Here’s what’s strange, though: As much as Americans seem to hate the party they’re against—roughly 40 percent of both Republicans and Democrats said they had a “very unfavorable” view of the opposing party in a recent Pew poll—their feelings tend to be muted, if not actually ambivalent, about the party they’re supposedly for. Sure, individual candidates inspire public displays of support, but the parties they represent, not so much. Fully 42 percent of the American public now call themselves “independent,” rather than Democratic or Republican, according to a recent Gallup poll—more than at any other point in history. “People don’t strongly identify with their parties today,” said Heather Cox Richardson, a political historian at Boston College. “It has become much easier for leaders to get elected by opposing things and creating an enemy rather than creating a big-tent, positive message. When was the last time you saw someone wearing a Democrat or Republican button?” It wasn’t always this way. The last time America was as politically polarized along party lines as it is now, the clash was fueled by genuine excitement about the parties. Starting roughly in the 1830s and ending around the turn of the 20th century, being a Democrat, a Republican, or a Whig was a huge component of one’s public identity. The “party period,” as it has come to be known among historians, was marked by rowdy and emotional parades and celebrations where people trumpeted their party affiliations the way sports fans today trumpet their allegiance to their favorite teams.
The absence of that spirit today says a great deal about how politics has changed. The two parties have increasingly distinguished themselves along clear ideological lines, which means fewer Americans see their own set of beliefs reflected exactly by either one. And in an era when neither party seems capable of accomplishing its goals, Americans are reluctant to embrace either team while growing ever more enraged at the people they believe are responsible for gridlock.