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.


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