This essay is part of an op-ed project, Cardinal Way: Civility Rules. Its companion piece can be found here. The project is to encourage constructive dialogue on difficult issues. You can participate in the project:
We live in a country that is pulling apart at the seams.
This is not hyperbole. This is simply math.
In 1976, we had a close election in Virginia: Republican Gerald Ford carried the state by a margin of 1.3%, while losing the election nationally. In 2021, we had another close election in Virginia. In that one, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governorship by a margin of 2%.
Those numbers may make it seem as if not much has changed, but let’s look deeper, before the surface of those final results.
In 1976, Virginia had 116 counties or cities where the winning candidate polled under 60% of the vote.
In 2021, Virginia had just 38 counties or cities where the vote was that close (and I’m being generous in my definition of “close,” because a candidate polling in the upper 50s is winning quite decisively).
In 1976 there was just one county in Virginia where the winning candidate took 70% or more of the vote – Carter took 74.6% of the vote in Charles City County.
In 2021, we had 35 localities where one candidate or another ran up a vote in the 70%-79% range – and 16 more where one candidate or another scored 80% or more of the vote.
These lopsided communities fall on both sides of the political spectrum. In Petersburg, the Democratic candidate in the last governor’s race took 84.9% of the vote, a margin that would have seemed unfathomable in the bicentennial year when the Democratic candidate for president took 60% in that city. In Lee County, the Republican candidate for governor polled 87.6% of the vote in 2021, political light years from 1976, when the Democratic candidate for president took 52.7% of the vote in that county.
The overall margins in Virginia may not have changed much but the way candidates achieve them sure has. In 1976, most Virginians lived in a place where elections were relatively close. Today, they don’t. In 1976, it was quite likely that Virginians knew someone who was on the opposite side of the issue from them because that person was probably a neighbor. Now, it’s increasingly unlikely that we know someone with whom we might disagree politically.
Let’s go back to our two extreme examples and dig into the data: In Petersburg’s Sixth Ward First Precinct, the margin in the last governor’s race was 91.1% for the Democratic candidate to 7.4% for the Republican candidate. Lee County’s Woodway precinct was even more extreme: 93.1% for the Republican candidate to 6.5% for the Democratic candidate. And they weren’t even the most one-sided precincts in the state. In Dickenson County’s West Dante precinct, the vote was 95.0% Republican to 3.8% Democratic. In Portsmouth’s John F. Kennedy Community Center precinct, the vote was 95.5% Democratic to 3.7% Republican. In Richmond’s Three Hundred Ten precinct, the vote was 93.5% Democratic to 3.6% Republican.
As someone who has studied history, these vast differences are troubling – perhaps even beyond troubling. We’ve always had parts of the country that vote strongly one way or another, but we’re now seeing more of them. I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but I’m not the first to point out that these kinds of geographical differences are reminiscent of what happened in the years leading up to the Civil War. In 1848, Zachary Taylor, the Whig candidate, won a relatively narrow victory over Lewis Cass, the Democrat – but the support for the respective candidates was spread somewhat evenly across the country. Taylor won some Southern states, Cass won some Southern states. Taylor won some Northern states, Cass won some Northern states. By 1860, well, you know what happened.
I’m not suggesting we’re about to face another secession crisis; I’m suggesting we’re already facing a secession crisis: We’re effectively witnessing a kind of social secession. There are lots of factors driving this. The rise of overly partisan news sites is one. The emergence of social media is another. It’s quite possible for people to live these days within their own ideological bubble, untroubled by anyone who expresses an opinion contrary to their own. That’s part of the reason we, as a nation, now spend so much time yelling at one another: We simply don’t know how to act when we are forced to encounter someone who thinks differently. How many people in 1976 would have thought about shouting over the fence at their neighbor for putting up a campaign sign for someone we didn’t support? More likely, we’d have just shaken our heads and gone about our business. Today, we think nothing of shouting at people on social media – because now the people we’re shouting at are strangers to us, and it’s always easy to think the worst of strangers. If you don’t think this is a problem, you ought to read more history.
Even worse, we have lost a common frame of reference with which we can even discuss problems. This fall, I talked with a candidate for local office in a strongly Republican county in rural Virginia (a redundancy, of course). She said that when she went door-to-door, she found many voters who had simply checked out of mainstream news sources – she found many conservatives who no longer relied on Fox News because they felt it had gone liberal. They were now getting their news from strange websites and podcasts she’d never heard of. When the candidate tried to bring up local issues, these voters had no idea what she was talking about; their only news was national. It was as if the candidate and these voters were from different planets, instead of being neighbors.
All this lead-up might make it sound as if I’m a cheerleader for this project on trying to figure out how two very different sides can learn to speak to one another again. I’m not. I’m not against it, mind you, but as a journalist, I’m a born skeptic. I just don’t think this will do much good. I come from the world of politics – well, more accurately, the world of covering politics. I don’t see much interest on either side in figuring out how to talk to the other side. The only people I see interested are those that at one time were derisively called “the goo-goos” – high-minded “good government” types. These tend to be noble, idealistic people with little, if any, practical experience in politics – they’d be as out of their element in a MoveOn meeting as they would be in a Moms for Liberty meeting. I’m reminded of the quote attributed to Joseph Stalin (which, like many famous quotes, he may never have actually said). Supposedly during World War II, either Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosvelt (accounts vary) suggested that the Allies take into account the Pope’s views. According to the story, Stalin replied: “The Pope? How many divisions has he?” My point: The people pleading for civility and some common understanding are not the ones who run our politics. They’re not showing up at party meetings or dominating party primaries. Until they do, none of this really matters.
We certainly need the things these idealists are advocating – a lower political temperature, some understanding that the people on the other side are not our enemies but simply neighbors with whom we disagree, perhaps even some way to debate issues in a civil manner. I just don’t think we’re the ones with the megaphone big enough to make this happen. Fox News does. MSNBC and CNN do. Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg might. Maybe now that we have a Speaker of the House, President Biden and Speaker Mike Johnson could come together to initiate a national conversation. More likely, they won’t. We’re often told that “all politics is local.” The problem here is the national has become local, so I don’t think there’s much of a local fix. The problem is bigger than we are and the solution must be, too. Sorry to be a realist.