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Official presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson. Contemporary partisanship closely resembles the tone of the election of 1800.

Extreme political polarization isn’t a new phenomenon. As a college student, I have frequent opportunities to hear the perceptions of other young people, including many who aren’t active in politics, on the current political landscape in the United States. They hold a wide spectrum of opinions, but they all share one viewpoint: Today’s politics are far too unpleasant. Young people, whether they be political activists or ignoramuses, are fed up with our government’s chronic gridlock and extreme partisanship.

Such feelings are not a symptom of millennials alone. Polls show that people of every age and socioeconomic status are dissatisfied with the management of our government. What happened to the government “of the people, by the people, for the people”? Is it gone for good, never to be re-established?

Do not be alarmed. We’ve been here before, and we outlasted the struggle.

Contemporary partisanship closely resembles the tone of the election of 1800. Democratic-Republican Party candidate Thomas Jefferson clashed vehemently with the incumbent Federalist president, John Adams, over matters of constitutional interpretation and foreign policy. So bitterly divided were the two parties that the Federalist-controlled Congress passed a bill used to target the pro-Democratic-Republican press by criminalizing false statements against the federal government.

When Jefferson and Democratic-Republican legislative candidates beat out Adams and the Federalists in the election, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed a bill that created several new judgeships in the circuit courts, which Adams attempted to stack with Federalist judges. These “midnight” appointees were never commissioned, but the appointments were significant in demonstrating the fierce politicking of the two parties.

Despite the newness and relative fragility of the Union in the year 1800, the United States endured, and subsequent elections became less polarized. If the ferocity of the politics of 1800 was mellowed, there is no reason to believe today that American politics are hopelessly doomed to eternal bigotry and discourtesy.

Discord in politics is a sign of a healthy democracy. Debate and discussion are the means by which good governmental policy is reached. “It is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the … truth has any chance of being supplied,” John Stuart Mill wrote in his influential essay "On Liberty." Concern for the stability of a democracy should only arise when civility is abolished, free speech rights are rescinded and partisan preference takes precedence over earnest truth-seeking.

10 comments on this story

If discord indicates a healthy democracy, then its absence indicates the deterioration of such. Attempts to silence the speech of any party, except speech that very explicitly promotes violence, erodes the integrity of the democratic structure. Recent events, therefore, should be troubling to all Americans. Government leaders are using high offices to make loutish personal attacks. Public officials are being publicly harassed for their political beliefs. People of influence are calling for the intensification of such aggravation. All of this is uncivil and undermines free speech.

May we, the people, continue fighting against the ever-increasing obstruction of free speech and find renewed optimism about the future of our nation. I have hope that the tone of American politics will mellow and that, for many years to come, “the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”