The winner of the election on November 8 will attempt to govern a nation far more divided than at any time since late 1860, when the nation broke up. My late friend Bill Strauss used to speculate that the election of Hillary Clinton might lead to the secession of at least a few states, and I suspect that it will lead at least to discussions along those lines. But even if it does not, the split in the country will probably be even worse than it has been for the last 16 years--and since we are most certainly not about to fight another civil war, we will have no obvious means of overcoming it. This will be the challenge that either candidate faces--and at the moment, of course, Hillary Clinton looks very likely to be the winner.
It is in a sense fitting that the decisive event of the campaign is turning out to be the revelation of Donald Trump's boasts about his sexual conduct and a string of accusations from women confirming those boasts. That is because one of the biggest and sharpest divides among us is between men and women. According to Nate Silver, an average of polls shows Trump leading Clinton by five percentage points among men--all men, not white men--while she leads by fifteen points among women. Silver has published two maps showing what would happen in the election if only men or only women voted. Trump, he reports, would win in a landslide comparable to Eisenhower's over Stevenson in 1952 with only men voting, while Clinton would carry the nation by the largest margin in history without men. Trump leads 46%-33% among whites, but trails 85%-2% among black Americans and 50-26 among Hispanics. Trump leads among whites without a college degree by 51-26,, and that to me remains the great catastrophe of the reign of identity politics over the last half century: the complete political division between white and minority poor people, the exact opposite of the situation that prevailed from the 1930s through the 1960s. (These figures are from a Pew Poll.) That division was what kept white supremacy in place in the South before the 1960s, and it is a godsend to corporate America today since it allows corporate interests to control both parties and keep the rich getting richer. Last, but hardly least, there is the regional division, so entrenched that we now take it for granted that only about 10 states are genuinely in play in every presidential election. The worldwide tendency has been towards the breakup of large units ever since the collapse of Communism, and Brexit and the Scottish nationalist movement have brought that tendency much closer to our own cultural home. Anything is possible.
The New Yorker last week ran a long article about how West Virginia has become a red state, based on interviews with people from one corner of the state. One of the most interesting interviews was with Brandon Kirk, a history professor at a local state school. Kirk is remarkable to me because two things seem to be at war within him: an instinctive sense, based on his own life, of how the country has gone wrong on the one hand, and modern historical fashions on the other. Here is is talking about the older West Virginians--virtually all now dead--whom he got to know as a child, from the GI generation.
When he left for college, he hadn’t planned to come back to the area,
but he did. “The old people, the ones that I started to visit with when I
was young, are the ones that pulled me back,” he says. “They’re all
dead now. I miss those old people so bad. They were such solid people.
They were kind. And they had been through the Depression and the world
war—they had a lot of shared experiences that people today don’t have.”
When he thinks about his home and why it matters to him, it is shared
experiences that he thinks about—the shared experience, good and bad, of
people whose ancestors came from many countries under very different
circumstances, but whose families have now lived together for a long
time in one place. He wants to feel this sense of home about America,
too—a sense that we’re all in this together. “Those old people pulled me
back, and then they died on me, and so here I am and they’re all gone,”
he says. “I think about them a lot. Their memories stretched back to
the late eighteen-hundreds, to their grandparents, sometimes their
great-grandparents, and so I also feel connected to those people they
That was how a sense of national unity re-emerged in the 1930s and 1940s: through massive efforts, at home and abroad, that enlisted and rewarded the entire population. That is the kind of effort we need today. But the other side of Kirk's world view emerges when he talks about his own students and what he wants to do for them. It comes, in my opinion, straight out of what he must have learned in graduate school.
“Sometimes I’ll have a black student and I’ll get real excited because I
don’t get very many,” he says. “I’ll ask them if they’re interested in
their family history, if they know anything about it, because one of my
research interests is antebellum slave life in this region. I want to
know those stories, and I want to know about the black migrants that
came here between the Civil War and coal. That’s not my story, but I
want to know that story, it’s important history. I say let everybody
have their markers, their memorials, their heritage, and celebrate all
of it. There’s room for everybody.” Near where one of his ancestors was
buried he found an old slave cemetery. He wants to draw attention to it,
so that other people will visit it, too.
Of course we need "room for everybody" in the United States, but Kirk, like the whole profession to which he belongs, has been trying for decades to find that "room" (or "space," which is the preferred postmodern term) by emphasizing the particularity of our experiences, rather than the participation of minorities and women in the great struggles that have defined us as a nation. That is why, as two historians pointed out on the op-ed page of the New York Times a few weeks ago, political history is hardly ever taught in American colleges and universities any more. That is why we spent many months arguing which white male should be removed from our currency: Alexander Hamilton, who did as much as any man to give our government its shape, or Andrew Jackson, the first President to make economic equality a burning issue. We have spent much too much time on white male stories, historians think, and we need to spend more time on others. The problem is that those white males gave our nation its shape, and other white males named Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt preserved and deepened our national unity in the midst of great crises. Hillary Clinton, ironically, referred to Lincoln in the last debate--but only to suggest that he, like other politicians, had to use less than savory methods to achieve his goals. Of course we all want to know our individual family histories--but we all also need to know about the history that has, and could again, unite us all.
In the midst of the revelations about Donald Trump--which have touched a nerve among liberals in a way that none of the revelations about his business career ever did--the wikileaks revelations about Clinton have been pushed to the back. "My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open
borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and
sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every
person in the hemisphere," she told the management of a Brazilian bank in 2013. That, of course, was the dream that the Europeans hastened to extend to Eastern Europe--economically and culturally a completely different region from western Europe--after the collapse of Communism, and now western and Eastern European voters alike are turning against it. And that is the dream, as the New Yorker article shows, that West Virginians are fighting against. They are right to do so. Both Lincoln and FDR were keenly aware that they were fighting on behalf of the whole world in their struggles to make democracy work here at home--but both understood that the battle had to be won at home first. We have been losing that battle for the last 40 years, and we have to turn the tide at home before we cam improve our impact abroad. In an emerging clash of civilizations, we need to make our own civilization work.