February 02, 2021

The Deep Roots of the Divisions in 2021 America

After the American Century

The year 2020 was one of explosive tensions in the United States. An already polarized society confronted the COVID-19 pandemic, the massive unemployment that came with it, and widespread social protest in response to violence against unarmed Black men and women. It also was an election year, where billions of dollars were spent on advertising, much of it negative. What kind of America has emerged from this turbulence? 

To answer this question, I have written a book divided into three parts. The first three chapters examine different ways in which the United States is divided. I begin by examining the historical experience of the six generations of Americans alive in 2020. Each has faced different childhoods, defining moments, economic conditions, and international tensions. Those who grew up with the Cold War have a different perspective from those born before or  afterwards. People who listened to Frank Sinatra when young are not the same as those who grew up with the Beatles or with rap music.  

After surveying the generations, I turn to the gaps between social classes, which have widened since c. 1974. For 35 years before then. from 1939 until 1974) both the middle class and the working class experienced rising real incomes. This meant that more people owned houses, which increased in value, and these homes were filled with an ever wider range of consumer goods.  But after that wages at best barely managed to keep up with inflation, which housing prices soared.   

The rising inequality was not evenly distributed. Some cities, notably Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington DC, have boomed, while other cities have struggled, as their industries declined. Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, and many other cities lost jobs and population. In regional terms, the Pacific Coast, the South and Southwest grew, while much of the Middle West and the Northeast stagnated or declined. In all of the regions, moreover, rural areas lost population, and drifted toward the right-wing of the Republican Party, while urban areas became more Democratic. By 2016, this meant that Hillary Clinton won almost every urban county, while Donald Trump won in almost every rural county.

At the same time, tensions between races increased, because Black and Brown Americans were not willing to remain second-class citizens. Nor were gays willing to accept being defined as deviants or mentally ill. Through the courts they successfully fought for the right to be married and enjoy all the privileges that come with officially recognized family status, such as pensions and the rights of inheritance. Women likewise fought to gain full equality. All of these struggles upset conservative Americans who wanted to retain the racial and gender roles they knew from their childhood, and which they felt were the natural order of society. Evangelicals in particular resisted new gender roles, equality for racial minorities, and a multicultural society. These religious groups, as well as those who felt the pinch of economic inequality, embraced Donald Trump as their savior. 

The second section looks at the ways Americans traditionally have been united, notably through business, the media, religion, and civil religion. Yet all of these institutions have been weakened or riven with conflict in recent decades, undermining consensus. In the old industrial economy, steel mills, automobile plants, and oil companies remained dominant for most of the twentieth century. But by the 1990s this economy began to give way to an emerging digital economy. From c. 1920 until 2000 the largest corporations supplied oil, built automobiles, made home appliances, etc. But these companies stagnated or declined compared to Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Google, and biotech firms. The old analogue economy still exists, but the smart money is not invested in oil, steel, gasoline cars, or anything merely physical like coal, sand, cement, or wood. In the new economy, capital is invested in knowledge, as embodied in computer chips, software, data, algorithms, security codes, cyber currency, new drugs, vaccines, patented DNA, formulas, virtual reality and other almost intangible goods. Apple is worth more than General Motors; Amazon is bigger than any oil compnay. This new digital economy bewilders many older Americans but seems natural to the young. Moreover, this new economy only works for those with education beyond high school. There are fewer jobs on assembly lines and more behind computer screens. As late as the 1970s the semiskilled could earn a good living, but their wages declined after that. 

Religious differences are also pronounced in the United States. On the one side are the highly educated; on the other side are Americans whose ideas seem to be from c. 1875. Polls reveal that a majority of Americans believe in miracles (73%), in the virgin birth of Jesus (57%) and in the existence of the Devil (58%). Less than half believe in the theory of evolution (47%). Indeed, Darwin’s theory seems to have even less support than this number suggests, because only three in ten Americans definitely reject the idea that God created men and women in their present form, as described in the Bible. This belief in “creationism” is often accompanied by the idea that the earth is only 10,000 years old. No less than 69% of Americans say they either believe in creationism or they are “not sure.” These are people ready to vote for a populist like Donald Trump.

The polarization of Americans is just as evident in American civil religion.  Americans long had an honor-roll of sacred texts, battlefields, natural sites, and buildings that represented the nation. Some of these, such as the Statue of Liberty still play this role. But increasingly Americans cannot agree about which statues should stand in public squares or what texts should be honored. 

Likewise, some Americans, many of them in the South, cherish the Confederate flag carried by the rebels in the Civil War. After defeat, that flag of rebellion was seldom flown in public. However, it was revived and became a symbol of resistance to racial integration during the Civil Rights Movement. In South Carolina, the Confederate flag was raised over the state capitol in 1961 to commemorate the centennial of the first battle of the Civil War, which began in Charleston. It remained in use until 2000, when it was ceremoniously moved to a monument for Confederate soldiers. 

The Confederate flag came to symbolize states’ rights, resistance to the Federal government, and White supremacy. It was often sewn on clothing and worn as a badge of honor. It was prominently displayed by right-wing organizations, and it was seen at stock car races until 2020, when it was banned. Those who display the Confederate flag in 2020 are usually Trump supporters, and it was even raised again in South Carolina’s capital. Trump defended flying that flag as a form of free speech, saying that it represents not White supremacy but love for the South. Colin Powell, former Secretary of State under George W. Bush, strongly disagreed, arguing that the Confederate States of America “were not part of us and this is not the time to keep demonstrating who they were and what they were back then.” Powell, who is Black, concluded, “We have one flag and one flag only.” But when a mob attacked the Congress of the United States in January, 2021, many of them carried Confederate flags.

The third section of the book examines the institutional problems of the American political system, the divisive election of 2020, and the state of the nation in 2021. 

For more on the topics discussed in this column, see