One nation, super-duper divisible
In high school, I was assigned The Atlantic reading “One Nation, Slightly Divisible” by David Brooks, where he describes adventuring from his home in Montgomery County, Maryland, to Franklin County, Pennsylvania. After crossing what he terms “the Meatloaf Line” from blue America to red America, Brooks details countless comparisons between the two—the “sophisticated and cosmopolitan” center of Bethesda to the “Alabama part” of Pennsylvania that includes “the towns of Waynesboro, Chambersburg, and Mercersburg.”
I spent the first 22 years of my life in Chambersburg, and as any good Pennsylvanian knows, there is only one official town in the state: Bloomsburg, up toward the northeast corner. I suppose that Brooks missed that distinction, or it didn’t matter, especially 20 years ago, to distinguish between places that planes fly over. But, as made clear by the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the increasing culture wars of today, the David Brookses of the world can no longer afford to ignore the half of America they derisively perceive as too rural, too uneducated, and too fat.
When I encountered Brooks’s article in the early 2000s, I felt it was, using the profound language of a 17-year-old, just really freakin’ weird. I knew that the conclusion was optimistic and that the statistics and facts that Brooks reported were well-researched and sensical; indeed, there are less individuals in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, that have college degrees when compared to individuals in Montgomery County, Maryland, which is one of the top 20 wealthiest counties in the country. But I also felt like I—and everyone I knew—had been portrayed as stupid and simple; ignorant rubes who go to church too often and eat too much cream-chipped beef. I had never considered that meatloaf was a way to differentiate people. I treasured eating breakfast—exactly that cream-chipped beef over biscuits that David Brooks bemoaned for not costing more than $20—at our local diner on Saturday mornings and dressing up for the Christmas Progressive Dinner at the church downtown. The many aspects used in the article to depict Franklin County as less-than were all the norms and ways of life I loved about my home.
As I see it now, this very condescension—the judgment and the talking-down-to toward fellow American citizens—put Donald Trump in the White House in 2016. And it’s conceivable, with the current state of divisiveness, to see President Trump back in the Oval Office in 2024. Suppose the American elite and the American left and moderates and suburbanites and traditional Republicans wish to avoid that reality. In that case, we should not, as present-day headlines suggest, be requiring everyday Americans to finance the college loan debt of households making up to $250,000. We should not be wondering whether to use the word “woman” or “birthing person.” And we should not be called transphobic if we do not believe that children should be prescribed puberty blockers and alter their breasts and genitals irrevocably.
Recently, my family and I visited a bookstore in Chapel Hill. Many customers wore masks, as did all store clerks, even though 60 percent of residents in Chapel Hill are vaccinated with at least one additional booster. The men’s bathroom informed users to dispose of their tampons properly. The virtue-signaling of the store, the nearby campus, and the surrounding neighborhoods was blinding. Flags with many more colors than the rainbow flew proudly, and BLM signs observed in front yards were too many to count. The bookstore displayed numerous guides on how to be anti-racist. Ibram Kendi was presented as a god for adults, and Che Guevara as a hero for children. As of 2020, UNC-Chapel Hill has enacted a “Policy on Gender Inclusive Language” to be used on all University documents.
On the other side, extreme pro-life state legislatures refuse abortion even in the case of rape or incest. At my home in Chambersburg, burned to the ground in 1864 by the Confederate Army on their march to Gettysburg, where a sprinkling of brave homes offered safety to runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad, there are now Confederate flags tacked to fences and stuck to vehicles. In this place that David Brooks once talked of as hosting a “temperamental conservatism,” where “people place tremendous value on being agreeable, civil, and kind,” there are now blatant “F*CK BIDEN” flags flying near my childhood house. Over 70 percent of Franklin County voters in 2016 chose Donald Trump, and the Chambersburg Borough Council made national news earlier this year as it repealed an anti-discrimination ordinance.
Both sides of the spectrum are contradictory and absurd. With that said, if it’s true that the woke left holds more power over culture than the MAGA Republicans, then we must be critical of the implications of that power. We must ask the likes of David Brooks — elites, journalists, elected officials, academic administrators — to dare venture from places like Montgomery County to places like Franklin County. It’s not provocative to argue that the people who are supposed to influence society, and the people selected to the offices that should make life better for the average American, are instead ever more disdainful of the average American and disconnected from the life that person leads.
Maybe if more folks ventured across the Meatloaf Line (both ways), perhaps if more folks had spoken to a fellow citizen without disgust or derision, we would be in a different state of things. With the 2022 midterms on November 8, and the 2024 presidential election around the corner, no one, certainly not the left, can neglect (at best) and despise (at worst) their neighbors.
David Brooks finished his article in the wake of 9/11 when Americans united against the common enemy of terrorism. He and I would agree today that we have moved beyond a nation “slightly divisible” to a super-duper divisible nation. But this does not have to be the case. I’ve critiqued his article, but I respect Brooks’s trek to Franklin County 20 years ago, and I wonder if he’s been back since. I hope so. I hope that more people literally follow his footsteps into places like Franklin County, PA — or the nearly 80 rural counties in North Carolina — so that we can begin to build bridges and shrink the chasm between us. We all need to repair the cultural division plaguing our politics, dinner tables, and great country.
Beth Kusko is associate professor of political science and program director for criminal justice, political science, and pre-law at William Peace University.