If I told you that America today is deeply polarized, you could remind me that America has always been deeply polarized. You could point out that the current rural/urban divide is not so dissimilar from the Jeffersonian/Hamilton divide at the country’s founding. Or that the racial divide was never greater than during the Civil War, or that class division and conflict between labor and business was never greater than during the first Gilded Age and into the Great Depression. And you’d be right.
But what you’d be missing is the fact that polarization today is very different in a subtle way. As Michael Tomasky points out in his latest book, If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How it Might Be Saved, while we’ve always been a polarized country, our polarization has always consisted of both conflict between political parties and within parties. The fact that you used to have, for example, several liberal Republicans and several conservative Democrats meant that bipartisan coalitions could form to negotiate, compromise, and actually pass worthwhile legislation.