The Challenge of a Sectional Election

 | 

In 1860 occurred the most momentous election in American history. Abraham Lincoln swept the North, receiving essentially no votes in the South. The southern Democrat, John C. Breckinridge, swept the South but received fewer than 100,000 of his total 670,000 votes from the North (if you include California, which gave him one-third of those Northern votes). The sectional South could not stand the idea of working with a sectional Northerner as president, and seceded. The election of 1860 was the fatal overture to the Civil War.

When one compares the electoral map of 1860 with the electoral map of 2016, one is hard pressed to say which election was more geographically polarized.

Fewer voters switched to the Democrats; indeed, many Democrats refused to be lured to the polls to vote for anyone.

The 1860 map is complicated by the fact that Stephen A. Douglas, candidate of the national Democrats, won some counties in the deep South and many counties among the Republicans of the Old Northwest. Breckinridge, the southerner, won counties in California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, while the border-state Constitutional Union candidate, John Bell, won many counties in the deep South as well as the border states. Compare 2016, when Hillary Clinton won most of the coastal West, most of New England, African American counties of the South, Hispanic or American Indian counties of the Southwest, parts of the upper Mississippi inheriting a kind of progressivism from German American or Scandinavian American roots, and geographically isolated large cities, university towns, and state capitals. Oh, and she won the government employees in northern Virginia. This sounds like a lot, until you notice that the rest of the country went for Trump — the vast length and breadth of the nation, over five-sixths of its counties. Not only did all of this go for Trump; it often went for him by majorities as large as or larger than those that Clinton piled up in coastal cities.

Things were very different in 1992, when Mrs. Clinton’s husband beat the Republican, George H.W. Bush. Back then, you could find a Democratic county without driving very far, even though Clinton won with only 43% of the vote.

The change toward a more sectionally divided America has been going on for a while, but maps of voter change show a geographical intensification in 2016, resulting largely from a rush of formerly Democratic voters to Trump. Fewer voters switched to the Democrats; indeed, many Democrats refused to be lured to the polls to vote for anyone. But there has been a very strong, though unquantifiable, intensification of antipathy toward Republicans in core Democratic areas.

The ten Democratic US senators who do not come from safe districts, who come in fact from states that Trump carried, and who are up for reelection in 2018, are not boycotting.

Meanwhile, Republicans have inexorably captured state house after state house. They now occupy the governors’ chairs and control the legislatures in 25 states, Democrats in only 6. On the other side, the government of California hired a former Democratic attorney general of the United States to defend it against any attack by President Trump — before President Trump even came into office — and Democratic cities have declared that they will defy the administration in regard to the prosecution of illegal immigrants and other issues of concern. Sixty or so Democratic members of Congress have advertised their inability to live with a Republican administration by boycotting the new president’s inauguration — many even questioning the legitimacy of his election.

It is notable that these are all, or almost all, members from safe districts. The ten Democratic US senators who do not come from safe districts, who come in fact from states that Trump carried, and who are up for reelection in 2018, are not boycotting. If, by 2018, nothing changes (which something very well may), these senators will be out of office, and the political sectionalization of the United States will be further intensified.

A little bit of context may be helpful, one way or another. Despite popular belief, no one got a majority of the popular vote in 2016: Trump got 46.1%; Clinton got 48.2%. But Lincoln got only 39.8% — an indication of considerably greater sectional feeling. In 1860 the two-party system crumbled into four parties, owing not just to Southern refusal to acknowledge the possibility of life with a Republican president but also to Southern and Northern hatred of a non-sectional candidate, Douglas. The question would be: was either Clinton or Trump a non-sectional candidate, in the contemporary sense?

There is nothing like the chance of losing one’s livelihood to spur people to desperate acts.

To continue: in today’s political mix there is no fundamental, essentially unsolvable problem such as slavery. What divides the two sections of the country is, I believe, the predominance of the “liberal” bureaucrats and wealthy “capitalists” who cluster in large cities and on the coasts. This predominance can be reduced or increased by action on a variety of fronts, all of which will witness vast outpourings of bile, but no actual secession. On the other hand, there is nothing like the chance of losing one’s livelihood to spur people to desperate acts, and that is what we are seeing in the contest between phased-out industrial communities, now backing Republicans, and state employees and benefit-recipients, backing Democrats.

This is not a spectacle that most libertarians will enjoy. Some reforms that libertarians desire will be enacted by either local Democrats or national or local Republicans, but they will be tainted by today’s violent party spirit, and broadly discredited. I do not sense the spirit of limited government in the fact that most state governments are now one-party states. And when I look at the map of congressional districts in the election of 2016, I see a vast expanse of safe districts, hardening into total irresponsibility. When you add the element of real hatred and hysteria, fostered during the election by political operatives and pressure groups and continued thereafter as a way to keep donations flowing, I see a period in which antipathy will blind people on both sides to any form of political rationality.

But yes, I hope I’m wrong.




Share This

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.