Paradoxes of partisanship

It is one of the most familiar cries in American politics: partisanship is the problem. Think of the words associated with partisanship — deadlock, gridlock, extremism, vitriol. When something is described as ‘partisan’ it’s the same as saying it’s become near-insoluble. It is a deadly paradox — the United States has a political system dominated by parties, no one can seem to find an alternative way of organising public life — yet people want to wish them away. Overwhelmingly people vote for party candidates and millions give money to them. The idea that a candidate from outside the two main parties could win the presidency is unimaginable. Even when non-party or third party candidates occasionally win other offices (Jessie Ventura, Bernie Sanders) they’re seen as eccentrics; the exception that proves the rule. Yet at the same time, Americans purport to hate partisanship and claim to yearn for non-party alternatives. So candidates — especially for the presidency — routinely promise to transcend party. Barack Obama insisted there is no blue America, no red America, just a United States of America. Well it didn’t work out like that for him when he was in office — partisanship dogged his first term. So why are political parties so omni-present and yet so unpopular? Why do we need them at all, and is there another way of organising political life? These questions were among those I addressed in some work I did on the American Civil War. I wanted to understand what happened to a vitriolic party system in wartime. How did people reconcile partisanship with patriotism? I documented how politics became a battle to control the language of patriotism — a partisan battle you might say, since while most people denied they were acting in a partisan way, claiming only to act patriotically, they denounced their opponents as partisans. I called this process partisan antipartisanship — the use of antiparty rhetoric by parties. This was all more intense in wartime, as you would expect, but the story I was telling is one that applies much more broadly to American public life — and indeed to politics in other countries as well.

This research was published as No Party Now: Politics in the Civil War North by Oxford University Press in 2006.

Below, you can watch a video of me giving a talk based on the book at the New York Public Library in November 2006.

Adam IP Smith: No Party Now: Politics in the Civil War North from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.

NYT-Disunion-cover-e1371501978843Earlier this year, the New York Times published a book drawing on its excellent Disunion series — articles by historians that have appeared in the paper’s opinion pages marking the 150th anniversary of the war. My (very short) contribution was to write about wartime politics in 1861-2. This is what I said:


Both sides went to war in 1861 to preserve what they saw as the principles of democracy. Northerners of all parties were outraged that the rebels were breaking up the Union because they did not like the outcome of a freely conducted election — “the essence of anarchy,” in Abraham Lincoln’s words.

Southerners, however, saw secession as the will of the people. A state legislator from North Carolina, Jonathan Worth, joined the Confederate Army once his state had voted for secession even though he had opposed it. “I leave the flag of the Union,” he explained, “because I am subjected and forced to submit to my master — democracy.”

But if they were fighting for democracy, most Americans would, at the same time, also have conceded that the outbreak of war indicated that something was rotten in the political process. Republicans thought an aristocracy of slaveholders was corrupting the republic. Secessionists asked how a fanatical antislavery party had come to power in the 1860 election, when slavery was, they believed, enshrined in the Constitution. And in the view of northern Democrats, extremists on both sides had agitated sectional tension for their own political ends.

What these different perspectives shared was the sense that “politics as usual” had exacerbated the crisis, perhaps even, as The New York Times put it, had “brought the nation to this state of Armageddon.” Politics as usual essentially meant parties – those organisations seemingly so crucial for the organisation of American political life and yet simultaneously so mistrusted. George Washington had warned of the curse of “faction” and, even as party organization developed in the 1830s and ‘40s, an important strain of antipartisanship persisted in American political culture. It was often, in fact, partisans themselves who used antiparty rhetoric, presenting their opponents as “slavish partisans” and themselves as the antidote — offering candidates who were, in the idiom of the day, “fresh from the loins of the people.”

On the brink of Civil War, newspaper editors who unashamedly promoted the interests of one or the other slate of candidates could be found denouncing “the licentiousness of modern partisan politics,” the corruption of office-seekers, and the sinister influence of “wire-pullers” (the 19th-century term for spin doctors). Popular songs celebrated the virtue of non-partisanship in wartime with lines like “No party nor clan shall divide us/ the Union we’ll place above all.” An Ohio newspaper editor agreed that it seemed unpatriotic to “plot for partisan ends” at a time when citizens were sinking their differences and joining together to defend the republic. A group of Pennsylvania citizens assured Lincoln that they “knew no division of parties” in their state.

In the capital of the new Confederacy, The Richmond Whig concluded likewise that “we should profit by the failure [of parties] for our future guidance.” And in 1863, The New York Times expressed its hope that “one of the great providential ends secured by this terrible strife” shall be that “the old party corruptions shall in some good measure cease; that the public soul, in its renewed patriotism, shall realize, as it has not before, what deadly agencies they are and no more tolerate them.”


Yet if there was a near consensus that party politics should be abandoned in wartime, it was far less clear what the alternative organising principle might be.

Confederates took pride in creating a republic that, true to the spirit of Washington, was free from the “stain” of party. In the first Confederate congressional elections in November 1861, candidates ran without reference to party identity. Most, in fact, were former Democrats and many had past records that were well known, but the non-partisan tone of the elections — and even the relatively large number of non-contested races — were taken to be a sign of political health. It soon became clear, however, that an absence of party labels did not mean an absence of political conflict. President Jefferson Davis faced challenges from Congress, from state governors and even from his own vice president.

In the North, elections in 1861 saw the creation of “Union parties” with candidates appealing to voters to put aside party differences. The rhetoric of these organisations reflected the mood that partisanship must give way to patriotism. “The mousing politicians who rattle the dry bones of dead parties, can make no headway,” declared one newspaper with satisfaction. Another hailed an effort by New York State Democrats to present themselves under a new label as an “anti-politician” movement.

In some places these Union parties were little more than the old Republican organisation in new garb. But often they were more than that. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, an important faction of Democrats joined Republicans in creating a Union party, and some prominent Democratic leaders abandoned their old party decisively. One such figure was Edwin M. Stanton, who had served in Buchanan’s cabinet and served as Lincoln’s second secretary of war. In California and Rhode Island it was Democrats who took the lead in creating Union parties. In Massachusetts, former Whigs and Know Nothings joined with some Democrats to form an avowedly non-partisan “People’s party,” in opposition to the radicalism of the Republicans in that state. And in the border slave states, the old pattern of party politics was utterly disrupted as all those opposed to secession identified themselves as Unionists.

Precisely because Union parties usually involved co-operation with former partisan enemies and therefore compromise on principles, some Democrats and Republican radicals denounced the Union party movement and insisted on maintaining party “regularity.” They rejected the message sent out by Union parties — whoever had taken the lead in organising them — that they were the embodiment of patriotism and that the loyalty of those opposing them must necessarily be suspect.

Nevertheless, when a political group lost control of the language of Union, they generally lost the election. This happened to the Republicans in the New York gubernatorial election in 1862. Democrats successfully portrayed the Republican nominee as a dangerous radical and their own man, Horatio Seymour, despite being a long-time party stalwart, as a patriotic figure who transcended partisanship (this was an effort that unravelled the following year when Seymour appeared to sympathise with the New York City draft rioters).

Whatever semblance of non-party unity each section managed in the first year or so of the war had crumbled by 1863. In the North, the Emancipation Proclamation created bitter divisions over whether it was a legitimate tool to crush the rebellion or a usurpation of the proper aim of the war by a fanatical party. Lincoln’s emancipation policy probably had a unifying effect within the Confederacy, at least temporarily, but as battles and territory were lost, the South began to face its own internal battles over the administration’s conduct of the war. So there, too, the early promise of non-partisan politics began to look hollow.

Despite this, the basic dynamic of wartime politics in both sections remained unchanged. It was a battle over who defined loyalty and who most represented the ideals of the republic or the founding fathers. Even while politicians behaved in an increasingly “partisan” way, “partisanship” remained a dirty word. Neither section resolved the basic paradox of fighting a war to preserve democratic ideals while mistrusting the most characteristic forms that democratic politics took.

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