This week, congressional Democrats announced that they would shift their focus from the Build Back Better bill to comprehensive legislation on voting rights. This transition is no doubt prompted by Democrats on the ground, who have called Trump-allied Republicans’ efforts to obtain state political positions and pass restrictive voting laws a “five alarm fire.” But so far Democratic leaders have struggled to convince moderates of the severity of the crisis; instead, senators like Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) have reiterated their view that any legislation on voting rights should be bipartisan.
Yet, if moderate Democrats don’t act to curb these antidemocratic measures, they may find themselves in a crisis that resembles the late 1850s — when Washington politicians failed to fully grasp the developing secession movement in the South. Much like today, the 1850s Washington bubble gave long-serving federal officials a false confidence that the republic could be saved through congressional compromise.
The Washington bubble is not unique to the 20th and 21st centuries. In the 1850s, the men who served in Congress developed an “inside the Beltway” mentality a century before the Beltway existed. Senators and representatives came to feel a sense of fraternity as they socialized at parties and dinners, bars and gambling dens and in a variety of professional associations in the city. In words echoing today’s rhetoric of bipartisan friendship, senators like Stephen Douglas (D-Ill.) — the architect of many cross-sectional compromises in this period — bragged of their warm social relationships with “men of all shades of political opinion.”
Although 19th-century parties were more fluid and the idea of bipartisanship did not exist, many moderates who served in the period before the Civil War were similarly concerned with forging national compromise — not among parties, per se, but between the slave states of the South and the nonslaveholding states of the North. These moderate congressmen noted that compromise over slavery was baked into the Constitution and insisted that, to keep the Union together, sectional balance should be maintained.
Importantly, the sociable Washington community convinced these congressmen that they had a unique ability to save the nation and ward off disunion through cutting deals. Senators and representatives hammered out the details of such compromises at dinners hosted by city socialites like the banker William Corcoran, or in the confines of their local boardinghouses, where they shared rooms during the congressional session.