The US Congress has been very divided and partisan for my whole adult life, 10 years. There seems to be this idea of how politicians used to work together to get things done, and the house and senate were the greatest deliberating bodies in the world.

Is this a romanticized picture or is their some evidence to back up the statement that now is worse than anytime since the civil war (typical time frame I hear) in terms of political division in Congress and/or among the US population?

2 Answers 2


Things seem to be returning to normal after the era of early 20th century unified thinking that accompanied mass media like the radio and television that seemed to produce electoral maps like this. Evidence suggests that the internet has bred polarization, which seems to be a return to the way things had been when the mass media was dominated by newspapers. There is a rather obvious low point. But also stories of the shenanigans such as Speaker Reed destroying the disappearing quorum strategy by counting people apparently present as present even if they did not declare themselves so in 1890:

Reed's solution was enacted on January 28, 1890 in what has popularly been called the "Battle of the Reed Rules". That came about when Democrats attempted to block the inclusion of a newly elected Republican from West Virginia, Charles Brooks Smith. The motion to seat him passed by a tally of 162–1; however, at the time, a quorum consisted of 165 votes, and when voting closed Democrats shouted, "No quorum," triggering a formal House quorum count. Reed began the roll call; when members who were present in the chamber refused to answer, Reed directed the Clerk to count them as present anyway. Startled Democrats protested heatedly, issuing screams, threats, and insults at the Speaker. James B. McCreary, a Democrat from Kentucky, challenged Reed's authority to count him as present; Reed replied, "The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman from Kentucky is present. Does he deny it?" Unable to deny their presence in the chamber, Democrats then tried to flee the chamber or hide under their desks, but Reed ordered the doors locked. (Texas Representative Constantine B. Kilgore was able to flee by kicking his way through a door.)

Which paints a picture of the sort of circus Congress had been back in those days.

  • 1
    It has been even worse. In any case, electoral maps usually show exagerated differences and are not the best tool to inform about the support of each candidate (compare with the popular vote in your own example).
    – SJuan76
    Feb 1, 2019 at 10:34
  • Don't forget the most famous duel in American history featuring Aaron Burr a sitting vice president. They were not in congress but the enmity was political. I don't doubt that the internet has given a voice to the ignorant but let us not forget that polarization has always been there since the beginning of civilization. Although annoying, I don't think it is a bad thing. You can also say that there is a larger portion of the population that is engaged politically than ever before. Even compared to the 60s Feb 1, 2019 at 12:30
  • @FrankCedeno I'm not sure that is the case, actually. At least looking over presidential elections, it seems eligible voter participation is down about 5-7%. Now, the voting rights act was passed in 1965, which may have changed the eligible voter pool, depending on how that was counted, but even the election after that had a 60.9% turnout compared with 2016's 55.7%. There's a precipitous decline in the 1970s I can imagine is attributable to the general loss of confidence accompanying Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. Participation seems to be highest in the period around the Civil War. Feb 3, 2019 at 18:10
  • @magnus.orion your point is well taken. However, please note that being "Engaged" politically often does not mean that anything is accomplished other than annoyance. Feb 4, 2019 at 13:21

As a point of evidence that early Congress was less partisan: it didn't have political parties at all, early on.

  • This pretty much ended by the end of George Washington's Presidency, if not earlier.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 5, 2019 at 0:30

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