How Will Polarization End?

Eric Medlin
3 min readSep 20

The end may come sooner than you think.

A North Carolina polling place. Source: The New York Times

The American political system seems to be hopelessly mired in a cycle of ever-growing polarization. Both parties refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other. The Republican Party is increasingly embracing the tenets of authoritarianism and trying to overthrow the nation’s democracy. The Democrats have no confidence that their opponents, led by a twice-impeached accused criminal, will ever change. The only apparent option for partisans is the eternal victory of their side, an outcome which is fantastic in our oscillating two-party system.

The idea behind current political polarization is that it is a unique time in American history that will both never be repeated and never end. Commentators frequently lament that the 2010s and 2020s have been as contentious and rancorous as the years preceding the Civil War. They bemoan the decline in split-ticket voting and the continuous efforts by Republicans to strip their opponents of power on the state level. Many observers believe that these trends will not end

But political polarization, in rhetoric or in fact, is nothing new in American history. It is likely that the trend cannot be sustained and that it will eventually begin to ebb as different personalities and new trends take over.

Modern observers tend to define our own time of polarization by comparing it unfavorably to earlier periods. As part of this comparison, they posit that the midcentury period was a remarkable time of bipartisanship in American history. Both parties accepted a Cold War consensus of high social spending, numerous welfare programs, and a tacit (if not outright) support of civil rights.

There was a liberal and conservative wing of both parties. Presidents routinely scored landslide victories where they secured support of the opposition party for their agendas. Furthermore, this agreement contributed to numerous liberal accomplishments and a decades-long period of peace and prosperity for the country, shattered only by the Vietnam War and the rise of the conservative movement.

But this rosy view of the 1950s and 1960s belies considerable political tension. Even at this time of amicable relations, Democrats and Republicans still openly attacked one another at most opportunities. Southern…

Eric Medlin

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week.