The Forgotten Precedent for Our ‘Unprecedented’ Political Insanity

European visitors were stunned. Many wrote home about the wild spectacle of an American election, watching “people living as far asunder as the population of Paris is from that of St. Petersburg” simultaneously break out in political debate. To Europeans, it looked like a festival of diversity, anchored by working-class young white marchers and filled out by clubs of African Americans, Cubans or Italians, all joining “the motley crowd — American, Irish, Mexican, and Chinese,” as one stunned London correspondent reported out of San Francisco. Other travelers marveled at America’s women, denied the right to vote but still fiercely opinionated. Tourists never got used to watching schoolgirls argue politics on the streetcars.

A Swedish immigrant wrote home, proud of his new country, where “both the millionaire and the poor working man” seemed ready to break out in a compelling political speech, where “[a]ll work with both hands and feet to get the party they belong to on top.”

Those parties defined everything. When one immigrant in Pennsylvania was asked, during his naturalization test, to explain the structure of the U.S. government, he famously responded that it was “two-sided.” That about summed it up, with Republicans and Democrats locked in a perpetual war. The parties became identifiers for something larger than policies, two tribes using politics to fight over race, class, religion, immigration, inequality and more. As today, many Americans could tell, at a glance, who was a Democrat and who a Republican.

And no wonder so many gravitated toward these parties: There was little else to anchor their lives. In a booming, diverse, disrupted nation, filling with new immigrants and new factories and new cities, the parties were rare institutions that offered stability. Tammany Hall boss Richard Croker (himself once jailed for an Election Day stabbing) claimed his machine was the Republic’s “great digestive apparatus,” turning rough, foreign-born paupers into the nation’s fuel. Drink at the party’s saloon, march in the party’s rallies, curse the party’s enemies, and suddenly an isolated individual had a tribe. Party offered identity, for good and for bad.

Such public, partisan campaigns fired up the nation’s passions. Thousands of newspapers stoked a steam-punk outrage machine, cranking out verbose insults and sarcastic accusations. There was no assumption of objectivity — fewer than 5 percent of papers identified as “independent” — keeping most readers locked in their partisan bubbles. Such heated emotions drove what one unimpressed political scientist called “government by indignation.”

“The law of everything,” explained Conkling, the U.S. senator in love with the new doctrine of survival of the fittest, “is competition.”

By the 1870s, the optimism of the post-Civil War era was turning into a public acknowledgment that what made American politics exciting also made it maddening. Neither party passed decisive legislation; presidents did next to nothing. Yet the fight for their office turned into what Teddy Roosevelt called “a quadrennial presidential riot.” Party bosses, like Manhattan’s George Washington Plunkitt, found it easier to rile up voters if he avoided the topic of legislation altogether, preferring culture war fodder or free booze and free jobs. “I don’t trouble them with political arguments,” Plunkitt smiled.

At first, thought leaders and barroom grumblers blamed the politicians. The well-to-do heaped scorn on the working-class politicos who had won so much power, and who were caricatured as thieving vultures, “shifty-eyed, dribbling tobacco, badly dressed,” in the words of Henry Seidel Canby, a wealthy Delaware Quaker. There were plenty of easy targets, men with nicknames like Boss Tweed and Lord Roscoe, Pig Iron Kelley and Black Jack Logan, Bill the Butcher and Bathhouse John. Other Americans assigned fault to a widening circle of real culprits — the parties, the press, the monopolies — and also scapegoats like Black voters, Catholic immigrants and Jewish socialists.

But some argued that democracy itself was the problem. By the late 1870s, a class of bitter elite intellectuals — tired of being drowned out in America’s working-class democracy — argued that majority rule and human equality were nothing but schemes to siphon power from “superior to inferior types of men.” The Boston historian Francis Parkman made this case in a famous screed titled “The Failure of Universal Suffrage,” in which he accused the voters of being “a public pest,” wielding “promiscuous suffrage” against their betters.

Elite “reformers,” both Northern and Southern, pushed back against the widening of democracy. In the South, white Democrats attacked African American voting rights. Moving from Election Day terrorism to a campaign of lynchings to Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement, they suffocated a generation of Black politicians, born as slaves but elected as members of Congress, senators and governors. After new state constitutions were introduced, such as in Louisiana, the number of registered Black voters there crashed from 130,000 to just 1,342 in eight years. In the North, “reform” was subtler. When New York’s elites moved to disenfranchise the 69 percent of the electorate of New York City that didn’t own much property, organized labor rebelled, filling the streets, threatening violence and scuttling the scheme.

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