Disturbing parallels to the 1820s seen in today’s polarization

Even so, it seems unlikely that our nation is headed to another civil war.

The presidential election of 1824 was a wild affair. There were three candidates — John Quincy Adams, John Randolph and Andrew Jackson — and when the votes were counted none of the three had garnered a majority vote. The result, as the Constitution provides, was that the winner would be decided by the House of Representatives.

After a period of intense and often secret negotiations and deal-making, Adams, who was speaker of the house at the time, was elected as our sixth president.

Neither Jackson nor his supporters could accept the outcome or let it go. They launched a bitter campaign against John Quincy Adams that included every sort of scurrilous allegation and name-calling. Adams’ supporters responded in kind and it was pretty much an unending ugly brawl after that. Newspapers were funded and founded for the sole purpose of printing the allegations and critiques of one side or another.

The initial result was political polarization rooted in regional economic differences. As its members pretty much stopped listening, Congress became less deliberative and more of an arena for allegations, bluster and threats.

As polarization continued, it became a sort of political concrete that solidified over time. The regional economic differences remained in place — manufacturing in the North and agricultural production of mainly staple crops in the South.

The polarized Congress eventually passed the Tariff Act of 1828. It gave an economic bite to the now-hardened political positions and set New England and the Western states against the South. One Southern representative called it the “Tariff of Abominations,” and he wasn’t the only one with that thought. South Carolina declared the law to be null and void.

The Tariff Act of 1828 gave protection to New England industry at the expense of the South’s agriculture-based and international sales-oriented economy. One New England mill owner said that the tariff bill would keep the South indebted to the North for the next century. And he wasn’t wrong.

The bitterness and resentment felt in the South over the economic attack by their own countrymen in the North only worsened over time as its destructive effects spread throughout the region, and it became one of the causal factors of the open warfare that later devastated the South and cost the lives of more Americans than in any conflict since.

The North, called it, accurately, the Civil War; in the South it is called, even more accurately, the War Between the States.

Today, of course, things are different. Our economy is very different, surely. Agriculture employs only a small percentage of our population and the same goes for manufacturing. No sector of the economy fits neatly into a region, eliminating the possibility of a bisectional polarization. And we don’t have a state declaring a federal law null and void, as South Carolina did. Instead we have three states and a long list of counties and cities that declared themselves “sanctuaries” where a disliked federal law is effectively null and void. That’s different, kind of.

Today’s political partisans are not generally starting up newspapers to carry their allegations and slanders. The economic pressures on print journalism are intimidating. Many newspapers have made their politics clear, though, and the ones that still cling to “call it as it is” journalism find it heavy going.

Audiences for all forms of news seemingly prefer to read, view or hear only the things that they agree with. That leaves traditional print and TV journalism with the fires, crimes, weather disasters, entertainment gossip and sports, with predictable effects on people’s knowledge of other significant current events.

Today’s states’ rights issues do not lend themselves to a geographic, regional dispute, either. Instead, today’s polarization seems to pit major urban interests and leanings against those held by the rest of the population.

Polarization is toxic to our economy. It is difficult to imagine a successful, efficient market system when buyers believe sellers are the enemy, yet that is one of polarization’s tenets and effects.

It is difficult to be optimistic about the outcome of these developments … but, fortunately, not impossible. It is true that polarization doesn’t bring anything to the table except fragmentation, conflict and the extinction of both empathy and national unity. Still, while some of the similarities between the mid-19th century and our current situation are very disturbing, their alignment makes it unlikely that we are headed for a nightmare Civil War re-enactment.

Our economy today is a lot more diverse and more resilient than at any other time in our history. It can probably even outlast polarization. It has its faults, but as we plan reform, we should remind ourselves about the alternatives. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s observation about democracy: “Market capitalism is the worst economic system … except for all the others.”

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