In 1861, this is what secession looked like: marching bands playing, fireworks lighting up southern skies and, eventually, shooting.
In 2020, here’s what secession looks like: the click of the “block” function on Facebook so that we don’t ever have to see posts from people whose opinions we don’t share.
This process of self-isolation is hardly new. Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing wrote a book about this back in 2008. “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart” looked at how people have been self-segregating themselves by ideology in a way we haven’t seen before.
Some of that is geographical — we used to have a lot more swing states, but now there are really only about a dozen states that matter in a presidential election, perhaps even fewer.
But a lot of it isn’t. A Washington Post survey in 2016 documented how few voters really knew anybody on the other side: “More than half the people who support one of the two major-party candidates say they do not have any close friends or family voting for the other. Fifty-four percent of voters in Trump’s camp say they have no Clinton supporters in their inner circles. And 60 percent of Clinton backers say they are not close to any Trump voters.”
We suspect if that same question were asked today — after four years of unfollowing and blocking on social media — the divide might be even starker.
We were reminded of this by two events recently, one nationally, one locally.
The roster of speakers at the Democrats’ national convention included a few Republicans, most prominently former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who was candidate for the GOP nomination four years ago. The point was to show that Joe Biden can appeal across party lines, and that it’s OK for disaffected Republicans to vote for him. You’d think that Democrats would rejoice that they’ve won over a high-profile Republican defector, however temporarily. Winning an election is about addition, not subtraction. But not all Democrats saw it that way. Some were horribly offended. “With the exception of being Anti-Trump, Kasich’s record stands against everything our party supports,” tweeted the Kent State College Democrats. “His inclusion at the convention would be an affront to our values.” Others had a similar response. So much for the big tent, eh?
The more local example came at the pro-police Back the Blue rally in Roanoke last week. In some ways, the event was indistinguishable from a Republican rally. It was organized by the two Republican candidates for Roanoke City Council, Peg McGuire and Maynard Keller. Among the speakers were the district’s Republican congressman (Ben Cline) and the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate (Daniel Gade). There was, though, one other speaker. That was David Bowers. He’s a Democrat who served 16 years ago as mayor and once was the Democratic nominee for the 6th District seat in Congress. This year he’s running again for mayor — as an independent. Here’s what Roanoke Times reporter Alicia Petska had to say about Bowers’ appearance at the rally: “Bowers faced some skeptics in the audience. As he approached the stage, one person exclaimed with dismay that he was a Democrat.” Why would anyone at a Republican-tinged, pro-police rally object to a Democrat showing up to agree with their message? Wouldn’t they want that? Like we said, before, winning is about addition.
So here’s where we are as a society: Not only are those on the left and the right isolating themselves from each other whenever possible, they’re objecting to people on the other side even agreeing with them — from the Democrats who found Republicans making a case for their presidential nominee offensive to the Republicans who reacted with skepticism and dismay to Roanoke’s former Democratic mayor endorsing their pro-police message.
It’s a fine thing for people to argue over politics. Democracy is built on the premise that citizens will argue over politics — better that than not being able to argue over them. But it’s also built on the premise that we can tolerate our fellow citizens and not treat them as some kind of odious “other.”
What we had in 1860-1861 was a geographical secession — the Southern states leaving (or trying to leave) the Union. What we’re seeing today is a kind of social secession. You know those science fiction movies where there’s some kind of parallel universe? That’s what we have here — parallel societies where people living or working side-by-side effectively live in different universes based on their ideology. They may all experience the same weather, but they’re exposed to very different political environments. Someone on the left may never really hear a conservative argument, except perhaps by caricature. Likewise, someone on the right may never hear the liberal side, except perhaps filtered through a conservative news source. This may make life temporarily more pleasant for both sides but it’s not conducive to governing a diverse society where compromises often have to be made to accommodate our complexity. Of course, compromise has become a dirty word.
After the 1972 presidential election — in which Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern by a landslide — the New York Times film critic Pauline Kael was said to have remarked: “I don’t know how Richard Nixon could have won. I don’t know anybody who voted for him.” She didn’t actually say that — what she said was “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken.” In any case, the paraphrased version get paraded around every four years as an example of how certain “elites” are out-of-touch with the rest of the country — although it works just as well the other way around. It’s fair to say today that both left and right are out-of-touch with one another — often intentionally so. They don’t have to agree, of course. They shouldn’t agree — we need those kinds of disagreements. But we’d be better off if each side had a better understanding of the other. Perhaps then we wouldn’t fall into the dangerous trap of treating those on the other side as an enemy, as Republican gubernatorial hopeful Amanda Chase recently did when she declared that those who disagree with her on police funding “are not Americans.”
We know how the secession of the 1860s worked out — not very well for the secessionists. We don’t know yet how this social secession will work out. Frankly, we’d rather not have to find out.