Many people are saying that this year's election has been the most contentious and polarizing in American history. They obviously don't read American history.
Take the election of 1800. The Jeffersonians claimed that Adams was insane, while the Adams camp responded in turn that Jefferson was a howling atheist. Adams's own Federalist party was in a state of interior disarray bordering on disaster, as Alexander Hamilton made his private feud with Adams embarrassingly, irrevocably public. And Aaron Burr was in the midst of it all, like a Megamind supervillain bent on wreaking havoc while shouting, "Bwa ha ha!"
The splendid book A Magnificent Catasrophe tells the story of this most devastating of elections. Far more was at stake then than in any presidential election of our lifetime, because the entire political system was still evolving.
The first elections the US had mounted were very different from elections today. The presidential and vice-presidential candidates hadn't run as a team, but as opponents: The electoral college gave the top vote-getter the top job, and the second-place finisher the vice-presidency.
Imagine Barack Obama winning tonight, then having to turn around tomorrow and create a new government with his archrival-turned-junior-partner, Mitt Romney. Or the other way around. If you can conjure up the bitterness and contempt that such a situation would create today, then couple that with the very real anxiety that a near-destitute young nation with not one but two superpowers poised to attack must have been feeling, you'll get a glimmer of just how nasty the 1800 election became.
As RealClearPolitics said in a review of A Magnificent Catastophe:
Their colleagues were alternately earnest, backstabbing, and fickle, fueling a rancorous national debate. Loyalties shattered. Insults flew. And yet, in today's popular imagination, both men--John Adams and Thomas Jefferson--are often linked with filmy visions of quietude, temperance, and a more dignified, staid time. It's a wonder, when you think about it, what a few hundred years and some powdered white wigs can do.
If you read American history you know that the real "miracle" of the United States's founding isn't that America won an unlikely revolution against the world's greatest military power of that day, or even that our Framers successfully created a democratic republic in the wake of the revolutionary war.
It's that we kept that democracy alive, even through the election of 1800.
So let's cut the "worst polarization" hyperbole surrounding the 2012 election. This is ugly, but it's not the worst.
One thing is certain: tomorrow, one way or the other, we will wake up to a robust and enduring democractic republic, one that has endured polarization far worse than what we're facing now. (Ever heard of the Civil War?) Let's all take a moment and be thankful for that.