By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS—The arrival of the U.S. census data a few days ago set off a faint echo.
The most immediate attention focused on how the results of the information-gathering will affect the redistricting process going on in states, including Indiana, all over America. Armies of analysts studied how these numbers would aid Republicans and Democrats in the work of carving out legislative districts.
This is understandable, because the battles over redistricting will shape life in this state and country for the next decade and beyond.
But all the attention focused on how the maps might be drawn obscured the fact that this new census data might explain why life in the United States is so contentious these days—why so many of our national family quarrels seem to escalate to apocalyptic levels.
The new results show that America is becoming less white and more urban. Rural parts of the country are losing both people and economic clout. Cites and suburbs are gaining both—and doing so by opening themselves to minority populations, which provide almost all the growth in the country.
This is where the echo starts to sound.
More than 150 years ago, the United States engaged in what still is one of the bloodiest civil wars in human history. In a four-year span, roughly a quarter of the American men between their teen years and their early 40s became casualties of the savage conflict.
The mythology—propagated by Southern apologists after the Confederates lost the war and advanced by people who should know better even to this day—is that the fight came because the South just wanted to be “left alone” with its “peculiar institution.”
That is nonsense.
President Abraham Lincoln assured the Southern states publicly and repeatedly that he would not interfere with slavery if they remained in the Union. They seceded anyway.
The question is: Why did they do it then?
At least part of the reason is that savvy Southerners saw that political advantages—even firewalls—built into the U.S. Constitution and political system were being eroded by rapid population growth in the North.
When the Constitution was adopted, advocates for small states, including many Southerners, had demanded one hedge. Every state, regardless of how sparsely populated, would be entitled to the same number of U.S. senators—two.
Southerners also insisted on another edge. They wanted slaves—who were not eligible to vote—to be counted as part of their states’ voting population.
This was the infamous “three-fifths” compromise, which tallied a slave as 60 percent of a person to determine how many seats a state had in the U.S. House of Representatives.
This had two far-reaching effects.
The first and most horrific, of course, was that it made enslaved human beings unwilling partners in their own oppression. Their very numbers gave slave owners more votes and more political power to resist calls for abolition.
The second, though, also mattered. The three-fifths compromise gave the South disproportionate clout in the Electoral College.
Thomas Jefferson, for example, would not have defeated John Adams in the 1800 presidential election if the three-fifths provision had not been in place.
His election established a Virginia dynasty that allowed the South to rule the White House for the next 24 years—and the South for much of the next half-century.
It was when the nation’s growth threatened to eliminate the South’s privileged status that Southerners decided to take up arms against their flag and country.
Flash forward to now.
Rural states have their built-in constitutional hedge in the U.S. Senate. Thanks to a cap on the size of the U.S. House of Representatives established in the late 1920s, they also have disproportionate weight in that chamber. This also gives them more clout in the Electoral College.
Yet all these hedges are imperiled.
Republicans lost the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election by 3 million ballots. They fell 10 million votes short in the 2018 off-year House races. They were 7 million votes behind the Democrats in the 2020 presidential election.
And the census results show that events are not trending in the direction of rural, white America.
There’s a quote often attributed to Mark Twain:
“History never repeats itself, but it does rhyme.”
It may be rhyming now.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.