A student once asked me, “Is this the most divided we’ve ever been as a country?”
“You know, we did once have a civil war,” I felt compelled to respond. “It’s estimated that three quarters of a million Americans died as a result of the Civil War, many from disease and starvation.
“But,” I added, “this is probably the most divided the country has been since the Civil War.” In fact, half of all Americans say they expect a new civil war “in the next few years.” It won’t be sectional (imagine New York and California at war with Texas and Florida). Nor would it be an economic class war (many working class voters today are conservative Republicans).
It’s a cultural division.
Its origins date back to the 1960s, when the Democrats embraced the civil rights movement and set off a massive voter realignment.
Let me give you my favorite statistic from U.S. political history.
In the 1968 election, Mississippi was Republican Richard Nixon’s worst state: He got less than 14 percent of the vote. George Wallace got over 63 percent. Four years later, in 1972, Mississippi was Nixon’s best state: He got more than 78 percent of the vote. See what happened? Nixon used his “southern strategy” — appealing to white racial backlash voters — to fold the Wallace vote into the Republican vote… where it’s been ever since.
And it’s not just southern whites.
A lot of northern urban ethnic whites — who used to be called “Archie Bunker voters” — were also folded into the GOP.
The result has been to invert the class division in American politics. In the 1930s, class differences were at the heart of politics. It was the culmination of an era of epochal labor strife (sit-down strikes, lockouts, union-busting). The U.S. had the most violent labor history of any industrial country — not the most radical, but the most violent. In those days, the question that worked best to define a voter’s politics would have been, “Do you sympathize more with business or more with labor?”
Beginning in the 1960s, class conflict has given way to cultural conflict.
Today, the questions that work best to define a voter’s politics (besides race) would be, “How often do you go to church?” and “Do you have a college degree?”
Education and religiosity define a voter’s culture — liberal or conservative.
It has long been the case that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to vote Republican. That is still true, though not as much as it used to be. In the 2020 election, support for Trump came from 44 percent of the voters with family incomes below $50,000 and from 54 percent of those with family incomes of $100,000 or more.
What’s new is “the diploma divide.” Today, the better educated you are, the more likely you are to vote Democratic. White voters with a college degree voted 51 percent for Joe Biden in 2020; non-college whites voted 67 percent for Donald Trump.
What happens among voters who are both wealthy and well educated? They’re cross-pressured. Their conservative interests pull them to vote Republican. Their liberal values pull them to vote Democratic. That’s why, under Trump, Republicans have been losing so many wealthy white suburban voters. He offends their values. To many college-educated Republicans, Donald Trump is an embarrassment.
In a July New York Times-Siena College poll, Trump’s support drops from 58 percent among non-college Republicans to 28 percent among Republicans with a college degree. The split is painfully evident in this year’s Republican primaries between establishment conservatives and MAGA insurgents.
Consider this: In the 2020 election, Biden carried every one of the ten best-educated states in the U.S. One of them is Virginia, the only southern state that voted for Biden. Trump carried eight of the ten least-educated states. The exceptions: New Mexico and Nevada, which have large Latino populations. The least-educated state is — surprise! — not Mississippi: It’s West Virginia, a state that’s 94 percent white… and voted 69 percent for Donald Trump.
Religion has also become a critical source of division — not what faith you belong to, but how religious you are. Regular churchgoers vote much more Republican than non-churchgoers, at least among whites. Trump’s strongest support comes from white evangelicals.
I once asked a religious right activist why a man like Donald Trump, who has few evident religious convictions, was so popular with religious voters.
“Because he delivers,” he answered.
“What has he delivered?” I asked.
His response: “What we have been praying for for 50 years: the Supreme Court of the United States.”
Differences based on religion, race and education are not simply differences of interest, like business versus labor. They are differences of values and identity. Differences of interest can be negotiated and compromised. Differences of values and identity cannot.
In segregated southern schools like the ones I attended, it used to be fashionable to teach that the Civil War was really fought over tariffs — i.e., a conflict of interests (the high-tariff industrializing North against the low-tariff agricultural South). That was nonsense, of course. The real issue was slavery, a conflict of values. Compromise over slavery, like the one famously embedded in the original U.S. Constitution, was ridiculous.
Conflicts over identity and values today are no less intractable.