December 16, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
America isn’t as divided as you think
Don't look to the Electoral College for signs of unity.
The language we use to describe political reality can create its own reality so that we end up fighting over a fiction instead of a fact. I’m thinking particularly of the word “divided.” The Washington press corps uses it loosely to mean opposition of some variety, usually between the two parties, but also nationally. We’re told America is “divided” on any given issue, particularly with reference to the presidential election.
But, again, the language we use to describe political reality can create its own political reality, a false one, if we’re not careful about how and why we use it. The result can be our fighting over a fiction, rather than a fact. The consequence, I contend, is allowing language to control us instead of us controlling the language. The consequence is endangering ourselves instead of affirming and empowering ourselves as we should.
The language we use to describe political reality can create its own reality so we end up fighting over a fiction, not a fact.
What if we’re not that divided? Consider history. We inhabit, after all, a heterogeneous country, racially, religiously and geographically. It has been this way since before white people settled the continent. You could say, and I would say, we’ve always been divided in one way or another, because the United States is a federation of different regions and states. Total agreement is not possible or even desirable. Someone will always disagree, and that’s a good thing. So, if America has always been divided, our current “division” seems so unexceptional as to be scarcely worth mentioning.
Of course, it is worth mentioning. The question, then, is how it’s mentioned. Here, we have to be mindful of the Washington press corps’ self-interest, by which I mean professional self-interest. Disagreement, controversy, conflict—these will always be newsworthy, even if they are, in the grand scheme of things, rather insignificant—insignificant because wherever you find human beings gathered in an effort to organize themselves, you’re going to find disagreement, controversy and conflict.
Because most people most of the time don’t have access to information about what’s going on in Washington, most people most of the time trust the press corps to tell them what’s going on. But because the press corps is in the habit of talking up disagreement, controversy and conflict, because disagreement, controversy and conflict are considered newsworthy, most people most of the time believe America is, in fact, divided even though most “division” is rather normal, ordinary and ephemeral.
What about the election? “Half the country” voted for Donald Trump. “The other half” voted for Joe Biden. Indeed, as Dave Wasserman reported, Trump came within 65,009 votes of winning. Surely, no matter how the press corps talks about “division,” the election really does illustrate just how divided we have become as a country. Looks can be deceiving, though. A margin of more than 65,000 votes is meaningful but only in the context of the Electoral College. The Electoral College is many things, none of them democratic. Something so anti-democratic cannot measure how divided we are.
Fact is, Trump lost by 7.1 million votes. And fact is, Biden won more votes than any candidate, Republican or Democrat, ever. In terms of the percentage of the popular vote, among Democrats, only Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama (the first time) got a higher share. Among Republicans, only Dwight Eisenhower (twice), Richard Nixon (reelection), Ronald Reagan (reelection) and George HW Bush did. Yes, our anti-democratic Electoral College system produced an outcome by which it seems we’re very nearly divided down the middle. That’s until you remember that Trump could have won the Electoral College but lost 7.1 million votes.
What each stood for and against matters, too. Biden for order, union and cooperation. Trump for chaos, disunion and negation. Biden stood for equal human rights and against fascist collectivism. Trump stood for inequality in all its forms and against republican democracy. Talking up a divided America is privileging the loser over the winner. The privilege ought to go to the candidate who brought as much unity as it’s possible to bring to a country as heterogeneous as ours. It should go especially to the 81,283,485 people who smashed all the old records to save our democratic republic.
The language we use to describe political reality can create its own reality so that we end up fighting over a fiction instead of a fact. Sixty-two percent of Americans, now that the Electoral College has finalized the results, say the election is over and it’s time to move on, according to a new poll by CBS News. Yes, lots of Republicans disagree, but so what? Unity doesn’t come, and has never come, when everyone agrees. All you need is a majority. Biden has that, and we should remember that. We keep telling ourselves we’re divided. By any reasonable measure, however, America is united.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.