Back in February I noted Charles Lane’s odd contention that contemporary American political polarization—which consists mostly of a situation in which all the Democrats in congress are more liberal than all the Republicans—is reminiscent of the situation before the outbreak of the Civil War. Yesterday he actually repeated this bizarre claim before immediately acknowledging that it’s bunk:
This could actually be a positive development, if the ideological purge underway among Republicans and Democrats gives rise to a new party of outcast moderates. But don’t hold your breath. The situation reminds me of the second half of the 1850s, when the combined impact of the Fugitive Slave Law and the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to the breakdown of the old Whig-Jacksonian party system. I don’t think we are headed toward another civil war, of course. But I do expect more partisan vitriol and deadlock before this cycle of polarization ultimately runs its course. Given this country’s problems (economic stagnation, debt, terrorism), that scenario looks dangerous enough.
But if you don’t think we’re headed for a new civil war, then why bring this up? What’s more, even a deflationary version of the analogy seems totally inapt. Something akin to the “breakdown of the old Whig-Jacksonian system” would involve the reverse of the polarization Lane is complaining about. Some new issues would come to the fore that scramble existing party coalitions and give rise to new bipartisan ones. Strained by this agenda-shift, one or both parties might collapse and be superseded by a successor (as the Whigs were by the Republicans) and the whole system would shift. But this is exactly what Lane and his ilk are always complaining isn’t happening today. Instead, Democrats are largely united in support of the Obama agenda and Republicans are completely united in opposition to it.