America’s democratic institutions were challenged on several occasions during the twentieth century, but each of these challenges was effectively contained. The guardrails held, as politicians from both parties — and often, society as a whole — pushed back against violations that might have threatened democracy. As a result, episodes of intolerance and partisan warfare never escalated into the kind of “death spiral” that destroyed democracies in Europe in the 1930s and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.
We must conclude with a troubling caveat, however. The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion. The stability of the period between the end of Reconstruction and the 1980s was rooted in an original sin: the Compromise of 1877 and its aftermath, which permitted the de-democratization of the South and the consolidation of Jim Crow. Racial exclusion contributed directly to the partisan civility and cooperation that came to characterize twentieth-century American politics. The “solid South” emerged as a powerful conservative force within the Democratic Party, simultaneously vetoing civil rights and serving as a bridge to Republicans. Southern Democrats’ ideological proximity to conservative Republicans reduced polarization and facilitated bipartisanship. But it did so at the great cost of keeping civil rights — and America’s full democratization — off the political agenda.
America’s democratic norms, then, were born in a context of exclusion. As long as the political community was restricted largely to whites, Democrats and Republicans had much in common. Neither party was likely to view the other as an existential threat. The process of racial inclusion that began after World War Two and culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act would, at long last, fully democratize the United States. But it would also polarize it, posing the greatest challenge to established forms of mutual toleration and forbearance since Reconstruction.
—How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Another take on the present polarization in America is Politics Is More Partisan Now, But It’s Not More Divisive:
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.
We’re living in historic times. It helps to remember “the good old days” weren’t perfect either.