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A History of Gridlock

While Senate Republicans refuse to consider President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, the Backstory hosts review the history of gridlock in American politics. In this episode, Peter, Ed and Brian will look at other moments when our system of checks and balances devolved into open warfare between political factions. They’ll discuss how the Missouri Compromise failed to resolve the political battle over the expansion of slavery. They’ll also look at the war within the Democratic party over Prohibition in the l920’s, and how Southern Democrats used the filibuster to block civil rights bills in the l950’s and 60’s.

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**Note: this transcript come from the original broadcast of the show. There may be small differences from the stories you hear.**

PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

PAUL RAND: I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long as it takes until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important.

PETER: On March 6th, Senator Rand Paul held up debate on the nomination of a new CIA chief by holding forth for almost 13 hours on the Senate floor. For many it was a refreshing bit of political theatre because in recent years filibusters have become a lot less invisible and a lot more numerous.

MALE SPEAKER: By now, it’s really difficult to actually count because, as the line goes, it’s like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500.

PETER: What’s surprising is that this trend toward obstructionism is the last thing people expected 50 years ago.

FRED HARRIS: As a matter of fact, a lot of people thought that the filibuster was going to largely disappear.

PETER: A history of gridlock today on BackStory.

PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

ED: From the Virginia foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century guy, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: The 19th Century guy.

BRIAN: And we have Peter Onuf with us.

PETER: The 18th Century guy. And we’re going to start today with a word, a word you’re probably all too familiar with.

MALE SPEAKER: Is gridlock inevitable or is there a solution?

MALE SPEAKER: Is it gridlock? Has it been gridlock?

MALE SPEAKER: Our question this morning, is the center crumbling in Washington as gridlock continues?

BARACK OBAMA: You deserve better than the same political gridlock and refusal to compromise that has too often passed for serious debate over the last few years. And that’s why I’ve been reaching out to Republicans and Democrats to see if we can untangle some of the gridlock.

SAM SCHWARTZ: Every time I hear the President of the United States use the word gridlock, a little chill comes over me saying if I didn’t utter that word, he wouldn’t be uttering that word.

PETER: That word, of course, is gridlock. And the voice you just heard after President Obama was none other than that of Sam Schwartz, the inventor of the word Gridlock.

SAM SCHWARTZ: I began working on traffic for the City of New York in 1971. And I was assigned to work on solving Midtown’s traffic problems. And we began to look at different alternatives. And as we looked at alternatives, we noticed if we made a certain change that streets would begin to block each other.

BRIAN: This isn’t so complicated, right? You close down one avenue, say, Fifth Avenue. All the cars that would usually be taking Fifth are now diverted to a nearby avenue, probably Park Avenue, which means traffic on Park Avenue gets a little nutsy. Manhattan’s grid system would stall.

SAM SCHWARTZ: And the grid would lock up. Eventually we began to use the work gridlock. And we didn’t even think it was a word. And we never even wrote it down. We just used it as jargon until 1980 and there was an impending transit strike.

PETER: When New York City’s public transit workers go on strike it can become a real mess on the streets. There are more drivers on the road, many of whom don’t usually drive. And Sam, still working for the city, wrote a warning to the mayor.

SAM SCHWARTZ: So I wrote a gridlock prevention program. But I hyphenated the word gridlock. And about the third day of the strike, a reporter heard that there was something called gridlock. So reporters went wild with the word. The city is afraid of this thing called gridlock.


And within days, William Safire called me for his “On Language” column in the New York Times. And then I was besieged by dictionaries and encyclopedias as to where this word came from.

BRIAN: The image of literal gridlock is actually pretty neat. First, imagine a series of streets and intersections from a bird’s eye view like a Tic-tac-toe board.

ED: What happens, Schwartz says, is that one car going north, south along one of those streets can block an entire intersection. And that one car keeps the east, west traffic from moving at all.

BRIAN: So on the Tic-tac-toe board, we now have an L shape of backed up traffic.

PETER: Now if that traffic, the east, west traffic, gets backed up one full block to the next intersection behind them, the traffic trying to go north, south in that second intersection is stopped as well.

BRIAN: We now have a U or like a horseshoe shape of traffic jams. And if that traffic gets backed up a full block, well, you get it. It’s a box-o-stalemate.

SAM SCHWARTZ: And if you go all the way around the block, you’ll end up finding the first person ended up blocking himself.

PETER: These days there seems to be a new reality in Washington that gridlock and impasse are the norm, that every act of obstruction has a sort of chain reaction causing more and more obstruction. And we’re finally starting to feel the real effects of it. Sequester, anyone?

ED: Well, today on BackStory, we’re going to figure out just how and when our political system got all locked up. We’ll look at struggles, not just between political parties, but within them. And we’ll consider the true value of compromise. Has it always provided the salvation that we seem to hope for today?

BRIAN: Now, there’s undoubtedly plenty of blame to go around for the current state of affairs in Washington. But is it possible that we shouldn’t be pointing the finger at either of the two political parties or, for that matter, at Byzantine Senate rules or special interests or anything else that people think as having distorted the system? Could it be that it’s the system itself that’s flawed? That by creating a government which encourages all kinds of opinions from all sorts of people and then allows a stubborn minority to hold up the majority, that creating such a system, the founders were the ones who actually doomed us from the outset?

ED: Now, Brian, you’re being polite because it’s one founder in particular that we might point the finger at. And that’s James Madison, wrote the Federalist Papers. It was all about, oh, it’s good to have all these different constituencies jostling. And so I called Jack Rakove at Stanford who specializes in the work of Madison. And I asked him whether he would be a surrogate for Madison and be willing to shoulder the blame for gridlock today.

JACK RAKOVE: Well, that’s very generous of you, Ed. But, no, I don’t think I am willing to shoulder that burden. I mean, I think our problems are of our own making.

ED: OK, well, that’s a funny thing for two historians to say to each other. But let’s see if we can untangle this web. So what I was thinking is that from the very beginning the founding fathers did kind of worry about making this system of government actually work, right? What did they see as the main challenges of this new constitution they were writing?

JACK RAKOVE: Well, I think the main challenge they worried about was whether or not a national government could effectively govern a republic as large and diverse and as expansive as the United States would be.

ED: So their concern of gridlock was that they wouldn’t be able to have government at all?

JACK RAKOVE: Well, yeah. I think their big concern was they wanted a government that could act legally on the whole American population.

ED: Right. It seems like a worthy goal.

JACK RAKOVE: A worthy goal. And there was a kind of great novelty in the 18th Century because the standard wisdom said that you wanted to be a republican, lower case r. If you wanted to govern according to your republican principles, you should have a relatively small, relatively homogeneous, relatively confined polity.

ED: So what did they see as the major impediments to do that? Once you accept, OK, we are going to try to have a government that covers this great continental expanse then what did they have to figure out how to make that work?

JACK RAKOVE: Well, that government would have to act by law. That is to say, would have to be able to enact and force and adjudicate its own statutes. And for law to become law, to pass a bill, to turn it into a law, would require that people coming from very different communities, again, for their great expanse, would have to be able to sit down and reason together and be able to reach some form of common agreement.

Now, we might say they could just do a lot of horse trading, a lot of dealing and bargaining, and, you know, what we can sometimes call log rolling politics. But I think the idea that they had– James Madison illustrates this particularly well– is that they wanted to cultivate a kind of political culture of deliberation. They understood that most congressman would be strangers to each other.

They wanted them to be able to think intelligently about problems for which they had no immediate background. So the whole idea that Congress would be a deliberating assembly, that its members who kind of come and go, would have to learn not just about how to make decisions but to also have to gain information from disparate parts of the country. That was part of their understanding of the whole problem of congressional government, of national government.

ED: So let me ask you a question that came over our website. So this is a quote. “What about Madison’s argument in Federalist No. 10 that political gridlock is a good thing because it protects minority rights and individual liberty?”

JACK RAKOVE: Well, I don’t think that’s exactly what Madison says. Madison doesn’t use the term political gridlock. I think what Madison imagined, particularly in Federalist 10, is he wanted to say if we want to have a republic in a modern society, we can’t expect that its citizens, or for that matter their leaders, will always be possessed of a perfect republican virtue. We have to assume that interest, passion, opinion, et cetera, always shape and often distort our judgment. So we have to be realistic about human nature.

Now, I think what Madison imagined at that point was that he wanted to offer a couple of arguments for why a National Republic, again, extending across a vast array of space, might actually be a better form of government than a state level or a community level republic. And so he comes up with two arguments. One is he says the bigger the entity, the larger the society, the more diverse, the more complicated, the greater multiplicity there would be in terms of the number of interests it would contain. And that would be beneficial. If you have a diverse, complex, modern, dynamic society with people pursuing different interests and passions, that would actually make it more difficult for the wrong kinds of popular majorities to form.

ED: So what you’re saying, Jack, it seems to me is that the people today who talk about Madison as the great protector of minority rights, in some ways have it wrong, that what he’s really doing is saying, no, the goal is to create a national government that works. And what we need to guard against are the wrong kind of popular majorities. Is that a fair paraphrase?

JACK RAKOVE: Well, it’s fair up to point, Ed. I mean, Madison very much believed in protecting minority rights. And he worried a great deal about the danger of what he called a factious majority, a majority which should have the power rule but which might well use its authority, might well use its political influence, to create legislation that would have an unjust impact.

But, again, he felt that if you created this larger polity were it would be much more difficult for the wrong kinds of majorities to form, that would be a great step forward in terms of protecting minority rights. But, again, at the same time, he and his colleagues in Philadelphia, they weren’t trying to deadlock government. They were trying to make government more effective. They wanted to deliberate better, but they also wanted it to be able to act. And so the idea that the framers left us this complex system that’s primarily responsible for vulnerable to gridlock, I think that’s a great mistake. I think it ascribes to their concerns, really, institutions and practices that have evolved since for reasons that had nothing at all to do with what the framers thought they were up to.

ED: So when did we go wrong?

JACK RAKOVE: Well, you know, Ed, I’m just an 18th Century historian. So I can always say this is [INAUDIBLE].

ED: On BackStory we just go ahead and talk way out of our depth all the time. Go ahead.

JACK RAKOVE: Well, I would say, look, I think it’s been essentially developed over the last 40 years.

ED: Wow.

JACK RAKOVE: I mean, I think the rise of the filibuster for the explicit purpose of protecting the South against legislation designed to undo the damage of Jim Crow– I mean, I think far and away that was the single worst development in American politics. And then the transformation of the filibuster from a device used to protect a regional interest into a parliamentary maneuver that you could apply under almost any set of circumstances, it seems to me that’s been the great disaster.

ED: Jack Rakove is a historian at Stanford University. His latest book is Revolutionaries, A New History of the Invention of America.

PETER: Well, Brian, there it is. It’s the 20th century that messes things up, not my 18th Century.

BRIAN: Peter, you’ve got me up against the ropes. I got to admit it. But, fortunately, ding, saved by the bell. That’s because we got to take a short break. But when we get back, we’re going to take on that scourge of modern Washington, the filibuster. And we’ll hear why every time the Senate thought they had buried it, it’s dead hand came out of the grave to strangle the Senate into even more stalemate.

ED: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

TONY FIELD: Hello podcast people. Tony Field here, senior producer of the show. Just wanted to remind you that if you like what you hear on today’s show, there’s a lot more where it came from. is where you’ll find us.

There’s a link to our archive at the top of the page. And if you still like us after that, you can share your thoughts with others by leaving a review on our page in the iTunes store or support us with a donation on our website. Again, that’s at We’re also on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. Thanks for listening, and see you next week.

PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re asking what history has to tell us about the gridlock that we see in Washington today.

BRIAN: In 1957, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond stood to speak in the Senate chamber. And with the exception of one bathroom break, he didn’t surrender the floor for just over 24 hours. His aim was to hold up voting on a bill that would protect the voting rights of African Americans.

ED: It is to this day still the longest filibuster in Senate history. And while it was ultimately unsuccessful, that filibuster reminds us that there was a period of time in the 1940s and 1950s when Southern lawmakers would go to great lengths, 24 hours, to block legislation they couldn’t defeat through a simple vote up or down.

BRIAN: But in spite of their use to block civil rights bills, when it came to everything else, actually, filibusters were pretty rare.

FRED HARRIS: As a matter of fact, a lot of people thought that the filibuster was going to largely disappear after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Instead, the use of the filibuster greatly mushroomed.

ED: This is Fred Harris. From 1964 to 1973, he represented Oklahoma in the United States Senate. And when he says mushroom, he isn’t kidding. I have a chart here, guys, that tracks the use of filibusters over time. And you can clearly see– maybe out there in radio land if you’ll close your eyes– that in 1964, the very year that Harris came to the Senate, the number of filibusters began a steady climb upward, a climb, that with few exceptions, has continued until today.

BRIAN: So what happened? Why did things turn out so differently than people had expected? Well, the first answer has to do with the media because it was at this very time, the late 1950s and ’60s, that TV was taking off.

And with TV coverage, the public learned much more about what was going on on the Senate floor than it ever had before. Voters began to expect more transparency in government. It was a shift that young senator Harris, for one, was happy to get behind.

FRED HARRIS: I went on the Senate Finance Committee’s [INAUDIBLE], went to the Senate. And, there, the first motion I made was that we open up our mark up sessions, where decisions are made, to the public. They were always closed. And my motion died for want of a second.

The chairman of the committee, Russell Long said, well, the issues that we handle, which of course included tax and Medicare and so forth, they’re so complicated that if we debated them out in the public, it would just confuse the public. My answer was, well, when we take these matters up in the full Senate then we ought to go into closed session. That didn’t get anywhere. Later, the Senate in the late ’70s changed and so did the House.

BRIAN: But let me ask you– I remember that you were a strong advocate for transparency. But do you think that inadvertently you have contributed to the kind of stalemate that we face today? Too many people know too many things and can block things in too many ways.

FRED HARRIS: Well, that’s certainly part of it. I think the transparency and better informed public is a good development. But it certainly brought about a lot less freedom of movement. When a few people, quite privately, can make a deal, it’s a lot easier to get action. But often it was not action that was best for the public.

BRIAN: No, I understand that. I’m not talking about ends. I’m just talking about the process itself.

FRED HARRIS: Sure. The old traditions, those norms where you didn’t use a filibuster except in extreme kind of situations and you didn’t obstruct, that all began to change. And a lot of it had to do with the fact that the public was much more aware and interest groups were much more aware about what was going on.

BRIAN: TV wasn’t the only thing changing the wheeling and dealing culture of old school Washington. There were also increased demands on Senators’s time. Over the first half of the 20th century, government had grown a lot bigger and senators were expected to do more stuff than they had ever before. And since these new things called airplanes made it a lot easier to travel, Senators were expected to make at least a few trips home during the legislative sessions. A few trips quickly turned into weekly trips.

PETER: The upshot was that senators couldn’t afford to sit around while people like Strom Thurmond read from their grandmother’s biscuit recipe on the Senate floor. And so in the early ’60s they revived an arcane rule known as cloture. It allowed for debate on a bill to be cut off if a 2/3 majority voted for that.

BRIAN: Once again, you’d think this would reduce the number of filibusters since there was now a mechanism to nip those filibusters in the bud. But remember that chart that Ed referred to? Yep. Just the opposite happened. Filibusters continued to increase. Why? I put the question to political scientist Gregory Koger.

GREGORY KOGER: Let me start with an analogy. I mean, imagine, as a nerd, that I’m back in grade school. And everyone knows the game is you can take Koger’s milk money if you beat him up.

And this happens from time to time. Somebody says, Koger, give me your milk money. I say no. And then there’s a fight. And then I loose my milk money.

BRIAN: So little Koger, to follow this metaphor, is a Senator with the votes to get a bill passed. The fight over milk money, it’s the filibuster.

GREGORY KOGER: But in order to do that, you have to invest some time in beating me up. And I might get a few blows in. And so you get hurt and then you walk away with milk money.

And let’s say I realized, after a year of this, hey, I’m winning about half my fights. So why don’t I just tell everybody from now on, if you want my milk money, you just have to threaten to beat me up. And I’m going to roll the dice.

And if it comes up four or five or six, you get my milk money. One, two, or three, I keep it. And so I won’t waste as much time getting beat up every day and I won’t get punched and you won’t get punched. Well, it’s a win-win.

BRIAN: The rolling of the dice? Well, that’s a vote for cloture, for cutting off debate. And get ready, because here comes the unintended consequence.

GREGORY KOGER: Everybody else in my school realizes they don’t actually have to be big enough to beat me up. And so then every– so it used to be, like, one or two guys a day. And now everybody’s like, well, I might as well just roll the dice and see if I can take Koger’s money.

BRIAN: The cost of filibustering for both sides used to be significant. But now, thanks to the cloture rule, anybody could launch a filibuster or more importantly, just threaten to do so. And he could safely assume he’d be home in time for dinner, perhaps with someone else’s lunch money in his pocket. Suddenly, filibustering becomes a much more attractive way to flex your senatorial muscle.

GREGORY KOGER: Once you take those costs out of the equation, the costs of expending time and the physical exertion and standing in front of the public and taking responsibility for the obstruction that you are wreaking upon the system, once you take that out of the equation then any Senator says, well, I am passionate about things. I can send a letter to my party leaders saying that I will filibuster a bill or nomination. And now there’s no reason not to.

BRIAN: All right, so easy solution. Just lower the number of a super majority for a cloture from the current 60 to, let’s say, pick a number, 55, just as they lowered it from 2/3 in 1975 to 60. Problem solved, right?

GREGORY KOGER: No. No. Here’s the thing. Even if you lower the threshold down to, say, 55, 52, the rest of the cloture rule matters because it builds in a number of delays. You have to get senators to sign your petition then you file then you wait two days then you vote.

Then there’s a period of time after the vote when you debate. And for any given bill, this can actually happen multiple times, on the motion to bring it up, on the bill itself, on a conference report. And if you lower the threshold, let’s say you lowered it to 51 so the Democrats definitely have enough votes, the Republicans can still invoke this cloture process on everything. And I mean every single bill to change the name of a Post Office in Peoria. And in doing so, they can still delay the Senate so much that they’ll have a lot of bargaining leverage with the majority party.

BRIAN: Right. It’s all about delay. So tell me, Greg, what could be done to make things better in terms of the ability of one senator or a small group of senators to block key legislation.

GREGORY KOGER: In the abstract, I just think there ought to be a greater incentive to political parties and politicians as individuals to get things done. A lot of our system focuses on their positions, what they fought for, or what they tried to do. And I think collectively we should set up an incentive structure so that they actually are rewarded for accomplishing things and punished for doing nothing.

BRIAN: So using the lunch money metaphor, what would that look like?

GREGORY KOGER: That anybody in my classroom who doesn’t try to take my milk money then gets rewarded by the school. They get better grades or they get an allowance from the school for being good kids.

BRIAN: Get out of Phys Ed.

GREGORY KOGER: Sure. Get out of PE if you don’t like it.

BRIAN: Gregory Koger is a political science professor at the University of Miami. If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh, the 20th Century guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th Century guy.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf, 18th Century guy. We’re talking today about the history of a political log jams.

BRIAN: Peter, Ed, we’re doing a show about stalemate log jam but we know that the flip side of that is compromise. And certainly back in your period, we have compromise galore. We’ve got the 3/5 clause of the Constitution. We’ve got the Missouri Compromise. We’ve got the Compromise of 1850.

But from my perspective, there’s one problem common to all of them. And that is they are compromising about slavery. Could you explain to me why there were so many people who thought these compromises were a good thing?

PETER: Yeah, Brian. Even people who were opposed to slavery, they held their nose and they said you got to do it. And why do you have to do it? Because to have a Union at all meant you had to bring the different parts of the country together.

The 3/5 clause is central to that bundle of compromises that is the Constitution. For every five slaves, you have the credit for three citizens, and that’s going to be factored into representation. So, in other words, the South where there are a lot of slaves is going to have an extraordinary advantage.

BRIAN: So slaves who aren’t going to vote–

PETER: They’re not going to vote.

BRIAN: –but are going to be represented in Congress.

PETER: Well, their masters will vote for them one day. Put it this way, Brian. And to be fair to these guys– because it seems morally outrageous to us.

BRIAN: Yeah, to someone for the 20th Century, you can’t imagine that.

PETER: Yeah, you’d have people who were opposed to slavery, who would say I am overcoming my scruples on this for a higher good. What’s that higher good? That’s the thing that we don’t see now.

And that is that the United States, the very idea of republican government, was going to break through the tyrannies of the old world, was going to offer hopes for all peoples, and eventually even for enslaved Africans. That was the inspirational idea. That is, according to the founders, until you had a republic, you did not have free people at all anywhere.

ED: And, Brian, I know from your perch of the 21st century here it’s easy to look back with such disdain on these compromises. But I will try to cut some slack for Peter’s people back in the Constitutional era. They thought slavery was going to fade away. So they’re not going, uh, perpetual slavery or perpetual Union? They’re thinking perpetual Union, temporary slavery.

BRIAN: Why Ed? What was so temporary about slavery?

ED: Well, because they had not really found the profitable crop that would make this continued struggle over slavery worthwhile. And they looked around, they said chances are that slavery’s been dying in the Northeast. It’s going to start dying in the rest of the nation as well. And that’s where my century comes in, Brian. I think that you have heard of the cotton gin and all that.

BRIAN: I have.

ED: Yeah. And we teach it to students, like, this little machine that descends right at the time that we’re in this story. And, suddenly, slavery was going to die. But now it lives because they know how to take the seeds out of cotton.

And, of course, the South, over the next several generations, develops into the world’s monopoly of producing the world’s most valuable commodity. And it expands geographically. And I think this is the key to the compromise question, Brian and Peter, is that it’s not just getting stronger, slavery, but slavery and cotton are intrinsically voracious of space. And as they expand to the West, they consume not merely virgin land, but they’re consuming political representation. So why is it that Missouri’s a place where all this comes to a head?

PETER: Well, it becomes an issue for the first time that maybe there are different futures possible for the country depending on whether or not Missouri comes in as a slave state. So the Missouri controversy of 1819 to 1821 represents the first great crisis of the union. There’s a Northern anti-slavery majority in the House of Representatives. And they want to keep Missouri out unless it abolishes slavery in its constitution.

That is the nub of the crisis. And it’s not resolved for two years. And it’s that gridlock that threatens the future of the union. Compromise is desperately needed or there will be no Union. And if there’s no Union, there’s no republican government.

BRIAN: So, Peter, what is the compromise they come up with?

PETER: Well, what they do is to take the great state of Massachusetts and they split it into two states, Massachusetts and the modern state of Maine. Maine comes into the Union as a free state and balances the new slave state of Missouri. So the Southerners get what they wanted, that is a slave state in Missouri. But they also agree to run a line west from Missouri, from the bottom of Missouri. And below that line slavery will be allowed in the future, above, it won’t be.

BRIAN: All right. OK, I understand much better that first compromise, the 3/5 Constitution because slavery was going to fade away, or so thought many of the Northerners. But I still think the rest of those compromises are, you know, just a pact with the devil. They’re just selling out.

PETER: Yeah. Well, they certainly are for some people, Brian, no question about it. But I think the important thing to keep in mind is that Northerners know slavery is not going to go away.

The expectation is shifting. It’s just keep it in place or don’t let it dominate the entire country, all right? So the idea of limiting the extension of slavery becomes the key idea.

And when in 1854 the Kansas Nebraska Act is passed where the new state of Kansas will be open to slavery, or at least they’ll be a popular plebiscite and they do draft a state constitution based on the institution of slavery, well, Kansas is still north of the Missouri Compromise line and then the Missouri Compromise is no longer good. In others words, it turns out that this expansive slave power is not satisfied. And if they can legalize slavery all over the territories as it seems that the Supreme Court does in the Dredd Scott decision in 1857, well, it’s going to be slavery national and freedom local.

Well, that’s not the original deal. The original deal is to maintain some kind of balance, at least. Maybe it’s not going to go away, but it’s not going to take over the whole country. That’s the real concern. And that’s why the Republicans mobilize. That’s why we have a new political party that is overtly sectional.

ED: That’s right. The Southerners are defying the founding fathers in two ways, Abraham Lincoln and his Republican Party believe. First, they are saying, no, slavery’s not going to fade away. We’re going to expand it. We’re going to grow it and grow it.

BRIAN: That’s cheating as far as they’re concerned.

ED: Yeah, exactly. And the other thing that the Southerners do is they threaten to destroy the Union if they do not have their way to do that.

PETER: Right. So it’s not just that they own slaves and constitute a powerful interest. It’s that they are dominating the entire country. And that violates the spirit of comity, of balance, of accommodating everybody’s interest. It’s winner takes all and the slave owners insist they win or they walk.

It’s time for another short break. But don’t go away. When we get back, a political party that tried to build a big tent only to have its party goers knock over the tent poles.

ED: You’re listening to BackStory, radio’s home for tortured metaphors. We’ll be back in a minute.

BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re talking this week about political gridlock, how we get into it and how we got out of it.

ED: One of the most insane instances of political gridlock came in 1924 at the Democratic National Convention. Now, today the convention only lasts about four days thought it can seem a lot longer. The delegates fly into town. They vote on their platform. They nominate their candidate. Maybe they go to a theme park. Botta bing, botta boom, convention over.

BRIAN: But in 1924, a year when it looked like the underdog Democrats just might be able to take on the Republican powerhouse, the dems ran into some trouble. Their convention was gridlocked for three weeks. To set the scene, the Democratic Party at this point is split.

It’s basically split into two factions. The first, Northern liberals. They are your big city types, lots of immigrants, lots of Catholics. And they generally want to end prohibition.

PETER: The second group making up the Democratic Party is the southern and western conservative faction. They’re predominantly white, protestant, and dry, meaning they support prohibition.

KEVIN MURPHY: So these two sort of have an alliance of convenience against their Republican party. But they don’t see eye to eye on any issue whatsoever really.

PETER: This is Kevin Murphy, an historian. And, currently, he’s a speechwriter on Capitol Hill.

KEVIN MURPHY: So William McAdoo is sort of the candidate of the South and the West. And Al Smith is the candidate of the northern cities.

BRIAN: The parties seem to be pretty evenly divided between these two candidates, McAdoo and Smith. Luckily for Smith, the convention was held on his home turf in New York City at the old Madison Square Garden. Needless to say, in the 1920s the cosmopolitan hard drinking irreverent New York was not a particularly welcoming place for McAdoo and its more rural supporters.

KEVIN MURPHY: New Yorkers called them turd kickers and apple polishers. And before the convention even starts, a lot of journalists, like an H. L. Mencken and The New Republic and The Nation, they see this sort of train wreck about to happen.

BRIAN: Right from the start, the convention has problems. A big item on the platform agenda was deciding whether or not officially to denounce the Ku Klux Klan. It seems like a no brainer, except the KKK, well, they were McAdoo supporters.

KEVIN MURPHY: And, obviously, the Ku Klux Klan is not a favorite organization of northern immigrants. So the first three or four days are just fighting that out. And that hardens hearts. And it’s a bad way to start the process.

BRIAN: The Klan was able to rally enough support to stop the Democrats from denouncing them. Six days into the convention, party leaders finally call for the first vote to nominate the presidential candidate. Who’s it going to be? McAdoo or Smith?

KEVIN MURPHY: And Alabama always goes first. And so the governor of Alabama is this man named William Brandon with a distinctive Alabama drawl. He sort of always kicks it off by saying, Alabama casts its 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood.

BRIAN: Uh oh. Oscar W. Underwood, a senator from Alabama, not even one of the two major candidates. On the first ballot, 19 different men receive votes to be nominated. McAdoo and Smith split most of the votes. But nobody came close to the 2/3 requirement.

PETER: So they have to have a second ballot.

KEVIN MURPHY: Alabama casts its 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood.

PETER: Then a third.

KEVIN MURPHY: Alabama casts its 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood.

PETER: Then a fourth.

KEVIN MURPHY: Alabama casts its 24 votes–

PETER: And a fifth.

KEVIN MURPHY: Alabama casts its 24 votes–

PETER: And a sixth.

KEVIN MURPHY: Alabama casts its 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood. This sort of keeps going on and on and there’s just not much change happening. And delegates are starting to leave. John Nance Garner, who’s later vice president under FDR, he leaves but says this is going to take 100 ballots.

BRIAN: Humorous Will Rogers wrote about the convention for the New York Times.

WILL ROGERS: I’m sitting at my typewriter sound asleep. But I can still write Alabama 24 for Oscar W. Underwood. That is better known right now in this building than the Lord’s Prayer.

KEVIN MURPHY: By the 87th ballot, they’d been there for two weeks, I believe. And the Barnum and Bailey Circus had been there just before the convention, which sort of played out fine. But there’s a heat wave in the New York. And so the smell of the circus elephants are everywhere. I think Arthur Crock called it homicidal, suicidal, rough house. It’s an ugly scene.

BRIAN: By the 103 ballot, things had gotten so bad, the press so negative, that both the leading contenders, McAdoo and Smith, decided to drop out. The convention settled on a third candidate, a guy most Americans had never heard of, John W. Davis of West Virginia. Even he realized that after this embarrassment he had no chance at the presidency.

KEVIN MURPHY: They gave it to him. And when he did, he said, thanks, but you know how much this is worth. He was sort of the last man standing.

I think H.L Mencken says at the time it’s as if France and Germany, who have been fighting over Alsace-Lorraine for centuries, just decided to hand it to England. They’re tired. It’s been three weeks in the hot elephant smelling auditorium. Nobody got what they wanted. They just want to go home. It’s not compromise as you normally think of it in the history books.

BRIAN: Put your speechwriter hat on. Are there any lessons that you would want to offer to your fellow staffers or principals on the Hill? Will the partisan rancor that consumes us today be settled in the same way as the ’24 convention? Will it be settled by attrition, the last person standing?

KEVIN MURPHY: That seems to be the way it’s going now. But I’m in the trenches every day. So I’m probably not the one to speak on that because it can be demoralizing working on the Hill and seeing the way it’s not working at the moment.

PETER: Kevin Murphy is an historian and speechwriter in Washington DC. Well, we like to think that compromise leads to some outcome. There’s a winner, there’s a looser.

But here we got a classic loser, loser situation. And a loser then lost. And there’s a lesson here for the Democratic Party and maybe for the Republican Party today that if you can’t work things out, you might be giving the whole game away.

ED: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking today about the history of the systems grinding to a halt. It’s the story of gridlock in America.

PETER: And as we do most weeks, we’ve been taking your questions online via email, Facebook, and This first question comes to us from just outside the epicenter of American gridlock in Arlington, Virginia. Elizabeth, welcome to the show.

ELIZABETH: Hi, thanks so much for having me.

PETER: Well, great to have you here. So what’s on your mind?

ELIZABETH: I was wondering what role media has played in political gridlock throughout the years?

PETER: Whoa.

ELIZABETH: Specifically, Professor Balogh, how has first radio and then C-SPAN effected congressional gridlock? Professor Ayers, how did newspaper coverage affect political gridlock leading up to the Civil War? And Professor Onuf, how did media coverage affect the whole Federalist and entire Federalist gridlock?

BRIAN: That’s such a terrific question. So I’ll take radio first. The major way that radio contributed to gridlock in the 1920s and the 1930s is for the first time politicians could not say different things in different places without being called for it.

ED: No, the telegraph did that, man.

BRIAN: Oh, Ed. Telegraph, that was so slow. Where did that telegraph go to?

ED: It went to every newspaper and every town of America. Brian, I’m sorry, I feel strongly about this.

BRIAN: Elizabeth, Ed is absolutely right as he always is. What Ed is leaving out is that news from the telegraph was then distributed to highly partisan newspapers that broke up that news and picked and chose what they wanted.

ED: Oh, OK. All right.

BRIAN: So by the time it came out of that partisan sausage making machine, it looked very different in every little place they went. As soon as those radio broadcasters link up national networks, people in the Deep South and people in New England are listening to the words of politicians in an unmediated fashion. And so politicians need to say the same thing. And why is that contribute to gridlock? Because they can’t bend, they can’t twist, they can’t adjust their message for the inevitably different sets of constituencies that contribute to their parties.

PETER: Well, what Elizabeth really wanted to know was about the 18th Century. That’s where her question ended up, OK? So I want to throw a couple things out, guys.

First of all, you can’t have the kind of gridlock we have now unless you have a plugged in and connected electorate. And even before you have the telegraph, you have, in the period of the revolution and the Constitution, you’ve got the mobilization of an electorate and you have the illusion of simultaneity. By that I mean people all over the country are parading. They’re reading about each other’s celebrations. You’re conjuring up a notion of “the people” for the first time.

The second point I want to make is that you can’t mobilize that public opinion. You can’t get anything to happened until you have combat and conflict. In other words, you’ve got to have two sides in order to gen up interest.

And so to get people’s attention, there’s got to be real difference. So I’d say gridlock is an endemic risk in the democratic politics of public opinion, where to get people interested you got to disagree with somebody else. Those disagreements can harden into what we call gridlock.

ED: I disagree, Peter.

PETER: [LAUGHS] There you go. You’re on the other side.

ED: The fact is in terms of sheer scale and velocity and regularity and penetration into people’s lives, it really is the 19th Century and the newspapers, Elizabeth. Ask about–

PETER: I don’t argue with that, Ed.

ED: Well, but you’re going to have to because that’s where conflict comes from. I mean, but we might want to think about what’s the difference? I mean, the fact that by the era of the civil war that every little town in America would have not one, but two newspapers because that sort of fractal of conflict has to be taken right down to the very level of every hamlet.

And so if you’ve got a Wig paper, you need a Democrat paper. If you’ve got a Republican paper, you need a Democrat paper. And if you look at how many towns and counties are really closely contested, it’s a remarkable range. So you kind of have gridlock down at the local level. So I think what’s amazing to me is how that kind of thing they discover in the era of the revolution is then sort of on steroids in the 19th Century.

PETER: Yeah. No, I think that’s right.

ELIZABETH: I’m in communications on the Hill. So it’s just really interesting to hear about how the media has affected political gridlock over the last couple–

ED: Well, what’s your view? You’d know more about this than we do, Elizabeth. What’s the story?

ELIZABETH: Oh, It’s always interesting to me to see how we speak to reporters who are conservative differently than we speak to reporters who are liberal. And we have to be very cognizant of what our members are saying and doing at all times, what every little tweet, every little Facebook post, what we say in that. And because of that it sometimes makes it harder to get things done because there is no such thing as someone convincing someone else of their argument because that’s just called flip flopping.

ED: Elizabeth, let me try a thesis on you. I would argue that the great period in the 20th Century of bipartisan consensus was the product of two things. One was the Cold War. So we were scared as hell of those commies and we had a tendency to group together.

But the other thing was that there were only three TV channels at the very time that more and more people were getting their news from television. And the fact that every politician had to craft his or her message in order to get on those three channels and the fact that those three channels had to have a market share of 25%, 20%, 35% otherwise they’d be out of business, steered everything towards the middle to a certain degree, to a certain amount of consensus. With the emergence of cable television, with the ability to just thrive with 15% to 17% of the audience rather than 30% or 35%, there was the opportunity for media outlets to make a name for themselves by being combative, quite the opposite of what the three channels were. And that has contributed to the situation of gridlock today, not the only factor, but has contributed.

PETER: Well, thanks for calling. And keep calling in on a regular basis.

BRIAN: Don’t be gridlocked.

ELIZABETH: I will do that.

PETER: All right.

ELIZABETH: Thanks, bye bye.

PETER: Our next gridlock question came to us via voice mail. It’s from listener, Janet, in Ohio.

JANET: Hi, I was wondering if there had been a time when political gridlock actually caused a military crisis in American history. Today’s situation with the sequester seems frustrating and has certainly effected some individuals badly. But, overall, I have a sense that it’s not caused any major problems. So I was just wondering if there was a time when gridlock had actually done that, had caused severe consequences? Thanks a lot. Love the show. Bye.

PETER: So, guys, Janet is not going to be building a fall out shelter. She doesn’t thinks there’s going to be war. But, Ed, is there an answer to this question?

ED: Now, let’s just see. What could have happened–

PETER: Yeah. Gridlock, right.

ED: –in the middle of American– yeah, the Civil War kind of comes to mind in this regards. So let’s just go and talk about it a little bit. Ironically, if you do think about it a little bit, you realize that gridlock in the sense that Janet’s referring to, it did not bring on the Civil War.

It’s not that there were two equally balanced parties going head to head and refusing to budge. Instead, the American political system broke apart. The Democrats divided into two parties and then the Republicans sort of walked into the vacuum.

The gridlock came about where the Republicans came from in the first place, which was that they denied the legitimacy of decisions from the Supreme Court, especially the Dredd Scott case which said that there were no rights of black people that whites were bound to respect. And, therefore, the Supreme Court could not stop the expansion of slavery across the continent. Abraham Lincoln built his entire party saying we reject the entire premise of that.

BRIAN: Well, Ed, I really like the way you creatively think about the parties to gridlock. So I’m going to see your creative spirit and raise you one.

ED: All right.

BRIAN: Because when we get to the Cold War period, after World War II, I’m going to argue that gridlock, perhaps, avoided a horrible military crisis. Who were the parties that were gridlocked? They were the United States and the Soviet Union.

In fact, the stated policy of the United States, which was mirrored in the Soviet Union, was mutually assured destruction. That meant that both sides needed to be convinced that if they were to launch a nuclear strike, they would be obliterated by the other side, that destruction of both sides would be assured. Now, I can’t think of anything more gridlocked than that.

PETER: Now, I think that evokes to me, when Brian talks about the Cold War and geopolitical rivalries, East versus West, that was what might have happened in the early United States if they hadn’t faced up to the threat of war. And I think it’s the credibility of a threat of war that leads the statesman from different states and sections to come to terms because the alternative is so horrific.

ED: So that’s kind of complex. It does stretch across all three centuries. It sounds like in the 20th Century, gridlock actually prevented war. It sounds like in the 18th Century, Peter, that it was the very threat of war that broke gridlock. And in the 19th Century it was an unusual kind of gridlock that sort of generated war in the first place. So I think Janet’s question is great in helping us think about the relationship. But, as so often on BackStory, the relationship is seldom simple.


PETER: If you’d like to pose a question for us on a future show, our voice mail box is the place to do it. Just have a look at our website to see the topics we’re working on and give us a ring. Our number is 434-260-1053.

BRIAN: Well, guys, that’s it for this week. Honestly, guys, I think that if you really look at the situation in Washington–

PETER: No, no, no. Hold it. Our show on gridlock has come to an end.

BRIAN: Hey, that’s my line.

PETER: No, no.

ED: Nobody ever said it was over. I think we should–

PETER: No filerbustering.

[? BRIAN: Point of order. ?]

ED: That reminds me that I had this phone book I’d like read to you about.


MALE SPEAKER: Today’s show was produced by Jess Engebretson, Eric Mennel, Chioke I’Anson, and Tony Field. Jamal Millner is our engineer and Allen Chen is our intern. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham. Special thanks to Brenda Carter.

MALE SPEAKER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, the WL Lyons Brown Junior Charitable Foundation, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel. History, made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are Professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.