“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Upon being appointed Senator of Illinois in 1858, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in which he argued that question of slavery was posed an existential threat of division to the nation. Quoting the Gospel of Mark 3:25, Lincoln used the phrase of the ‘house divided’ to emphasise the urgency with which the slavery question had to be addressed.
Looking at America today, Lincoln’s words feel uncomfortably relevant.
Bitter antagonism and acrimony between Republicans and Democrats has been a hallmark of recent elections, but 2016 is unusual in several ways. One phenomenon this year is the is the degree to which voter education aligns with voters’ preference of presidential candidate. In short, Trump has far more support among the less educated, specifically white Americans without college degrees. Some estimates put Trump’s advantage with non-college whites at as high as 22%.
Conversely, Hillary Clinton has uncharacteristically strong support among college educated whites, virtually tying Trump among this demographic with whom the Republicans normally outperform Democrats. Obama lost college educated whites by 14% in 2012, whereas in mid-August, at her apex, in the polls Clinton ran a 9% lead on Trump.
The education slant is to some degree indicative of a broader trend. Taking a broader look, there is a developing pattern between levels of education and wealth with states’ party loyalty.
The graph above shows each of the fifty states, plotted against their national rank in terms of per capita income on the vertical index, and proportion of college educated voters on the horizontal. The markers are highlighted according to their current state in partisan politics: solid red is reliable Republican, light red is likely Republican, purple is swing, light blue is likely Democrat, deep blue is reliable Democrat.
First things first: there is clearly a correlation. States that rank well in terms of voter education also tend to rank well in terms of per capita income, which may not be a surprise but cannot necessarily be understood as a causal relationship with this brief glance. The second observation is that there is a clear party trend whereby Democrats are performing well with states to the top right of the scale, and Republicans with those to the bottom left. We may even venture to say that it is not a surprise to see many purple swing states in the middle of the group.
The graph is far from perfect: it does not take into account Democrats popularity with the urban poor and under-educated ethnic minorities, nor does it reflect the long term popularity of Republican policies with the uber rich and free market entrepreneurs.
Neither does this information enable us to make such sweeping statements as ‘Democrats are more educated’, or ‘Republicans are poorer’; both would be wrong assertions to make on this data. But one might ascertain that the Democratic presidential candidates are more successful in states that are doing better in modern America, while Republicans are succeeding in some of the poorer, often agrarian states of middle America.
While this might not seem alarming, there are a number of concerning implications to this trend when put in the context of Trump’s outreach to those left behind by America’s global economy.
The Dread of the Founders
To place this into some historical context, it is worth looking into how the Founding Fathers viewed party politics. For the men who created America, political parties were treated with great hesitation. John Adams wrote in 1780:
“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”
George Washington shared similar concerns, and in his farewell address he lamented the issue of party loyalty:
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”
Washington believed that the distraction and divisiveness of political parties would undermine the common good of the nascent republic and “enfeeble the public administration”. Imagine what George Washington might make of the ‘two great parties’ of today, attacking each other ‘sharpened by the spirit of revenge’.
Despite the opposition of such titans in American history, over the centuries, in fact almost from the nation’s birth, parties have been baked into American political life. The two party system has undergone dramatic shifts since Washington’s time, as parties jockey and pivot around the issues of each era. Lincoln’s election in 1860 marked a low point in party politics.
Lincoln’s speech on the ‘house divided’ in 1858 was on the cusp of the American Civil War, a devastating conflict that some historians argue was unavoidable, given the changing nature of the national economy and unanswered question of slavery. A complex combination of western expansion, Supreme Court rulings, and economic development hastened the American spiral into political separation, perhaps no factor more so than the new sectionalism of political parties.
The new Republican Party, headed by Lincon in 1860, defeated a divided and splintered Democratic Party, but failed to win a single southern state. Instead, the president of the country was the leader of a party that appeared to serve only the northern and Midwestern states of the Union.
The problem with sectionalism in democracies is that it breeds mistrust. One by one the southern states seceded, eventually banding together as an alternative Confederacy, such was the division within the nation.
Since mentioning Lincoln, incidentally, it must be noted that although he oversaw America’s Civil War, part of the reason he is ranked as one of the greatest presidents (in my opinion, the greatest) was his capacity to see the conflict in the greater context of American history and plan for reunification even while waging bitter war.
For a more recent example there is the pattern in the 1960s and 70s. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement Democrats could reasonably compete with Republicans in the South, yet the realignment of the parties under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon turned southern states red for a generation as the Democratic Party became associated with forcing civil rights change on the socially conservative south.
Across international history, it is also true that when parties become servants to sectional interests, the health of nation suffers.
The modern Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia provide a litany of examples where party politics serve the interests of specific ethnic or religious groups, leaving little middle ground for compromise and often sparking civil conflict.
In the case of Pakistan, the sectionalism of their democracy after Indian Partition was enough to tear the country asunder, as Bengali-dominated Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan, where Punjabi citizens dominated the levers of government and the core patriotism of the nation was not enough to heal these divisions. In parts of Africa, on the other hand, the collision of party politics with regionalism and ethnicity has fostered protracted civil war and violence.
Post colonial nations throughout the world have fallen prey to the forces of sectionalism, as the bonds of region, ethnicity or religion compete with national unity due to the fear of rival factions. The proper functioning of party-based democracies rely on their ability to function in a way that limits division within the country, instead of exacerbating it.
The House Divided
America’s problems are not in this scale. Unlike many nations that struggle with partisan division, the United States has a strong central ideological core and sense of identity that unifies the country. However, the unity of American patriotism is not infallible, and is certainly susceptible to division through party.
The campaign being waged by Donald Trump adds a new wrinkle to the existing divides. Trump claims to champion Americans who are not feeling the benefits of the new, global economy, in contrast to a Clinton-Obama platform that polls better in states that prosper. This is reflected in the trend shown in the graph above, and it is no coincidence that the formerly safe Republican states that are drifting towards the Democrats are the more prosperous states of the South, specifically Virginia and North Carolina .
At the same time, Trump is targeting Democratic states like Michigan that rank relatively low on this scale, as well as the poorer, white working class communities of Ohio and Pennsylvania reliant on old industries like coal, that are dwindling in the face of international trade.
Of course, the division of the current election must be overlaid onto existing divisions in American politics: arguably America was already a house divided, if at least one that could stand. It goes without saying that the Republican Party’s advantage among white Americans and the Democrats’ among non-whites is the symptom of an unhealthy disunity in politics. Then there is also the stark urban and non-urban division:
Above are the county-by-country results of the 2012 presidential election for deep-red Texas on the left, and reliably blue New York on the right. Although it may be heartening to see some crossover-appeal in these non-swing states, this is the symptom of another division between urban and non-urban voters. This split is also notable within swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, and has refocused political campaigns on suburbia.
So what’s the point of worrying about Trump’s tactics if the house was already divided between whites and non whites, between coastal states and Americana, between cities and non-urban voters? Or for that matter older versus younger voters, or devoted Christians against secular Americans? After all, in theory political parties exist to represent citizens and get elected; if they exploit difference to do that, then they are still pursuing a democratic mandate through majority.
The reason the division of 2016 is particularly worrying is that is characterised by a shift towards exploiting the difference between ‘haves’ and have nots’ in the modern American economy. The Donald Trump candidacy is tailor made for grievance politics: make America great again. The whole conceit of his campaign is that Americans are losing out, and as he, the ironic billionaire leader of this movement, fuels this division, America feels even more disunited and disconnected from itself.
The resentment felt by Trump’s audience is only further fuelled by an unhealthy disdain and hatred for ‘elites’, calcifying a disruptive mentality towards politics that is willing to overlook facts or entertain debate.
For America to shift wholesale to a system where one party represents the will of the well off and educated, while the other champions those left behind could wreck any chance of meaningful progress through politics, as democratic government moves further away from common causes and is characterised by misunderstanding and revenge. At some point in the near future there will need to be a recalibration of at least one of the major parties if America is to rebuild the bridges of cooperation and avoid a new generation of a house divided.