The Number 133

133. Keep that number in mind the next time someone shrieks that “we’re on the verge of another Civil War!!”

I thought of this today as I read an interesting column in the Wall Street Journal. It was about the Democrats in the House of Representatives and the potential selection of Nancy Pelosi as the next Speaker. The column, written by Karl Rove, highlighted all the Democratic representatives who had declared a few weeks ago that they wouldn’t support Pelosi’s candidacy to become the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Rove’s column is part of larger media coverage of the upcoming election of the new Speaker.

I’ve also seen and heard quite a bit about how “we’re coming apart,” “we’re more divided than ever,” “we’re in separate camps and tribes,” and so on. And yes, several commentators have discussed the potential for a new civil war, a cultural, social, and political version of the armed conflict of 1861-1865.

Chew on a piece of data for perspective.

In late 1855/early 1856, the US House of Representatives attempted to vote on their next Speaker of the House. Guess how many votes they had to have before someone won the position. Have a number in mind? Hint—see above.

Yes, 133 votes or ballots before the new Speaker of the House (Nathaniel Banks) was finally chosen. It was an eight-week nightmare.

My point, one that I’ve shared in workshops on using history to help leaders clarify the apparent chaos of the Trump Presidency, is that things aren’t as bad as we see on television and smartphones. They are jumbled, weird, maddening, frustrating, discouraging, and a hundred other things, I grant you. Absolutely. But they aren’t at the level of 150 years ago. Things have been far, far worse, I assure you.

I like to find data and metrics and measurables (all those trendy words) to clarify the contrasts and comparisons, to gauge the change and continuity of the past and the present. Some internal bickering and arguing over Pelosi in late 2018 is a long way from 133 ballots before reaching a conclusion in early 1856. Use history to calm down or, just as helpful, to keep your participation in today’s politics in the proper light.

It’s not the Civil War. It’s more like the Civil PlaygroundSnowballFight. 

Thanks for reading. All the best, Dan