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Passing the Torch
At the torch's passing to lead the U.S., it appears to many that our nation is more divided than ever. There were divisions when President Trump took assumed office in 2016, though politically and culturally, Americans seem more divided at this moment than ever, something President Biden spoke to in his inaugural address. He attempted to take a conciliatory tone in many ways, though, for those who believe the presidency itself is still questioned, only time will tell what happens next: two presidents and two divergent views of where we are and where we should move.
Exactly how or where they are divergent in their supporters is a bit messier to distinguish. The Washington Post recently reported on an unusual phenomenon, while President Trump lost 24 of the 25 largest cities in the United States (he barely won Oklahoma City, #25) in this election, the majority of his supporters live in states won by President Biden.
You heard that right. Most of Trump's supporters are in Biden's states.
Statisticians will be analyzing the data in all sorts of ways over the coming years. Yet, as a qualitative social science researcher, I prefer exploring the reasons behind the numbers. Trying to make meaning from the individual voters and their human belief systems that underly the election results is another task that will be taken up by countless students of politics, societies, cultures, and history for generations. However, it is not too early to begin working through this now. Let's start with the most enormous and most drastic issue at hand.
Should the U.S. Divide?
There are calls to divide the U.S. into two parts, and it may benefit us to go back to Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, and explore what that decision may mean in light of those who hold Retrumplican beliefs (and yes, Retrumplican has entered the lexicon as a term).
Build a Wall
I am not a historian, though I have seen countries usually do not peacefully break into two pieces, so some form of war would likely be an outcome. Most wars do not have a single cause. However, people like and respond well to simple messages, with the details themselves sometimes being pushed to the background.
Think about the Trump mantra, Build a Wall. While this was used to garner votes and came up, again and again, to fire up supporters, little of it was built (saving Mexico from paying for it, perhaps?). This simple phrase contains many belief systems related to immigration, border enforcement, jobs, crime, bias, and a whole host of other perspectives, simplified into a simple phrase used as an umbrella to capture those often-unexplored beliefs. It was more manageable, and in many ways more convincing, to focus only upon the end-game. The wall was never built for all the promises and emotion, another opportunity for future explorations of what happened.
In other situations, we like to point to various actions for being the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, things that led to an event happening. What started World War I? I learned in school it was Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria's assassination, but it was undoubtedly more complicated than one single event. How about World War II? That one was also easy back when I was in school--it was Hitler's invasion of Poland. Clear. Simple. Oversimplified to the point that it was effectively wrong, as there were all sorts of things that led to the War, though that single event seemed to have been that one straw too many, the last straw.
What Do Americans Believe?
Fast forward to today, and we have other simmering tensions that are starting to appear in public. A recent CNN/SSRS poll found that 75% of Republicans do not believe Biden won the election, that it was somehow rigged. While the evidence is in short supply to support this, people often do not need validated proof to support their beliefs. Why else do so many people think they will win at the Casino, persist in the belief COVID is only the nasty flu, or even that UFOs and aliens built the Pyramids? People believe what they want to believe, and the evidence does not always enter the equation beyond belief. After all, that is ordinarily what beliefs are based on, some form of an unverified personal sense of truth.
Many wondered if the January 6 storming, riot, or insurrection (the shared and common name has not been determined yet) at the U.S. Capitol would indeed be that straw that broke the camel's back, one that would finally divide that country enough that people would take action to, literally, divide. The U.S. Civil War formally began when the southern states seceded from the U.S., seeking to establish their nation, and while (yet again!) history in school collapsed it to be about slavery in the United States, the many factors that led to the American Civil War were more complicated. Yet, they all followed South Carolina in seceding.
So, I ask, are we there yet?
How Divided Are We?
Will the U.S. fracture into two nations, one that holds onto traditions in one way (aka, Biden) or one that follows practices in another (aka, Trump)?
This one is not so easy, and while I am not a fortune teller or mystic who can peer into the future, there are some lessons history has taught us.
Single events are meaningful enough to begin change immediately, or they are not. Here, two weeks after the storming of the U.S. Capitol, there have not been any other similar activities that have been sparked by it. Sure, there is talk, and precautions are being taken, so only time will tell what they will accomplish or what part they may play in the next steps.
Black Lives Matter and the Lincoln Project both appear to be growing. While the former is not a unified, formal organization with a clear focus, the latter is purposely against Trump's overall approach and message. Both count many supporters. While they are not closely linked in any discernable way, they both seek to challenge the divisive rhetoric that President Trump used to coalesce his supporters by dividing and conquering the opponents he disliked.
Given that President Trump's supporters are scattered throughout the country, both urban and rural, with different percentages in each, there is not a clear line of demarcation of where a split would be. This was much more straight-forward with the American Civil War, yet now with people much more integrated across many states, it would be rather messy. Take, for example, my state of New York, where much of the state voted for President Trump, yet those chunks of the state have an overall small population.
Should the United States divide into two countries, following one of the two visions most clearly ahead of us? Given how support is generally not concentrated in clean-enough pockets of the population, the only thing we know is this--the process would not be seamless and straight-forward. It could be arbitrary, yet that is where it becomes messy.
To be clear, when scholars and politicians alike say that such a separation or event can be messy, they do agree precisely on what that means. War is hell. With the horrors of war so staggering, it is much cleaner when people agree it is drastically needed and the other side is to blame.
So, I ask you, are we as a nation so far gone that this is the only feasible option remaining?
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