There's nothing new in American political history about bitter partisanship, ideological clashes, or relentless obstruction. All have been woven through government in Washington from the beginning.
What is new is that each of those divisions now falls along the same, mutually reinforcing lines. That's what makes 21st century gridlock from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue so entrenched and difficult to break.
For most of the 20th century, the partisanship of voters and politicians was driven by the most searing event in the country's history -- the Civil War pitting (Republican) North against (Democratic) South. The bonds produced by the conflict influenced political alignments through decades of political, demographic and economic change.
Thus the Democratic Party that four times sent Franklin Roosevelt to the White House, beginning in the Great Depression, was a seemingly mismatched coalition of forces.There were conservative white Southerners – the "Solid South." There were also pro-labor liberals in northern cities, including immigrants from Europe and blacks who left the agricultural economy of Dixie for better-paying jobs in heavy industry.
The Republican Party also grew increasingly diverse as the U.S. population after World War II gravitated toward the Sun Belt. It encompassed the moderate-to-liberal Eastern establishment led by such figures as Nelson Rockefeller of New York, and the Western conservatism embodied by the likes of Barry Goldwater of Arizona and, later, Ronald Reagan of California.
The diversity of the two parties was one major factor encouraging bi-partisan alliances. So were the near-universal experiences a generation of Americans shared in fighting World War II, and the public's pre-Vietnam, pre-Watergate respect for political institutions and their leaders.
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The bottom line was that Republicans and Democrats both worked across party lines on major issues. When President Lyndon Johnson faced opposition to his civil rights agenda in 1964, it came most fiercely from Southerners within his own party. His most remarkable ally in fashioning a breakthrough was the Senate Republican leader, Everett Dirksen of Illinois.
By the same token, Johnson received bi-partisan backing for the Medicare program he pushed through the Congress in 1965. The rising faction of Republican conservatives, including aspiring politician Reagan, opposed the legislation as a step toward socialized medicine. But 70 House Republicans and 13 Senate Republicans voted to pass the program.
Fast forward to 2010, when Congress was considering Obama's health care law. It passed – but with only Democratic support. Not a single Republican in either chamber voted for it.
What changed? Plenty.
Most importantly, the civil rights movement drove a wedge between the two divergent elements of the Democratic coalition. By siding with the aspirations of African-Americans for integration and equal opportunity, National Democratic leaders drove Southern conservatives toward the GOP.
Even before then, the better-informed electorate produced by the rise of American education and communications discarded ancestral preferences. Instead, they began to consistently side with the party closest to their views on a wide array of issues, from taxes and spending, to social issues, to matters of war and peace.
The result is what America sees today: two clearly defined parties far apart on the ideological spectrum -- one liberal and one conservative, one favoring higher taxes and a larger role for government, one favoring lower taxes and a more limited government role.
What once constituted the political "center" has nearly vanished. For the first time in modern political history, voting records show that the most conservative Senate Democrat now stands to the left of the most liberal Senate Republican.
As a result, presidents of both parties now face virtually implacable resistance from lawmakers of the other party. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all won the presidency while promising to surmount partisan divisions.
Instead, each one proved to be a polarizing figure among opposition lawmakers and rank and file voters alike. The fact that the nation is so evenly divided – as dramatized most memorably by the 2000 Bush-Gore election – has only raised the stakes in the two sides' battles, increasing pressure on each to try to block successes by the other.
That has left some major economic issues in a state of unresolved limbo. When economic boomtimes in the late 1990s temporarily produced a balanced budget, Clinton began edging toward overhaul of the major entitlement programs Social Security and Medicare, which will increasingly drive the nation's long-term debt as the Baby Boom generation retires. Amid resistance from liberal Democrats, Clinton backed away.
Bush promoted partial privatization of Social Security in 2005, but Congressional Republicans were so fearful of Democratic attacks that they wouldn't even take it up.
Now President Obama has expressed openness to overhauling Medicare and Social Security. But Congressional Republicans remain so opposed to raising taxes by the amount Obama considers necessary as part of that process that the entitlement reform discussion has stalled.