About That Civil War

I’ve been brooding a lot over the fragmentations and hostilities of American life, and the gloomy predictions of a “civil war”. Since America’s divisions tend to fall along lines of urban and rural, a traditional “war” featuring some sort of widespread armed conflict is unlikely and impractical, but the “sides” are pretty clearly arrayed, and we seem incapable of talking to or understanding each other.

I especially thought about the growing differences of Americans’ realities a couple of weeks ago. We were driving home from South Carolina, where for the past forty-plus years our family has enjoyed a summer week at the beach. We used to take the  state’s (relatively) major roads from our place at Litchfield Beach to Columbia, where we accessed the interstate, but since the advent of GPS, we’ve been able to save time by following directions along the lines of “take a right through farmer Brown’s sorghum field, then go 500 feet and turn onto narrow, scary unpaved county line road…(Okay, that may be a bit exaggerated, but it is amazing how desolate some parts of our country remain, and how long you can drive without encountering human habitation…)

What isn’t exaggerated is the isolation through which the GPS took us. We would go miles and miles without passing a gas station or seeing anything remotely resembling a town. We would, however, occasionally pass a trailer that had seen better days, often with an equally-dilapidated truck or van sitting in an un-mowed yard. Other times, we would pass a more substantial small home sitting forlornly in a field, alone and–so far as we could tell– far from neighbors or shops.

I cannot help wondering about the people who live in these homes. Do they have internet access? Television? Where is the nearest school, and do they have children who attend that school? Is there a library anywhere close? Where’s the nearest grocery? (Given the number of churches we pass on these trips–far, far more numerous than gas stations– I do know there’s a church near by, although I have no idea whether it is the “right” church…)

So here’s the thing.

Living in the heart of a mid-sized city, my experience of American life is radically different from the experience of the folks who inhabit these precincts. It isn’t a matter of “better” or “worse” (although we all have our prejudices)–it’s a matter of really dramatic distance. The skill sets of people who must fix their own cars, grow much of their own food, and rely on their immediate families and fellow religious congregants  for the bulk of their human interaction is obviously different from that of city dwellers who live near multiple other people–most of whom don’t go to their church or share their backgrounds or experiences.

Although I’d be the first to admit that I have no way of knowing, I’m pretty sure that the things I fear are not the things these folks fear. It’s also likely that the things I know and am familiar with are very different from the things they know and are familiar with, just as our respective skill-sets are likely to be very different. 

How do we talk to each other as Americans? What does being an American mean to each of us? Are there areas of agreement, of commonality? 

Research confirms that MAGA true believers come disproportionately from these very rural environments, and that many of these inhabitants deeply resent the “elitists” and “woke folks” they think occupy urban America. Urban dwellers can be equally dismissive of rural folks.  

As a 2018 Pew study reported,

Against this backdrop, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that many urban and rural residents feel misunderstood and looked down on by Americans living in other types of communities. About two-thirds or more in urban and rural areas say people in other types of communities don’t understand the problems people face in their communities. And majorities of urban and rural residents say people who don’t live in their type of community have a negative view of those who do.

A 2020 study by scholars at  Washington University found  that the urban-rural political divide is rooted in geography and not merely differences in the type of people who choose to live in these places. How close people live to a major metropolitan area (defined as cities of at least 100,000) and the population density of that urban environment significantly affect political beliefs and partisan affiliations. The researchers found that “The distance we live away from a metropolitan area shapes what we think about the political world and the partisan labels we adopt.”

There really are two Americas, and they are increasingly at odds. Perhaps it isn’t “civil war”–but it’s uncomfortably close. 


  1. Thanks Prof. My mind wanders to such thoughts on trips too. Mine take me from Indianapolis to Madison WI through central IL. The billboards, the “editorials” scribbled on rest room walls, the local radio “News & Views” are all startling to me. It feels like irrational ignorant misinformed hatred of the other. I feel somewhat unsafe at times in that environment. Rush (and the others) on the radio and Fox news on the TV have caused much of this. Now the internet, Q, Trump have turned it into an angry angry wave.

  2. One of the signs of fascism is the leaders tell their subjects ( big lie) that they are victims. That is reinforced by the lie that the main stream media is the enemy of “freedom” as well. Republicans, as close to being fascist as they are, rely on the idea of white folks being victims of “others”, the urban elites and of course Big Government.

  3. I live on one of NE Indiana’s beautiful glacial lakes located in one of the deepest red counties in the state. I often tell people that half the people who live here think it’s 1840 (Old Order Amish) and the other half thinks it’s 1953. But lately, I’ve wondered if the latter think its just 10 years later than the Amish do.

    Setting the discussion of the Amish community aside because of its uniqueness, I see ONE great difference that explains most if not all differences between rural and city-folk: level of educational attainment. There are FAR fewer people in rural areas than urban/suburban/exurban areas that went beyond a high school education and it shows in every aspect of life, economic, social, spiritual, cultural and political.

    But a second difference I find is in how community leadership works, not just the politics and government but ALL of the institutions of a community that must work and require good leadership to do so: the the cultural and social non-profits, the businesses, schools, etc. What I’ve found in this county is that something less than a few dozen people seem to control virtually everything that goes on.

    The same names show up in elected government positions, political parties (one anyway, GQP), boards, commissions, churches, EDC, RDC, and on and on. And of course, there is an informal and distinct pyramid and pecking order within this small group of elites, usually starkly male-dominated, and at the top are often a couple of (wealthy) business people, the Sheriff and an IN state representative or senator. City-folk are hard pressed to name their County Sheriff, state rep or Senator as they focus more on city and national politics if they bother at all.

    As a result there is a very unhealthy homogeneity and conformity to the way everyone seems to think. I believe it is because of this that the Republican Party has such a stranglehold monopoly on rural counties. There’s just a dearth of new ideas and perspectives allowed to break through into conversations and as a result the local Overton window is the shape of a vertical ellipse.

    And I think they have a very rough 25-50 years ahead of them to sustain anything like they currently enjoy as their rural way of life.

  4. If we look at it through a different lens, we might see that we all want strong shelter, ample food, and a better, healthier future for the children. When those things are assured, we can begin to think about other things, like politics and the arts (although music is already universal). Why do we fear different things? What would it take to reduce or eliminate those fears? The fears of the middle class are vastly different from those of the poor in both urban and rural areas. Perhaps that’s the starting point.

  5. Patrick, I too saw this rural / city divide the same way. The southern Illinois community I lived in for eight years wasn’t just stagnant; it was repressed. Moving back to Indianapolis I have found a divide here too, mostly along the lines of religion and education. Sad.

  6. Much of the resentment in the rural south stems from the Civil War and the disastrous Reconstruction period. The exploitation of northern carpetbaggers, the union army and the suddenly freed black people all contributed to open and persistent hate of anything “Yankee” or “elitist”. Little has been done politically to heal that gap.

  7. As a young child I learned about a poverty stricken area only 3 blocks from my home, 2 blocks from my school which the black children were not allowed to attend. One of the two coal yards in my neighborhood was surround by ramshackle, actually falling apart homes, all with outhouses. People and homes dirty from the coal dust when trucks loaded and unloaded coal to be delivered. Dad took me with him to talk to a man who had some equipment and the information Dad needed to raise our small home on lifter-jacks to dig a half-basement and install a coal furnace. We had a coal oil stove in the living room, no screens in any window, one cold water faucet in the kitchen and a toilet sitting in a small room off of the back bedroom my brother and I shared. We were surrounded by more modern homes but a few outhouses remained. Dad installed the furnace and duct work himself; he also plumbed the house, adding hot water to the kitchen, sink, tub, hot and cold water and water heater in the room with the toilet. He also dug up the front yard to clear tree roots from the sewer pipe to the street. I’m sure the areas Sheila and Bob drove through probably have people living with no modern conveniences, which we take for granted, and believe this is the norm. Doubtful any improvements are in the future for those who live in those isolated areas which we can find throughout this country.

    “How do we talk to each other as Americans? What does being an American mean to each of us? Are there areas of agreement, of commonality?”

    Some of us here on the blog have from time to time expressed our deep concerns over the loss of the ability to “talk to each other” as family members, friends and neighbors due to the abyss created over the past 6 years due to the Trump regime which continues today. Voter suppression based on racial gerrymandering is major; as is the current Pro-Choice vs. Pro-Life Supreme Court battle and the devastating mass shootings which show no sign of ablating. An NBC news item on AOL this morning is beyond belief as to how low we have sunk in this Cold Civil War we are living in. Headline: “Wave of states banning discrimination against natural hair”; states are being forced to ban discrimination “…based on hair texture, hair type, hairstyles; including but not limited to natural, protective hairstyle such as braids, locks, twists, Bantu knots and other formations.”

    How much further apart can we get as Americans when racial hair is becoming an issue needing laws to protect Americans against hair texture and hairstyle discrimination?

  8. I’ve been through rural parts of America quite a bit! Been through South cartolina, North Carolina, kenttucky, Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and I’ve never seen any more oddly stereotypical than Maine! The redneck olympics? I thought it was a joke, but it wasn’t! I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much! A lot of folks out there thrive on self-deprecation. Fear casts a long Shadow for everyone, when you get past the fear, you see the people!

    Best not to talk about politics or religion! It’s always best to engage on a personal level. Eventually, you could find out about family and friends, how a person lives, their personal trials and tribulations! That’s always been easy for me, some people find it difficult!

    When you make direct eye contact and treat someone with respect, it does make a huge difference in the interaction. Love your neighbor! How would you want to be treated? Show some empathy and concern, always show respect! People are not politics, and politicians are not people per se. Most are users and climbers! Seeking power or authority. Politicians quit being servants of the public a long time ago. It’s more like the public serves the politicians. It’s Bass ackwards, that’s one of the main rubs.

    And you’re right about some of the empty areas of this country. People do what they need to do to survive. You will see very young women and much older men of different ethnicities living in a small shack. The children will not have much of an education and usually the mother has not been educated much at all. The man will have some knowledge about farming or ranching, handiwork or whatever. And that’s how they make their living! That’s how their lives are! It really is sad, but when desperate people are looking to be noticed, looking for help, the inhuman politicians use them as disposable commodities for selfish and callous goals.

    People are starved for attention, they’re starved for understanding, they’re starved for respect! They’re starved for a better life, but, all they hear is talk. Being recognized in talk is better than not being recognized at all! Even if those politicians don’t mean it, calling someone a citizen or a brother or sister in a revolution, bring about self-respect and respect as a whole, even if they’re just words never backed by action, it’s appealing to have your name or situation IE lot in life, uttered from a book for a platform…

    I don’t have any problems with what we consider common folk or the poorest among us, I have a problem with the liars and hypocrites! I practice what I preach, many others do not. Go to a restaurant and see a family maybe eating out on their monthly restaurant holiday, really without any disposable income. Pay for their dinner if you can! You will have a friend for life. And, they will tell you about their entire family history if you’re willing to sit and listen.

    Hate and distrust divide, and the politicians use it for their personal encouragement off the public teat.

  9. Sheila – many, many kudos. And the same to all commenters – so far. A refreshing and human look at our country and a root cause problem. For me, this is one of the best days yet for this blog.

    I often (idealistically) wonder whether we need the reverse of the big city programs that take urban poor children to rural farms during the summer to see the “other side”. “You’ve got to be carefully taught”.

    But I am challenged to think how we can take privileged “elite young professionals” from their “start-up hub workspaces” and curated cocktail bars life to see the other side.

  10. Amen to Patrick’s contribution. Perhaps our rural politicians don’t want an elucidated polity via electronic means to destroy their grip on rural politics.

  11. Those who hide in backwater USA are defying human nature and the nature of the cosmos. As Buddha said, “All things in life are impermanent.”

    Physics teaches us that the universe is constantly changing. Those who refuse to adapt will suffer. I think Darwin said the same thing. Those species who refuse to adapt will perish.

  12. in such a place,rural mississippi there is a road running from a main 4 lane hiway,east/west to a south east road thru the woods to the south east end of the state,id run this to avoid scales,(imagine that) and the piggy bank in my northern pocket.. but it is a experience. the shacks are civil war days built.( i wish i was tellin a tall one here folks) logs hewn and laid over and chinked. the porch is the main living area,and whoever and when ever is visitin.
    many kids like me to blow my air horn,and mom will wave too. i will guess, there is no electricity.
    this is 1995, and the outhouse looks like its past due for a coat of paint. if a state like miss, is that poor that it cant afford its own a sanitary system and running water,it is because it doesnt want to. the state itself has a cronic problem with poverty, and joblessness. its own fault ,and dont buy the crap they sell at the state house.like many rural south, the segregation is still a priority. its no spoken word, whitey knows his spot is first. any state can have economic future, and no poverty. its has chosen to be what it is.now they bought us the webb doctrin,,whether its use of the courts for its own needs or a church, the south is a pitful place of segregation and bigotry, supplied by both church and state..i dont mince words here, i ran alot of miles down there,in my blue collar status. i shake hands with like socio-econ likes,and do buisness without any flash,white or black. it may not seem fair to judge, but when it spills over to the rest of the nation how the poverty king of the U.S. just used the courts for its own power grab, and shove it up the liberals patuny,with little regard to who it affects,or when,,its obvious, the state gov. is laughing.. they will never help its own,instead its a badge of honor to have a whole sect of a race,confined to poverty by choice,theirs.
    if ya ever get a chance to drive there,stop at a farmers market,in that wooded placed between a few roads, get out,shake a few hands,buy something.. ever have yellow watermellon? i have fun talking with these folks,and how down and out they maybe,they still have morals and good words for the day..

  13. Armed civil war is “ unlikely and impractical.”
    I certainly hope so.
    That’s what average Americans were saying even as the Civil War was getting underway.
    And what average Germans were saying as the Nazis took over.
    The trend toward the overthrow of democracy and unarmed takeover by rich elitists (Al’s Citizens United) has become a powerful movement 80+ years in the making. As FDR said, if the conservatives press too far, it will result in fascism. And there already exists a strong armed movement.
    If we don’t change directions over the next two elections, it would be a shame to not have a civil war.

  14. BTW, there’s a new kid n the block.
    FORWARD has become the largest third party after the two major parties. ForwardParty.com

  15. Christopher,

    Thanks for the bleak news. So…data strongly suggests that 3rd party (lib/moderate) voters made the difference in presidential elections in 2000 and 2016. Watch what you ask for….

  16. I might have to say that there is more nuance to the extent of the separation you describe. I suspect that living in a suburban part part of the state, and here locally that would be the 8 counties surrounding indianapolis, you will find hundreds thousand people that in the normal part of their daily lives, never see a junked car sitting in a yard. They may see one or two POC of color in a normal day, shopping or eating, or at work. With expansive suburban yards, they are disconnected from their neighbors, neighborhoods. And just as you have described, to do anything you need to get into a car, because in these sprawling suburbs, you can’t afford to implement something like transit, or even get enough density to create a walkable shopping district.

    I suspect that type of affluent isolation breeds as much fear of something different as does living in rural isolation, but with ready access to Fox and Facebook, where every fear can be confirmed and reinforced.

  17. Funny. Vilifying rural folks as you needlessly spread carbon emissions (thus adding to climate change) via traveling.

    Two minutes of hate.

    Too funny. Two Americas,indeed.

  18. Two by Two, who is vilifying rural folks? It seems to me she is trying to inspire understanding.

    I also recently drove through rural South Carolina, and I had the same feeling — it’s a different world than that which I experience.

    Thanks for showing some empathy.

  19. Sooo much here. background: I have lived in at least 3 parts of the “divide”. As a child I lived in NW Arkansas, no electricity, with a bucket well and outhouse. Then in a small town in NE Indiana. And for over 30 years in Indy.
    I appreciate Jack’s contribution and his approach to people.
    My experience says to each of you “You are right and you are wrong, and so am I.”
    When last I visited my AK home all the houses had electricity and TV. There were still quite a few outhouses. When last I visited my NE IN home the town had become a remote suburb of Fort Wayne. It was a marginal community that, unlike the ’40s to the ’60s, could no longer stand independent of external sources of employment and commerce.
    The primary commonality between the rural and small town was that we of my generation and subsequent generations were planning to leave as soon as possible. When we left we took generations of energy, generations of talent, generations of creativity, generations of labor, generations of hope with us.
    What did we leave? We left sorrow of loss as the place declined. We left fear of greater loss as business and industry left with us (yes for many reasons). We left frustration and anger with those who could not leave or felt abandoned.

    Then there is the impact of HEADLINES. Nearly every one of the apparently primitive living situations mentioned by folks here does have access to some mass media. Mass media runs on headlines. print is obvious. TV and radio create even more headline impact through pictures and the vocal stresses. Yes, we all know the dynamics of why they do it. But, imagine how different the impact on the minds of people if there WERE NO HEADLINES.
 There was once hope that the internet could be where we all could converse and develop understanding, but we followed our comfort into ‘bubbles’.
 We still have no safe place where we can say to each other “my greatest fear is…. My greatest wound is….. I am angry that……..
    Meanwhile the power seekers and controllers in all aspects of our lives use those fears and wounds and anger to manipulate us. We have a lot of uncomfortable work to do. Any thoughts on where to start?

  20. Thank you for wondering about people in rural areas. They have been left behind. The internet that is accessible is on their cell phones if they can get it at all. Several years ago, one of my friends was appalled that my cousins could not apply for college online from home. They had to do it from school or the nearest public library 20 miles away.

    I grew up in rural Southern Indiana and after 30+ years of living in the Indy metro area, I still am not comfortable with cities. I still grow, can, and freeze as much of my own food as possible in my garden although I don’t hunt and fish like my cousins. I still feel a certain amount of resentment at rich people who waste money on trips to places like Litchfield Beach although I am now one of those rich people who has done that. My hold out is that I refuse to get a smartphone.

    The rural place that I left where people grew and preserved their own food has been replaced with corporate farms and poverty. The upwardly mobile people like me have left – some of us like me did it grudgingly because there were not jobs for people with PhDs in those areas. The people left behind have been raped by the coal companies, corporate farms run by people in cities who have internet. They resent us and are frustrated.

    Several years ago one of my friends from childhood was ranting on facebook about liberal college professors. I pointed out to her that I was one and she unfriended me.

    I am not comfortable in either the metro area or the rural areas but have a foot in both worlds. Thank you for wondering. I wish more people did on both sides.

  21. This “divide” makes a lot of sense.
    I live in a suburban Florida area which abuts some pretty rural areas, and can see some pretty old ramshackle
    homes, some with those cars parked on the “lawn” with the hoods open, even in what are now suburban areas.
    Though, truth be told, these were, apparently, not so suburban 20-30 years ago.
    There are small farms, and I have imagined that the folks who live there are proud of their (apparent) “independent”
    life styles, grumbling, under their breaths, about the rest of us. It feels like “Country mouse/city mouse.”
    There is an area, not far away, a wooded area, and the “story” is that the folks who live there are the remnants(?) of
    the old local KKK folks. That once rural environment has been encroached upon by developments of suburban spread,
    and when friends of ours moved into one of those developments, a few years ago, the sister of the wife of that couple
    was not willing to take a rod close to that wooded area.
    The route she was willing to take ran past a long established nudist camp, an entity no one would, I think, be afraid to
    pass close to.

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