Once upon a true time in our nation’s history, Abraham Lincoln’s election divided the country, not just politically, but physically. The division is depicted in the electoral map here, although there were dissidents in the minority on each side.
In many ways, this division haunts us still today, only now the party of Lincoln has turned from that of unity to one of division, by embracing a raft of fringe groups and their sometimes radical positions. These range from gun rights, climate change denial, and abortion opposition to tacit acceptance of white nationalism.
A look at the 2016 electoral map reflects several trends worth noting. First, the Republican party has replaced the Democrats in the South. It has also come to fill in most of the states that had not been formed in 1860, which I often refer to as “square states.” Added to the Republicans’ tally in this last election are also a number of the Rust Belt states whose disaffected working class sided with the party, although the vote was close in those states.
The county-by-county results are a bit more revealing, as you can see here. The blue or Democratic counties roughly paint an outline around the continental U.S, particularly if you add in the pink counties, representing areas where the Republican majority was narrow. Our nation is now divided, not north to south, but by the border regions versus the midsection.
Geographically, the image above is dominated by red. What is not reflected is population density, which is shown in the next image. The deepest red areas above are generally sparsely populated, while the blue are largely urban, as shown in the yellow to deep blue range of colors. If you presume that each person’s vote should count equally, the straight popular vote would favor Democratic leaning candidates.
History, however, had another issue that affected the map. In the negotiations that resulted in our Constitution, the less populous states, largely in the south, feared domination from the others. Three compromises gave them more power, which still affects us today. Each state received two Senators, regardless of population. Slaves, who had no right to vote, were counted as 3/5ths a person for purposes of representation in the House – the “Devil’s Bargain.” These same considerations contributed to outsized roles for less populous states in the Electoral College, a result that largely remains the case still today.
These compromises fortunately no longer protect the institution of slavery. Instead, they provide a protection for minority views on a number of more modern issues. If that sounds like a criticism, I don’t necessarily mean it that way. In parts of the country where one’s nearest neighbor might be miles away, owning and being proficient with guns makes a lot of sense. Self-sufficiency and individual responsibility are not just preferences, but necessities in these areas. Limited government and other conservative views are naturally part of the fabric of this culture. These are stands that may deserve protection, even if they are minority points of view.
In our more urban areas some of these views make less sense. The role of government in peoples’ lives has greater relevance. Things like guns become problematic when people are packed more closely. We find ourselves, as I’ve said, living in entirely different cultures, or, if you will, two different Americas. We need to recognize the fact and find a way to live without imposing one position on others whose lives differ.
That is not all there is to say on the subject, but I’ll stop here for now to ponder a bit on what we might do in the face of this reality.
P.S. A Washington Post poll has underscored the rural/urban divide. It notes, interestingly, that urban responders do not sense the difference in values as strongly as those in rural areas.
Another recent article from Slate discusses the Framers’ views on minority power. Another from the New York Times highlights the political power of a small number of states with small, largely white popuations.