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Long Division: How the Current Rift in America Compares to the Past

There has been no denying the political divide leading up to this year’s election, but history shows the US has survived more serious schisms.
by Michael Benninger | Nov 3 2020

As people go to the polls for the US presidential election, it’s hard to debate the fact that America is deeply divided along political lines. Whether you turn on the TV, scroll through social media, or simply walk down the street, the fiery battle between Red and Blue seems to be raging in every corner of the country. And although many have never witnessed this degree of division before, the current state of the union is anything but unprecedented.

Despite clickbaity headlines claiming that a civil war is imminent and American democracy is on its deathbed, the rift we’re witnessing is only the latest chapter in the country’s tumultuous evolution. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that the United States can survive such troubling times.

If you’re losing faith in the American experiment or you’re concerned that the United States is fundamentally doomed, there’s hope to be found by reflecting on the more challenging chapters of the past. Here’s a look at a few incendiary periods from the nation’s history, along with some books that shed light on how the country recovered from its darkest days.

A Nation at War with Itself

It’s no secret that there’s presently a tremendous amount of antipathy between America’s conservative and progressive parties. Yet today’s unsettling political landscape is still a far cry from the tension that existed during the Civil War.

Between November of 1860 and May of 1865, the nation literally split in two over the issue of slavery. Eleven of the then-33 states seceded from the country and formed the Confederate States of America. And during that time, an estimated 620,000 men lost their lives fighting in more than 10,000 military engagements and 50 major battles on American soil. That’s comparable to 6 million deaths relative to today’s population.

In Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, author Doris Kearns Goodwin offers insight into the events that took place during the 16th president’s time in office. She details how the brilliant commander-in-chief enlisted his political adversaries as advisors in order to keep the North united while abolishing slavery and ultimately ending the Civil War.

Sadly, President Lincoln was assassinated less than one week after the Confederate forces surrendered, yet the nation did finally reunify under one flag. And within the five years following the war, the American government passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which outlawed slavery and aimed to ensure equality for Black Americans living in the South.

The Battle to Keep America Segregated

Despite the progress made in the wake of the Civil War, racial tension in the country persisted for another century in the form of segregation and Jim Crow laws. And, unfortunately, the rampant racism was as prevalent in the houses of Congress as it was in the homes of white Americans. In 1956, for instance, Virginia senator Harry Byrd decried the desegregation of public schools by stating, “If we can organize the Southern States for massive resistance to this order, I think that, in time, the rest of the country will realize that racial integration is not going to be accepted in the South.”

And although many Americans today believe that opposition to desegregation was largely limited to the Southern states, the truth is that white people in all areas of the country opposed civil rights for Blacks. Even a nationwide Gallup poll conducted in 1963 showed that 78% of white Americans would have chosen to leave their neighborhoods if a Black family moved in. The same poll also showed that 60% of white Americans at the time had an unfavorable view of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington.

In Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America, the late congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis offers a captivating account of the fear and hate that existed in our country in the mid-20th century. He describes in detail how he and his fellow Freedom Riders used nonviolent resistance to challenge injustice and bring about lasting change in America.

Lewis, MLK, and the many other remarkable men and women who fought bravely — yet peacefully — during the Civil Rights Movement made tremendous strides toward equality, and they helped end segregation and ban employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, or nationality. And while racism still exists in the US to the present day, it’s far less prevalent than it was during the 1950s and ’60s, and Americans as a whole have grown increasingly intolerant of racial injustice.

Division over the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War began in 1955 when President Dwight Eisenhower attempted to quell the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia by sending military advisors to train the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. And although the war was undoubtedly unpopular with many Americans throughout the late ’50s and ’60s, the US erupted in protests following President Richard Nixon’s decision to bomb the nation of Cambodia on April 28, 1970.

Millions of Americans felt our country had no business attacking that nation, and the anti-war sentiment spawned countless marches and demonstrations across the US. The situation reached a boiling point, however, when National Guard troops opened fire on unarmed student protesters at Kent State University in Ohio and Jackson State University in Mississippi, killing six students and wounding more than 20 others. In response to the shootings, students across the country went on strike, which in turn caused the temporary closure of many universities and secondary schools.

In the book Hue, 1968: A Turning Point in the American War in Vietnam, author Mark Bowden explains how the United States government intentionally misled the public into believing that the war was winnable and that the end was in sight. Bowden also explores the most pivotal battle of the war, while detailing how America failed in its mission to stop the spread of Communism. In the end, the United States withdrew its forces from Vietnam, ending our country’s bloodiest conflict since World War II.

What’s Beyond This Critical Election?

It’s undeniable that America has several indelible stains on its past — many of which we’re still grappling with today. Yet history has demonstrated that we can survive such troubling times and emerge from them as a stronger nation. And even though the states of America may seem “united” in name only at the moment, there’s always hope for the future, and that’s the foundation the country was built upon.

If you want to learn more about problematic periods of American history — and how the country ultimately overcame them — check out The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, or explore any of the other aforementioned books in Blinkist’s library, which now features takeaways from more than 4,000 titles.

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