We live in a divided country.

The 2016 presidential election was decided by 80,000 votes in three states. 2020 was even closer, where a swing of 40,000 votes in key states could have handed another Electoral College win to Donald Trump.

In his inaugural address last week, President Biden spent as much time talking about the divisions in our country as Franklin Roosevelt did talking about the Great Depression when he took office in 1933.

Biden’s speech was alternately greeted as a wise leader’s path forward in a time of crisis, or a string of “worn-out, liberal socialist cliches,” depending on where you get your news.

But as the book finally closes on the 2020 election, it’s worth noting that the nation as a whole is not nearly as divided as it seems. Biden did win the popular vote by more than 7 million, and he handily won every racial or ethnic category but one – white Americans – and he didn’t lose that one by much.

If you are looking for the divide in our politics, the place to start is in white America.


Trump won the white vote, 58 percent to 41 percent, which, according to exit polls, was the most closely contested group in the election.

A lot has been written about Republican gains with Black and Hispanic voters in November, and it is true that Trump gained ground with both groups between 2016 and 2020, especially with men.

But those gains were on the margins. Eighty-seven percent of Black voters went for Biden in November. Roughly two out of three Asian and Hispanic voters did as well. It was white voters who split between the two candidates.

The place where the white vote split is related to education.

White college graduates, who as a group had been a core Republican constituency for a century, split almost evenly between the candidates.

But white voters without a college degree, once part of the Democratic base, went 2-to-1 for Trump.


In Maine the divide didn’t mirror the national numbers, but it was still pronounced. White college graduates were almost four times as likely to vote for Biden, while white Mainers without degrees, who make up more than half of the electorate here, went comfortably for Trump. Biden won the state overall, but Trump carried the 2nd Congressional District.

That education gap doesn’t show up with nonwhite voters, where people both with and without degrees divided among the candidates at the same rate. It really needs to be understood as a phenomenon of white America.

Income is often put forward as an explanation since college graduates as a group earn more than people without degrees.

But there is no economic reason that explains why white college graduates would move as a group away from Republicans, or why white voters without a college degree would move so decidedly in the opposite direction – toward the party associated with policies that favor the rich.

Complicating this is that income doesn’t necessarily follow education. Plenty of business owners without degrees make a good living and plenty of college graduates work in coffee shops, struggling to pay off student loans.

The “diploma divide” is more cultural than economic.


Bill Schneider, author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable,” writes that Trump turned off some voters by attacking immigrants and mocking science, but attracted others when he belittled condescending, high-minded elites.

It’s less a matter of policy than attitude. We’re still waiting to see the health care plan and infrastructure bill Trump promised in 2016, but his supporters don’t seem to care. What he delivered without fail was a blistering attack on liberal ideas around things like multicultural inclusion and international cooperation.

We won’t know for a while how much of this division will continue if Trump leaves the scene. As a politician, he thrived on conflict, and that helped him dominate the news throughout his presidency.

Other Republicans would like to follow that pattern, but they may not have his ability to draw a crowd and motivate it.

If the Biden administration can start delivering concrete results on COVID and the economy, other issues issues like climate change and health care might start looking less like cultural dividing lines with no middle ground.

But until something like that happens, the uncivil war Biden spoke of in his address will keep going and the deepest divide will be in the hearts and minds of white America.

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