's the longest streak in history (since the popular vote was first tabulated in 1824).

2. The last five elections have featured two "winners" who lost the popular vote. In the previous 53 cycles, that had happened only three times.

3. It's been almost 30 years (1988), and 7 election cycles, since any presidential candidate gained at least 53% of the popular vote. That ties the longest such stretch, the other being from 1876-1900.

Clearly, presidential elections have been closer for a longer period of time than at any other time in American history. That's probably because a larger proportion of people strictly side with one side or the other (Democrat or Republican), leaving fewer "swing voters" than in the past.

But are we really more divided than ever before? It's tough to say for sure, but probably not.

The first, and most glaring, example of an even greater division is the Civil War (1861-1865). Americans were so divided then that, when Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860, half of the country seceded and we had a bitter and bloody war that cost the lives of 620,000 men. That's almost 2% of the population at the time. If we had a war with a similar casualty rate now, with our current population, it would mean the death of 6.4 million Americans.

We may be divided, but it's safe to say we are not that divided. Let's hope to God we are not so divided that it comes to that ever again.

But there are other examples to be found even in the realm of presidential elections.

The very first time that a candidate won the election despite losing the popular vote was the election of 1824. That year, John Quincy Adams (son of our second president, John Adams) lost the popular vote by a whopping 10 percent to Andrew Jackson. In fact, when the electoral votes were first counted up, Adams even lost that to Jackson. But because Jackson did not win a majority of the electoral votes, the matter was passed to the House of Representatives.

Now, imagine this: the Speaker of the House was Henry Clay, who had also been a candidate for president that year. Let's imagine that scenario in 2016. Let's say that, in addition to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Paul Ryan had also run for president but came in third. And then he ended up being the leader of the body that would decide whether Trump or Clinton won. Crazy, huh?

Clay absolutely hated Jackson, so he made a deal with Adams: he would cobble together enough House votes to make Adams president, and in turn Adams would make Clay the Secretary of State. This arrangement was immediately denounced as a corrupt bargain, and Jackson's supporters spent the next 4 years railing against it and against Adams. (Sound familiar? We could be facing the same thing for the next 4 years). In 1828, Jackson won in a landslide.

We may be divided, but we are not that divided. This year, Donald Trump lost the popular vote, but he did win the electoral college. The election wasn't handed to him in quite the same controversial way that it was handed to Adams, who lost both the popular and electoral votes to Jackson but still moved into the White House.

You think the Democrats are whining now? Just imagine the tweets you would see today if that happened. Imagine that Trump had actually had fewer electoral votes than Clinton, but Gary Johnson had taken a state or two and prevented either from having a majority. And then the vote went to the House, where Paul Ryan struck a deal to make Trump president. Talk about a Twitter meltdown! But that wouldn't happen today, because we are not so bitterly divided that we would allow such a corrupt bargain to go through. Even some Trump supporters would put a stop to that before it happened.

In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden by 3 percent. The first tally of electoral votes left Tilden with 184 and Hayes with 165, with 185 being the magic number needed to win. There were still 20 votes left because four states were in dispute. Both parties claimed victory in each of them. In order for Hayes to win, he would have to pick up all four of the disputed states, which was unlikely.

But, again, a deal was struck, often called the Compromise of 1877. The Democrats agreed to let Hayes have all 20 outstanding votes, and the White House, in return for ending Reconstruction and removing federal forces from the South.

The consequences of this deal were drastic. Democratic officials, many of whom were old Confederates, regained power in the south, and the march to equal rights for blacks was set back almost 100 years.

We may be divided, but we're not that divided. Even the partisan hacks of today would not allow a deal like that to be struck, and I certainly hope we've moved past the point where an entire race would be disenfranchised by a political deal.

It's important to keep things in perspective. Yes, our country is bitterly divided in 2016 along party lines. But it's been worse. The Civil War was a tragedy of division that should never happen again. And the elections of 1824 and 1876 featured similar accusations to the ones flying around today, showing that we've pretty much always been this way.

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