The nastiness of American politics today may seem extreme compared to the tone of earlier eras. But historian David Moss says our nation's founders were also happy to sling mud. Thomas Jefferson's supporters said John Adams had a "hideous hermaphroditical character." Adams called Alexander Hamilton that "bastard brat of a Scotch peddler." Beyond the obnoxious language, there were also deep disagreements about what it meant to be a nation.
Moss argues that the intensity of our partisan disagreements shouldn't be cause for alarm. He believes our democracy is much more resilient than we realize, and that conflict, however bitter, can be productive.
"I think we need to remember American democracy is far from perfect, but it is extraordinarily resilient, and it has generated tremendous progress," he says.
That said, Moss also believes that Americans should ask a key question as we assess the health of our political discourse: do the politicians you support ever put democracy in second place at the expense of a partisan battle?
"It's good, I think, in a democracy to be hypochondriacs - that is, to think that, oh, our system might be sick. Because when you think it might be sick, you start to take some action to try to fix it."
That's in the second half of this week's radio show. In the first part of our program, we visit our recent conversation with political scientist John Hibbing. Over the years, he has studied how our political views may be influenced by our biology.
"We would look at brain scan results and we could be incredibly accurate knowing whether they're liberal or conservative, just on the basis of that," he says.
Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu, Laura Kwerel, and Camila Vargas Restrepo. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain.