Anger & Violence & Secession, Oh My!

Is Our Political and Cultural Divide Too Wide to Heal?

divided America, protests
Reading Time: 19 minutes

On the eve of an angry and anxious election, it’s worth remembering that there was a time when we were, if not united, at least bound together by a shared set of cultural touchstones. Movies, sports, even the three TV networks that delivered the evening news were part of a national town square that provided both watercooler conversation and comity. No more!

The long tail of the internet, coupled with the evolution of our politics over the past 40 years, has divided us as never before. Even COVID-19, an outside enemy that should have united us, has become a cultural and political cudgel. Ironically, our collective anger over politics may now be the only thing we have in common, even as it’s devolved into trench warfare.  

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with conservative journalist and author David French about how the nation is unraveling. French, author of Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation, argues that “there is not a single important cultural, religious, political, or social force that is pulling American together more than it is pushing it apart.” 

He identifies geographical regions that have become “superclusters” of like-minded people, where personal interactions fuel ever more extreme political views.  

French notes that both sides believe they are losing the culture war, which leads to more enmity, disgust, and dehumanization directed at the other side. Looking at similar separatist sentiments around the world, he wonders if secession or disunion is perhaps the future of America.

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Full Text Transcript: 

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

There was a time when there were things that united us. Through most of the 20th century, for example, there were movies and TV shows, books and sports, and even the three choices for getting our evening news. We were, for a long time, part of a commonweal, a kind of national town square that provided a water cooler conversation around the things that we had in common.

Jeff Schechtman: Over the past 40 or so years, all that has changed. Technology and the proverbial long tail have atomized us into individual interest. The explosion of thousands of sources of news, entertainment, and information satisfied us, satiated us really, but took away our common bonds.
Jeff Schechtman: As a new generation took power, traditional religion gave way to secularism, and simultaneously, political rhetoric ratcheted up. The years of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, repeal of the fairness doctrine, the rise and inherent meanness of talk radio, all gave birth to a new kind of tribalism. Essentially, politics became our religion.
Jeff Schechtman: While we might be divided in our views, it was ironic that the only thing we had in common was talking about politics. Politics was our primary sense of community, even as we hated those on the other side. Creative destruction and continued social, economic and technological change fed the division at every level, and social media put it on afterburners.
Jeff Schechtman: Today, we inherit the whirlwind and it very well might mean that the Madisonian ideal of America has passed its sell-by-date. We’re going to talk about this today with my guest, David French. David French is a senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s a columnist at Time, a former senior writer at National Review, an Iraq war veteran, and he’s the author of the just published, Divided We Fall: America’s Succession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation. David French, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhat Why Podcast.
David French: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Jeff Schechtman: Nothing symbolizes the division we’ve gotten to today more than the response to COVID. Something like that really has brought out the worst of us in so many respects.
David French: Yeah. It’s really been remarkable. I remember being asked, because when I started writing this book, I was talking to two folks who also look at American polarization and vision and they say, “Is it getting so bad that we’d have trouble coming together and respond to a shared crisis?” And I said, “Well, we haven’t had one to the same extent of 9/11, but I think it’s getting so bad that we would have real trouble coming together.”
David French: And so, here you have a virus that comes into our shores, that afflicts the entire country, and we almost immediately started having cultural wars over it. I mean, almost immediately. I think perhaps few things tell us what’s happening more with group polarization than, for example, the very notion of how wearing a mask in the middle of a pandemic caused by a respiratory infection, created masking culture wars with very sharp partisan divides.
David French: And already you see partisan divides over other things like vaccines, partisan divides over things like mail-in balloting, things that, prior to this, were not really partisan issues at all. And so, yeah, we have now engineered the ability to take almost anything and make a culture war out of it.
Jeff Schechtman: And yet the inherent irony in it is that the politics and partisanship, even to the extent that we fight and hate each other, is the only common thread that runs through so much of this.
David French: Right. What’s fascinating is that we are splitting in so many different ways. In other words, America’s becoming more secular, but it is not becoming more secular everywhere at the same rate. So, many parts of the country are far more religious than others. Or we’re splitting in the way we watch television or consume popular culture. We are splitting in geography.
David French: There are so many ways in which we’re splitting, and then the weird thing about it all is that virtually all of those different kinds of splits can lay across the red, blue political map. And so, red Americans tend to watch very similar kinds of TV and blue Americans watch very similar kinds of TV, and they don’t watch the same thing.
David French: Or read Americans watch a certain sport and blue Americans watch other sports. For example, NBA basketball is far more popular in blue America. College football is far more popular in red America, and the sport that really stretches across all political lines, NFL football, is increasingly contentious all by itself.
David French: And so we have all of these divisions, all of these things that separate us, and, essentially, they’re all beginning to track along these red/blue lines. And that’s one of the things that is so, I think, ultimately, could be longterm de-stabilizing.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that seemed stabilizing for a while was the fact that local politics had not yet been infected by it. Somebody once said, and I don’t remember who it was, you might remember, that there isn’t a Democrat or a Republican way to pave the streets. And yet today, that red/blue divide has filtered down even to the most local politics.
David French: Well, right. It really has. And it’s filtered down to local politics because it’s seen as a predictor of presidential politics, for example. So, rarely before, as I read more diagnosis, more analysis here in Tennessee, of suburban Philadelphia local elections, and what it might mean for, say, 2020, November 2020.
David French: These are things that you would never hear about. You never think about. I read story after story, for example, about democratic politics around the race for Tulsa mayor, and what that says. And part of it is a reflection of how local politics has become less powerful, and national politics has become more powerful. And so, for rational reasons, people look to local politics to tell us, as a predictor, of how those local politics will play in the national elections, that really mattered to people.
David French: And that’s a very dangerous thing, when you have an increasingly diverse country, where people are increasingly different. But at the same time, you have increasing centralization for the central government that creates real tension.
Jeff Schechtman: And as you point out, there really is no countervailing force. There’s lots of things. And we could talk for hours about all the things that are pushing us apart, but there is really nothing that you can identify that is pulling people together.
David French: That’s right. We have a lot of close ties that barricade. America is tightly bound together, but all of those things that bind us together are now under strain. All of them, whether it’s the political divisions. Look, there’s always been partisanship, but what’s different now is how widespread the feeling of real anger and enmity towards political opponents is.
David French: We’ve always had different popular culture, but not where it’s so fragmented. We’ve had tendencies to want to live around people of like-mind, but never to the point where we’ve clustered so closely with people who agree with us, at least in the modern era. And so, all of these things are pulling and pulling and pulling at these tight bonds, and they’re starting to unravel to the point where, for the first time in my adult life, there are people who are looking at the November, 2020 election and saying, “I can easily foresee the possibility of a constitutional crisis.” It’s not probable, it’s not certain by any means, but it’s certainly possible that we could have a constitutional crisis, and that is something that has never happened in my lifetime.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things, you touched on this a moment ago, and you write about it in Divided We Fall, is the idea of the super clusters where you only associate with, essentially, people that are like-minded, so that you don’t know anybody that’s voting for Biden or voting for Trump. And so, if the other side wins, you’re so shocked because, well, nobody voted for them.
David French: Yeah. Yeah. And this is something that I think is really important for people to understand. There’s several consequences of this super clustering, and I identify a few. For example, in the entire island of Manhattan, about 85% of people voted for Biden. It was more than 90% in the city of Washington, DC. It was more than 80% in San Francisco.
David French: And then on the conservative side, disproportionately clustered in the South, you have 81% of white evangelicals, for example, voting for Donald Trump. There are entire churches, where you could talk to people and ask them, “Do you know anyone who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016?” And maybe they can name one person, maybe not.
David French: Two things end up happening. One is the obvious, you don’t understand your opposition. It makes it easier to caricature your opposition. The other thing is you end up becoming more extremist. And this is a really fascinating sociological phenomenon. It basically says when people of like-mind gather, they become more extreme. And we’ve been able to track this for the last 30 years.
David French: And over the last 30 years, the left has become more left and the right has become more right. So, we used to think of American politics as this big bell curve, where you had a big majority of people in the center left and the center right. Well, that bell curve has been flattening for years and years and years, as more people cluster on the extreme edges. And that’s another factor that leads to polarization.
Jeff Schechtman: And another overlay to that, which you talk about, is the way in which civility and decency and things that go along with it have evaporated at the same time. Maybe for different reasons, but they add fuel to this fire as well.
David French: Yes. Yeah, exactly. This is kind of a natural outgrowth of that increased extremism and that increased clustering. When you can’t understand somebody, when they’re further apart from you and when the stakes of every election seem to grow more existential, then what ends up happening is you stop seeing your political opponents as well-meaning, but misguided. Instead you start to see them as malicious and incomprehensible.
David French: And if they’re incomprehensible, then what is the explanation for their opposition? Well, it could be that you see them as ignorant or evil. And this is another thing that we’ve seen, is that you can even chart it. You can see the increasing growth of real anger and distaste for your political opponents, to the point where some recent researchers have discovered a phenomenon they call ‘lethal mass partisanship’.
David French: And that is where, it’s still a minority thankfully, but a significant percentage of Americans attribute dehumanizing characteristics to their political opponents, and even believe the country would be better off if a large percentage of their political opponents just died. And so, you’ve got enmity, you’ve got distrust, you’ve got disgust, and now it’s turning into outright hate.
Jeff Schechtman: How is this different from 1968? It was a period of time where there was a huge division, tremendous amounts of violence, and I think that a lot of people don’t remember how violent it was during that period. And there was the same sense of doom that we’re talking about. How’s it different as you see it?
David French: Yeah. So, my contention is that America has changed enough since 1968, that we cannot survive 1968 levels of violence again. And the reason why I say that is America was divided in ’68, but there was still an overwhelming majority of Americans, that the violent factions represented small minorities of Americans, and those violent factions were scattered around the country.
David French: So, what we have now is we have no such thing as the kind of majority that gave Richard Nixon 49 States in 1972, or gave Ronald Reagan 49 States in 1984. And the factions, it’s not a large majority versus a small, violent faction. You have two very comparably sized factions that have more violent members within them, that are clustered in these huge, powerful geographic regions.
David French: So, whereas in 1968, you had violence scattered around the United States of America, but you also had an American political middle that could unite strongly enough to give Nixon the ’72 majority that he had after a close ’68 election. You don’t have that kind of American middle anymore. What you have is two American tribes clustered in their super clusters that are immense geographic regions.
David French: And this is historically a formula for real strains on the unity of a body politic. If you look at 1776, if you look at 1861, and you can do this in other eras of real American strain, when you have a large contiguous geographic region that possesses a shared culture, that it believes is under existential threat, that creates forces that can divide a country. And that’s what worries me now.
Jeff Schechtman: How does economics play into this? Because we, for a while, talked about the great divide in America between the haves and the have nots, between the rich and the poor. You go back to John Edward’s speech about two Americas. How does that economic overlay fit into what we’re talking about?
David French: Well, there is an interesting economic populism that exists on both left and right, but the problem is there is not really a prospect for a cross ideological economic populism or unifying economic movement, because the things that make economic left and economic right, so different, trump the aspects of the shared view of concerns about American opportunity and American equality. So, factors of race, of culture, these things are stronger than any sort of shared concern about the American economy.
David French: And then the other thing, though, that I think is very interesting about economic realities and American division is America is so potent economically, and specific regions are so potent economically that if, for example, California and the West coast split off from the United States of America, it would immediately be the fifth or fourth largest economic entity in the world.
David French: The same with, say, Texas and the rest of the Southeast and parts of the Midwest. It would immediately be the fifth or fourth largest economic entity in the world. These are huge, very economically powerful, prosperous regions that have a lot of their own capacity to thrive. And so I think that, again, when you look at it through that lens, as opposed to the 1960s, where you had a big American middle and scattered violent factions throughout the country, versus now where you have big, specific American tribes clustered in specific regions, both of them feeling like they’re under threat.
David French: And that’s the key point. One of the realities of the culture war that makes it so vicious right now is both sides think they’re losing. And that’s something, when you tell someone in red America, the left thinks it’s losing, they think you’re losing your mind. What do you mean? The left wins everywhere. And when you tell people on the left that the right feels like the left is on the march, they say, “What do you mean? You have the Supreme Court, you have the presidency, you have the Senate. You just had the house. You had most state legislatures. What are you talking about?” And so both sides feel under existential threat, and that ratchets up the level of concern a great deal.
Jeff Schechtman: Donald Rumsfeld used to have a saying that sometimes the solution to an intractable problem was to create a larger problem. In many ways, you could make the case that the pandemic, that COVID, should have been that larger problem that brought us together. It didn’t. Given that, is it hopeless, essentially?
David French: Well, in some senses, if you’re talking about a larger problem that could bring us together, it’s hard to see something like that, because it’s hard to see, for example, a foreign enemy that would be so foolish as to do something like what Japan did on December 7th, 1941. It’s hard to see something like that, where you have such a decisive external attack on the United States that would rally us.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, 9/11.
David French: Well, 9/11, but it’s a different country now than even during 9/11. I do honestly wonder how quickly we would immediately fall into recriminations over the failure of any administration to protect us from 9/11. Would we see that God Bless America united singing on the Capitol steps? I do wonder about that. I think you might see a burst of unity, but I think it would be a very, very short burst before the recriminations began.
David French: It is not a plan for unity to hope for a larger problem. We want to try at unity in the absence of crisis. And I think if there is hope for unity, partly some of that hope is going to actually, perversely enough, come through greater misery. I don’t see a short-term solution to a lot of the division that we have, but I do see it causing increasing levels of political misery in the United States of America, and people don’t like to stay miserable. They begin to look for alternatives.
David French: And some of those alternatives can be dangerous, such as increasing division and separatism. And some of those alternatives can be virtuous, where people say, “Enough already. Are there voices in this country who have high integrity, a high degree of empathy and compassion for political opponents, and a real desire to lower the national temperature?”
David French: And if the people seek that, if the people want that, there is kind of a political law of supply and demand that can come into play. But right now, though, the political law of supply and demand is time and time again oriented towards greater outrage and division.
Jeff Schechtman: And there hasn’t seemed to emerge, and maybe it’s a mistake to think that it will, or that it will come that way, but there hasn’t been the kind of external leadership that addresses those issues of empathy and unity that you’re talking about. If they were even green shoots of it, it would be encouraging, but I don’t even see those.
David French: Well, yes, and part of the reason for that is that, while there are a lot of Americans who yearn for it, they are not the most politically active Americans as a rule. There’s research, really fascinating and compelling research, showing that most of the American political debate is driven by people who are highly engaged political hobbyists, on the left and the right, and they’re a minority of Americans. And a majority of Americans, both on the right and on the left, are exhausted and alienated from politics. And then in fact, there’s a term for them. It’s called the exhausted majority.
David French: Now, the problem is that the operative word in the phrase, exhausted majority, is exhausted. They are alienated from the process rather than commanding the process, as the majority has the capacity to do. And so the strident minority is driving American politics, and the exhausted majority is just along for the ride, grumbling all the way.
David French: And you see this in some of the response to the debate, in that there was a sort of this live revulsion at the debate, like this is one of the worst things we’ve ever seen. But there is at the same time, an extreme fundamental stability in the underlying race itself, because the exhausted majority is still just chugging along with its tribe, even if it is, perhaps alienated the most committed activists of its tribe.
Jeff Schechtman: The other thing that enters into this equation is that the 74 days of interregnum, the 74 days between election day and inauguration day could be among the worst in our history.
David French: That is exactly right. This is where you talk about the possibility of a constitutional crisis. And my friend, Steve Hayes, who’s our co-founder of The Dispatch, he was asked by one of our members, “What is your hope for 2020?” And he had a one-word answer that I thought was very wise. He said, “Clarity.” He wants clarity coming out of Election Day because, in the absence of clarity, you and I both know that things will get contentious incredibly quickly.
David French: And that contentiousness could get very dangerous. If, for example, let’s say Trump is winning on election day, live, in person vote totals. Then the mail in ballots come in. Republicans have very low confidence in the mail in ballots. Mail in ballots have higher mistake rates than in person by ballot, so they’re tossed out at higher rates.
David French: And Joe Biden starts to come back through mail in ballots, but enough are tossed out to where he can’t win. What is going to happen if millions upon millions upon millions of Americans concentrated in blue States believe that an election was lawlessly stolen from them? What’s going to happen there?
David French: And some very smart scenario planners have sort of gamed this out, and said it’s hard to see something like that resolving itself without a serious wave of national protest and perhaps even violence. And our system just can’t keep absorbing these strains and these blows without, perhaps, cracking. And if it does crack, historians will say, “Oh, that was incredibly predictable.”
Jeff Schechtman: And that goes to this idea that you write about, which is this notion of secession, which it seems, on the surface, farfetched, but maybe not.
David French: Yeah. And the reason why I was nervous, in some ways, about writing this book, because I wanted to raise the S word secession, because there are a lot of people who have written on our growing divides, but what we have to start doing is we can acknowledge those divides, but we have to talk honestly about their implications.
David French: And here’s one of the things that really bothered me about a lot of the literature I was reading about our growing divides, was look how divided we are, look how separate we’re becoming. And it was sort of like the next step was, “And that’s why we have to beat them. That’s why we have to demolish them. That’s why we have to win in this sort of cold civil war, this cultural war. Look how extremists they’re getting. Look how divided we’re getting. We can’t let them win.”
David French: And okay, it’s one thing to say that if you have, say, a 70 to 30 majority, and you’re fighting against this strong minority, fighting against an extremist minority, which, say, for example, would have been the 68-72 scenario.
David French: It’s another thing entirely when you’re talking about 52-48, and the actual inability, because the division is 52-48, to achieve any kind of final victory over right and left. So, within what you’re looking at, it’s a version of trench warfare, political trench warfare, with the firm conviction that you have to defeat and dominate the other side, when the reality is you’re going to have to accommodate, and you’re going to have to learn to live together in this country because there isn’t a path forward to drive them out. There isn’t a path forward to end them forever. And so, in the very attempt to end them forever, to drive them out, to dominate is going to just make everything that much worse.
Jeff Schechtman: Why, given our history and given the political pluralism that has been so much a part of our history for a long time, why is that such a hard concept for people to understand? I mean, you’ve been on the receiving end of the opposite point of view.
David French: Yeah. The more I look at this, the more I realize there is a point at which enmity and disgust crosses a threshold where you no longer see a value in liberty, and specifically the liberty of your opponents. And ultimately, if we cannot resolve to live together in pluralism, and unless we can do something about that enmity and that disgust, and I’m not saying that love is going to break out. It’s not a kumbaya plan.
David French: But can’t a basic modicum of tolerance break out? And one of the things that I talked about is how George Washington, almost 50 times in his correspondence, including, crucially, in a letter to a Hebrew congregation in Rhode Island, directed at one of the world’s most persecuted religious minorities, referred to a verse from the book of Micah, Micah 4:4, which says that every man shall sit under his own vine and his own fig tree, and no one shall make him afraid.
David French: If that’s familiar to you, it might because you know the book of Micah or because you know the musical Hamilton, which repeats that same verse. And there is a moral concept captured there that says, “You can have a place in this land. You can have a home in this land.” And unless we can look at even our most bitter political opponents and assure them, “You can have a home in this land,” and mean it, and mean it, then we’re in trouble.
David French: But what I’m seeing is people looking at their bitter political opponents and saying, “You’re going to have to conform to my vision of what this country is, and that’s going to be the terms under which you stay.”
Jeff Schechtman: Is there finally any historical examples that we can look to? We talked a little bit about 1968 before. Are there other historical examples, either American or other in the world, that might help us better look at that crystal ball?
David French: Yeah, there are. So, I’ve mentioned the American crystal ball examples of secession. 1776, where, for good reasons, the colonists seceded from the British empire. 1861, where for evil reasons, the Confederacy seceded from the Union. We’ve had other moments in American history where the separatist strains were very great on this union.
David French: People forget that the War of 1812 for example, was an extraordinarily contentious conflict. People forget about the incredible strains placed on the country and the election of 1876, which is shortly after, but we’re also beginning to see around the world a bit of a movement towards more separatism, although it didn’t end up being super close. The United Kingdom was set to let Scotland leave if the Scottish people voted to leave. And there may be future referenda there in the aftermath of Brexit.
David French: You see a strong Catalonian independence movement, for example, in Spain. And Brexit itself was a strong move away from a kind of multinational union that was becoming increasingly stifling and increasingly strong. And so, one of the things that you see, and I think that’s just going to be an interesting long-term historical outgrowth of, if great power conflict continues to be kept at bay, and the need for strong national unions and multinational unions is seen as less compelling, will you begin to see more of the natural divisions and separatism, and feelings of separateness, of a lot of countries around the world. Will we continue to see that, remains to be seen, but our neighbors that in the North, a lot of Americans forget that there were some referenda about Quebec that failed, sometimes kind of narrowly. And so, these kinds of things pop up with regularity in the course of not just American history, but also world history as well.
Jeff Schechtman: David French, his book is Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation. David, I thank you so much for a great conversation here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
David French: Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio

WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

Jeff Schechtman: If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Anthony Crider / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), Lorie Shaull / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), and Anthony Crider / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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