Under the two-party system in the United States, voting against one’s own party can have severe consequences for one’s political future. Republican members of Congress united behind President Donald Trump in the first impeachment proceedings against him, on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, and he was acquitted by the Republican-majority Senate. A few years later, 10 Republican representatives voted with all Democrats and Independents for a second impeachment on charges of inciting an insurrection; at the trial, seven Republican senators voted for conviction. (Trump was again acquitted.) Those renegade Republicans were following in the footsteps of Senator Margaret Chase Smith, a Maine Republican, who went against the majority of her party to speak out against McCarthyism in the 1950s.
“No” on Impeachment Unites Today’s GOP. In the 1950s, a Renegade Dared to Break Ranks
Breaking with party unity can be costly. In the 1950’s, Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine faced backlash after she condemned Joseph McCarthy, a fellow Republican.
As the impeachment inquiry moves through Congress, nearly every Republican continues to stand by President Trump. Breaking with party unity can carry a political cost. In the 1950’s, Senator Margaret Chase Smith, a Maine Republican, alienated Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and others in their party when she condemned his fiery efforts to suppress Communism.
- Producer: Karen M. Sughrue
- Editor: Heru Muharrar
- Archival Researcher: Emily Gottsman
Historically, polarization and partisanship have characterized American politics, overshadowing cooperation and bipartisanship. Many Americans correctly assume that elected officials tend to strictly adhere to party lines when casting their votes. Examining historical and contemporary examples of partisanship can help students understand the political landscape in the United States.
Throughout American history, there have been distinct periods marked by rampant polarization. Probably most recognizable is the buildup to and aftermath of the American Civil War. Another period of intense polarization occurred during the Gilded Age, when the Republican Party dominated and was closely aligned with industry and big business. Additionally, the Solid South was a Democratic voting bloc that remained united throughout the Southern states from the end of Reconstruction until the early 1960s.
More recently, political polarization has taken on various forms, including divisions within political parties. For instance, there are divisions among Republicans on individual party leaders and how to approach global issues. An example is the divide between Republicans who support former President Trump in his re-election bid, and their party colleagues who oppose another Trump presidency. Similarly, within the Democratic Party, polarization exists over issues like climate change and tax policy.
The prevalence of partisanship and political polarization may raise questions among students about the resilience of the American political system and the efficacy of a two-party system. These questions can lead to broader discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of the current political landscape and the potential need for reforms. It can also encourage them to critically analyze the impact of political divisions on the nation and to consider alternative approaches to fostering cooperation and bipartisanship in the future.
Students will learn about how Margaret Chase Smith broke ranks with her fellow Republicans in condemning McCarthyism, and also evaluate the potential consequences of politicians who choose not to align with their affiliated party.
- Discuss the limitations of the two-party system in the context of impeachment.
- Evaluate the potential consequences of politicians breaking with their affiliated political party.
- What are the potential consequences to lawmakers of voting against party lines?
- What are the benefits to voting along party lines?
- How does the two-party system influence partisanship and bipartisanship?
- Transcript for “‘No’ on Impeachment Unites Today’s GOP. In the 1950s, a Renegade Dared to Break Ranks” (Retro Report)
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- Kinzinger the ‘Homeless Republican’ Launches Ad Campaign Against Extremism (Politico)
- How Liz Cheney Lost Wyoming’s Lone Seat in the House (CNN)
- Partisan Hostility Grows Amid Signs of Frustration With the Two-Party System (Pew Research Center)
- Searchable Database: Roll Call Votes by the US House and Senate (Congress.gov)
- National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
- D2.Civ.4.6-8Examine the origins, purposes, and impact of constitutions, laws, treaties, and international agreements.
- D2.Civ.4.9-12.Explain how the U.S. Constitution establishes a system of government that has powers, responsibilities, and limits that have changed over time and that are still contested.
- D2.Civ.8.9-12.Evaluate social and political systems in different contexts, times, and places, that promote civic virtues and enact democratic principles.
- D2.His.2.6-8.Classify series of historical events and developments as examples of change and/or continuity.
- D2.His.2.9-12.Analyze change and continuity in historical eras.