‘I’m not a traitor, you are!’ Political argument from the Founding Fathers to today’s partisans

President Trump is working with the Russians to enrich himself. The Republican Party is shielding him from accountability.

The Democrats want to win elections by repopulating the country with foreigners. Then they’ll be able to permanently transform the racial and cultural makeup of American society.

These are versions of stories told by, first, Democrats, and second, Republicans. Let’s set aside the merits of these stories – at least for the moment (I know, it’s not easy to do!).

These stories are, essentially, allegations of disloyalty. And they foretell national ruin if the other side achieves its goals.

I’m a scholar of politics, and I have researched the way partisans in America argue about major issues.

American history is filled with examples where one partisan side alleges that some idea embraced by the other side threatens to compromise American national strength or sovereignty – and even threatens the existence of the country.

But it’s unusual to see what is happening in America today.

Now, it’s not just one side of the partisan divide accusing the other of disloyalty and disdain for American safety and values. It’s both sides. One need look no further than the cable news networks for evidence of how entrenched this form of partisanship has become.

It turns out that the way partisans debate has an impact on how Americans view democracy itself.

So what does it mean to America that both sides are accusing each other of betraying their country?

President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have each used apocalyptic accusations against the other. Trump: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais; Pelosi: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

Patterns of partisan debate

As I discuss in my book, “Embracing Dissent: Political Violence and Party Development in the United States,” it was common in the past for accusations of disloyalty to be lodged by partisans.

For example, during the Civil War, the principle that “every Democrat may not be a traitor, but every traitor is a Democrat” was a familiar refrain in the Republican North.

During the Cold War, Republicans questioned whether Democrats were sufficiently anti-communist to protect the country.

Democrats often responded to these attacks, both in the 19th and 20th centuries, in a cautious and defensive manner.

Instead of counter-attacking, Democrats often tried to change the subject by focusing public debate on other issue areas. In many cases, Democrats attempted to defend themselves by echoing the positions and talking points of their more nationalistic rivals.

Similarly, in American political history, when accusations about loyalty to America erupted, it’s usually been one-sided. The “accused” side remains on the defensive, protesting its commitment to the country without advancing an accusatory counterclaim.

This pattern tends to consolidate public opinion. One party accuses, the other denies, but both sides publicly appear in relative agreement about the nature of the national threat.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Republicans labeled Democrats as “soft” on terrorism and claimed that their reluctance to increase the number of troops committed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would “embolden” America’s enemies.

Democrats backpedaled in response. They asserted that they too were committed to fighting terrorism, but that they would use a different approach to address this threat.

Both sides then – and now

In my research I found that the partisan politics of the 1790s featured a pattern of mutual recrimination that is comparable to today’s polarized political debates.