13 min read

Was American politics ever normal?

Previous eras of American politics have been just as bizarre, chaotic, and divisive as this one.
Was American politics ever normal?
“Basic propriety was the norm.” (Lithograph of a congressman beating a senator with a cane on the Senate floor; Digital Public Library of America)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, May 29, 2024. Election Day is 160 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Let’s play a game. I’ll give you a passage, and then you guess when it was written. No cheating — if you know the answer, don’t yell it out!

Here goes: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated...how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”

If you guessed 2016, or 2020, or 2024, or any time since Donald Trump went down his gilded escalator, you’re off by about six decades. Those are the opening sentences of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” a celebrated essay published by the historian Richard Hofstadter in Harper’s Magazine in November 1964.

That essay has been on my mind recently because of a tweet by David Roberts, the author of a popular newsletter about climate policy and politics. The tweet, which you can read below, posits that American politics has become uniquely crazy in the last 10 years. It received 4.3 million views on X, formerly known as Twitter. It is also, in my opinion, flat-out incorrect.

To find out why, we’ll return to Hofstadter in a moment. First, let’s dwell briefly on Thomas B. Reed.

I just finished a biography of Reed, a powerful Maine politician who served as speaker of the House in the late 19th century, so my mind was in the Gilded Age when I saw Roberts’ post. And I suspect that Roberts would find less propriety and normalcy in Gilded Age politics than he assumes.

Most obviously, it was a literal Wild West of corruption, with railroad companies stretching towards the Pacific that openly paid politicians thousands of dollars to do their bidding in Washington. Both of Ulysses S. Grant’s vice presidents were alleged to be involved in such bribery, along with many other prominent officials.

Even more jarring, though, was reading about the era’s elections. Think about how much our election system was shaken by mere (false) allegations of election fraud in 2020. Then imagine virtually every election for two decades being decided by a razor-thin margin, and with credible accusations each time that the side in power was manipulating the vote count. Any hardened history buff will already be aware of the 1876 presidential election — which was marked by fraudulent vote-counting, political violence, and widespread disfranchisement, culminating in the election of “Rutherfraud” B. Hayes — but the Reed book served as a valuable reminder that 1876 was far from an exception.

When Reed was in Congress, every two years, the House would have to spend the first several weeks of session dealing with a stack of election disputes. It was an open secret that election boards in some states were for sale to the highest bidder. (And, indeed, both sides often tried to buy them.) “In the North and the South, state legislatures used their power over counting ballots in gubernatorial elections to capture the governorship for the benefit of a political party without regards to the merits of the underlying vote-counting dispute,” historian Ned Foley has written of this time period. “And when vote-counting disputes over seats in the state legislatures themselves affected which party would control a legislative chamber, those disputes triggered all-out legislative warfare with rival bodies pronouncing themselves the official law-making institution in the state. In some instances, control of both the governorship and the legislature became ensnared in the underlying ballot-counting battle, in which case the fighting was especially intense.”

Reed’s own Maine was pushed almost to the brink of a civil war in 1879 over a contested gubernatorial election, an episode that is recounted with detail in the book; according to Foley, Maine is one of five states where “incumbent governors called out the militia” in order to influence the outcome of an election during the Gilded Age. In one of those states, Kentucky, a gubernatorial candidate was assassinated amid a violent election dispute.

Is this when “basic propriety was the norm”? Or is Roberts referring to the more recent past, like the 1990s, when the president had an affair with a 22-year-old intern in the Oval Office, or the 1980s, when seven members of Congress were convicted of bribery in the Abscam scandal, or the 1970s, when the president helped cover up a break-in of the opposition party’s headquarters?

You can take almost any of the component parts of Roberts’ tweet, and I promise that the scandal-stained annals of American history have more dramatic stories to tell.

A long-shot presidential candidate with brain worms? How about a president who was incapacitated by a stroke for months, allowing his wife to effectively govern the country in secret?

A governor shooting a puppy? Well, two sitting vice presidents have shot people.

A Supreme Court justice waving a politically charged flag? Actually, the norm that Supreme Court justices remain apolitical is fairly new. Many previous justices openly advised political figures while sitting on the court, from Justice John Catron (who balanced his judicial duties with serving as an unofficial campaign manager for James Polk in the 1844 election) to Justice Abe Fortas (who attended White House staff meetings during the LBJ administration and briefed the president on court deliberations). In fact, Charles Evan Hughes even ran for president while serving as Chief Justice in 1916!

In fairness to Roberts, he later acknowledged in a follow-up tweet that “plenty of bad stuff went on” in previous decades. But, he added, the “basic, universal assumption was that the people involved would behave like adults, have basic manners, hew more or less to mainstream norms. It wasn’t an embarrassing freak show.”

However, I think it’s important to note that as jarring as it may be when public officials break the modern norms we’ve constructed around politics, for most of American political history, those norms didn’t even exist — which means, arguably, even fewer people behaved like adults than they do now.

Of course, it would be easy to cite flashpoints like the Civil War, when the country literally broke in two — and its run-up, when there were at least 70 incidents of violence between members of Congress, according to historian Joanne Freeman — or the 1960s, when three major political figures were assassinated in the space of five years. (Not that these aren’t important proof points that American politics is not currently at its most divided, they’re just lazy examples because they’re so obvious.)

But, even in the moments in between, political chaos and impropriety were rampant. The Revolutionary period is often remembered as a time of gentility, when men in powdered whigs politely debated with flowery language. In fact, our Founding Fathers frequently took to partisan newspapers to anonymously tear each other apart and fling rumors at each other. (Note that the norm of non-partisan media is also a fairly new innovation.) Another similarly nostalgized era is the 1950s; that’s when the White Houser chief of staff was forced to resign in a bribery scandal involving a coat made of vicuña wool. American history is full of such tales that we would never associate with the black-and-white era; long before Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels, Andrew Jackson’s Cabinet fell apart because of a sex sandal.

If American politics has always bordered on the bizarre, why have the last 10 years felt so uniquely crazy? Here are a few theories:

1. The fringes are moving closer to the center, with fewer guardrails to keep them out. According to Roberts, politics didn’t used to be an “an embarrassing freak show” where people openly embraced conspiracy theories. But, according to Hofstadter, American politics has always had a consistent strain of conspiracists. “In the history of the United States one find it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement,” he wrote, “the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims.”

The most obvious response is that today’s conspiracists are more powerful than their predecessors, in that the Republican Party is now controlled by someone whose dominant campaign theme is centered around a made-up conspiracy. Another book I read recently, “The Hollow Parties,” makes a compelling argument that America’s political parties have been weakened by the rise of outside interest groups to the point that we now have a “politics without guardrails,” in which there are few elite actors in either party that can prevent the crazies from getting power.

I think there’s truth to that, but it’s also important to remember that this is more a resurgence of phenomena seen before than something entirely sui generis, as Roberts attempts to suggest. Hofstadter’s entire essay is based around the nomination of Barry Goldwater, another time that the far-right of the Republican Party was able to catapult one of its own into a presidential nomination. One of his main examples is the Anti-Masonic Party, which rose from a conspiracy theory to becoming the country’s biggest third party, electing dozens of U.S. House members. This is not the first time the “paranoid style” has entered the mainstream, although you could argue that there are fewer guardrails this time that can act to curtail the fringes.

2. Social media hasn’t made politics more juvenile. It’s warped our perceptions. Many of the responses to Roberts’ tweet contend that social media is what has pushed our politics off the rails in the last 10 years. I think that’s mistaken, for the reasons laid out above (I think American politics has been teetering on and off the rails since the beginning).

But I do think social media has shined a spotlight on the eccentricities of politics in a way that didn’t exist previously. Many of the examples I have cited throughout this newsletter show that politics has always been full of adults acting in embarrassing ways — but many of those examples weren’t always known to the public at the time, because it was harder to access information and news outlets didn’t always report out information that was embarrassing to public officials. So, social media hasn’t necessarily dumbed down politics, but it has pushed the dumbness out into the open, putting it in everyone’s pockets and making it impossible to hide.

Once again, even if this phenomenon accelerated in the last 10 years, it’s a mistake to think it started then. In his essay, Hofstadter makes the same exact point about television and radio. “Important changes may also be traced to the effects of the mass media,” he wrote. “The villains of the modern right are much more vivid than those of their paranoid predecessors, much better known to the public; the literature of the paranoid style is by the same token richer and more circumstantial in personal description and personal invective.”

The same is true of social media, and to an even more dramatic level because our information is now filtered through algorithms instead of humans. Let’s say 10% of the American public always belonged to the “paranoid style.” Not only does social media allow you to see these 10% in all their glory, the Twitter algorithm might elevate the 10% so that they make up 30% of the political posts you see in your “For You” page. That does not mean that the 10% has actually grown to 30%, or that the level of crazy in our body politic has suddenly tripled overnight. But it does mean the crazy makes up more of what you see on a daily basis, warping your perceptions of the broader public.

3. Politics as mega-identity. The political scientist Lilliana Mason has written that Americans once had all sorts of cross-cutting identities: where you lived, who you prayed to, the car you drove, where you shopped, etc. In recent decades, partially because of natural sorting and partially because of divisive politicians who have used these identities to their advantage, Mason argues that politics has been squashed into a “mega-identity.” Now, if you tell me where you live, your religion, your car, and your grocery store, I can tell you with reasonable certainty which party you will vote for in November.

This has had a lot of impacts, but one has been to make politics feel more existential because if all your identities are wrapped into one, whether or not your party wins in November will automatically become more important to you and your identity. This has definitely made people a lot more dramatic about how they approach politics, contributing to both sides’ sense that things are rapidly deteriorating and can only be improved by their own victory.

Another key factor here is geographic polarization, which has both exacerbated these “mega-identities” and also made politics feel more divisive because people are less likely to know people on the other side of the aisle, making them all the more alienated from their opponents and all the more surprised (and suspicious) when they win. This is not the first time in American history that the country has been geographically polarized (the Civil War, anyone?) but such polarization has resurged in recent decades, contributing to the surrounding sense of division.

4. Donald Trump. Finally, we arrive at the elephant in the room. Once again, it’s important to be specific about what is new and what’s not. Donald Trump is not the first American politician to harness populism (Andrew Jackson), to have been a celebrity (Ronald Reagan), to be enmeshed in sex scandals (Bill Clinton), to fling insults at people (all of the Founding Fathers), or to shamelessly repeat the same lies again and again (Joe McCarthy). But he is the first American politician to combine all of these traits, which has undoubtedly rocked our politics and supercharged the latent crazy. He also crossed lines (like threatening the peaceful transfer of power) that had not previously been crossed by a U.S. president, genuinely raising the stakes of politics and trampling over longtime norms.

Importantly, Trump’s bombast and celebrity has also inspired an uptick in political engagement — which suggests that part of the ubiquitous feeling that politics are going crazy could just be because more people are paying attention. Then again, engagement has been rising generally since the 2000s, partially because it’s easier to tune into politics with social media. Certainly, engagement — and therefore recognition of the existing crazy — is certainly up compared to earlier eras of political history, when vast swaths of the country had almost no way to access political information like they do now.

Source: Gallup

So, in short, yes, there are concrete factors that have changed our politics in the last decade — just like Nixon changed politics, just like TV changed politics, just like politics are always changing.

But let’s dispense with the notion that politicians used to “behave like adults” and “have basic manners” in earlier eras. Politicians getting into online spats may seem like a breakdown in decorum — but it is nothing compared to the actual political violence that has been common in previous eras of American history, from canings at the Capitol in the 1850s to the riots and assassinations of the 1960s. Just because Marjorie Taylor Greene and AOC sparring on Twitter is more visible to us than Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr dueling at Weehawken does not mean that politics is more volatile today.

We should not stuff our fingers in our ears and pretend our current politics are perfect, but it’s also important to read history and remember that previous eras that we remember as civil actually contained all sorts of impropriety and chaos. Some of our norms may be breaking down, but at least we have those norms in place today: for parts of political history, there was no norm that vote-counting in elections would be fair, or that Supreme Court justices would remain above politics, or that FBI directors wouldn’t spy on people, or that lawmakers wouldn’t resort to killing each other.

Roberts addressed his tweet to “young people who have come to political maturity in the last decade,” of which I am one. But sometimes young people, more than adults, have an advantage in comparing the present to the past because they can have a more objective sense of the past, without the subjective associations that come along with having lived in it.

A recent Washington Post graphic portrayed this perfectly. When you ask Americans when the country was at its best according to different metrics, people reliably tend to answer the first decade of their life. This is true for asking people when America had the “least political division”: there is a big spike of people who answer the years they were around 10, just like there is for the other questions.

Source: Washington Post

In politics, as with other factors, adults always like to think everything was better when they were younger. Sometimes it takes people who are young right now — without any hazily nostalgic earlier era to compare things to — to remind them that, actually, some things used to be way, way worse.

More news to know.

Trump trial: “Donald Trump’s defense team and New York prosecutors told starkly different stories in closing arguments at his hush-money trial: one about a lying former loyalist out to twist legal recordkeeping into revenge, the other about a scheme to interfere with the 2016 presidential election,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass told jurors Tuesday that Trump forged a corrupt bargain with former fixer Michael Cohen and a tabloid publisher to silence negative stories—resulting in one of the most valuable contributions ever made to the Trump campaign.”

“Trump lawyer Todd Blanche argued that no such conspiracy existed and that prosecutors had built their whole case around Cohen, who Blanche said lied on the stand. He dubbed Cohen, the prosecution’s star witness, a ‘G.L.O.A.T.,’ or the Greatest Liar Of All Time.”

  • The jury is set to begin its deliberations today.

The day ahead.

President Biden will travel to the battleground state of Pennsylvania for two campaign events in Philadelphia. One of the events will also feature Vice President Harris, a rare joint campaign rally for the two of them. Biden will spend the night at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, instead of at the White House.

The House and Senate are both on recess for the week.

Donald Trump’s criminal trial is nearing its conclusion. After both sides finished their closing arguments yesterday, the court will return at 10 a.m. ET this morning, when Judge Juan Merchan will give his instructions to the jury. The jurors will then begin their deliberations.

Thanks for reading.

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— Gabe