Is the bitter partisan divide we face in this country a battle between two opposing regimes? Assistant Professor of Politics Adam Carrington asked this question during a talk at Hillsdale College, comparing today’s current political climate to that of the Election of 1800.
The lecture, titled “The First Cold Civil War: The Election of 1800,” was hosted by Young Americans for Freedom on Feb. 20.
Carrington started the talk by referencing a term Charles R. Kesler, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and Claremont Graduate University, uses to describe today’s current political climate: a “Cold Civil War.”
According to Carrington, Kessler uses the term to describe the current partisan divide in American politics. More specifically, it refers to the division between the elites on the coasts and the working classes in middle America.
“[The Cold Civil War] is seen as a battle between a constitutional regime and a post-constitutional or even anti-constitutional order,” Carrington said. “We’ve all heard before, ‘It’s never been this nasty, it’s never been this awful, this is the worse politics has ever gotten.’ What I’d like to ask is: Is this unprecedented?”
Calling upon the Election of 1800, which was between Federalist John Adams and Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson, Carrington asserted that there are a few parallels between then and now.
“If you look at the divisions in society, the claim was that this was a regime-level debate. In fact, Jefferson said that the election of 1800 was a revolution, and not just a revolution of a kind, but equal to 1776,” Carrington said.
Both parties represented a different sector of the electorate. Federalists tended to be wealthy landowners and Democratic Republicans were rural farmers. The Federalists viewed themselves as upholding the rights of the minority, but were viewed as the elites and aristocrats. The Democratic Republicans viewed themselves as the party of the people, but were viewed by the Federalists as wanting to sacrifice individual rights for the majority, culminating in mob rule.
To capture the bitter climate of that election, Carrington read a hit-piece written by a Federalist that was printed in the newspaper at the time: “‘If Jefferson is elected ‘murder, robbery, rape, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soils will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes,’” Carrington quoted.
But surprisingly, the end results of the Election of 1800 were not what the parties predicted. Jefferson won the presidency, and the Democratic Republicans took both chambers of Congress. The Federalist Party began to die out and the “Era of Good Feelings” commenced.
“Was their appraisal of each other correct? Were they two regimes fighting for control?” Carrington asked.
Carrington said it was a possibility, but regardless of the answer, the two parties still agreed on certain fundamentals.
“They were competing tendencies of the same kind of regime, despite how outlandish their rhetoric about each other was,” Carrington said. Mentioning that both parties shared a strong belief and foundation in American founding principles.
Regarding modern times, Carrington asked the same question — is our bitter partisan divide a battle between two regimes — or as Kessler says, the post constitutionalists versus the founders?
“If that’s the case, then I think you have to say that it’s a tale of two very different regimes— a regime that is based on some concept of natural rights and some concept of equality as understood during the founding, versus a sort of post-constitutionalist order that rejects many of those things. It’s hard not to see those as two regimes,” Carrington said.
Carrington did not leave this as the only way to define the political divide. The two regimes could both be post-constitutional, with the split being between the old left progressives and the new left progressives.
Both of these groups “reject natural rights, natural justice, they accept history with a capital H as the movement of rights and values,” Carrington said. “They believe in an expansive role of government, they reject the traditional separation of powers from Federalism. They’re unified on these things.”
In the end, Carrington offered a final solution to our modern-day political divide.
“Ultimately, the people need to decide this, and they need to be the ones allowed to decide,” Carrington said. “And just because it was ugly in the past and present doesn’t mean it needs to be ugly in the future. But fundamentally, we need to be asking questions about who better understands man, who better understands justice, and what is possible in light of what is good?”
Freshman and YAF officer Brandt Siegfried said the lecture shed some light on the current political environment.
“A lot of people look at the political situation now and think that it’s unique to 2016 onward, and I think that Dr. Carrington showed us that divisive politics have been present in American political affairs for hundreds of years,” Siegfried said.
Sophomore Kate Ford was surprised to hear about the extreme personal attacks during the Election of 1800, and said it should give people perspective on the current state of politics.
“It was very interesting to learn about the very personal attacks that were allowed and the difference in kind of what is allowed to be said now,” Ford said. “There are personal attacks now, but nowhere near as filthy as they were back then, and I just think that it’s interesting to keep in mind when people fear that the country is coming apart and it’s getting worse — it was worse at one point.”