Why is America so divided? Politics in the United States has never been more polarized in the modern era than right now. An analysis of voting patterns recently published in PLoS ONE shows that Republicans in Congress have veered further right in recent decades, and Democrats further left, resulting in no real ideological overlap today. Worse, the divisiveness is not just among politicians. Around half of Democratic and Republican voters say that members of the other party make them feel “afraid,” according to a new Pew Research Center survey. As the November election nears, 2016 in America seems unique, even ahistorical, in its disunity. The country is not about to plunge into another civil war, but hyper-partisanship has nonetheless led each side to cluster together tightly and hunker down, eschewing the other side as much as possible.
And yet, that’s not the whole story. Political polarization is not new. Nor did this polarization first start in America. What’s more, the birth of this polarization was not entirely human. In part, eighteenth-century French horses are to blame.
Take a Seat
As summer galloped into fall in 1789 the Baron de Gauville was having a rough time. He was just shy of forty years old and his world was crashing down around him. It was the early days of the French Revolution, well before the Terror and the incessant snip of the guillotine. But with that violence still in the unknowable future, June, July and August of 1789 must have even at that early date seemed unthinkably catastrophic for a member of the French nobility.
It had all begun innocently enough. In May, Gauville had been called to the palatial grounds of Versailles with the other deputies of the Estates-General, a gathering which had not taken place in 175 years. The assembly had been tasked with advising the king on the crown’s finances and the country’s regional unrest following several years of unwise spending and poor harvests.
Once at Versailles, the deputies were led in a formal procession into the reconfigured hall of the Menus Plaisirs , which had previously been a storage room for the sets and props for the king’s amusements, such as the opera. As a nobleman, a member of the Second Estate, Gauville sat on King Louis XVI’s left, across from the Clerical or First Estate on the king’s right. The commoners, the Third Estate, were at the very back of the hall, separated by a railing from the king and the First and Second Estates. It was all very ordered and proper.
In the weeks that followed that order broke down. On June 17 the Estates-General was rechristened the National Assembly. On June 20, locked out of the Menus Plaisirs, the deputies congregated in a jeu de paume court to swear an oath not to separate until a written constitution has been agreed on for France. Days later Gauville, against his will, entered the reopened assembly hall where the Third Estate—already joined by some rogue members of the First and Second Estates—had begun to upend the Ancien Régime. The rules, privileges and orders that had defined the country for generations were abolished. On the night of August 4 , for example, the deputies renounced an unprecedented number of privileges and exemptions that had been fixtures of French society—including feudalism, which was to be dismantled in its “entirety.” When all was said and done, the written-out list of what the privileged orders had lost on that single night ran to more than forty pages . Many other thorny issues, such as whether the king would be granted a legislative veto, were still being passionately debated.
All of these issues weighed on Gauville, as evidenced by his journal entries, but by late August something more immediate was bothering him. He needed a place to sit. The deputies were no longer satisfied with the original seat arrangement. He also noticed that something unusual was happening in the assembly hall.
“On [August] 29th , we began to get to know each other: those who were attached to their religion and to the king confined themselves to the right of the president, in order to avoid the shouts, the remarks and the indecencies that were happening in the opposing party. There were about one hundred and fifty members of the clergy, as many nobles, and eighty from the Third Estate. I tried numerous times to sit in the different parts of the room and to not adopt the marked spaces, with the aim of being more the master of my opinion, but I was obliged to completely abandon the party on the left, where I was condemned to always vote on my own and, as a consequence, was condemned to the boos from the galleries.”
Gauville was among those deputies dismayed at the vaunted ambitions of the assembly’s more revolutionary members. He and the others favoring a conservation of the king’s powers and of their own privileges had, amid the legislative rancor, found it necessary to huddle together to the right of the president on one side of the hall. There was strength, or at least commiseration, in numbers. Naturally, the more revolutionary members then took the left.