, Salem, MA

November 13, 2012

Our view: 150 years later, a nation still divided

The Salem News

---- — A fascinating map has been circulating since Tuesday’s election. Actually, it’s two maps, drawn 150 years apart, but the message is something to consider.

The first map shows the state-by-state breakdown of the Electoral College vote in Tuesday’s presidential election.

Most northern states from the Midwest to the East Coast, and the entire West Coast, fell in with Democratic President Barack Obama. Southern states, and most of the west-central states, fell in with Republican Mitt Romney.

The second map shows the nation’s boundaries during the Civil War — the boundaries between the Union States and its free territories, and the Confederate states and the slave territories. With a couple of notable exceptions — in particular, Virginia and Indiana — there is a striking similarity. The two maps, 150 years apart, show a nation divided along the same basic geographic lines.

Since the 1996 election, the electoral map has steadily taken on the shape of that Civil War-era map. A handful of states may change from blue to red or vice versa, but the overall look is becoming more rigid and defined.

Much has changed over the past 150 years, but from a historian’s standpoint, there are parallels that can be drawn. The cause that led up to the Civil War was, in the South’s parlance, state’s rights. In Northern parlance, it was the evil institution of slavery. Today, state’s rights still plays heavily between the red states and blue states, and the divisive battles over it are clear in issues such as “Obamacare.”

This fundamental divide has become reflected in the two parties’ philosophies. It has also taken on a new dimension that revolves around wealth, protection of the middle class, regulation and free enterprise.

It’s “class warfare” versus “socialization,” depending on which side of the equation you sit.

In the wake of the election, Republicans have pondered over what their party needs to do in order to reach beyond its predominantly white male base and, in particular, how to gain ground on the East Coast and West Coast.

Democrats have done a far better job of reaching the nation’s new voting dynamic — the young, minorities and women. As the victors in Tuesday’s election, Democrats haven’t been doing the same level of navel-gazing that Republicans have engaged in, but perhaps the vast red swath through the middle and southern section of this nation should give them cause to think about it.

Tuesday’s election didn’t create any fundamental change in Washington. Gridlock remains between the two major parties. Democrats hold the Senate and presidency, and Republicans hold the House. We can look at what is happening now in Washington and become disgusted over gridlock, and our criticism is legitimate. But perhaps the roots of those divisions aren’t as much a Washington problem as we’d like to think. They are a national identity problem.

The Civil War was a clash of beliefs that could not be avoided through negotiation and politics. These days, we face a new set of clashes over beliefs that will boil over as the debate over the “fiscal cliff” plays out.

Battle lines are being drawn on both sides, and at stake is a financial disaster for the nation.

If there’s a lesson to learn from the past, it’s that a divided nation needs to find common ground. The split may never be rectified, but it does need to be bridged.