One year after Donald Trump’s upset election victory, it’s not unusual to hear people wonder out loud if the United States is really one country anymore. Last month, the Republican senator from Arizona, Jeff Flake, gave a speech on the Senate floor about the “state of our disunion.”
Recent polls have confirmed that Americans are feeling bitterly split. A Gallup poll conducted just after the 2016 presidential election found 77 percent of Americans see the country as “greatly divided when it comes to the most important values,” up from 66 percent in 2012. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, conducted nine months into Trump’s presidency, found that seven in 10 Americans think the nation’s political divisions are as bad as during the Vietnam War.
Some historians are also raising the alarm over division in the country. They say the rise of social media, combined with the decline of the central institutions that once defined the borders of political debate, have created a potentially dangerous moment in our public discourse. Today, even disasters seem to pull us apart more than bring us together. In the wake of mass shootings in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and Las Vegas and the devastation Hurricane Maria caused in Puerto Rico, social media was full of partisan debate over how to think about the events.
Each side has proven adept at deploying information in ways that back up their points. In July, journalist Carl Bernstein, famous for his reporting on Watergate, suggested that we’re now in a “cold civil war” with different groups of people unable to agree even on the basic facts of what’s happening in the country. Could this be true?
To find out, we spoke with five historians and political philosophers to ask whether the current “state of our disunion” was unique in American history.
Are the divisions in today’s America really new?
Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University, said this kind of division has been rare in the U.S. While the country has faced many periods of intense disagreement and strife, he said, what’s unusual is the current tendency of some Americans to argue that others don’t belong in the country at all. This approach to politics has appeared only occasionally in U.S. history. For example, in the Jacksonian period, Andrew Jackson’s supporters sharply defined Americans as English-speaking Christians of European origin, while in the McCarthy years, people with particular political views or lifestyles could be declared un-American and denied basic constitutional protections.
“One way of thinking about what populism is, it’s a movement that denies that the people who disagree with it are really members of the nation,” he says. “They’re not really members of ‘the people.’”
Have Republicans and Democrats ever been this divided before?
Brian Balogh, cohost of the Backstory podcast and professor of history at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said that the level of partisan divide and Washington gridlock is reminiscent of the late 19th century. In those years, he said, the federal government was deeply divided, leaving it unable to address economic changes like the emergence of a large industrial working class and big urban centers.
Eventually, Balogh said, the divisions between the two parties declined, as two world wars and then the Cold War helped unify the country.“There’s nothing like a persistent, identifiable, commonly despised external enemy to bring Americans together,” he said.
At the same time, Progressive Era ideas and an increasingly complicated economy pushed the country toward a new reliance on expert opinion. “Objective journalism” set guardrails on what topics were appropriate for political debate—though not always for the better. “This so-called objective media is the same set of media that accepted on face value that African Americans who were lynched had done something immoral,” Balogh said.
By the 1950s, Balogh said, the political parties were so similar in their devotion to finding technical solutions to social problems that the American Political Science Association “urged the parties to have a backbone—by that I mean to take clear ideological stances that would distinguish them.”
“That definitely falls into the ‘be careful what you wish for’ category,” he added.
Over the decades that followed, Democrats and Republicans became thoroughly divided by ideology. Balogh notes that this “sorting out” was largely rooted in racial ideology. After Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, white backlash turned the South from solidly Democratic to a reliable source of Republican votes.
“That, in turn, allowed the Democrats to align around the northern and midwestern progressive wings of the Democratic Party and become a party that stood for more progressive values,” Balogh said. “Republicans aligned around states’ rights, low taxes, and an emphasis on the individual.”
Have we entered a “cold Civil War,” where fact-based debate is impossible?
The rising division in the country has been deeply entwined with increasing distrust of “experts” and the decline of “objective journalism.” Media bubbles, in which Facebook delivers us news that caters to our existing political beliefs, can make it hard to have national conversations based on a shared set of facts, said Anna Moltchanova, a professor of philosophy at Carleton College who studies group identities.
She pointed to the different ways people view NFL players taking a knee to protest racism. “They’re completely different, totally polarized narratives,” she said. “And when [people from opposing sides] go to their radio program, or if they get their information on social media, they never interact with the other side.”
Moltchanova said the danger is not just that people are divided but that the division creates fundamental questions about what it means to belong in the country. Studying former Soviet republics, she said, it’s clear that disagreements about national identity—who is a “real Russian” or a “real Moldovan” can cause serious instability.
“When your body politic starts fracturing there is this kind of possible new direction for the whole body politic,” she said. “It just starts wobbling and becomes kind of unstable and bizarre. You become a country where people don’t care about each other.”
Is there more conflict now, or is it just more apparent?
Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said the idea that we’re now more divided now than in the past is largely about the erosion of barriers that kept many Americans outside of mainstream political debates in the past.
“During earlier periods, to some extent divisions in the country were papered over by the fact that African-Americans couldn’t vote,” he notes. “Reconstruction was resolved through terrorism. There were deep divisions over immigration [but] people also forget that we closed the door for 40 years [greatly reducing the percentage of foreign-born U.S. residents by the middle of the 20th century]. When the door was closed, conflict was diminished because very few people were coming…. It’s easier to diminish conflict if you deny a lot of people a voice.”
Grossman said part of what’s changed is social media, which has made groups from Black Lives Matter to the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville more visible.
Balogh agrees. “Young African-American men being shot by police or being at risk ‘driving while black’—this is something that has always existed, and my guess is it was actually worse 20 or 30 years ago, but we are much more aware of it because of digital technology.”
Another difference this year is the president, said Grossman. In the past, almost every U.S. president has invoked language of national unity, even at times of deep division like the Civil War. “Trump is different,” Grossman said. “He has no patience or time for those niceties, which is why his constituency likes him.”
What could help Americans come together?
To really address today’s problem of division, Robert Cavalier, director of the Program for Deliberative Democracy at Carnegie Mellon University, said Americans need to deepen our understanding of democracy. Like some Middle Eastern nations that are deeply divided between Shia and Sunni Muslims, he said, Americans won’t be able to govern ourselves effectively unless we figure out how to work with people we disagree with to solve real problems.
Cavalier suggests starting at the local city level, with well-organized public conversations about concrete issues. Without building up the skills for public deliberation, he said, it’s almost impossible to have rational conversations around national events—like talking about gun control after a mass shooting occurs. “You can’t sort of bring it into a cancer patient at the terminal stages,” he said.
“There are arguments that our founders’ intention was for this to be a deliberative democracy,” said Cavalier. “If that could take hold at the local level then I think we could see stronger models of democracy emerging at the level of the city.”