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QZ & A: What history says to expect from America’s violently divided midterms

Reuters/Mike Segar
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By Heather Timmons
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Just days ahead of the midterm elections, the US is struggling with deadly political violence and stomach-lurching market drops. Forgoing centrist appeals, Donald Trump is now pushing a polarizing fringe anti-immigrant agenda; this week, his historically low approval ratings dropped even further.

What can we expect in the weeks and months ahead? Quartz spoke to Laura Ellyn Smith, a PhD candidate and instructor at the University of Mississippi’s history department, and an expert on American elections, imperial presidencies, and the “Southern Strategy.”

Have we ever seen the US this violently divided going into a midterm?

Polarization has a long history in American politics. We should take some faith in the fact that we have survived as long as we have, and have been through worse.

In our lifetime, the last time [voters were so polarized] was during the GOP’s 1994 [Congressional campaign] “Contract with America”. That was when deep South states like Mississippi finally shed their Democratic heritage, and the last states to go red went red the farthest. 1994 was a revolution that solidly turned the deep South red.

In 1994, though, the polarization took a slightly different form. The Republicans were much more consolidated under the leadership of [then-speaker of the house Newt] Gingrich. Democrats now have a disparate leadership and no coherent message. With the GOP so divided among itself as well, it is almost impossible to make any firm prediction.

With growing concerns about voter suppression, there’s a worry that some Americans won’t believe the midterm elections were “free and fair.” What does history tell us about this sort of situation? 

There is a lot of angst about free and fair elections consistently in US history. There’s never been any long-term solution.

Part of the problem—and we saw this with the presidential elections where the person who won the popular vote didn’t get into the White House twice in the last 20 years—is there is short term anger and then it goes away.

Take President Johnson. There’s some evidence, and it is still debated, that he stole his first election to the Senate in 1948 by stuffing ballot boxes. The debate centers on Box 13. There had been some tampering in one of the boxes and it was a very tight election.

What effect will upheaval overseas have on US voters? Right now we’ve got far-right president Jair Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil, Brexit, the Saudi assassination…

The American media tends to be insular, compared to the media abroad, and coverage depends on the proximity of the issue, like Trump with the caravan right now.

Brexit, I don’t think has a lot of impact. People can make the comparison if they want, but the fact is that the Conservative Party in the UK is nowhere near as right-wing as the Republican party here.

Saudi Arabia had the focus of the media for a little while, but the impact is down because of polarization and because of Trump’s attempts to diminish the value of the journalist’s life because he was not born in America.

What about the economy? GDP and other numbers continue strong, but markets are turbulent.

Voters tend to vote with their pockets. I talk to a lot of voters in Maine, in Iowa, and in Tennessee who tell me they’re willing to reelect Trump because of what they consider the economic benefits. They’re overlooking the fact that it is likely to be a short-term boom.

Because of political polarization they’ve refused to admit the role that Obama played in this economic boom. There is too much voter confidence in the economy under Trump.

The GOP and the White House have been very clear that their election strategy is to “energize Trump’s base.” They’ve stoked fear of immigrants and contempt of journalists. Is there a historical precedent for this sort of campaigning? 

This strategy became a party of its own in the 1840s. There was an influx of immigration after the Irish potato famine and because of political unrest in Germany, which led to a huge jump in enrollment in the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party, also known as the American Party. Then-president Millard Fillmore was a Whig, but he had been a member of the Know Nothing Party.

Nativist parties like the Know Nothing Party centered their entire appeal on anti-Catholicism and opposition to immigrants, stoking fears that the Pope would control America through the Catholic immigrants. Nativism was particularly popular during that period in the urban North, as major parties such as the Whigs had to decide whether to appeal to nativism in an attempt to gain more votes.

One of the reasons Henry Clay lost the presidential election of 1844 was likely his running mate’s association with nativism, which, along with possible Democrat voter fraud, lost Clay the all important state of New York.

Northern politicians eventually realized that they could use these immigrants in a way that benefitted them, to pass ballots for their parties. Then politicians would take [eligible] Irish voters out and give them beer, or intimidate them. This was not seen as a moral problem. Politics in the US always had the corrupt element to it.

The Democratic Party of the 1840s, especially in New York, was accused of voter fraud for illegally getting immigrants such as the Irish to vote for them through a combination of bribery, intimidation and violence. Had they had been in America long enough to vote legally, the Irish would likely have chosen to vote for the Democratic ticket anyway, as that party appealed to the “common man,” while the Whig Party opponents were stereotypically deemed elitist.
Concerns over immigrants and restricting their rights already had a history in America, as the Naturalization Act of 1798 extended the time white immigrant men had to have lived in America to gain the franchise from five to 14 years.

What does history tell us about the impact of a targeted massacre of a minority on an upcoming election, as we’ve seen in Pittsburgh? 

Prior to African American men being able to vote, following the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, smaller scale violence before elections really centered around class and ethnic distinctions, a reflection on the controversial influx of new immigrants.

The New York City draft riots of 1863, however, created a backlash against Irish rioters. President Abraham Lincoln had to redirect soldiers to calm the city, and there was sympathy for the African American victims of the riots, especially as an orphanage was burned to the ground. The riot opposed Lincoln and targeted African Americans, but had the opposite effect. It was one of the many reasons voters re-elected Lincoln in 1864—to provide stability for the divided country.

What about the discrediting of the media?

I would compare this to the Nixon era. He reprimanded the press, and called them out as enemies. By 1972, he had really cowed the White House press corps. It was only the Washington Post [investigating him] and they were not gaining traction. There were few investigative journalists in Washington, and that was what was really needed.

The White House press corps didn’t question him to the severity that outside people did. People who might want to do an investigative story relied on administrative insiders for their sources.

And with the technology at the time, the White House could push the briefing to the last minute, before the wires had to get it out before the deadline [for any copy to be transmitted].

[White House press secretary Ron] Ziegler made sure that everyone was rushing so there was no time for questions. Nixon did not like campaigning, he felt the best strategy to reelect him was present him as the president, not a candidate, so there were very few campaign stops where reporters could ask questions.

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