To Reunite a House Divided

Historically we are a divided nation, but things have gotten out of hand.


By Brendan Wilson


“This is a time to heal in America,” Joe Biden said last Saturday, rhetorically handing two Advil to a body politic suffering from multiple compound fractures.  


The reality is that we are a house divided, a country made up of two factions staring at one other through the barbed wire and bombed-out tanks of political no-man’s land.  Civil discourse in our country has become less civil and more a parking lot fight after an Eagles Cowboys game. The enmity has extended from the political class to the electorate as the gulf widens between “us” and “them,” eroding trust and giving way to fear that our way of life is being threatened by hateful political enemies.


Lance Morrow of the WSJ lamented last week of the “incomprehension of one side of American for the other: the irreconcilable differences, the lack of empathy.” We have become alienated from one another, which has let to misunderstanding, which has led to mistrust, which has led to hate.


But our nation has seen this before.  The election of 1800 introduced venomously partisan politics.  The mudslinging was symptomatic of a deeply divided nation, cleaving an industrialized north favoring strong federal government and big cities from an agrarian southern society with a slave-based economy.  The southerners were considered backwards, immoral creatures while the northerners were called monarchical tyrants.  Political violence was not unheard of.  Remember that duel in Weehawken?  



The division worsened as we confronted the paradox of the Declaration of Independence.  How could a nation holding “all men are created equal” as a self-evident truth condone slavery?  Grappling with this evil led to heightened tensions in our young government.  In 1856 Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery Senator from South Carolina savagely caned Massachusetts Abolitionist Charles Sumner on the Senate floor!  The following year the Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott Decision, denying even freed slaves the protections of the Constitution.  In 1859, John Brown raided the armory at Harper’s Ferry in a failed attempt to incite a revolt against slavery. Abraham Lincoln was elected the following year, precipitating the secession that would bleed America of 600,000 of its sons.


John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry - Source: Everett Historical

General Lee’s 1865 surrender hardly salved the wound.  The army occupied the south during Reconstruction, ensuring that all the reformed rebels abided by the recently passed 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments guaranteeing African Americans citizenship and suffrage.  But in 1876 Rutherford B Hayes ascended to the presidency in an election plagued by jaw-dropping fraud.  To secure the electoral support of the Southern Democrats, he agreed to withdrawal the occupying troops.  Absent oversight and protection, the south unleashed nearly 100 years of discriminatory Jim Crow laws that enabled racist violence, voter suppression, and segregation.  At the end of the 19th century, America was as divided as it was before the Civil War.


The dual World Wars of the following century helped unite Americans against an existential threat, but partisan division was once again ratcheted up in the late 1960’s in the form of an unpopular Vietnam War and the assassinations of both Robert F Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.  Mass civil unrest ensued.  A 2009 New York Times story recounted the political violence that occurred in 1969, calling it the “year of the bomb.”  “From January 1969 to April 1970, The United States sustained 4,330 bombings – 3,355 of them incendiary, 975 explosive – resulting in 43 deaths and $21.8 million in property damage.”  In May of 1970, the Ohio National Guard fired on students protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War, killing four and injuring nine in what became known as the May 4th Massacre.


Anti-war demonstrations in 1969

So what of today?


Political commentator David French discusses the origins and evils of today’s polarization in his book Divided We Fall, arguing that our problem is a lack of pluralism. He points to James Madison’s Federalist No. 10 in which the Father of the Constitution grapples with the concept of the political faction.  Madison asserts that the cure for these factions is not suppression, but pluralism, the constant interaction of many different groups possessing the ability to share a diverse range of ideas and beliefs.  

The recent death of pluralism in our country can be explained by a phenomenon known as the Big Sort, described by Bill Bishop in his 2009 book of the same name. Bishop highlights the American tendency to move near people that share the same lifestyle, watch similar shows, attend church at the same rates, and vote for same parties. As it turns out, there is a remarkable correlation between states that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and gun ownership, church attendance, and NASCAR viewership. Meanwhile, the same correlation exists between high NBA ratings, low gun ownership, and low church attendance and states that voted for Hillary Clinton. We are now two Americas, rather than the collection of diverse "factions" that our founders intended.


This phenomenon has been exacerbated by social media apps that spoon feed us the “news” that we want to read, by search engines that deliver the results that we want to see, and by cable news networks that to tell us exactly what we want to hear, repeatedly reinforcing our beliefs and insulating us from the discomfort of opposing viewpoints. Division has been prevalent in our history, but technology is forcing us to the political fringes with surprising efficiency.




How do we begin to reunite our divided house?  We reintroduce pluralism.


First, we must no longer tolerate big tech's control of the way we view information. Whether it is algorithm-enabled filtering of stories designed to keep us pacified, or outright censorship of ideas deemed distasteful, we must demand the free and open flow of information on the Internet. For this to be possible however, we must elect leaders that respect truth and avoid parroting absurd conspiracy theories like Birtherism and QAnon. A renewed sense of trust in the information we view and the politicians that lead us will create the space that enables pluralism to grow.


Second, schools and universities must become havens where ideas can be openly shared and deliberated. In 2017, Milo Yiannopoulos was barred from speaking at the University of California Berkeley after violent protests made it unsafe for him to be on campus. The list of speakers shouted down at college campuses in the last four years in not short. This close-mindedness exacerbates division. It is the responsibility of university presidents and school principles to foster environments in which students, teachers, and professors can voice unpopular opinions without fear of reprisal.



Finally, we need to make the individual choice not to become outraged by everything that we disagree with. Tolerating the viewpoints of our rivals is a choice that takes courage and one that can enable each of us to expand our understanding of the country’s problems. 


To begin to bridge the gulf that separates us, we should seek first to understand one another.


French, D. (2020). Divided we fall: America's secession threat and how to restore our nation. New York: St. Martin's Press.


French, D. (2020, September 10). America Is Being Divided. Here's How We Can Start to Heal. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://time.com/5887428/american-political-division/


Julia_azari. (2018, January 19). Politics Is More Partisan Now, But It's Not More Divisive. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/politics-is-more-partisan-now-but-its-not-more-divisive/


Just How Divided Are Americans Since Trump's Election? (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.history.com/.amp/news/just-how-divided-are-americans-since-trumps-election


Seib, G. (2019, December 18). How the U.S. Became a Nation Divided. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-the-u-s-became-a-nation-divided-11576630802


Thwarting Speech on College Campuses. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/the-ongoing-challenge-to-define-free-speech/thwarting-speech-on-college-campuses/