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Think partisanship's bad now in Washington?

WASHINGTON - The current partisan divide is as stark and nasty as any in recent history, and on almost every issue, there's little or no effort to find common ground.

But if today's hostile environment is particularly intense, it's downright genteel compared with many battles of the past.

"We've had partisanship ever since we've had federal government," Senate historian Donald Ritchie said. "Bipartisanship is really the exception to the rule."

Partisanship got off to a raucous start in the presidential election of 1800 when the incumbent, John Adams, a Federalist, traded personal attacks with his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, a Democrat-Republican, who was running against him.

But it wasn't until the 1830s - when populist Democrats led by Andrew Jackson took control of the government - that party politics as we now know it really began to take shape, says Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University. Jackson's opponents referred to him as "jackass," often credited as the source of the donkey as the Democratic Party's symbol.

Binder said waves of partisanship tend to coincide with major changes to the nation.

The most dramatic example came in 1856, when Republican abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner, in a Senate speech, accused a Democratic colleague, Andrew Butler of South Carolina, of taking an ugly mistress, "the harlot, slavery."

Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina, Butler's relative, entered the Senate chamber and beat Sumner with a cane, nearly killing him.

Party divisions became even more pronounced during the Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt's Democrats and the Republicans debated big government and fought over the creation of Social Security.The golden age of bipartisanship, to the extent it existed, came in the 1940s through the '60s, when politicians united behind World War II and the Cold War, and neither party had a clear-cut ideology.

Democrats had their Northern liberals and Southern conservatives, while the GOP was divided between Goldwater Republicans and Rockefeller Republicans.

That all began to change with the civil rights movement and the Republican takeover of the South. After that, said Ritchie, "the Democrats became the liberal party and Republicans the conservatives. There just aren't that many people in the middle who can be persuaded to break rank."

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