Is another civil war brewing in America? : The NPR Politics Podcast The idea of another American Civil War might seem outlandish. But as the country diversifies, it's grown more polarized. Today, Americans can't even agree on who won the 2020 election or whether masks prevent the spread of COVID. Researchers say it's not out of the question for these political tensions to boil over.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, and senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving.

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Is another civil war brewing in America?

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TYLER: Hi. This is Tyler (ph) in Austin, Texas. I am currently deleting hundreds of the NPR POLITICS PODCASTs that I had accidentally subscribed my fiance to when I was having trouble listening to it on my phone. This episode was recorded at...


2:08 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday, January 13.

TYLER: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. But by now, my fiance's phone should have over two gigabytes of space available again. All right. Here's the show.


KHALID: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: I'm Tamara Keith. I also cover the White House.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: And I'm Ron Elving, senior editor and correspondent.

KHALID: And today on the show, I want you all to pause and consider what might seem like a crazy, outlandish stat. But bear with us. Just think about this for a sec. In a University of Virginia poll taken after the 2020 election, 52% of people who voted to reelect Donald Trump said they would favor the idea of red and blue states seceding from the union to form their own separate country. And frankly, the numbers weren't so, so different for Biden supporters. Forty-one percent of them said it might be time to split the country. And I will say, you know, we talk a lot on this show about how divided we are as a country, but numbers like these feel more existential than the usual political polarization talk you all hear. So, Ron, you know, you recently wrote a piece online for about how and why another civil war appears to maybe be brewing. And I will be real when I even say that phrase out loud. It feels a bit like crazy talk to me - a civil war. So, Ron, explain what you mean by that.

ELVING: Well, we're not talking about something along the lines of 1861; 150-some years ago, North and South, blue and gray, the stuff of legend. We're not talking about that kind of regional civil war that was fought at that time over slavery and states' rights and a raft of issues that were basically all boiled down to slavery. This is another era entirely, and we are not talking about that kind of U.S. regional conflict. What we're talking about though is people fighting each other who are citizens of the same country but have radically different ideas about that country and, sometimes, may split into different countries or may just carry their conflicts on within a given state. What we're really talking about here is a war within the states, within every state, and people who have terribly different views of the 2020 election, terribly different views of many other things and are having a hard time getting back to that shared idea that we have a peaceful transfer of power. And we have a rational decision about who was the winner.

KEITH: Well, and also the idea that the United States is united, that we are one country. And one thing that I have been thinking about as I was reading your piece is the difference between this pandemic, which is what I've been covering extensively, and, say, when the United States was racing to find a vaccine for polio. It was a national effort. If you've heard of the March of Dimes, people were sending in - literally sending in their dimes to try to fund an effort to save the country and the world from a terrible disease. Well, this time, it's a moment of national disunity and really, like, very huge divisions over something as simple as wearing a mask or getting a vaccine or mandating a vaccine.

ELVING: And we should remember that even back with the polio vaccine in the 1950s, there were divisions. There were divisions within families. Some of my cousins got the shot. Some of my cousins did not get the shot. And those who did not, one of them actually became a polio victim. So...



ELVING: This was an experience, I think, most people from that generation carried forward and thought, well, everyone will get the vaccine. But a lot of time has gone by. And in this particular instance, it was not seen so much as a miracle of a vaccine as a way of preventing a disease as much as it's been seen as a contest of the people variously defined versus their government. And that has produced a particularly toxic overlay on both the pandemic and, of course, the 2020 election. All these things seem to coincide.

KHALID: So, Ron, how did we get here?

ELVING: So many different changes in our culture politically and socially over the last 75 years have contributed to where we are now. But right after World War II, there was a sense that in a sense, we were on top of the world. We had, as a united country - and we were enormously united in that struggle. The idea of American exceptionalism, which has always been strong, had really reached a kind of peak. We also had a shared national media experience. And in the 1950s, you know, there were three networks. And as news got to be a bigger part of what the networks delivered, the networks started to produce something that was a kind of national consensus news. And those organizations and some magazines, some national newspapers really created a kind of defined space for where the political debate took place. That's largely gone.

KHALID: I mean, do you find, Ron, that there is reason for more concern now than there might have been - I don't know - after, say, 2018 or 2016? And I guess I ask this as maybe loaded. You know, I remember going out, and I was interviewing people and asking them a common question after the 2016 election. The question I wanted to hear their answers to was, what does it mean to be an American? I mean, I was struck by how different responses you'd get from people depending on who they were and where they live on what it actually means to be an American. But there was no consensus about that idea back then. It doesn't feel like there's a consensus now either. But I guess I'm curious if you feel or if you have reason to believe things are any worse today than they have been.

ELVING: There is a component in all of these conflicts that it goes beyond what we have seen in the past with left and right and Republican, Democrat, red and blue. It has to do with a fear - a growing fear. It's been called the great replacement theory in some quarters. And some of the research that's just come out from a group of people at the University of Chicago - their project on security and threats - shows that the commonality among people they're studying, primarily the insurrectionists who came to Washington January 6, assaulted the capital - the commonality is a belief in something along the lines of, we are being replaced. We are being displaced and that to be an American is to be people like us. And the new people that are coming to our part of the world, to our country, to our part of the state, to our town, to our neighborhood - those people are different. And they're not really Americans, and they're displacing us. And that is what's driving a lot of the really hard-edge activity.

KEITH: Well, and what was fascinating about that study is that they looked at the people who were arrested in - you know, in storming the capital. And these weren't - more often, they were people who came from counties that Joe Biden won. They were people who felt isolated where they are.

ELVING: Yes. And there is a tendency for counties to be more likely to vote Republican the further out you get from the center point of a metropolitan area. And there certainly was such a tendency with respect to the Trump vote. Donald Trump won something like 2,500 counties. That's why the map looks so red. But the 500 counties that Biden won, just a real small minority of all counties, nonetheless are home to 60% of the population. And that kind of change and the point of contact between the swelling metropolitan areas that are going further and further out and the outer ring of suburbs and the inner part of the rural part of the state - that conflict area is producing, apparently, according to this research, quite a few of the people who are ready to get violent, really ready to rumble.

KHALID: OK. Let's take a quick break. I have lots more questions for both of you all about this divide and what it means for our country, but we'll be back in a minute.

And we're back. And I want to talk about racial dynamics here because when we speak about a, quote, "rural-urban divide" it often feels like it's code for a racial divide. And, you know, certainly, there are many Black and Latino folks who also live in rural areas. So, Ron, explain to us, you know, what exactly are the divisions that you're seeing as far as we can see them geographically?

ELVING: A large component of what makes the metropolitan areas, the inner core counties much more likely to vote Democratic than any other counties - some of that clearly is reflective of the voting on the part of people of color primarily for the Democratic Party. Now, that used to be the Black community much more than, say, the Hispanic community or the Asian American community. But in the last couple of election cycles, really going back to the Obama years, you saw the Hispanic and the Asian American vote also going in a lopsided fashion to the Democrats. And since those categories of voters are concentrated in the metropolitan areas, and particularly in the innermost core of the metropolitan areas, that's a strong portion of the explanation. It's not a full explanation, but it is part of it. And then the other racial aspect of it is this fear that has grown up in white-majority populations, sometimes far removed from the cities, but most particularly in those areas that are near the cities but not part - outer metro area, if you will - the fear that somehow they're being displaced and that the growth of the cities and the culture of the cities is displacing them and their culture. And that seems to be the flashpoint.

KEITH: Yeah.

KHALID: You know, I am thinking, though - Ron, it feels like maybe there are just historical cycles. And I don't know. Maybe I'm saying this in a - sound a bit fatalist here - that there is just really nothing that can be done, and this is kind of a natural historical cycle. But it does feel a bit like that to me - that there are moments of tension in the country where they're just tumult. And we're at one of those fissure points right now. And it feels like it's going to be that way for a little while while we see these demographic changes.

And, you know, you look at the under-age-5 population. I have, you know, two kids, actually, under the age of 5, and their classrooms look so fundamentally different than what a classroom looked like when I was a kid, in terms of who their classmates are. And the world is changing. It's majority minority for kids in a small age group at this point. And once everyone becomes sort of aware or realizing that this is the demographic inevitability - and we also had just a younger population grow up who are - who's more accustomed to it - that things will - I don't know - I don't know what the right word is - calm down. I mean, I guess I say this - it feels at times to me - like, I look back and - I mean, y'all know I'm from Indiana - proud Hoosier - but I look back at my childhood; I look back at the schools I went to, and I hear moments of tension now that feel more vitriolic than what it was like when I was a kid there, and there were fewer minorities going to the school systems at that point. So as the county has diversified, you've actually seen more flashpoints. And I don't know what it's going to take for things to kind of reach a level of calm again. Maybe it's just inevitable for a little while.

ELVING: That is something that is not only a fond hope but something that is a rational hope. That is something we have seen in the past, where people come to terms with changes that seemed unsupportable at one time but which - over time, they make their peace with it one way and another. But I think there's something to this idea of transition that you were mentioning. I remember when I was in high school, hearing people say that high schools in Chicago, Kansas City - cities where I lived - would be troubled racially up to the point where people essentially gave over to a new social arrangement so that at certain percentages, there wouldn't need to be a lot of tension. If there were only a few people of a different race coming to a high school for the first time, that, you know, 5%, 10% didn't necessarily lead to a lot of problems - but that when you got up to around 30%, 40%, that's when you had the maximum conflict. And then when the transition went forward and people understood that this was going to be the new normal, people made their peace with it one way and another.

Now, I'm not saying that everything - all animosities go away. I'm saying that a particular subculture, such as a high school, could come to some sort of new arrangements. Perhaps that's where we're going - not as a nation, in the sense that it would all happen at the same time in every place. But in each of these localities that we're talking about state by state, it is possible that, to differing degrees, a new arrangement can come to be recognized and accepted. I think we've seen some of that in California. We're on the cusp of seeing some of that in Texas. And we will see if that carries forward in other states as well.

KHALID: All right. That is a wrap for today. But before we let you go, we just got word as we were in here taping this podcast that the Supreme Court has decided to block the Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccine or test requirement. That was for large workplaces. The court does seem to allow a vaccine mandate, though, to still hold for workers at federally funded health care facilities. That will remain in effect. And we will be back in your feeds tomorrow to provide more analysis on what this all means.

I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I also cover the White House.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor/correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you all as always for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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