The divided states of America
By Rick Holmes
June 2, 2017
People have been talking about America’s divisions since it was just a string of random, widely-separated colonies scattered along the eastern seaboard.
For all the things that connect us – a common language, a long history, a rich culture, a set of (largely) shared values – it’s the differences that have always fascinated politicians, journalists and academics. Talk of divided Americans always grows louder after hotly-fought elections, and we’re seeing a flurry of it as intellectuals try to grip with what happened to America in 2016.
“We’re suffering through a national identity crisis,” writes columnist David Brooks in the New York Times. Brooks, the kind of urbane, thoughtful conservative most appealing to liberals, might well be speaking of himself. Like the rest of the intellectual Right, Brooks never saw Trump coming and is still trying to figure out what it means.
Analyzing America’s divisions always begins with geography. There are political and cultural divides within states – northern vs. southern California, upstate vs. downstate in New York and Illinois, for instance – as well as between them. Redrawing maps better reflect their population’s politics has long been a popular parlor game.
In one such exercise, Colin Woodard’s “American Nations,” North America is described as 11 rival “nations,” each with a distinct character. Woodard gives them cute names – like Yankeedom, the Midlands, El Norte, Tidewater and the Left Coast – and argues that the attitudes of each region’s founders toward government, the outside world, freedom and citizenship have persisted in their cultural DNA for centuries.
Woodard contends that the United States has never been truly united, and that migrants, rather than changing the regions they move to, are molded by them. That’s why increased mobility and modern communications haven’t erased America’s differences.
In “The Big Sort,” journalist Bill Bishop offers another reason Americans are growing more divided. Using demographic data, Bishop argues that for at least the last three decades Americans have been moving to states, cities and neighborhoods where people share their ideological beliefs. Liberals cluster in cities and on the coasts, looking for diverse communities with excellent schools and vegetarian restaurants. Conservatives move the other direction, choosing to live where churches are at the heart of the community and people value guns, trucks and barbeque.
While some divide us by geography, others stress conflicting “narratives.” Brooks writes that until recently, the American identity was sustained by the “Exodus story:” We all came here from other countries intent on finding a better life for our families in a country more free and righteous than the places we left behind. That narrative is being forgotten, he contends, because schools teach more about American oppression than American exceptionalism. I’m not buying it, but it’s an interesting theory.
George Packer, whose “The Unwinding” is a masterful look at how America lost touch with its core, offered four conflicting narratives in a recent speech. As recounted by Brooks, Packer divides Americans into western-style libertarians who value freedom over obligation; Silicon Valley globalists who put their faith in disruption; multiculturalists more bound to their identity group than their country; and “America Firsters” fearful of contamination by foreigners and disdainful of elites.
Brooks offers two narratives competing for America’s future. The “mercantilist” vision sees the U.S. as a player in a zero-sum global game, and Americans as a tribe that must be protected from other tribes. The “talented community,” on the other hand, welcomes diversity, immigration and trade for the “dynamism” they unleash.
Brooks makes no secret which vision he prefers, which is the problem with these parlor games. In every description of this or that American sub-group hides value judgments and stereotypes. Intellectuals can’t help but sound condescending in such analyses, especially when they are talking about people they don’t know, like poor people, racial minorities and Trump voters.
I tend to take these analyses with a large portion of salt. But I can’t resist drawing my own dividing lines.
I see Americans divided by attitude. On one side are those who think we aren’t where we need to be, but we’re getting better; on the other are those who think things have been going downhill since the 1950s and keep getting worse. On one side are those who think government is the problem; on the other are those who think government is the solution. On one side are those who see globalization as a threat; on the other are those who see it as an opportunity.
But divisions like these are not fixed in stone, and certainly are not a fatal flaw. Diversity of opinion, like all the other kinds of diversity, is a feature in America’s operating system, not a bug. Americans are a sprawling, sometimes unruly and fractious family, but a family nonetheless.