I just finished American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham. A couple of passages jumped out at me as being equally descriptive of politics todays as in the 1830s. This first one comes from a chapter about the 1830 Senate debates over nullification, a crackpot theory advanced by the odious John C. Calhoun that states have the right to to invalidate Federal laws they didn't like. The main participants in the debate were Senators Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina, but Meacham also highlighted the contributions of Edward Livingston, a Senator from Louisiana, who spoke not just on the topic of nullification but also on what he called the "excess of party rage."
The cost of partisanship for partisanship's sake—of seeing politics as blood sport, where the kill is the only object of the exercise—was, Livingston said, too high for a free society to pay. Differences of opinion and doctrine and personality were one thing, and such distinctions formed the natural bass of what Livingston called "the necessary and ... the legitimate parties existing in all free Governments."
Parties were one thing; partisanship another. "The spirit of which I speak," Livingston said as he argued against zealotry, "... creates imaginary and magnifies real causes of complaint; arrogates to itself every virtue—denies every merit to its opponents; secretly entertains the worst designs ... mounts the pulpit, and, in the name of a God of mercy and peace, preaches discord and vengeance; invokes the worst scourges of Heaven, war, pestilence, and famine, as preferable to party defeat; blind, vindictive, cruel, remorseless, unprincipled, and at last frantic, it communicates its madness to friends as well as foes; respects nothing, fears nothing."
I think that describes the efforts of the Republican Party to defeat health care reform pretty precisely. What is Sarah Palin's complaint about death panels if not an imaginary cause of complaint, or encouraging the disruption of town hall meetings led by Democratic members of Congress preaching discord? The second passage comes toward the end of the book. In 1834, the Senate had censured Jackson for having removed U.S. funds from the Bank of the United States, as part of his efforts to abolish the bank. Early in 1837, Jackson's allies in the Senate introduced a motion, ultimately successful, to expunge the censure from the record. Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a staunch Jackson supporter, had this to say during the debate:
History has been ransacked to find examples of tyrants sufficiently odious to illustrate him by comparison. Language has been tortured to find epithets sufficiently strong to paint him in description. Imagination has been exhausted in her efforts to deck him with revolting and inhuman attributes. Tyrant, despot, usurper; destroyer of the liberties of his country; rash, ignorant, imbecile; endangering the public peace with all foreign nations; destroying domestic prosperity at home ... Great has been the opposition to President Jackson's administration; greater, perhaps, than ever has been exhibited against any government, short of actual insurrection and forcible resistance. The country has been alarmed, agitated, convulsed. From the Senate chamber to the village bar-room, from one end of the continent to the other, denunciation, agitation, excitement, has been the order of the day. For eight years the President of this republic has stood upon a volcano, [which has been] vomiting fire and flames upon him, and threatening the country itself with ruin and desolation, if the people did not expel the usurper, despot, and tyrant, as he was called, from the high place to which the suffrages of millions of freemen had elevated him.
Take Jackson's name out of it and swap out "eighteen months" for "eight years," and it would apply just as easily to President Obama. And, arguably, to George W. Bush, though in his case the wildly over-the-top criticisms were coming from the fringe, whereas those directed at Obama are coming from the party leadership. There is, I would suggest, a significant difference between an anonymous MoveOn.org member comparing Bush to Hitler in a YouTube video, and Newt Gingrich comparing Obama to Hitler on Fox News Sunday.