Friday, November 09, 2012

United Colors of Benneton (relatively speaking)


I receieved an email inquiry from a journalist with the Times and the Atlantic this morning who is writing a web article asserting that "the United State is amongst an era of decentralized and divided life maybe not [seen?]  since the Civil War era." In the 19th century, the main issue dividing the country was slavery, he noted, and the nation was "split into contiguous blocs" (I guess that's the North and South); today, however, it is divided along urban/rural lines, "and for the first time in a long time, we are living in a nation where some people can live some lives in some place and others"--gays, "people looking for assisted suicide," "those that engage in subversive lifestyles"--"can't."  

So is America more polarized than at any time since the Civil War? After Tuesday, I don't believe it. Here is what I wrote the journalist:


Certainly one can make a case that this is the most polarized period since the Civil War. Actually, I don’t think so. It’s important to remember that slavery was not just an “issue”; it was the practice of brutal unchecked violence and domination over almost 4,000,000 people. There is not a county in America that would vote to defend that practice today. We are polarized in our news sources, which creates the impression that we are polarized politically; but when Americans are polled on specific questions— particular provisions of the Affordable Care Act, or issues about economic fairness— it turns out that the division is more on the order of 60-40 or 70-30 than the 50-50 or 51-49 breakdown we see in the aggregate. This tells me that disinformation is at least as important as division. And the $6,000,000,000 spent on campaign advertising this year, to virtually zero electoral effect, seems to confirm this.

You write that “for the first time in a long time, we are living in a nation where some people can live some lives in some places and others can't. For gay people, for people looking for assisted suicide, for those that engage in subversive lifestyles-- some parts of America are green lights, other parts red lights, and its not contiguous at all.” This is true; but you are overlooking the bigger fact that in much of the country all of these ways of life are now acceptable, which they were not just a few years ago.  And while today it is true that there are parts of the country in which people practicing such lifestyles might not feel welcome more comfortable, unlike in the 1860s, there are vanishingly few, I would hazard a guess, where they would be killed for them.

Look again at your map: as you write, “every major American city voted for Obama except for Phoenix and Oklahoma City.” It is the cities that have changed most dramatically, not the nation; and by my calculation, eight predominant rural states gave their electoral votes to the president. I’ve been trying to find a county-by-county map of the results, which I strongly suspect would indicate a great deal less unanimity among red-state voters than the state map would suggest.

Presidential election, 2008;  Cartogram of county-level results. Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, eds. Writing History in the Digital Age. Forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press. Trinity College (CT) web-book edition, Spring 2012, http://WritingHistory.trincoll.edu.

To take simply one of your categories, the revolution in attitudes towards sexuality is perhaps as significant as the civil rights movement, and has been accomplished in a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the violence. The one vocally anti-gay speaker at the C PAC conference two years ago was booed off the stage. And this year, in an election in which the Republicans launched frontal assaults against immigrants and single women, their rallying cry of 2004, opposition to gay rights, barely registered above a whisper. As George Will put it—several years ago— for today’s young people, being gay is about as significant as being left-handed.


This points to a far more important divide in America than the geographical: the temporal. The only group in which Republicans hold a solid and unshakable advantage is the old. And it is in the nature of things that that group will shrink as time passes.

Being an aspiring member of the aged myself, I suppose I have given up on the dream of a truly united United States where we would all hold hands and walk up the hill together like that old Coke commercial. But the perspective of age has also enabled me, I think, to see the picture from a wider perspective. And from where I stand, compared to the United States of 1860, the America of 2012 is more like the United Colors of Benetton.

So, Josh, I actually think you’ve got the wrong storyline. There are going to be a lot of stories published in the next few days and weeks about our divided heart. Yours could really stand out from the crowd if it took the longer view.

All best,

Rob

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