The Myth of a ‘United’ States
Regina de Heer: Do you think there's anything at all that all people in the United States have in common?
Jeremy: Self-determinism. Every American I've met, always wants to do things their way.
Regina de Heer: Do you feel any allegiance to where you live?
Jeremy: Well, I'm a native New Yorker. It's just one of the most vibrant cities in the world. My connection is definitely with New York more than it is with the rest of the country.
Regina de Heer: Why do you think that is?
Jeremy: We just do things so differently here than the rest of the country, which is so much more trapped and more conservative ideas and stuff.
Benny: I feel like there was always an ingrained division, but especially after Trump got elected in 2016, I feel like a lot of these ideologies that people harbor just surfaced, and then people started realizing how different we all are like politically and socially.
Jeremy: The division is very unhealthy and is sometimes even tempting to want to split up our country. Like let's division off Texas and let them do their thing because we're just not speaking a similar language at all.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. Here's a number I am stuck on. 290,510, that is how many people voted for Joe Manchin to be a senator. Obviously, all of them in the state of West Virginia and like three years ago, 290,510 West Virginians. Yet, the whole planet is subject to his political mood at the moment. Now, Kyrsten Sinema, she's another story, a lot more people chose her to be senator just over a million people, all who live in Arizona and good for them, but there are 330 million people in the United States alone.
None of us got to say anything about either of these two senators and yet, they have right now enormous power over billions of lives. I say all this to say what? That sometimes I'm through with it. I mean this whole United States thing. If West Virginia and Arizona are happy with their leadership, fine, great, but why do I have to live with it? Or put another way if we've got a system where this relative handful of people living in two states could end up deciding the fate of the planet, I don't know, is that a system that's a net positive for humanity?
Are we better off breaking this thing up? Now look, before you start hate tweeting at me, I get it. It's all way more complicated than what I have just laid out. I'm talking about an emotional thing here. A deep frustration with the effort to keep the United part of these United States. It's safe to that a lot of folks can relate to this emotion right now, people of almost every political ideology and affiliation actually. There's an argument to be made that this emotion, this readiness to give up on the unity piece, it's actually a defining part of the United States history.
There's a book about it, last fall, amid the heat of the 2020 election drama. Journalists Richard Kreitner published a new survey of our national history through the lens of succession. The book is called Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America's Imperfect Union. Richard Kreitner joins me to talk through that history on tonight's show. Richard, thanks for joining us.
Richard Kreitner: Sure. Thank you so much for having me. A big fan of the show.
Kai Wright: I guess where I'd like to start is Walt Whitman who you talk about an essay he wrote 1871 called Democratic Vistas, and it's this exploration of a post-civil war America with its expansive and unified horizon of states. He was concerned about the fate of such an expansive union. He wrote, "The United States are destined to either surmount the gorgeous history of futilism or else proved the most tremendous failure of time." Richard, I gather from this survey of our history that you are not quite sure we ever surmounted the gorgeous history of futilism. Is that a fair analysis of where you're coming from?
Richard Kreitner: I think it certainly is a fair analysis. Anybody who's reading the daily to papers, I think, is seeing signs of that all over the place, concentrated power of all kinds, and our failure to really achieve what Whitman held to be our democratic destiny. Whitman is like the presiding spirit of the book because I think he's our sharpest observer of American politics and American life from the period before the civil war to the period after really the-- what I would consider the hinge point of American history.
Like Lincoln, who he wrote about so much, they both had this idea that the civil war was a bet. It was a wager. It was worth all this sacrifice, all this blood, which Whitman was intimately familiar with in order to keep the union together, if it was going to serve some end, if it was going to become some special thing down the road. Part of my project came from the realization 150 years later, we haven't really achieved that destiny, that the wager hasn't necessarily paid off, and what does that mean for our understanding of American history and of the future.
Kai Wright: You wrote this book during the Trump era. Was that part of it? What fueled you?
Richard Kreitner: It was. I think a lot of people mistakenly think that it came out of the Trump error, which it didn't. It actually came out of this late Obama moment of massive frustration about the fact that the Democrats had control of the government. We'd bothered to elect our first black president, and truly inspiring leader and didn't have too much to show for it.
As I started digging through American history to try to figure out why that was, and what that meant about the constitution and the union and the future, Trump certainly accelerated, I think the thought for a lot of people that maybe this union isn't all cracked up to be. Once Biden was elected, I think a lot of people on the left especially have edged away from that.
When we see once again, we're in this moment very much like 2014, 2015, where we see that even democratic control of Congress, of the presidency, isn't really enough to get what you want in a country with a Senate so unequally distributed for population, gerrymandering, and the like. I think people are getting frustrated once again. This secessionist sentiment, even on the left, I think predates the Trump era and will return even after he's gone.
Kai Wright: You're arguing that way predates the Trump era, that these ideas, this tension over whether or not this union is viable and worth it, that this is a through-line all the way through the history of our politics. It's almost like a survey. The book is almost like a survey of-- to me, familiar American history, but redefined to show this through-line.
Richard Kreitner: I see it as like an x-ray of American history, where everything that's Black is white and everything that's white is Black. Instead of the story of the coming to be of the nation and the constant act of creation itself as the union continues to exist, there's this ever-present possibility that it might fall apart, or even before-- The book starts 150 years before the creation of the United States and shows how long it took for a union to be formed and why so many people were against it in the first place. Thanksgiving is coming up and I start the book in a very conventional way.
As you say, it's familiar landmarks of American history just seen in a different way. The pilgrims were not called pilgrims at the time. They were called separatists of all things because they wanted to separate from the church of England. That's why they came to the new world because they wanted to basically declare independence from the existing structure of the church of England. Once they continue to spread throughout America, each settlement, each colony pretty much is of active succession from preexisting ones by people who didn't fit in or didn't see themselves as part of whatever preexisting community, Boston, for instance, that already existed.
The impulse towards separation as the solution for any intractable political dispute is four centuries old, long predates the creation of the United States. Indeed is the reason why it took so long, 150 years, the time it's been since the civil war to form a union in the first place because as today, the one thing that the American colonists had in common with one another is that they wanted nothing to do with each other.
Kai Wright: [chuckles] To the degree, we're unified, we're unified in separation.
Richard Kreitner: That's what we see in a recent poll that was put out that a lot of people were alarmed by that something like 52% of Trump supporters supports secession and 42% of Biden supporters support secession. That's the only thing we really have in common is the wish to have nothing to do with one another. In the colonial period and through the revolution, I think this union is the rule, and any proposal to depart from that by creating some federation is really the exception, and one most people really want nothing to do with.
Kai Wright: Let's go through it. Let's go through some of the big moments in history, where this through-line of secessionism is present. Reconstruction has been a real touchpoint for this show and our understanding of modern American politics. I want to start there. It's often been called the second founding of the country. I've often said, it's really the beginning of today's idea of America as this land of equal opportunity. You say, it's none of that, it's really a continuation of the existing divides that the civil war settled, nothing whatsoever. One point I learned in your book is that in the years right after the war, as politicians in both the north and south fought over the policies of reconstruction, they were constantly blaming each other for being divisive for driving us back towards a collapse of the union. Explain those charges and countercharges of that moment.
Richard Kreitner: Sure. At the end of reconstruction, by 1877, the so-called compromise of 1877, really a surrender by the north to the south. You have this return to the compromised tradition that had always defined American political history, quite tenuously, never entirely successfully, but there would always be these great dramas and stress points and then some deal would be hammered out that would purport to solve the issues that were at stake, but really just create further problems that would have to be solved down the road.
The reunion, I call it a fraudulent reunion because if you think about the union as a marriage, it's the parties getting back together on horribly unequal terms and without having really settled the court issues about equality that had motivated the dispute in the first place.
Kai Wright: I'm interested in the political rhetoric even at that time, like as this fake marriage came back together. I guess there's something about the detail of it when I'm reading it that hit home today, again, where you hear both Northern Republicans and Southern Democrats accusing the other of being the person who's driving us towards divisiveness out of union.
Richard Kreitner: Right. Well, that was also a continuation of rhetoric that had existed before the war, where each side would accuse the other of being a dis-unionist. It's like today, where after each side loses an election, people start to say, "Yes, maybe this union isn't really working for us." Then when they win and the other side starts talking that way, they call them traders. Everybody is both intrigued by and afraid of this impulse toward disunion. After the civil war, one thing that I think about this country is that we're kind of ashamed of having fought the war.
We were always taught to be embarrassed by it, that it was caused by these reckless abolitionists who didn't have anybody's interest, but their own at heart. In the north, I've always been taught to be somewhat ashamed of having fallen into this regrettable, tragic dispute, rather than being proud that we fought a war that ultimately led to the freedom for 4 million people from bondage. Part of that shame about the war was not wanting to risk another one, of course.
I think this is what you're getting at like powerful economic interests in the years after the war, we're able to use that fear of another conflict to stifle any kind of discontent, even if it had nothing to do with the causes that led the Confederacy to succeed and led to the civil war.
Kai Wright: I'm talking with Richard Kreitner about his book, Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America's Imperfect Union. Coming up, the Confederates are not the only people who've threatened to walk away from these nominally United States. They weren't even the first to do it over slavery. That's next.
Kousha Navidar: Hey, everyone. This is Kousha, I'm a producer. Listen, I hope you're enjoying the episode so far, but it's missing something. That's your perspective. Can you help us out? You heard Kai and Richard dig into our country's history of division and how deep it goes. We want to hear your perspective. Do you think there's something all Americans have in common? Do you feel allegiance to where you live or what does this conversation stir in you more generally? If we get enough responses, we'd love to do a follow-up segment in a couple of weeks using your recordings.
Record your voice on your phone, please, and email it to us. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, that's email@example.com. Also, happy holidays. I think it's close enough to say that now. Talk to you soon.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright. This is The United States of Anxiety. We're talking this week about the myth of our national unity, which feels pretty relevant at the moment. Journalist Richard Kreitner published a book at the peak of the election drama last year that is freshly on my mind now. It's a history of the long debate over whether the United part of the United States is worth the effort. He walks through a bunch of moments and movements in our history, including that of the north before the civil war.
We think about the southerners as the secessionists. As you rightly point out before the war also, the end of the union was a particularly Northern idea, particularly in the 1850s.
Richard Kreitner: Yes, absolutely. We think that it was inevitable that if anybody was going to succeed, it was going to be the south, but for the whole decade, before the war broke out, it was really the north that had much more reason to be angry with the way the country was going. You have the fugitive slave law, which made it every person's responsibility to recapture runaways from bondage and return them to their purported owners which many in the north considered to be just an appalling infringement, not only of the rights of the accused runaways but of the state rights of the north.
State's rights in this period was really Northern doctrine. The Republican party, which during the war came to represent federal power was really a states' rights party actually from the very first. Then of course, the Dred Scott decision, which many northerners and even Northern legislatures said, "This is no and void. This has absolutely no effect on us whatsoever. The Supreme court is an illegitimate body and we were under no responsibility to respect this opinion."
I think there's good reasons to think that if Abraham Lincoln had lost the 1860 election, or if nobody had won a majority and the election was thrown into the house of representatives and the election was stolen from him, basically, I think there's some reason to think that there would have been in a Northern secession movement in 1860-1861. Possibly even a war and possibly the north would have won that war. You would have had a Northern Confederacy in the 19th century.
Nobody really knows, but there's these little hinge points in history that show that things like this could have gone very differently in ways that we don't really appreciate. Sometimes people read my book and say, "We were divided before, we survived. Therefore, we have nothing really to worry about now." The lessons to me is almost exactly the opposite, which is that the union was never destined to be created in the first place. It was never inevitable that it was going to survive and there were many points at which very nearly did not. I think that's largely the case going forward today as well.
Kai Wright: The union divide has also not all only been north and south. You write that at least part of the political wheel behind building the railroads across the continent was an effort to keep the Western states feeling connected to the union. Explain that history.
Richard Kreitner: Sure, yes. This was a fascinating thing that I really wasn't aware of before I started working on the book, but I was excited by it because in 2016, when I really started accelerating my work on the project. Calexit was in the news Californians talking about independence today. I quickly realized that there's this long history to the idea of a separate Pacific Republic, which would be California, Oregon, maybe Washington state, and that preexists California's entry into the union. When people settled over there, it was really, really far away. There was no railroad.
They had to go through this very circuitous route around South America, usually to get there. They really wanted nothing to do with the United States. They saw it as a country that was fatally divided. That was probably going to fall into some civil war and they didn't want to be involved. What's most interesting is that there were very prominent American politicians who were perfectly fine with that, with there being a separate Pacific Republic in California and in Oregon. Thomas Jefferson said, "Let them be allies, but let them be separate." Daniel Webster, even one union indivisible. He was in favor of a separate Pacific Republic.
They took their inspiration from the American revolution that we shouldn't be ruled by such a distant government that really doesn't represent our interests. That idea is picked up, especially in 1861 amid the secession crisis where they say, "This country is absolutely falling apart. We come from both the north and the south." This is west coast residents speaking. "We don't want to have to go to war and fight against our neighbors and our family and our friends. Let's separate and form a separate Republic."
Major politicians from both of those states, California and Oregon supported that idea. Again, if one or two things had gone differently or if one or two people had acted differently, it could have happened that we would have an independent California today.
Kai Wright: Well, and so you write that one of the big political motivators for the massive infrastructure project of cross-country railroads that they could keep the west tied to the union, but then that's ironic because the railroad industry itself becomes a hotbed for a whole new kind of disunion fight around class. It echoes out into our politics throughout the gilded age of the late 19th century, in which elites start talking about labor agitators as secessionists.
Richard Kreitner: Right. There's a long tradition in which booster rhetoric about national unity covers up for very partisan sectional and selfish interests. I think that's something that you can see in the founding generation as well, where they're forming, yes, a more perfect union, but when you start to think and ask more perfect for who, it turns out to be for a very specific class of speculators and slaveholders. The rhetoric of unity is often used to cover up for selfish interests. I think that's the case after the civil war as well. There's a lot of rhetoric about may we unite the country in a way that it'll never be broken, blah blah blah, but all of the profits, all of the gains from this massive integration of the country is going to the very top 1%, as we would say today, and people start to have a problem with that. In 1877, there's this massive wave of labor strikes that, yes, target the railroads first, but they have support throughout the country and throughout the communities that they're working in.
People are talking about insurrection, talking about a new civil war that will be not between north and south, but either within the north or the whole country, that's really the bottom versus the top. Each side is accusing the other of being the secessionists. The anarchists, the labor organizers are accusing the rich of seceding from the country, which is, I think, rhetoric that we've heard in the last couple of years as well about the super rich basically seceding and trying to leaving the rest of society to solve its own problems.
Kai Wright: Going to the moon, literally.
Richard Kreitner: Exactly, or sea studying, building islands in the ocean so that they don't have to be part of this sinking ship, basically. The rich are also accusing the underclass, the agitators of being the heirs to the secessionists of 1861, trying to overthrow the government, trying to destroy the Republic, basically. Theodore Roosevelt, later on, in a different wave of strikes in the 1890s, suggests taking some of the populists and shooting them dead. It's incredibly violent rhetoric. All these people lived through the civil war, even if some of them were very young, many of them were actually veterans of the fighting.
They're seeing their politics through the prism of that experience. In cities, in Brooklyn, everywhere in the country, they're building these massive armories in the middle of cities for National Guard units, state militia units, that they think might have to fight against this rising underclass of poor people of laborers in the same way that the Union Army had to fight these southern rebels in the 1860s. They see it as a continuation of that struggle to keep the country together.
Kai Wright: That's so interesting. When you go down Atlantic Avenue and I see this big armory, part of the moment was that they literally were arming up to save the union.
Richard Kreitner: It's an extremely sad irony, I think, that the memory of the civil war one version, the popular version of the memory of the civil war is basically weaponized for the next century or till today in an effort to prevent the promises that were made in the civil war of equal rights and of true justice for all from actually coming true. I think that's part of our need to take another look in American history, as part of what 1619 is doing, is undoing this false form of memory of our history because that's a prerequisite for having a truly united and better country today.
Kai Wright: It's interesting also how some of the class disunion that you describe, at least in the West got resolved. The way that the tension between these popular uprisings and the moneyed class gets resolved is in part through racism.
Richard Kreitner: Sure. That's a specifically California story. It's a weird coda to the story of California separatism, which is that by 1879, Chinese workers are making up a very large percentage of the employment in California. White people, especially new white immigrants, are really furious about this, so they form a separate party, the Workingmen's Party, to basically try to exclude the Chinese from any part of California's political life, prevent them from voting, prevent them from serving on juries, or even prevent them from moving to California in the first place, or entering the United States through California's ports.
This would violate a treaty that the US and China had signed in the 1860s and therefore, trigger a clash between California and the federal government, one that a lot of these people or their fathers had wanted in the first place in the 1840s and 1850s. There's a state constitutional convention in California that year, in 1879, and some people support creating this clash from the federal government and perhaps even seceding from the union if that's the only way that they can institute this immigration ban that they want to pass against Chinese immigrants. Other people hold them back and that doesn't go forward.
I think there's good reason to believe that that is the impetus behind the federal government's Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883, only a few years later, which is yet another attempt to satisfy California and prevent it from spinning out of the American orbit. I think that's an interesting example of a much larger theme I try to show throughout the book, which is that secession threats actually do tend to succeed. You don't actually have to go through with the act of breaking away from the union in order to get what you want.
I think we see something similar today where Republicans will say, "Oh my God, we're going to go crazy." Even Ted Cruz recently, "We'll secede from the union, possibly, or I'll support it then if the Democrats abolish the filibuster and meet DC as a state." In my mind, fairly necessary and not particularly radical measures, but threats like that is pretty much what prevents Biden from actually supporting court-packing, for instance. If he's threatened that, you're going to upend the entire constitutional order. If something happens, it makes people pause. I think the Chinese Exclusion Act is an example of that.
Kai Wright: Over and over and over again, we see this pattern, where Black people and non-white immigrants are thrown under the bus of unity, or more accurately, sacrificed to maintain the myth of a truly United States.
Richard Kreitner: It's fear of disunion that prevents FDR, for instance, from really including Black people in the new deal or supporting an anti-lynching law. He says this explicitly, and so does Eleanor, who supported the legislation. It's the fear of angering the south too much and undermining national unity that prevents us from having a truly inclusive new deal. That just defines American politics right up to the 1960s, really, is this fear of turning the south against the union once again and undermining national unity. This compromise tradition that returns basically comes at a cost, and that cost is usually born by people of color.
Kai Wright: I want to talk about the presidential election of 1896 because it seems like this is a moment where a lot of this stuff we're talking about crystallizes and shapes our modern politics over unity and disunity for the 20th century. The populist movement, just to set the stage here, had erupted, as we've discussed. Class unrest is everywhere, and they're going into the 1896 election. They hold a national convention in Chicago, where the famous populist William Jennings Bryan is supposed to be nominated, but he's challenged by a Southerner, Pitchfork Ben Tillman. Introduce us to Tillman and explain the speech he gives at that convention.
Richard Kreitner: Sure. This is actually the Democratic Party. This is the Democratic Party's attempt to co-opt the populist movement and basically defang it. Tillman, he's a veteran of redemption, which is the struggle after the civil war, during reconstruction, to overthrow reconstruction, to overthrow this multiracial democracy that the Republicans in Congress have basically set up in the former Confederacy. They do that through violence, through attacks, through murders, lynchings, and massive, massive voter suppression. Tillman is very proud of this, very open about his role in it.
He basically represents the return of a blatantly racist Confederate mindset to American politics mixed with this populist movement of free silver and economic redistribution. He's the first at this Chicago convention that's more famous for William Jennings Bryan's famous speech about the Cross of Gold. At the same convention, Ben Tillman makes a speech saying that that civil war was fought to have free Black people, this is going to free white people. He basically threatened secession for the first time on the national political stage since the civil war.
He's booed and he's set off stage by Bryan's people who don't want their movement to be seen as this separatist regional thing. It's a national movement. The Republicans used that Tillman speech against the Democrats in that election to paint their economic populist ideas as irredeemably not so much racist, that's not really their concern, but disunionist, a threat to the established order.
Kai Wright: It sounds like they more than just use it, they believed that that was true, they were terrified by this speech.
Richard Kreitner: Yes, absolutely. I think they're frankly more afraid of people like Eugene Debs than Ben Tillman, who's more interested in his racism, I think than his actual economic populism, but it sets the stage. This is the other reason why this is an important election. It's the first election where big business really gets involved and basically buys the election from McKinley. The Republican Party has given up by this point on any semblance that they care about the outcome of the Civil War, really, any semblance that they care about Black political rights in the South. For the first time, they remove a plank in the Republican Party's platform that supports the protection of voting rights for Black people in the South. This is the beginning of a reconciliationist American politics. "Let's forget about all that divisiveness, let's focus on America getting rich, starting our own empire at the same time." I think that's the pattern for American politics for many years to come, which is that any critique of the established economic order, especially is going to be painted as a quasi secessionist impulse that can be rightfully excluded from American politics.
The constitution doesn't really apply, certainly not. Freedom of speech doesn't really apply to people who are going to threaten our order in the way that the confederates do.
Kai Wright: Just to put a fine point on that. This is really the moment where there becomes this liberal, conservative consensus that bottom-up politics, this populous bottom-up agitation is coded as disunionism.
Richard Kreitner: That's right, that's right. You see that again in the 1950s, after World War II. If you ask anybody in the street, when was, of course, the Trump question is when was America great, but another question is when was America ever United? Maybe you'll get people saying the late 1940s, early 1950s, but that's also a moment the red scare where you're having an entire universe of political ideas excluded from the political conversation and painted as inherently treasonous. How United were we really?
Kai Wright: Let's do jump ahead in the 20th century and let's actually go to the '60s because you tell a story that defines modern conservative politics and its relationship to this secessionist ethos, today's Republicans. It's 1961, it's the 100 year anniversary of the start of the civil war, John Kennedy wants to hold a celebration of unity in Charleston, South Carolina, which is of course where the first shots of the civil war were fired, but immediately the fact of this disunion comes up, so how so?
Richard Kreitner: The only place that they could find to host this commemoration of the beginning of the civil war is a segregated hotel. The New Jersey delegation, I believe it is which has Black members on there, their commission commemorating the civil war is told that they're not welcome at that hotel. The national commission has to find some neutral space that's not segregated. I think they go to a military base nearby, but then South Carolina pulls out of that commemoration.
Kai Wright: It's a seed from the pro-union celebration.
Richard Kreitner: That's exactly right. It's a seed, just as they did a century earlier and I think it's Strom Thurmond gives a speech saying, "This is fantastic, this is exactly what our grandfathers did, and we should keep going down this road." That's of course, coming amid a wave of so-called massive resistance to desegregation to Brown v Board of Education in which southerners are picking up the ideas of John C Calhoun and the Confederates, and talking about nullifying federal law, nullifying the Supreme Court cases.
William Faulkner gives an interview in which he says, "If the north pushes too hard, there's going to be a civil war." A century later, nothing has been resolved, and I'm fascinated by a moment a year after that messed up civil war commemoration in which George Wallace is inaugurated as governor of Alabama. That speech is best known for his support for segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever, and which sounds like it's just about the south. There's another part in the speech where he's appealing to white in other parts of the country, in the north, in the west.
He's saying, "You have grievances, too, you have racial grievances, you're starting to lose your manufacturing jobs. The communists are in control of the universities and whatnot. You are southerners too," he says. I think that's really the founding statement of modern conservatism and the modern Republican Party, which is that it's the Southernization of American politics. The nationalization of confederate grievances and the lost cause mythology. That's when you start to see confederate battle flags flying far north of the Mason Dixon, where nobody has confederate heritage, but they see the stars and bars as a symbol of their own grievances. That's the silent majority, that's Trumpism.
Kai Wright: I'm talking with Richard Kreitner about his book, Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America's Imperfect Union. Coming up, how the east coast became the target of this newly nationalized Southern grievance and we're going to come out of history and talk about the intensity of political division today on the internet. We'll have a little exercise for you that you can do if things get nasty at the holiday dinner table in that regard, so stay with us.
Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright and I'm talking with journalist Richard Kreitner about his book tracing the history of disunity in these nominally United States. Before the break, he told us about the moment in the 1960s when the Confederates particular brand of secessionist thinking became a national political identity for at least part of the Republican Party. You quote Barry Goldwater, a Telegram reporter in 1963. "Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern seaboard and let it float out to sea." Explain that how the east coast became the representation of a nation apart for the Southernization of conservative politics.
Richard Kreitner: Sure. I think that's got roots in two things. One is the new deal, where you've got this massive concentration of power and resources and money in the east and in Washington. Then similarly, television starting in the '50s really starts spreading this homogenous view of America across the whole country. It's largely an east coast view, and people start to really, really resent it. I love that Goldwater quote. LBJ actually made a television commercial about it in 1964 that showed somebody actually song off a block of wood in the east coast, and it falls into the bathtub.
Underlying all of this is deep regional resentments, that go back to the civil war. For a while after the war, disunion, as we're talking about, it's something to be ashamed of, you wouldn't really want it to be associated with it. The civil war is a massive national trauma, people don't want to relive it, 750,000 people dead. They sublimate the intrigue that they formerly had, both north and south for the idea of maybe this union's not really working for us, maybe the United States is broken.
By the time Nixon becomes president, he and his advisors are openly scheming, "Well, let's go for this part of the country and not that other part, we don't even care about the other part, we don't even want them." Disunion becomes, the modus operandi, I think of modern conservative politics.
Kai Wright: What's the point of all this? Why do we need to know all of this, to understand this political moment? What is it about it that you were like, "This really applies to now and I got to tell people about this history."
Richard Kreitner: I think it's because these divisions, these tendencies, these struggles have never really been resolved. There's never really been a moment where Americans have sat down and been like, "Huh? Do we want to be one country? What is the point of all this? Who is it serving? What are the costs and benefits of staying together and splitting apart?" I'm showing from the very, very beginning, from the revolution, nobody really wants to talk about that at all. The union was created, not as an end in itself, we must create this nation because we have so much in common and we really want to be together.
It was a means to an end. It was the only way that they could stand up to Great Britain and survive and win independence. Then after the war, there's almost immediately a civil war basically because the states aren't really sure that they want to have anything to do with one another. That's only the beginning, but then continuing on, the civil war surprised Walt Whitman. It surprised him that northerners actually did want to fight to keep the country together because they'd been talking so much over the last decade and more about, "We're not really sure this is the country for us anymore."
It really surprised him. I think that the reason why people did want to fight to keep the union together was because they thought that it represented something, it represented some kind of important thing for all of humankind, basically. Democracy, self-government, it had great promise, and I'm just not sure that people really feel that way about the country today. I think one thing that's really interesting about this moment is that both sides are having pretty serious doubts about the worth of the national enterprise and whether it's worthwhile to continue it. It's just not going to go away.
Because of American history, because it was founded in the act of secession from the British empire because neatened the other major pivot moments in our history was a civil war following a secessionist movement. It's always going to be there as available remedy, or at least a theoretical one for anybody who's really depressed with the way things are going. I just think it's worth looking at this history and talking forthrightly and honestly, not reflexively or dismissively about what the union is, what it is worth, and what we're willing to give up in order to see it continue.
Kai Wright: What do you think? Is it worth it still?
Richard Kreitner: I go back and forth every single day. [chuckles] I do. I think it's worth one last shot. I write in the book, "We must finish the work of reconstruction or give up on the union entirely." I think those are our choices. Finally, uniting as one people without exceptions, which has never been done in our history, or I do think then maybe we'd be better off apart. I think I'm looking at the times today, there was this article that Republicans have gerrymandered the map enough that they can flip the house without winning any further seats.
I think it needs to be not an option of first resort, but it needs to be an option that's on the table. What if Trump seals the election in 2024? We're all just going to watch, I think that this is why people need to know this history. The one tagline that I've had with this book is like, we fought a civil war to keep the country from breaking apart in the 1860s. It might be that going forward. We need to break apart in order to avoid a civil war.
Kai Wright: Richard, thank you for the book, and thank you for this time.
Richard Kreitner: Thank you, Kai. Rally appreciate it.
Kai Wright: It turned out to be a new feature of the show. We've been thinking a lot about how so many of us feel so crappy about the discourse we find when we go online. Just how it too often seems so reductive and divisive and nasty. We just don't want to accept that as an inevitable fact because obviously the internet in general and social media, in particular, is the modern town square and we want to figure out how to engage there particularly around political stuff in a more healthy way.
We're going to be looking for stories and conversations and tools to help in this regard, we'll be asking you for some tips and we're going to be led by our senior digital producer, Kousha Navidar. Hey, Kousha.
Kousha Navidar: Hey, Kai.
Kai Wright: Tell us about what you're going to be doing on this beach.
Kousha Navidar: You mentioned that the internet is the town square, I think that is such a great metaphor. If it's a town square, it can be a very unpleasant town square. People are yelling, you're afraid of getting verbally mugged. It can be scary to say anything. Part of this show, United States of Anxiety is to navigate our lives and democracy with eyes wide open. In the town square, don't be a tourist. For this episode, as an example, Kai, you just explored the historical division in our country and we know that for sure, it plays out digitally.
Kai Wright: Right. As Richard told us, this is not a new thing. This is not a new schism.
Kousha Navidar: Lately, the conventional wisdom has been that it's all the internet's fault. That actually made me think of Thanksgiving.
Kai Wright: Coming up.
Kousha Navidar: Yes, you're there at the table sitting across from the classic uncle who drives you crazy. You can see what he's eating at the table, but do you really know what he's being fed online?
Kai Wright: Oh, Kousha. [crosstalk]
Kousha Navidar: [chuckles] That's why they pay me the big bucks.
Kai Wright: I like that.
Kousha Navidar: I want to find that out. Today's digital closeup is about what is called the Filter Bubble. Kai, we're going to do a little exercise. That'll show us at least something about how we get directed through town square, which is part of the divisiveness. It determines what we're looking at. Do you have your cell phone on you?
Kai Wright: I do.
Kousha Navidar: Can you take out your cell phone, please?
Kai Wright: It is out.
Kousha Navidar: For those of you listening at home or in the car, wherever you're listening from, you can do this with us. Just [crosstalk] put out your cell phone.
Kai Wright: I am in the car.
Kousha Navidar: Oh my God, I'm so sorry. Don't do that if you're in the car. If it's safe for you to take your cell phone out, you can do this with us. What I'd like you to do, Kai, is a little experiment with me. We're going to do the same search on the same site at the same time and compare first few results. Those of you listening at home, you can try this with us too and see what happens. We're going to go to the world's largest search engine first. You've opened up Google. In the search bar, please type in the word patriot.
Kai Wright: Patriot.
Kousha Navidar: Now, on the count of three, press enter. 1, 2, 3.
Kai Wright: I get the definition of patriot first. I get another definition of patriot. I get a patriot software. It's a lot of definitions of patriot.
Kousha Navidar: Matches with me exactly, which you search same place, same time on Google. You might get same results, looks like that's the case. What I'd like to do now is try the same search, but on the world's second-largest platform, which you might not know is YouTube.
Kai Wright: YouTube.
Kousha Navidar: Second largest search engine in the world is YouTube. Open up YouTube, please. Go to these search bar, type in the word patriot.
Kai Wright: Patriot.
Kousha Navidar: On the count of three, press search. 1, 2, 3.
Kai Wright: Oh my God.
Kousha Navidar: All right. Tell me what you got.
Kai Wright: I'm disturbed that it starts with Mel Gibson, The Patriot. Topher, The Patriot, who appears to be a hip hop artist of some sort, more Mel Gibson. Why do I have it with Mel Gibson? I'm not okay with that. There's a lot of Mel Gibson in my search results.
Kousha Navidar: Mostly, you got music and movies, right?
Kai Wright: And Mel Gibson.
Kousha Navidar: Yes, yes, yes, maybe the '90s most famous Patriot. Who knows?
Kai Wright: And Bigot.
Kousha Navidar: Right. [chuckles] For me, this is what I got. The first hit was a music video. The second hit was a political commentary show from Netflix. Then I got a clip called Confused Islamophobia Target American Sikhs. Pretty different search results between the two of us.
Kai Wright: You got a lot more politics go on there.
Kousha Navidar: More politics, yes, and politics of a certain type, to be clear.
Kai Wright: That's the Filter Bubble and people think they understand this. It's obviously been in the news a lot because of the whole Facebook business and like what happened in the election and even so much that like the old funny that he's in Congress or even starting to think about it.
Kousha Navidar: You're probably aware of the Filter Bubble, even if you don't know the term, and is also conventional wisdom at this point that the internet is to blame for the divisions that we might feel across the Thanksgiving table, for instance, but there's actually a lot about it that we don't know how much is the internet actually to blame for our division today. I want to know so I thought maybe I could call one of the best minds in the world about the Filter Bubble.
Eli Pariser: Hi, my name is Eli Pariser and I am the co-director of New_ Public and the author of The Filter Bubble.
Kousha Navidar: He's the guy who coined the term. Here's how he explains it.
Eli Pariser: I think about the Filter Bubble as the universe of information that we get to see online based on who the websites that we visit think we are and what they think we might be interested in.
Kousha Navidar: Kai, Eli says, this is all about those websites trying to hold onto your attention.
Eli Pariser: To get you to spend as much time on that as they can. The easiest way to do that is to show you stuff that you are likely to like and likely to come back for. That drives this endless quest to find out as much as possible about each person who visits and then to tailor the content as much as possible to the people who visit.
The way more and more websites work is they look at all of the data that they have about you, not just the obvious stuff like your gender, but a bunch of subtle stuff like how you're moving the mouse and which things you click on and which things you have around and they use that to try to infer which content you might be interested in and show you more of that.
Kousha Navidar: Eli says sometimes that's totally innocuous.
Eli Pariser: They might figure out like I'm interested in content about puppies, that's fine, but when you start thinking about what that means in a political context, it starts to get much more concerning because essentially, we start to see our own views reinforced without even really, totally being able to see how much they're being amplified.
Kai Wright: What do we take away from all this? What impact does the digital bubble have on our democracy?
Kousha Navidar: It's hard to prove cause and effect, right? It's hard to prove how much of a difference the Filter Bubble really makes. Here's how Eli thinks about it.
Eli Pariser: I'm someone who doesn't believe that social media is the major driver of polarization in America. I don't believe that because if you look back pre-social media there's some trend lines that start well before, even the internet that you can follow to the present day. I do think it's like pouring gas on the fire. Like we've got something that is ramping things up increasing the heat, increasing the friction. That has an effect and makes it more likely that there's a conflagration.
Kai Wright: There's a fire. We've got fire now, but what do we do?
Kousha Navidar: There's no big unified answer. There's no solution yet. Frankly, the internet is not really usable without some curation because there's so much out there, but you need to be smart. If the internet's a town square, don't be a mark and the way to start is this Thanksgiving. We're asking you, listeners, do the experiment we just did on air. If you're talking to somebody and you disagree or even if you do agree, do some searches together on your phones.
Take out your phones, go to Google, go to Facebook, wherever you get your information, and both search for the same term and compare them. Hey, if you find something interesting, tell us what that is.
Kai Wright: Yes, because it might actually be a moment to diffuse a conflict. You can be like, "Okay, we're getting a little off course here." I wonder where we're getting our information. Let's see what we get when we Google this and what do we both come up with.
Kousha Navidar: Yes, I could say Thanksgiving.
Kai Wright: You could say Thanksgiving. Kousha is here to save your Thanksgiving. Kousha, thanks.
Kousha Navidar: Yes, absolutely.
Kai Wright: The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass band, mixing by Jared Paul. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillmann, and Kousha Navidar, and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @Kai_Wright or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Record those voice memos, send them to me about anything you've heard. Of course, I hope you'll join us next Sunday, 6:00 PM Eastern.
You can stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Otherwise, thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves, I'll talk to you next week.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.