The History Behind Polarized America

For most of its history, the United States had a ruling majority. But during the late 20th Century, that White caste divided into two groups, which I’ll call Metropolitan Whites and Heartland Whites. They have different interests, so they no longer cooperate, which means each is effectively a large minority. Both benefit from the economic and political advantages of White skin, but the Metropolitan Whites rely on White privilege less because they’re wealthier and more plugged-in to the new economy. That frees them to ally with non-Whites.

the different white visions - why we're polarized
Each group has its own visions

For the Heartland Whites, that adds insult to the injury of losing majority power and of standing in second place. They risk falling even further, beneath non-Whites, and that’s led to a furious response: the Tea Party, the Birther Movement, Trumpism, and more. Those reactions don’t require overt racism, and probably most Heartland Whites reject conscious racism. But no caste will quietly accept a move down the hierarchy, beneath traditionally subordinate castes.

White Evolution and Solidarity

White identity once excluded Eastern and Southern Europeans and the Irish, but each has entered the group. So have European Jews, though never on a firm footing. America’s White identity, then, has expanded to include everyone who looks White. There the expansion has stopped, which means the White share of America can now only shrink, since the nation’s other populations continue to grow, including through immigration.

That looked like a distant issue during most of the 20th Century. The White caste did have internal divisions, particularly along class lines. But threats from the likes of Nazis and Soviets helped ensure cooperation, as did (racist) solidarity against non-Whites.

White Division and the New Alliance

Kennedy and civil rights leaders: a step toward justice and polarized America
Kennedy meets with MLK and other civil rights leaders: the alliance begins

White solidarity plummeted during the late 20th Century, starting with the civil rights movement. Whites of the Northeast and West and of the biggest cities supported the movement. Whites of the South and Great Plains and of the countryside opposed it. The Democratic Party spearheaded civil rights and so became the Metropolitan Whites’ party, while the Republicans opposed it and became the Heartland Whites’ party.

Since 1964, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of White votes. That would’ve doomed the party in earlier days, but the Democrats found they could rely on non-Whites, along with the Metropolitan White minority. That alliance and the Metropolitan Whites’ growing wealth put Heartland Whites in an ever-weaker position, struggling to maintain second place. We can see the resulting misery in Heartland Whites’ health and longevity rates, both of which have fallen during recent decades (so-called “deaths of despair”).

U.S electoral map: how/where we're polarized
The U.S. electoral map, averaged

The Metropolitan Whites kept adding fuel to the fire through contempt for Heartland White culture and religion — and also through law that offends and threatens Heartland Whites, like abortion rights and affirmative action. Then, in 2008, the alliance put a Black man in the White House, and all Hell broke loose.

Furious Counterreaction

The Republican Party’s stream of firsts began the moment Barack Obama took office. For the first time, a major party announced that its main legislative goal was to ensure a one-term presidency. For the first time, a legislator shouted at the President during the State of the Union (“You lie!”). He remains in office. For the first time, a large portion of the other party challenged the President’s legal right to hold office, claiming he wasn’t born in the U.S. For the first time, the Senate refused to take up the President’s Supreme Court nominee, nearly a year before his term ended. (In 2020, the same GOP leaders confirmed a Republican nominee eight days before a presidential election and three months before that President’s term ended.) The list goes on.

"Arrogant Kenyan!": polarizing protest

In 2016, the GOP nominated Donald Trump for the presidency: another first. Before the 21st Century, Trump probably could not have won a major party’s nomination. He was too obviously inexperienced, corrupt, ignorant, polarizing, and mean. He defeated a slate of highly qualified traditional Republicans — and then a highly experienced Democrat — because he was mean, apparently, not in spite of it. (His victory also relied on the Heartland Whites’ geographic advantage in the Electoral College, not on a majority vote.) Contented people don’t want mean leaders. Threatened, angry people do (e.g., Pol Pot, Pinochet, Franco).

Trumpism

young Trump supporters: polarized at new levelsTrump’s presidency led to another stream of firsts. The list runs even longer, but the final act speaks for all. For the first time, Americans tried to overturn a presidential election through violence, in 2020. It’s no coincidence that the Capitol Hill insurgents disproportionately came from Heartland counties with rapidly growing non-White populations.

In addition, hate crime rates rose every year of the Trump presidency except 2018, when they merely held steady.

The Fall of Conservatism

Liz Cheney, Congressional photo
Liz Cheney, conservative

Another first time snuck up on America during the early 21st Century. For the first time, conservatives arguably have no major political party. Trump and his followers have reversed conservative cornerstone policies, like limited government, limited federal spending, European alliances, opposing Russian power, and international free trade, not to mention support for the democratic process. The conservatives in the GOP have quietly toed the line. Or they’ve been removed — e.g., Flake, Ryan — or sidelined — e.g., Cheney, Romney.

In other words, after decades of conservativism, Heartland Whites want a change. The Democrats show no interest in helping them, so they turned to Trump.

The First Civil War and the Problem with Democracy

The conflict bears an eerie resemblance to the one that triggered the Civil War. For instance, in 2008, Barak Obama won and lost roughly the same set of states as Abraham Lincoln in 1860. More troubling, the Heartland Whites’ declining share of the population means democracy no longer supports their interests. That happened in 1860 too, when the anti-slavery northerners outvoted the South, leading the South to secede.

The Battle of Franklin: where polarized country lands
The Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864

Since the Civil War, the weaker of the two major parties has always regained power by moving to the center to attract new votes. But the Republicans can’t do that today because they rely almost entirely on Heartland White votes. Their goal of retaining caste status makes a move to the center impossible, and it conflicts with most other voters’ goals, limiting potential allies. At the same time, the Brown vote keeps growing, alongside the economic power of Metropolitan Whites. The result: attempts to limit democracy, like support for Trump’s claim of a stolen 2020 election, as well as red state laws restricting the vote. (The Democrats have no incentive to restrict democracy, since they represent more people. But that could change if preserving majority rule starts to look like a losing battle — and plenty in the far left value their own goals far more than democracy.)

Civil War or Secession (1 in 10 Odds?)

Trump failed to reverse his 2020 election loss because of resistance from state and local officials of both parties — and resistance from his own Vice President, from Republican lawyers in the Department of Justice, and from Democrats in Congress, as well as a tiny handful of Congressional Republicans. But most of those (conservative) Republicans have lost office or will soon. And the Democrats won’t always have the numbers to sway Congress. (The Senate and extreme gerrymandering magnify Heartland White voting power, like the Electoral College.) So the GOP could overcome the vote in the near future, convincing Congress or the courts to certify the losing presidential candidate — or installing a “false” Congressional majority.

"death to fascism" protesters: the polarized left awoke too
The Heartland White counterreaction has energized the left too

The left probably won’t sit idly by. Massive, paralyzing protests are nearly guaranteed. But the Democrats could also refuse to cooperate with the losing presidential candidate and inaugurate their own, giving America two Presidents. That could lead to state governments swearing allegiance to their party’s claimant — and to generals forced to pick sides. It’s not hard to imagine secessions, civil war, or both.

In 2000, I’d have put the chance of a 21st Century civil war or of secessions at one in 100,000. Now, I’d say one in ten.


Images

© 2021 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

Disobedient Confederate Generals Helped End the Civil War

The South didn’t have to surrender in 1865, at the end of the U.S. Civil War. Its armies had lost, but Confederate soldiers could’ve taken to the hills and forests to fight a guerrilla war. Southern generals had plenty of role models, including the American guerrillas of the Revolution. Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered his generals to fight a similar war after they’d lost on the battlefield. Had they obeyed, the Civil War might have dragged on for years, darkening America’s character. Guerrilla combat often degenerates into terrorism, with both sides targeting civilians and killing for revenge. Democracy itself could’ve ended. The Confederacy might even have won, since many in the exhausted North already wanted to give up in 1865. (Imagine the 20th Century without a unified America to oppose totalitarianism.)

Confederate commander Robert E. Lee surrenders
Robert E. Lee surrenders to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865

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History Tells Us Congress CAN Impeach the President After His Term

The Constitution says nothing specific about whether Congress can impeach an official after his or her term. That didn’t stop the House of Representatives from impeaching the Secretary of War in 1876, after he left office — or the Senate from trying him. And history tells us Congress got it right that year, just as they apparently will again in 2021. The Framers based the impeachment process on the English Parliament’s power to impeach. And English impeachments could start after the official left office. In fact, Parliament impeached an official named Warren Hastings in 1787 and tried him between 1788 and 1795 — though he left office in 1784. The Hastings impeachment battle raged while the Framers wrote the Constitution, and it played a central role in their thinking.

The House of Commons, where they impeached Hastings
The House of Commons, Late 1700s

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History Tells Us the President Cannot “Self-Pardon”

The Framers of the Constitution based the presidential pardon on the English monarch’s power to grant pardons. And the monarch could not pardon himself — could not use executive power to escape the judgement of the courts. Parliament established that principle during the century before the Constitutional Convention, when it tried and executed King Charles I. To the Framers, then, “pardon” meant legal forgiveness granted to another. The authority they gave the President does not include a “self-pardon.”

even with 3 positions, Charles I could not self-pardon
Charles I, triple portrait by Anthony van Dyck

The Constitution does not address a “self-pardon,” and caselaw offers little guidance on whether the President has such a power. But the history of the Seventeenth Century does.
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America Has No Guarantee of Freedom

In a second term, the ballot box would no longer restrict Trump. So we can expect:

  • Expanded use of the Department of Justice (DoJ) against the President’s opponents, including members of Congress.
  • More use of force against protesters.
  • Federal tolerance of crime against the President’s opponents (e.g., Michigan’s governor).
  • Refusal of federal disaster funds and other resources for blue states.
  • Further suppression of information on Covid-19’s nationwide impact.
  • Prompt firing of senior officials and federal prosecutors who try to restrain the President.
  • White House orders blocking DoJ prosecution of the President’s allies.
  • More separation of children from immigrant parents.
  • Withdrawal of federal resources aimed at curbing White supremacists.
  • Federal support for attacks on the voting process, particularly in swing states, probably leading to “disqualification” of large numbers of ballots and voters in 2022 and 2024.

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Police History: Constable vs. Paramilitary

Calls to abolish or massively reform America’s police sound new and radical. Yet history offers a very old model for those reforms: an alternative to our current military style of policing. In the world of the Founding Fathers, civilian constables enforced the law. They had done so for 150 years in the American colonies — and for longer in England. And they would continue well into the 19th Century.

police history: a constable or beadle
An English constable (technically, a beadle)

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This Week in History: the Ashmolean Museum

This week in 1683, the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology opened in Oxford. It was the world’s first university museum and was named after Elias Ashmole, who in 1677 had given Oxford University what became the museum’s first collection. Construction also began in 1677. The current museum building was finished in 1845.

Ashmolean Museum

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Coronavirus Would Not Have Disrupted Our Ancestors’ Lives

A virus circles the world, killing 1% of the population or more, particularly the elderly … and people just go about their business. Even in countries that understand contagion, no one healthy stops working, and neither do most of the sick. In fact, if you suggest staying home, most people think you’re crazy. Why manufacture an economic disaster? That’s how our ancestors would react to coronavirus, from the ancient world through early modern times. Their lives already involved a steady risk of death from acute, fast-acting disease, so this comparatively mild new illness would hardly set them back.

Europe's history of pandemic inspired Breugel's famous painting
The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. c. 1562. Click for a closer view of death’s regular assault on our ancestors.

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This week in history: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

This week in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published her anti-slavery novel, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. Beecher Stowe was a teacher at Hartford Female Seminary in Connecticut. She originally published her most famous work as a 40-week serial in “The National Era,” an abolitionist periodical. Publisher John Jewett saw potential and proposed that Stowe turn the serial story into a book. He had good reason. The story was so popular that, if the magazine ever published without a new chapter, it received multiple protest letters. So Beecher Stowe published. She sold 3,000 copies the first day, and UNCLE TOM’S CABINE soon sold out of its first print-run. The novel ultimately became the second best selling book in the United States for the entire of the 19th Century, just behind the Bible. Continue reading “This week in history: Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

This week in history: Louisiana Purchase

This week in 1804, the Louisiana Territory transferred from French to U.S. sovereignty, with the change marked by a ceremony in St. Louis. The territory had actually changed hands before, from France to Spain and then, as late as 1800, back to France. France’s First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte (later emperor), had planned to reestablish a French colony in North America, but he found himself short of resources, thanks to troubles at home and war with Britain (and ultimately just about everyone else). Hard up for cash, Napoleon had sold the Louisiana Territory to the U.S.’s President Thomas Jefferson. The two republican leaders’ original plan just involved the purchase of New Orleans. But in 1803, French Treasury Minister Francois Barbe-Marbois had offered the whole, vast Louisiana Territory to the American negotiators, James Monroe (later President) and Robert Livingston. They jumped at it. In fact, President Jefferson exceeded his authority by committing to the purchase without Congress’ consent, but he could not pass up the chance to double America’s possessions. Continue reading “This week in history: Louisiana Purchase”