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We are divided as a country but not enough to create a modern civil war

We are divided as a country but not enough to create a modern civil war


NOVEMBER 18, 2021 — Editor’s note: This op-ed by Patrick J. Kelly, associate professor of history at UTSA, originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.

recent poll from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics contains alarming news about the deepening political divisions in the United States. Pollsters asked if “The situation in America is such that I would favor [Blue/Red] states seceding from the union to form their own separate country.” Remarkably, 52% of Trump voters and 41% of Biden supporters answered yes. The notion of splitting the nation into two sections has clearly entered the political imagination of today’s Americans.

“There is no current political issue that even approaches slavery in its potential to galvanize national division.”

As a historian of the U.S. Civil War, I believe it is important to take a more balanced view about the current threat to our republic.

In the secession crisis that occurred during the Civil War, the deep fissures between competing political factions broke along the sectional lines of the states of the North and South. By 1860, there were 15 contiguous slave states that stretched from Texas to Delaware. These states were linked by history, climate, soil and the belief that the system of chattel slavery was central to the region’s economic success, as well as the continued maintenance of its ruthless system of white supremacy.

Today’s Americans certainly disagree bitterly about the direction of the country. Nonetheless, there is no current political issue that even approaches slavery in its potential to galvanize national division. Importantly, Donald Trump supporters and Joe Biden supporters do not live in a nation in which their disagreements break cleanly along the sectional lines of the 1860s. Yes, there are U.S. states today that are more red than blue, but within many of these states are deep internal splits between Republicans and Democrats.

Wisconsin, for example, is one of the most politically divided states in the nation. An article in the Washington Post recently declared the Badger State the “incubator of America’s tribal politics.” If Trump voters were to secede from Wisconsin, by what means would they join together with Trump supporters in deeply red states such as Mississippi and Alabama to create a new nation? 

Nearly 47% of Texas voters cast their ballots for Joe Biden in 2020. If Democrats were to somehow secede from the Union, what would be the mechanism by which Democrats from the Lone Star State and states such as California or New York would join together to create a separate country? In reality, no such mechanism exists.

Unlike the 1860s, the gritty logistics of nation-building are unavailable for Trump and Biden supporters disgruntled with the current configuration of the nation. Slaveholders and their political leaders had long discussed breaking from the Union before the 1860s. When the secession crisis finally exploded into war, these experienced regional leaders were quickly able to create a slave-holding republic with a functioning government out of the 11 states that joined the Confederacy. The red and blue voters of today who share a secessionist impulse possess neither the state-building experience nor the expertise necessary to create two new nations from the remains of a fragmented United States.

The idea of secession shared by frustrated Biden and Trump supporters, in other words, is a fantasy. Nonetheless, the University of Virginia poll does show that we live in very dangerous times.

Instead of secession, what we could potentially see in the near future are instances of violence between red and blue voters within states. And while the changes of full-out civil war seem remote, the danger of in-state skirmishes is heightened by the high rate of gun ownership in the United States. About 40% of Americans polled say they or someone in their household owns a gun.

Let us hope that, despite our deep differences, cooler heads will prevail in such a way that Americans can resolve their contemporary political quarrels peacefully.

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