Across the Great Divide

With the Bundys of Nevada and, now, Oregon claiming individual sovereignty over government and Donald Trump claiming that all we need to do is trust in the skills of his arrogance, pundits are turning to “intellectuals” to explain what is going on. Thomas Edsall, for example, writing in The New York Times, turns for understanding of Trump to what he calls “my best sources.” Almost all of these are professors at renowned universities, part of an intellectual elite that Trump most emphatically does not represent and who are, also, about as far from the Bundys, philosophically, as one can get. Asking them to help us understand Trump’s popularity (or Bundy “activism”) is somewhat like asking the Ayatollahs of Iran to define the culture of Sunni Islam—or vice versa. Each side views the other through a particular and biasing prism. Some of the things they point out may be correct, but we should be careful not to put too much faith in their pronouncements.

Though I, too, am a college professor, my family is one of Appalachian Borderers, people whose ancestors came from the border between Scotland and England who, after a generation or two in Ulster Plantation in Ireland, ended up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in the 18th century and then spearheaded white America’s movement west in the 19th. Trying to better understand my own background, I wrote a book about these Borderers in America called The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth (2013). What follows is adapted from that book:

In his cultural history of African Americans through their music, Blues People, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) writes, “Each man, in whatever ‘type’ of culture he inhabits, must have a way of looking at the world—whatever that means to him—which is peculiar to his particular culture.” This is clearly true in America and it is behind our “red state” and “blue state” split.

The culture of what is roughly half of white America was also long ago deemed “backward” by the people who write the histories and who control the discussions and media of American society. As dialects merged and mass production made physical appearance less and less distinctive, that culture, spawned by the Borderer push to the west, became less and less apparent in the record. After all, in the eyes of those who wrote that record, easterners often ensconced in ivory towers, it was nothing more than a “backward” culture, not worth commenting on, certainly not in any positive light. It was ignored.

Ignore someone right next to you for long enough and they will start to resent you. They will turn to people like Huey Long, George Wallace and Donald Trump, people who at least claim to represent them. They will force you to stop ignoring them. This is part of what is happening today.

Generally, the Borderers have been defined by what they are not or, more accurately, by what others imagine they lack. At the same time, they are usually described (when considered at all) in terms of class structures better suited to older, more stratified European societies than to America. Rather than being seen as a distinct culture, the Borderers become, in many minds, nothing more than American versions of European lower classes. Richard Hofstadter, author of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, a brilliant, though flawed and biased, work, is a case in point. He finds the Borderers to be the lack of all that a gentleman should be. He cannot even name them, not more than by calling them things like “unschooled” and “western squatters” whose leaders “were pushed up from the bottom [rather] than selected from the top.” In the 19th century, he writes, the better sort of people:

were born in the Northeast—mainly in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania—although a scattered few lived in those parts of the Middle West which had been colonized by Yankees and New Yorkers. Morally and intellectually these men were the heirs of New England, and for the most part its heirs by descent. They carried on the philosophical concerns of Unitarianism and transcendentalism, the moral animus of Puritanism, the crusading heritage of the free-soil movement, the New England reverence for education and intellectualism, the Yankee passion for public duty and civil reform.

In his eyes, these were all things the Borderers, most clearly, were not. These were the hallmarks of an eastern elite, of the secular liberals, the people who were the only hope for civilizing the unwashed masses who had settled the rest of the country.

Completely unable to see the Borderer culture as having any value at all, Hofstadter becomes an advocate solely for the secular-liberal tradition at the expense of the other. His own attitude confirms that there certainly was a widening cultural split that had survived far into the 20th century, with “the specialist, the expert, the gentleman, and the scholar” defined by one side in ways that excluded almost anyone from the other. “Popular writers, understandably proud of the political competence of the free man, were on the whole justifiably suspicious of the efforts of the cultivated and wealthy to assume an exclusive or excessively dominant role in government. Their suspicions did not stop there, however, but led many of them into hostility to all forms of learning.”

As much as anything else, the hostility was to what the Borderers saw as a kind of cultural cudgel, not to learning itself. The truth of this would be observed over the 19th and 20th century as public schools became critical parts of American communities, both new and old, and on each side of the cultural divide.

Hofstadter claims that:

The first truly powerful and widespread impulse to anti-intellectualism in American politics was, in fact, given by the Jacksonian movement. Its distrust of expertise, its dislike for centralization, its desire to uproot the entrenched classes, and its doctrine that important functions were simple enough to be performed by anyone, amounted to a repudiation not only of the system of government by gentlemen which the nation had inherited from the eighteenth century, but also of the special value of the educated classes in civic life.

The cultural split had begun to really appear in presidential politics in 1808, when it was only in New England (and Delaware) that James Madison did not succeed, a pattern that was repeated in 1812, but with DeWitt Clinton, the Federalist candidate, picking up ground in the Northeast. In 1816, only Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware did not go for James Monroe, who swept the states four years later.

In 1824, John Quincy Adams took all of New England (with New York adding a great deal of support), and Jackson and Henry Clay divided almost all of the rest of the country. Without Clay in the race four years later, Jackson won handily in a country that had expanded extensively to the west while New England, of course, had remained as it had been. Jackson’s reelection was something of a rout, with Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware providing a large part of the opposition. This election marked a real change in American attitudes toward just who should govern.

Hofstadter writes that “the Jacksonian conviction that the duties of government were so simple that almost anyone could execute them downgraded the functions of the expert and the trained man to a degree which turned insidious when the functions of government became complex.” Many on the secular-liberal side of the divide today would agree, but the “anyones” keep getting elected, and the United States continues along. Though I shudder even to imagine it, the country could probably even survive a Donald Trump presidency.

Martin Van Buren was able to put together a national coalition in 1836, in terms of Electoral College votes at least, handily defeating the three regional Whig candidates. In 1840, however, one of those three, William Henry Harrison, turned the tables on him, also managing to gather Electoral College votes from across the country. When James Polk, another Borderer, was elected four years later, it may have seemed once more that the days of regional politics were over, for there was no “solid” region anywhere in the country. The same was true when Zachary Taylor was elected in 1848. In 1852, taking all but four states and gathering in over three-quarters of the Electoral College votes, Franklin Peirce seemed to be once again showing the way for a united electorate. But that, as we know, was not to last: The Civil War was less than a decade away. Of note, both James Buchanan, president on the eve of the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln were from Borderer backgrounds.

Buchanan won as a southern and western candidate, though he fell well short of half of the popular vote, though that was indeed a higher percentage than Lincoln would get four years later. Lincoln, like Buchanan, won with only a plurality, succeeding due to a divided opposition.

It was the Electoral College margin that mattered, however, and it is also the Electoral College that shows best the splits in American culture.

Because of the Civil War and the disruption in voting and voting patterns it engendered, we do not see the older patterns reemerging until 1876, when Rutherford Hayes’s election showed a North/South split that also certainly reflected the war but that just as certainly reflected the prewar past and foretold the broader divisions that would devil the country for the next century and more. With James Garfield’s election four years later, the split was even more apparent and more concrete. Grover Cleveland’s election in 1884 simply confirmed the pattern, though this time it was the southerners who succeeded. His defeat in the Electoral College, not the popular vote, four years later showed only how narrow the divide was—as did his election in a three-way race in 1892, when he succeeded with less than half of the popular vote.

In 1896, we see a pattern of division almost identical to the one of the early 21st century, McKinley winning with California and Oregon, the northern Midwest, and those eastern states outside of the old Confederacy At that time, it was the Republican Party that represented the industrialized states. The year 1900 showed much the same result, but with some gains by McKinley in the West.

The most stark North/South split came in 1904, when Theodore Roosevelt swept everything outside of the Confederacy except for two states, Kentucky and Maryland, contiguous to it. Four years later, Taft lost the new state of Oklahoma (also contiguous to the Confederacy) and also saw erosion in the West, losing Nebraska, Colorado, and Nevada.

In one of the rare national coalitions, Woodrow Wilson took almost the entire country except for a rump remainder of the North that went to Roosevelt running on the Progressive ticket. Taft won only one state, Utah. Even so, Wilson earned far from half of the popular vote, succeeding only because of the split opposition. When he was reelected, the North reemerged as an almost solid opposition. In 1920, only one of the states of the Confederacy went for Warren Harding, Tennessee, and only one outside state, Kentucky, went against him. In 1924, the South was solid again, expanded only to Oklahoma, the rest of the nation going to Calvin Coolidge.

In 1928, Alfred Smith was solidly trounced by Herbert Hoover winning, outside of a rump South, only Massachusetts. Hoover himself, however, lost all but part of the Northeast four years later. And the Northeast, again, four years after that, was the only place Franklin Roosevelt did not sweep. Roosevelt lost ground in the Midwest in 1940 and a little more in 1944 but won with sweeping Electoral College majorities.

The hold on the South by the Democrats, seen as the only opposition to emancipation-favoring Republicans since the Civil War, began to weaken in 1948, with four states going to that fervent follower of the cult of individualism Strom Thurmond on a states’ rights ticket. Though Thomas Dewey, an old-fashioned establishment candidate, held onto much of the Northeast, the Midwest and the West were enough to give the election to Harry Truman, who did have a certain appeal to Borderer sentiments—the “Give ’em hell, Harry,” yelled to him during the campaign, reflects nothing so much as Borderer pugnacity and individualism. Still, the Republican Party remained anathema in the South, so much so that even General Dwight Eisenhower could not parlay his enormous popularity resulting from World War II into Electoral College victory in the South. Even though the Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson, was an avowed liberal and champion of secular-liberal values, the only states he carried in either election were either in the old Confederacy or contiguous to it.

John Kennedy was able to turn his strength in the Northeast and the anti-Republican sentiments of the South into what would prove to be the last instance of the old Democratic coalition that included the “solid South” and, since Roosevelt’s time, African Americans. Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation led to a regional shift in allegiance, Still, Johnson won in a massive landslide, taking all of the Electoral College votes except those of a rump Confederacy and opponent Barry Goldwater’s home state of Arizona. Johnson, like Truman, presented a strong Borderer image, keeping many Borderers within his party’s tent. By the time of Richard Nixon’s election four years later, the South was split between George Wallace and Nixon—but a conscious “southern strategy” made sure that would never happen to the Republicans again, not for another generation, at least. The immediate result was Nixon’s great landslide victory of 1972 and the beginning of a Borderer romance with a Republican party that, more and more, catered to Borderer individualist instincts on questions of the role of the federal government, gun control, and more.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter, a favorite son of the South and an “outsider” in terms of Washington, D.C., was able to temporarily stem the tide of the “southern strategy,” but he could not hold his coalition, losing disastrously to individualist Ronald Reagan, a Borderer champion who deliberately followed Nixon’s plan and who put it to good use again four years later in his own landslide reelection victory against the very secular-liberal and much more communitarian Walter Mondale. His vice president, George H. W. Bush, was able to follow on his heels but lost to another southern favorite son, Bill Clinton, in 1992. Even so, Bush took a great deal of the South, the Midwest, and the West. Clinton’s reelection showed a similar Electoral College pattern against Kansan Robert Dole.

What was remarkable about the two Clinton elections was not his own support but the alliance between southern states and western states (though not the West Coast), a coalition driven by Borderer sensibilities. This alliance propelled George W. Bush to victory in 2000 and again in 2004, reestablishing a somewhat erased 19th-century pattern of industrial North and New England against the rest of the country. The same pattern held, but with not the same success, in 2008 and 2012 when Barack Obama succeeded.

Borderer individualism has grown steadily, extolled by free market advocates, libertarians, Tea Party advocates, and more, all of whom see the world through a simplistic lens ground by the cult of individualism. As Peter Marin writes in Freedom and Its Discontents, “The end result of this retreat from the complexities of the world is a kind of soft fascism: the denial, in the name of higher truth, of the claims of others upon the self.” What we are now witnessing in American society and government may be further fallout on the heels of that result, the lack of willingness to work together for just about anything amid an “an endless litany of self-concern, self-satisfaction, self-improvement, self-assertion, self-gratification, self-actualization, and self-esteem.”

The frustration solidifying this split in the 21st century stems in part from a feeling of disenfranchisement on the part of many whites that began as a reaction to the civil rights successes of the 1960s. It has settled into what, so far, has been a permanent national cultural and political rift on the heels of the Reagan era, a rift that can be identified by differing visions of the place and role of the individual. It has little to do with Donald Trump himself–or even with the Bundys–but with a legacy of American cultural ignorance about those on the other side of our deep cultural divide.

Don’t get me wrong: people on both sides are culpable. Fox News’ sneering depictions of today’s descendants of those Spiro Agnew called “effete intellectual snobs” are just as damaging to the nation as are the derisive views of much of America by the intellectual descendants of Richard Hofstadter. There is no innocence in any of this, anywhere.