An 1864 Currier & Ives cartoon portrays presidential hopeful George Brinton McClellan caught between Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln.
Currier & Ives/Library of Congress
political science / power

Politics Is More Partisan Now, But It’s Not More Divisive

And anyway, agreement between the two parties has often masked serious problems.
Attitudes about immigration also have something to do with our current state of division. Because much of the political debate tends to focus on non-European immigration, it seems natural that immigration would combine with race along some kind of “diversity” dimension. But that wasn’t always the case. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, passed in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, opened up immigration and removed quotas based on country of origin. Before this era, immigration wasn’t necessarily considered one single issue. Country of origin mattered; politicians expressed very different views about immigrants from Northern Europe, Southern and Eastern Europe, and Asia.

The Democrats were historically the party of European immigrants. (Although the party was not lacking in nativist factions.) But as observed by Terry Golway, a historian who wrote a history of Tammany Hall,3 Democrats prided themselves on openness to immigrants but did not extend this openness beyond whites. Republicans, Golway said, boasted of their efforts to help African-Americans but struggled with serious anti-immigrant sentiment within their ranks and stressed the importance of assimilation.

Sometimes the two parties found common ground on immigration — but these aren’t the proudest moments of our history. At the end of the 19th century, both parties took relatively restrictive stances toward Asian immigrants, excluding whole nations of people from seeking U.S. citizenship — or even getting visas to come to the country — because of racist beliefs.

In other words, contending forces within the parties have at times kept race and immigration from dominating, say, presidential elections. But they also often kept progress on those issues from even making the public agenda. To the extent that we can trace the deep divisions of today to the civil rights era, we might understand them not as signs of contemporary dysfunction but as the results of finally addressing long-standing injustice and discrimination. The immigration issue is more complex, but cross-party unity has at times lent itself to overt discrimination. Superficial unity at the expense of full citizenship for all Americans is hard to defend. It’s worth noting that policies aimed at curbing racial discrimination in American life and immigration policy were also bipartisan efforts. But it’s far from a foregone conclusion that periods of unity were more just or equitable.
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