America has always had its divisions, and Americans have never really been a monolith. We’ve always been a nation of many nations. The culture of New England is different from the culture of the Deep South, which is different from the cultures in the West Coast or the Midwest. People living in the cities have different beliefs than people who live in the countryside. Within those areas, there are ethnic, linguistic, and religious enclaves. It’s always kind of been like that (probably to a lesser degree in the past), and somehow we’ve been able to find enough common ground to keep this country together for more than a century.
However, something has changed. You can feel it in the air. Our nation has clearly never been this divided since the Civil War. A lot of people noticed it after the last election, but the truth is that these divisions have been deepening for decades, and they’re just now reaching a very noticeable breaking point. That’s obvious enough when you look at how the left and the right have been going at each other. It used to be a war of words, but it’s turning into something very dark.
Consider what happened last week in Berkeley after Trump supporters and counter-protesters clashed for the third time. 21 people were arrested and 11 were injured (that we know of), six of who had to be taken to the hospital. At least one person was stabbed. The police confiscated knives, stun guns, and poles. One Trump supporter admitted to being surrounded, pepper sprayed, and beaten with sticks by a mob of “protesters.”
But wait, that’s not the dark part. After these groups clashed, the leftist protesters took to Reddit and admitted that they lost this particular battle (I can’t believe I’m using the word “battle” to describe it) and that it was time for them to attain more combat training and better weapons, including firearms.
Do you see what’s going on here? Conservative demonstrations, which used to be placid affairs (remember the Tea Party protests?) are now turning violent as conservatives grow tired of restraining themselves, and are no longer afraid to hit back. Liberal demonstrators are responding by ratcheting up the level of force that they’re going to bring to the next street battle. It’s a tit for tat that keeps escalating, and I shudder to think of where it’s going to end up.
Honestly, I think we’re in the early stages of a second civil war. I can’t say what it’ll look like precisely, but I can tell you that our nation is on this path, and it’s not clear how we can get off of it. In fact, I fear that it may be inevitable, and there’s a very simple reason why.
It’s because Americans have been self-sorting themselves along geographic and political lines for a long time. A book titled “The Big Sort” made light of this trend back in 2008.
Basically what’s going on, is that Americans are moving to communities that align more with their politics. Liberals are moving to liberal areas, and conservatives are moving to conservative communities. It’s been going on for decades. When Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, 26.8% of Americans lived in landslide counties; that is counties where the president won or lost by 20% of the vote.
By 2004, 48.3% of the population lived in these counties. This trend continues to worsen. As Americans move to their preferred geographic bubbles, they face less exposure to opposing viewpoints, and their own opinions become more extreme. This trend is at the heart of why politics have become so polarizing in America.
We’re also seeing the same trend emerge online with social media. Despite the fact that the internet allows us to be exposed to more opinions that ever before, people choose to follow online voices that they already agree with. They’re slipping into digital bubbles that are comparable to their geographic bubbles.
This trend is irreversible as far as I can tell. That’s because it’s tied to innovation. As our country became more interconnected with roads and Americans gained more mobility, we chose to move to like-minded places. We’re given the internet, the greatest source of information in human history, and we use it to seek out only the information that reinforces our current beliefs.
We’re self-sorting at every level. Because of this, Americans are only going to grow more extreme in their beliefs, and see people on the other side of the political spectrum as more alien.
You can see how this is creating the perfect breeding ground for a real, physical war. The polarization makes it easier to dehumanize the other side. The self-sorting creates definable geographic boundaries that are necessary for a war. It spawns two sides with beliefs that are so divergent, that they cannot coexist.
We’re becoming two distinct nations with two competing visions for what the country should be. Two visions that are diametrically opposed. We used to be a nation of many nations that was held together, because there was still some common ground on what it means to be an American above all else. Now we can’t even agree on that.
Once the last shreds of common ground and understanding dissipate, a moment that is rapidly approaching, another civil war will be impossible to avoid. I wish I knew what the solution is, but I don’t. All I can say is unless Americans go out of their way to listen to people on another side, whatever that side may be, there’s going to be a lot of blood in the streets.