Insights & Expertise
Are We Really Living in the Most Divisive Time in American History?
Take one look at your Facebook feed and it might feel like we’re living in the most divisive time in American history. Everyone seems to have an opinion — and they’re ready to share it. But is our current political state really the most partisan it’s ever been?
According to American political history expert and professor of history Randall Miller, Ph.D., it’s not even close.
“The most divisive time in our history was in the years leading up to the Civil War,” he says. “In the mid-19th Century, differences were so profound representatives carried weapons into Congress.”
Miller does, however, believe our current state of political affairs is comparable to the country’s founding. “At the end of the 18th Century, it was the first government under the Constitution. It was a time of great uncertainty — that’s the biggest parallel.”
But there is one major difference between today’s political climate and that of the country’s founding: the ability to compromise.
“During the country’s founding, parties were ideologically driven, but they had a middle ground. They agreed on the basics. Today, there is no benefit from compromising. We’ve created a system that reinforces discord,” Miller says. “Back then, people had differences––but they knew each other as people. We don’t see this much anymore. People stick with people like themselves.”
Although disagreement is no stranger to the United States’ history, Miller believes the country’s current inability to work together to achieve common goals would be seen as a sign of failure in the founders’ eyes. “Our country’s government was an experiment,” he says. “If they saw what is happening now, they’d be worried.”
While it’s impossible to know where the next few years will take our country, Miller thinks there are a few lessons we could all take from our Founding Fathers. “In Thomas Jefferson’s Inaugural Address, he says, ‘Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.’ We actually need to face each other again and discover there is a lot we have in common, rather than emphasizing our differences.”