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Are We More Divided Now Than Ever Before? (Review)

How American Politics Turned Tribal, From George Washington to Donald Trump
By James A. Morone

If political scientists’ warnings about the poisonous effects of partisanship may have seemed a bit overwrought before, they certainly don’t at present. Viewing the reality of the coronavirus pandemic through the cockeyed lens of American politics can now be lethal. When asked in June by the Pew Research Center whether masks should always be worn, Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents were about twice as likely to say yes as Republicans. The same poll showed Republicans far more optimistic in thinking that the worst of the pandemic was over, a sunny outlook that was not only wrong but that also may have caused many to put themselves in jeopardy by failing to take the crisis seriously. In June, the former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain attended a Trump rally without a mask. Less than two weeks later he was hospitalized with Covid-19, and subsequently died. These days, millions of Americans appear quite willing to jeopardize their own well-being to prove their factional bona fides.

How did it come to this? James A. Morone’s “Republic of Wrath” offers a fresh theory to an already sizable pile of explanations for the dismal state of our politics. Morone, a professor of political science at Brown University, posits that while American political life has certainly seen vicious chapters before, our current era is marked by an important distinction. In the past, he argues, the two major parties were internally split as they debated the country’s most explosive fights over race and immigration, and party platforms reflected these in-house divisions. The Democratic Party of the early 19th century embraced immigrant voters but staunchly supported slavery. The Republican Party, which tried to use a literacy test to block immigrants from entering the country, embraced Black emancipation.

But today, Morone writes, “the most passionate differences ringing through American history are now organized directly into the parties. For the first time, all the so-called minorities are on one side.” Black Americans, immigrants and liberal women are crowded into the Democratic Party, while white Americans are more likely to be Republican. And so a debate about health care policy or how to resolve inequality easily devolves into irreconcilable conflict. “Both parties are deeply enmeshed in feelings about identity because each draws people who see themselves as fundamentally different from those on the other side.”

This is an intriguing idea, but it struggles to maintain its heft through the brisk survey of American political history that follows, starting with the country’s founding. The only thread holding it all together appears to be Morone pausing from time to time to remind us that Americans have frequently sparred over issues of race, immigration and gender. (A repeated refrain is that the most “enduring” or “primal” or “perennial” question of America is: “Who are we?”)

Read entire article at New York Times