Laments about polarization are filling the air -- or at least that part of the air in which friends and family members have political discussions. It has been widely noted that every Republican member of Congress has a voting record to the right of every Democrat and every Democrat is to the left of every Republican. There is no partisan overlap anymore.
This is bemoaned by celebrators of centrism, who look back to a golden age when there were lots of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats.
The funny thing is, when you look back to that time in mid-century America, the decades on either side of 1950, high-minded thinkers didn't like that partisan muddle at all.
Mid-century political scientists disliked the ideological incoherence of the two political parties. It would be better, they argued, to have one party clearly liberal and the other clearly conservative. Then voters would have a real choice and could be confident about the consequences of their votes.
Political scientists then as now were mostly Democrats, and they evidently hoped that the Democratic Party would emerge as the clearly liberal party and that it would continue to be as successful as it was in winning the five presidential elections in the 1930s and 1940s.
They were writing at a time when Americans were not polarized by the cultural issues that have raged in recent years. Abortion was a crime in every state. Homosexuality was not mentioned in polite company. Everybody partook of the same uncontroversial popular culture in movies and on radio and television.
But there was one great polarization in mid-century America, and it contributed significantly to the partisan muddle: the divide between North and South. Southern states had laws imposing racial segregation, and many didn't allow blacks to vote. The North had no such laws and, except for wartime and postwar migration to major cities and factory towns, had few blacks.
Southern whites voted solidly Democratic, but their officeholders were conservative on issues like civil rights and federal aid programs. That's why there were so many conservative Democrats in Congress. More Republicans than Democrats voted for civil rights laws, and some Republicans supported extending New Deal programs. So there were quite a few liberal Republicans, as well.
We're a long way from mid-century America today. No one favors racial segregation anymore. Cultural conformity has largely vanished. In an affluent nation, we have been able to choose different lifestyles, to inhabit different cultural niches.