Americans have always been viciously partisan. The bipartisanship of the 40 years from FDR to Nixon was a freak episode due solely to the willingness of liberals to cut African-Americans out of the deal to get "socialistic" benefits for whites. Civil rights blew that deal to smithereens, and now we're back to normal: viciously partisan.
There was something crucial that changed all of American politics after 1960: the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement and its aftershocks had a dramatic impact on the country that would not be reflected in most issues polling. One of those impacts was on political partisanship. I've noted in the past that it was largely the impact of the Civil Rights Movement (combined with the power of big money to lobby the racist vote) that gradually killed bipartisanship in the United States:The problem with bipartisanship today is not that it's racist; it's that it's downright destructive.But by far the biggest is that the bipartisanship of the mid-20th century was a special artifact of the uneasy alliance between traditional urban liberal tribes and religious Dixiecratic populists in the South and Midwest. As I've written before, FDR was quite able to aggressively take on the financial and corporate interests of his time with a broad coalition. But he couldn't pass an anti-lynching law without destroying his support base, and he was all too willing to institute the Japanese internment camps. In other words, FDR could take on the power of big money with ease, but he couldn't take on the power of Big Racism.I'm sure the fractured media environment is partly to blame for the increased partisan fervor. But that's not all. It's also a largely cultural phenomenon driven by a difference between the legacy of those who favor expanded rights for women and minorities, and those who don't. That in turn affects cultural issues of urbanism versus suburbanism and a host of other touchstones that are merely reflections of that same divide, but wouldn't show up on most issues-based polling that is the bread and butter of political scientists and media analysts.
The result of this dynamic was an uneasy bipartisanship between otherwise competing interests. Men like Strom Thurmond would vote for "socialist" policies as long as only whites got the benefits.
The advent of the Civil Rights movement marked the beginning of the end of bipartisanship. As tax dollars were increasingly seen as going toward non-whites, Dixiecrats became Republicans and allies of big business interests. Similar dynamics occurred with anti-Hispanic sentiment in the West. All the religious fervor that had been reserved for progressive social justice issues by the "Progressive" movement in the late 19th century (which included, by the way, quite conservative ideas like the prohibition of alcohol: late 19th century progressives would have strongly opposed modern liberals on issues like marijuana legalization alone...) flipped to socially conservative issues. The women's equality movement only added further fuel to the socially conservative patriarchal fire.
At this point it was easy and natural for the racist culture warriors to align completely with the corporatists. The need for uneasy alliances disappeared. The rationale for men like Strom Thurmond to support New Deal policies and chat about them at cozy cocktail parties disappeared. The battle lines were set.
Increased partisan fervor, in other words, is a real cultural phenomenon, not a media-driven tribal epiphenomenon. But to call out why that is would be hurtful to some people's feelings and cultural heritage, and thus cannot be said in polite discourse.
When both parties hold the same position on a policy that's harmful to the economy - say, letting Wall Street loot the Treasury and kill Main Street - that's bipartisanship and it's bad for the country.
When both parties refuse to discuss the elephant in the room - say, the covert use of drones to murder civilians in countries with whom we are not at war - that's bipartisanship and it's bad for the country.
Vicious partisanship by both parties is essential to successful democracy.
We need Democratic office-holders who will stand up and proclaim: "cutting entitlements is wrong, and anybody who claims otherwise is lying."
Elect vicious partisans who will chew nails and spit rust. They will save the country.