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Politics Is More Partisan Now, But It’s Not More Divisive

We’re now one year into the Trump era, and politics seems more nasty, divided and polarized than ever. A government shutdown is imminent over immigration policy. Congress hasn’t passed a single, major bipartisan bill. President Trump’s approval rating among Democrats has fallen to 5 percent. Some reports suggest that a quarter of Americans have real animosity toward the other party. You’d be forgiven for wondering why we can’t just go back to those halcyon days of bipartisanship. Remember when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill would supposedly come to compromise over drinks?

Here’s the thing: By some measures, the United States is more partisan than ever, but that more peaceful and unified past, that golden age of unity, was … pretty much never.

Let’s think for a moment about what the nature of political division looks like right now in the U.S. Using presidential election results, my FiveThirtyEight colleague David Wasserman found that elections are getting less and less competitive at the county level; a record number of counties in 2016 voted for either Trump or Hillary Clinton in a blowout. This is consistent with findings in political science that even when national presidential races are competitive, many individual states are not. Political scientists have characterized the polarized U.S. as “two one-party nations,” instead of one two-party nation.

The issues we fight over — gender, race, immigration, culture and the role of government — divide Americans neatly and consistently under party labels. The current moment feels divisive because major policy and political questions are “sorted” between the parties — Republicans are mostly unified around one set of answers, and Democrats are mostly unified around another.

American history is also riddled with divisions, including over many of the same questions that divide us now. In particular, race and immigration have long fueled intense fights. The difference is that much of the historical conflict on these issues occurred within parties, so we have to look beyond the tensions between Republicans and Democrats to understand it. Or, often these fights remained outside of electoral politics altogether, and thus those issues went unaddressed. While they might have made for some quieter presidential election years, these dynamics masked serious problems, like inequality, exclusion and violence.

Historically divided parties

For a sense of how much more political division used to play out within each party, look at presidential conventions. A few hundred party faithful gathered every four years to pick their presidential nominee. In many years, it took multiple ballots to come to agreement – in one case, 103. Ten or more ballots were hardly standard, but they weren’t unheard of. Even a few presidents whom we often look back on as unifying — like Lincoln and FDR — took multiple ballots to win the nomination.1

Since 1952, of course, every Republican and Democratic convention has been settled on the first ballot. In part, that’s because of rule changes that tied delegate voting to caucus and primary results. But it also reflects the degree to which — especially after the South shifted toward the Republicans — the two major parties no longer have highly contentious factions that disagree on central policy questions. Had modern parties faced more internal division, more presidential conventions might have started without any candidate having reached the minimum delegate threshold needed to win. Indeed, there have been a few close calls, like 1964 and 1980. Things don’t always go smoothly. But more typically, presidential nominations are tied up well before the convention begins.

Before 1952, on the other hand, party members were more likely to duke it out among themselves. Some of the squabbles at these conventions reflected tensions between candidates and factions, but they usually mapped onto some of the same issues that divide us today.

Race and immigration

Lots of evidence suggests that race and immigration are two of the main drivers of our current divided state. Political scientist Michael Tesler found that racial attitudes mattered more in 2016 than in any recent election — even 2008, when the presence of an African-American candidate shaped the political conversation.

Racial divisions between parties haven’t exactly been unheard of in U.S. history. The Republican Party was founded on the principle of stopping slavery’s expansion.2 But many of the major fights about race have also taken place within parties, which means that our usual measures of polarization might mask what’s really going on.

Conflicts between Northern and Southern Democrats, which often manifested in different convention votes for presidential and vice presidential nominees, escalated during the 1940s, for example. In 1944, Southern Democrats tried to organize a revolt against Roosevelt at the DNC, claiming to reassertwhite supremacy” in a party that had started to move slowly in a more liberal direction on racial issues (such as with a speech by an African-American at the 1936 convention). In 1948, tensions between leaders pushing for civil rights progress and their opponents resulted in several delegations walking out of the convention and eventually creating their own ticket. Through the 1950s and 1960s, Democrats continued to be internally divided on these issues, with the civil rights faction eventually gaining ground.

Internal conflict over race wasn’t just a Democratic issue. After the Civil War, Republicans initially sought to win votes from newly enfranchised African-Americans. Over time, this question became more controversial, and eventually “lily white” Republicans gained influence in the party and pulled it away from efforts to be more racially inclusive. This meant halting efforts to include African-Americans in the party and abandoning efforts to support anti-lynching legislation.

Attitudes about immigration also have something to do with our current state of division. Because much of the political debate tends to focus on non-European immigration, it seems natural that immigration would combine with race along some kind of “diversity” dimension. But that wasn’t always the case. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, passed in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, opened up immigration and removed quotas based on country of origin. Before this era, immigration wasn’t necessarily considered one single issue. Country of origin mattered; politicians expressed very different views about immigrants from Northern Europe, Southern and Eastern Europe, and Asia.

The Democrats were historically the party of European immigrants. (Although the party was not lacking in nativist factions.) But as observed by Terry Golway, a historian who wrote a history of Tammany Hall,3 Democrats prided themselves on openness to immigrants but did not extend this openness beyond whites. Republicans, Golway said, boasted of their efforts to help African-Americans but struggled with serious anti-immigrant sentiment within their ranks and stressed the importance of assimilation.

Sometimes the two parties found common ground on immigration — but these aren’t the proudest moments of our history. At the end of the 19th century, both parties took relatively restrictive stances toward Asian immigrants, excluding whole nations of people from seeking U.S. citizenship — or even getting visas to come to the country — because of racist beliefs.

In other words, contending forces within the parties have at times kept race and immigration from dominating, say, presidential elections. But they also often kept progress on those issues from even making the public agenda. To the extent that we can trace the deep divisions of today to the civil rights era, we might understand them not as signs of contemporary dysfunction but as the results of finally addressing long-standing injustice and discrimination. The immigration issue is more complex, but cross-party unity has at times lent itself to overt discrimination. Superficial unity at the expense of full citizenship for all Americans is hard to defend. It’s worth noting that policies aimed at curbing racial discrimination in American life and immigration policy were also bipartisan efforts. But it’s far from a foregone conclusion that periods of unity were more just or equitable.

Why this matters

The sorting of issues about race and immigration have certainly contributed to the sense that Republican and Democratic voters are living in different worlds. The anger inspired by such questions makes it that much harder to reach governing compromises, especially when issues are increasingly regarded in racial terms.

These issues are difficult and divisive. It isn’t a trivial difference that they now separate the two parties from each other, where they once were points of internal contention. Partisan differences over fundamental issues of identity and justice certainly contribute to a sense that Republicans and Democrats live in two different worlds. But the thing is, looking closer reveals that Americans have pretty much always lived with major differences in experiences and opinions. Furthermore, periods in which the two parties were less clearly “sorted” have produced immigration policies that excluded whole nations and racial groups, and — in many cases — what amounted to an elite consensus to do nothing about violence and inequality.

Before we let nostalgia for compromise go too far, we might consider that finding common ground politically has sometimes made things worse.


  1. Sometimes state delegations would actually shift their votes while the balloting was going on at the convention, so nominations involved even more internal negotiation.

  2. Though within party ranks, there was a lot of disagreement about how to achieve that.

  3. A political machine fueled by Irish immigrants and their descendants.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”