Estrangement in America


Segments of the homeland seem to be drifting apart. It’s more than just a question of “red” states and “blue” states. I have a niece, a whip-smart lawyer, who seriously worried that America was on course to civil conflict when partisans from over 40 percent of our states relentlessly tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Jan. 6, 2022 was a shameful shot heard round the world, a trigger pull that did plenty of damage, but our centuries-old institutions stood their ground, with the help of some courageous law enforcement personnel. But the issues that divide us are manifest, expanding and amplifying.

Here’s one way to paint the picture of our nation’s estrangement. Think of a blank map of the United States as a grid to lay out the issues that divide us: the 2020 election; abortion, gender rights, voting rights, Medicaid expansion, right-to-work laws, gun rights and gerrymandering. If you overlay each of these issues the political geography comes into remarkable focus.

For example, if you mark all the states with abortion bans (near or total), then overlay the states with senators who voted to overturn the 2020 election results, then overlay the states denying Medicaid expansion, overlay the states that enacted election interference (restrictions or access) legislation in 2022, overlay states that have either passed a Second Amendment Sanctuary Law or received a below “C” grade-level on gun legislation by the Giffords Law Center, overlay states that have passed or are considering legislation denying gender affirming care, and finally overlay the states with the most representation distortion when it comes to actual political demographics vs. actual party representation in state legislatures, and the national political geography becomes rather informative.

The only states in America that comport with each, or all but one of these issues, are all in the South… Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi and Alabama. Exceptions? North Carolina and Louisiana.

But before you start to think that this is about another southern secession from the Union, other states comport with many of these issues, up the Mississippi River states like Missouri, Kansas, North Dakota and South Dakota, and further up the Ohio River states like Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia.

So if one were to paint this picture of estrangement in America, you could indeed stick with the colors red and blue but much of the South would have to be a very dark and deep cabernet red.

Though America has always found ways to overcome deep divisions, like those over slavery, voting rights for women, the Vietnam War, the Civil War, and civil rights, issues like gun rights, abortion, gender rights and now extreme partisan politics seem to have become more long term, more implacable, more rigid and more insoluble.

Judy Woodruff of public television’s News Hour has recently started an investigative series called America at a Crossroads. “I have long wanted,” she says, “to better understand what has been happening, the forces driving us apart, and what can be done to overcome them.

“We have watched partisan battles that undermine our ability to deal with real problems. Rising distrust by the public in our big institutions from the federal government and public health officials to journalists. Our current and former presidents of both parties acknowledge that something has changed over time.”

No question that one of the things that’s different is the internet, with all its podcasting permutations and echo chambers. It has abetted the sensationalizing of these divisive issues, pushing people into heated, even violent extremes.

Other things have changed. Jocelyn Kiley of the Pew Research Center says, “If you go back 30 years or so ago, there were a sizable share of Democrats in Congress who were more conservative than the most liberal Republican, and vice versa, a sizeable share of Republicans who were more liberal than the most conservative Democrat. That has not been the case for nearly 20 years.”

Pew Research polling shows that 72 percent of Republicans say that Democrats are more dishonest than other Americans and 64 percent of Democrats say the same about Republicans.

Ian Bremmer, editor-at-large for Time Magazine and professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, puts all this more bluntly and pessimistically.

“There is no advanced industrial democracy in the world more politically divided, or politically dysfunctional than the United States today,” he said. “How did the world’s most powerful country get to this point? To paraphrase a great American writer (Ernest Hemingway), slowly, then suddenly. The Capitol riot was not just years in the making, but decades. That’s because of the three distinct features of American society that have been ignored by U.S. politicians for far too long: the enduring legacy of race, the changing nature of capitalism and the fracturing of our collective media landscape.”

All that may be true, but the enduring imagery for me is that of a nation, slowly separating like tectonic plates, rupturing with sometimes great chasms, and with greater intransigence these geological islands just keep getting further and further apart.

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

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