If you’ve been reading the headlines since the U.S. election it seems like a civil war is brewing. In California and the Northwest they are preparing the “Calexit.” Around the Thanksgiving table people are being disinvited, or moods are cooled. In their “coastal citadels,” as one article called them, people are hunkering down, wondering how to connect to rural America.
Just How Many Different Americas Are There?
A Wall Street Journal article claimed “Republican America is now so vast that a traveler could drive 3,600 miles across the continent, from Key West, Florida, to the Canadian border crossing at Porthill, Idaho, without ever leaving a state under total GOP control.” A New York Times piece noted that the US has become more segregated by class than ever before. “Over the past several decades, the United States has become increasingly segregated by class, with college-educated people marrying, living and socializing apart from less-educated Americans. The result has been that Americans have lost touch with one another, sociologists say, and helps explain why each side is so baffled by the other.”
In memes and on social media some have put forward various maps of this divided country. The “Calexit” story of California, Oregon and Washington seceding from the union is paired with maps that show parts of the East Coast, Yankee country, Minnesota and the West coast becoming part of Canada. “Organizers across the Western seaboard are translating this postelection emotional momentum into concrete action by planning protests, holding community forums, raising money, pushing petitions and drafting new ballot proposals,” asserted Ozy.com.
America has been through this before. In A War for the Soul of America, Andrew Hartman looked back at the culture wars that have been going on since the 1960s. “There is a religious war going on for the soul of our country,” Patrick Buchanan said at the Republican National Convention in 1992. These conflicts over gay marriage, abortion, the ‘moral majority’ of the 1980s and the ‘silent majority’ of Richard Nixon’s era have always defined America. They lie dormant until an election cycle or another defining moment lets them loose.
The roots of these differences in America have their origins at the creation. In Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer argued that British immigrants brought four distinct cultures to the colony, resulting in the Yankee culture, the southern culture, a more individualistic backwoods way of life and the idealism of William Penn’s middle states. What he sketched out became sharpened by the Revolution and the Civil War between north and south. The Civil War cast a long shadow over the US that leaves its mark through the present in our culture and stereotypes. But “north versus south” faded from memory as migrations took place and sub-cultures changed. Melting pot turned to multi-culturalism. A 1981 book by Joel Garreau provocatively asked if there are really nine distinct nations in North America. He called California and the northwest “ecotopia,” cut off must of Texas and the Southwest and gave it to Mexico as “Mexamerica.” The heartland he called the “Breadbasket,” the south “Dixie.” New York and the rustbelt were the “foundry,” New England was still itself but Quebec became its own country and Miami was given to a federation of islands in the Caribbean.
That sounds fanciful, but his book is somehow borne out by a map made after the 2000 US Census showing each county’s largest ancestry group. In the northeast most people chose to define themselves as English, Irish or Italian. But in the South pluralities said they were “American” or “African-American.” There of course is no “American” ancestry, so what most census takers were saying is that rather than feeling rooted abroad, their ancestry was so mixed they were rooted in the soil of places like Kentucky. In the mid-West they chose German or Mexican. It truly is a divided country with large swaths of sub-cultures that may have little in common with each other.
When Easy Rider which was made in 1969 it had that iconic sentence on its poster: “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.” He was yearning for the same thing that drove Jack Kerouac and has inspired so many others. We want to know our fellow Americans. Have we ceased to be driven to seek out that America? Articles claiming that people were disinviting their own relatives from Thanksgiving seem shocking. If people can’t speak to their own relatives because of differences over an election, how can they speak to their own fellow-citizens? Are these divides so great that they cannot be bridged? Our notion of America beset by civil conflict is largely imaginary. Democrats don’t only live in “coastal citadels” as the WSJ claimed, Republicans don’t only live in rural “flyover” country. Judging by the long and tortured history of the Republic and the colonial era that gave birth to it, these gaps will be bridged. People are socializing apart, they socialized apart when Teddy Roosevelt campaigned on the ‘square deal,’ and when Franklin Roosevelt spoke of the “forgotten man.” What we can be taught by history is to not give up, since cutting the country into a bunch of little republics probably isn’t happening anytime soon.