Is the United States a Deeply Divided Country?

One of Colin Woodard’s main ideas in American Nations is that the United States is a deeply divided country. “Americans,” argues Woodard, “have been deeply divided since the days of Jamestown and Plymouth,” and that division continues today as “its citizenry is deeply divided along regional lines, with some in the ‘Tea Party’ movement adopting the rhetoric of the eighteenth-century Yankee minutemen, only with the British Parliament replaced by the federal Congress, and George III by their duly elected president.”

Woodard’s concerns are echoed on a daily basis by the media: Americans are deeply divided on foreign policy. Americans are deeply divided about the causes of poverty. Americans are deeply divided about same-sex marriage. And on and on. We’ve also allegedly become a nation suffering from confirmation bias: we listen to media outlets and pundits who confirm our preconceived beliefs, values, and ideas, and we don’t challenge ourselves to consider other perspectives and ways of looking at the world. Some people go to their Fox News silo, others go to the MSNBC silo. Some scholars have also lamented the state of America’s deep divide. For example, John Fea, in his fine publication on the importance of studying history, asserts that historical literacy may offer a possible avenue for healing the “wounds” caused by deep political divisions in society today.

To be sure, political divisions do exist in the United States, and Woodard is absolutely correct that political conflict has always been a staple of American history. Part one of American Nations is an entertaining and engaging read because Woodard deftly shows how colonial settlers from different parts of Europe did in fact have a wide range of ideas about governance, religion, and culture. The founding fathers of the United States were not a politically unified group of men who had a clear vision for the future of this new country, and all too often essays purporting to explain “what the founders believed” can go too far in painting a rosy picture of the past with some sort of “lesson of American history” that more accurately reflects a political agenda rather than a serious dialogue with history.

Nevertheless, I believe the term “deeply divided country” has become a loaded term devoid of meaning in contemporary political discourse. What do we mean when we say we are a “deeply divided country”? More specifically, what does it mean to be divided “deeply”? When we say we’re divided, shouldn’t we look back at past divisions to compare our current problems with past circumstances? It is easy to forget that newspapers in the nineteenth century made no bones about “objectivity” and often acted as mouthpieces for their preferred political parties. Here in Indianapolis there were two major newspapers during the Civil War–the Indianapolis Journal (Republican) and the Indiana State Sentinel (Democrat)–that provided radically different interpretations of events during the war. Additionally, when it came close to an upcoming election, these papers would provide a list of candidates to look for when voting. I have no doubt that Indianapolis readers at that time went to their respective “media silos” to hear what they wanted to hear and confirm their own views of the world, just like people today. The major difference, of course, was that the “deeply divided country” of the antebellum era engaged in a war in which upwards of 750,000 Americans died, something that our supposedly “deeply divided country” today hasn’t had to endure.

The political scientist Morris P. Fiorina offers what I believe to be a much needed corrective to this “deeply divided country” narrative. In Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized Nation Fiornia argues that most Americans are not politically radical or firmly in the camp of Republicans or Democrats. While acknowledging that divisions do exist in the U.S., Fiorina convincingly demonstrates that pollsters seeking to find an opinion on a hot-button topic like abortion often poll “political elites” and “activists” who are firmly entrenched in their own views and respective political parties. It is the parties themselves that have become more polarized, not necessarily the voters. In reality, roughly 10-15% of the population is strongly Republican, 10-15% is Democrat, and the rest probably falls under a “centrist” camp not strongly committed to either side. Is that reflective of a “deeply divided country,” or does it more accurately reflect just a “divided country” that will always need room for debate, discussion, and disagreement in order to preserve and enhance a democratic form of government? Perhaps it is time to start using the term “deeply divided country” with more care and precision than we’ve been using it in recent years.

With this essay I will end my review my Colin Woodard’s American Nations. As I’ve worked my way through the book, I’ve attempted to point out good arguments, criticize incorrect ones, and raise questions about the nature of the historian’s craft. In my opinion, I believe Woodard would have been much more successful in his arguments had he not taken his analysis all the way up to 2010. Part one of American Nations convinced me that there existed prior to the American Revolution a wide range of “nations” composed of people with a common culture, shared historical experiences, and distinct artifacts and symbols. As the narrative progresses closer to 2010, however, the arguments become less convincing, and it is an undeniable fact that a range of technologies–telephones, trains, radios, televisions, computers, the internet–have connected citizens of the United States in ways that would have been unimaginable in 1591 (although we certainly still have plenty of cultural differences). It’s also important to point out that while this book relies heavily on data obtained from political scientists, today’s political campaigning in the U.S. does not reflect a country composed of eleven(ish) nations. Political candidates don’t conceive of campaign strategies for recruiting interest in the “Midlands” or “New France” or “New Netherlands.” Politicians of course realize that differences exist in the country, but much of those differences still fall on a perceived “North-South-East-West” political axis.

Perhaps using this 288 page narrative to analyze the eleven nations from 1591-1787 rather than 400+ years of history would have been more convincing for me, but then again, the NPR interviews, press attention, and my own awareness of the book may not have existed had that sort of book been published. Nevertheless, anyone who tries to write 400+ years of history in less than 300 pages has a huge challenge on their hands, one I would not feel comfortable tackling.

Rather than making an explicit recommendation one way or the other on purchasing American Nations, I would encourage readers to consider the arguments I’ve proposed here (just click on the “Eleven Nations of North America” category to the right to see my other essays) and make their own conclusions as to whether American Nations is worth purchasing. While I had disagreements with some of Woodard’s arguments, I found the book thought-provoking, entertaining, and a great challenge for my critical thinking skills. That in itself made the book a worthwhile read for me.