A collage of images of Joe Biden, the Capitol, Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War era
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Why the 2020s Could Be as Dangerous as the 1850s

Democrats could win decisively next week. But that still wouldn’t neutralize minority Republican power.

If Joe Biden beats Donald Trump decisively next week, this election may be remembered as a hinge point in American history: the moment when a clear majority of voters acknowledged that there’s no turning back from America’s transformation into a nation of kaleidoscopic diversity, a future that doesn’t rely on a backward-facing promise to make America great again. But that doesn’t mean the voters who embody the nation’s future are guaranteed a lasting victory over those who feel threatened by it.

With Biden embracing America’s evolution and Trump appealing unrestrainedly to the white voters most fearful of it, the 2020 campaign marks a new peak in the most powerful trend shaping politics in this century. Over the past two decades, and especially since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, voters have re-sorted among the parties and thus reconfigured the central fault line between them. Today Republicans and Democrats are divided less by class or region than by attitudes toward the propulsive demographic, cultural, and economic shifts remaking 21st-century America. On one side, Republicans now mobilize what I’ve called a “coalition of restoration”; on the other, Democrats assemble a “coalition of transformation.”

Republicans have grown more reliant on support from mostly white and Christian constituencies and the exurban, small-town, and rural communities that have been the least touched, and most unnerved, by cultural and economic transitions: growing diversity in race, religion, and sexual orientation; evolving roles for women; and the move from an industrial economy to one grounded in the Information Age. Democrats have become the party of the people and places most immersed in, and welcoming of, those shifts: people of color, Millennials and members of Generation Z, secular adults who don’t identify with any religious tradition, and college-educated white professionals, all of them clustered in the nation’s largest metropolitan centers.

Heading into the campaign’s final weekend, Trump is facing erosion on both sides of this divide, with Biden consolidating most elements of the coalition of transformation, eroding Trump’s advantages with blue-collar and older white voters, and laying siege to the midsize industrial cities across the Rust Belt that moved sharply toward the president in 2016. Behind this two-front advance, Biden has consistently led Trump in national polls and surveys of the six swing states that both sides are most heavily contesting, especially the three in the Rust Belt that tipped the 2016 race to the president: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

Many Democrats remain unnerved by the prospect that, like a general advancing an army under cover of night, Trump will mobilize an unanticipated turnout surge from his base voters and win the Electoral College (if not the popular vote), the same way he did last time.

That’s possible, but it remains less likely than in 2016, because the voters opposing him appear determined to turn out in much higher numbers, too. I’ve often said that modern American politics can be reduced to a single question: How long can Paducah tell Seattle what to do? Next week the answer may be that Seattle—that is, America’s future—has mobilized to reclaim control of the nation’s direction from Paducah—its past—and perhaps by a resounding margin.

Without discounting the possibility of an upset, Tuesday’s results are likely to demonstrate that the Democrats’ coalition of transformation is now larger—even much larger—than the Republicans’ coalition of restoration. With Trump solidifying the GOP’s transformation into a “white-identity party … a nationalist party, not unlike parties you see in Europe, … you see the Democratic Party becoming the party of literally everyone else,” as the longtime Republican political consultant Michael Madrid, a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, told me.

The broad backlash against Trump’s vision of the GOP across the diverse, metro-based emerging America could provide Democrats unified control of government for the first time since 2010. It could also underscore the growing difficulty Republicans will face attracting majority support in elections to come.

And yet even a decisive Democratic win would not guarantee that the party can actually implement its policy agenda. As if laying sandbags against the coming demographic wave, Republicans have erected a series of defenses that could allow them to impede their rivals—even if demographic and social change combine to more clearly stamp Democrats as the nation’s majority party in the years ahead. And that could make the 2020s the most turbulent decade for America since the 1850s, when a very similar dynamic unfolded.

Donald Trump didn’t start the electorate’s re-sorting along the lines of transformation and restoration, but he has made the process vastly more intense and venomous. Throughout his divisive, belligerent, and norm-breaking presidency, Trump has governed as a wartime president for red America, with blue America—not any foreign nation—as the adversary.

In both rhetoric and policy, Trump has positioned himself in almost unrelenting opposition to the emerging America—from demonizing cities as dirty and dangerous to eviscerating Obama’s climate-change agenda. When the coronavirus pandemic initially exploded in blue states and cities, Trump feuded with Democratic governors and mayors and threatened to withhold federal aid when they criticized him. Likewise, when the death of George Floyd prompted enormous racial-justice protests nationwide, Trump disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement as a “symbol of hate,” deployed federal law enforcement into Democratic-run cities over the objections of local officials, and, through his Justice Department, even explored bringing criminal charges against several Democratic mayors for failing to act more aggressively against protesters.

In the campaign, Trump has run as much against the emerging America as he has against Biden. Earlier Republican presidential nominees might have implied to white suburbanites that minorities are a threat to their safety or lifestyle, as in the Willie Horton ad that George H. W. Bush ran in 1988. But Trump has made the implicit explicit, warning that Biden would unloose a “mob” of rioters through suburbia. He’s claimed that Biden would appoint New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a Black man, to enforce integration of low-income families. The Republican convention provided a prominent speaking slot to a white couple from St. Louis who face felony charges for brandishing guns at racial-justice protesters. In all these ways, Trump has presented himself as the last line of defense—a human wall—against the changes that so many of his supporters fear.

This belligerence has helped bond Trump to his base. But the price of this approach has been clear in elections throughout his presidency. The first warning came in 2017, when a sharp recoil from Trump in the suburbs of northern Virginia and Richmond swept Democrats to control of the governorship and state House of Representatives, despite continued GOP strength in rural areas. In 2018, that revolt expanded nationwide, as Democrats recaptured the U.S. House behind sweeping gains, not only in suburban areas that were already trending blue, but also in Sun Belt metros where Republicans had not previously been vulnerable. The backlash was measured in more than votes: Democrats benefited in 2018 from an enormous surge in campaign contributions and volunteer activity.

Those elections proved only a prologue to a 2020 mobilization against Trump that may be unprecedented in its magnitude. Though Biden, a 77-year-old career politician, does not inspire much personal passion among his party’s voters, his campaign has raised more money than any presidential nominee before him, the majority of it from small donors; the biggest surge has come from the same white-collar communities that have repudiated Trump’s GOP at the ballot box. The casts of iconic television shows and movies, including Seinfeld and The Avengers, have reunited to hold virtual fundraisers for Biden and state Democratic parties. LeBron James has led a campaign of professional athletes to recruit thousands of poll workers to ensure that polling places remain open in minority neighborhoods. Political leaders across the Democratic spectrum—from Bernie Sanders to Joe Manchin—have locked arms to campaign for Biden. Publications that have never endorsed a presidential candidate (Scientific American) or have rarely supported a Democrat (the arch-conservative New Hampshire Union Leader) have backed him. Dozens of former Republican elected officials, hundreds of former GOP executive-branch appointees, several former mid-level officials in Trump’s own government, and, perhaps most visibly of all, Cindy McCain have all publicly thrown their weight behind Biden. Blue and pink (that is, moderate Republican) America have left everything on the field in their battle to take down Trump.

The evidence from both polling and early voting signals that this energy will translate into enormous turnout among most of the groups in the coalition of transformation, with a bigger share of them than in 2016 likely to vote against Trump. This threatens the president (and other Republicans) with a compounding effect: losing a bigger slice of a growing pie.

Trump, for instance, appears likely to lose college-educated white voters by more than he did last time; in fact, he may lose them by the widest margin for any GOP presidential nominee ever. Especially sobering for Republicans is that not only is Trump facing a potentially record deficit among college-educated white women, who have been drifting to the Democrats since the early 1990s, but he could also lose a substantial majority of their male counterparts, a traditionally Republican-leaning group that most data sources say he carried in 2016.

Young people are also moving further toward the Democrats. Trump has never been popular with younger voters. Democrats are confident that Biden, despite the limits of his own appeal to young people, can improve on Clinton’s 2016 performance (when she won only 55 percent, as many younger adults drifted to third-party candidates) to match Obama’s 2012 showing among adults younger than 30 (60 percent), and perhaps equal his huge haul in 2008 (66 percent). With the oldest Millennials about to turn 40, Biden should also improve on Clinton’s margins among voters in their 30s.

Trump’s circle of religious support is narrowing, too. In 2016, Trump not only won four-fifths of white evangelical Christians, but also carried majorities of white Catholics and white mainline Protestants; now a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows Biden leading with Catholics and running about even among Protestants. Both then and now, Trump faces rejection from about 70 percent of the growing number of secular adults who don’t identify with any religious tradition.

The sole potential exception to this pattern is the possibility that Trump could notch some gains with Black and Latino men (especially younger ones, who are doubtful that either party can deliver for them). But the immovable resistance Trump faces from Black and Latino women limits the overall growth he can expect among voters of color (including Asian Americans, who are likely to vote against him in even larger proportions than Latinos).

While Trump faces the likelihood that most key groups in the coalition of transformation will coalesce against him in significantly greater numbers than in 2016, he is struggling to generate comparable unity on his side of the divide. Trump continues to stir enormous enthusiasm among his core constituencies. But even increased turnout may not benefit Trump as much as in 2016, because he is facing modest, but measurable, erosion in his margins among some of his best groups.

Seniors have been the most visible defectors. No Democratic presidential nominee has carried voters 65 or older since Al Gore in 2000, but disillusionment over Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, combined with a greater affinity for Biden than for Clinton, has provided the former vice president a chance to break that streak. Even Trump’s backing from his core group of non-college-educated white voters is wavering—slightly, but potentially pivotally. Trump still draws about 60 percent of their votes in national polls. But even that formidable showing represents a decline from 2016, when he captured about two-thirds, the best performance for any nominee in either party since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Against Biden, Trump isn’t matching those elevated margins, especially among blue-collar white women and especially in the key Rust Belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

The common theme of all of these trends: The circle is closing tighter around Trump.

“In 2016, you still had some Republicans, some conservatives who were biting their tongue and voting for Trump, taking him ‘seriously but not literally,’” the Tufts University political scientist Brian Schaffner, who has studied the roles sexism and racism played in the last election, told me. But since at least 2018, there’s been “a whittling away of people who weren’t necessarily strong supporters for him, but voted for him out of a habit of voting for Republican nominees.” With more of those Americans gone from the Trump coalition, he will grow even more dependent than in 2016 on the voters most uneasy with racial change and evolving roles for women. “We are going to be even more sorted [in this election] along these cultural markers about race attitudes and attitudes about misogyny,” Schaffner said.

Geography tells the same story of a narrowing circle for Trump and the GOP. Even compared with last time, Trump and his party are slipping further in the populous places that most embody the nation’s changes. At the same time, Biden is clawing back ground in some of the areas that provided the foundation of Trump’s victory, the small and midsize communities that more closely resemble the profile of mid-20th-century America.

In almost every state, the best way to think about the political alignment now is to imagine a beltway circling each of the major population centers; all of the bustling communities inside those beltways are becoming bluer, while the less densely settled terrain beyond them is turning deeper red.

In 2020, Biden is consolidating the vote inside those beltways and denting the president’s dominance beyond them. Biden appears likely to recover at least some ground in midsize, blue-collar cities where Trump recorded huge gains last time, such as his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. And although Biden is unlikely to pry away many rural counties from Trump, Democrats are cautiously optimistic that he can reduce the president’s margin in some of them, particularly across the Rust Belt.

Simultaneously, Trump is at risk of cratering in America’s population centers. Already, in 2016, Trump lost 87 of the country’s 100 largest counties to Clinton; this year, he could lose about half of the 13 he won. (Maricopa County, centered on Phoenix, is one to watch: The largest county in America that Trump captured four years ago, it has seen its voters move away from Republicans, starting in the 2018 midterms.)

Trump’s problem isn’t just that some of the large counties he carried in 2016 will turn against him. Many of the ones he lost appear poised to deliver even bigger—maybe much bigger—margins for the Democrats. Clinton, for instance, won Harris County, home to Houston, by about 160,000 votes; local political observers I spoke with believe Biden could at least double that margin in 2020. Likewise, Biden appears virtually certain to improve on Clinton’s totals in big urban centers with large Black populations, such as Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia, where turnout declined, in some cases substantially, relative to Obama’s 2012 showing. In the 100 largest counties, Clinton won by 15 million votes combined; Biden could substantially enlarge that number.

In the same way that Trump has isolated the GOP from the growing groups in American society driving demographic change, he is exiling the Republican Party from the places at the cutting edge of economic change. The Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution calculated that although Clinton in 2016 won fewer than one-sixth of U.S. counties, her counties accounted for nearly two-thirds of total GDP. “What we’ve seen is an increased sorting in which the Democratic vote has aligned around a future-oriented, higher-tech information economy, anchored by diverse urban places with dense collections of workers,” Mark Muro, the MPP’s policy director, told me. “Meanwhile, the Republican vote has sorted to essentially become a bastion of holdover traditionalist economic activities”—led by manufacturing, energy extraction, and agriculture—“and smaller, rural, less dense places.”

That sorting could intensify next week. What’s happening to the GOP, Muro said, is that the decline already recorded under Trump in the core urban centers of the new economy is now spreading to the periphery, to the inner suburbs around them. “There is a lot of tech in unglamorous office parks,” as well as “financial services and professional services,” Muro said. Those areas “are certainly on the bubble here” and could break for Biden. On November 3, Muro’s calculations suggest, Trump might be reduced to winning counties that account for 30 percent or less of the nation’s total economic output.

Apart from “law and order” messages aimed at what he calls the “suburban housewives of America,” Trump has done little as president to combat his erosion in the large metropolitan areas driving the economy’s transition. Instead, he has devoted enormous effort to fortifying his support among workers in the dominant industries of the 20th century, which are mostly located in smaller communities. He has deluged farmers with billions in subsidies, repealed all of Obama’s key initiatives to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and fight climate change, and touted his trade deals as a boon for manufacturing.

But almost all of the Republicans I’ve spoken with agree that trading small towns for big suburbs is an unsustainable strategy. With relatively few exceptions, the areas where Trump is strongest are stagnant or decreasing in population, while jobs, innovation, and people are concentrating inside of the metropolitan centers that are poised to repudiate him in massive numbers. “The Republican base has migrated from the country club to the country, and that’s just not where the people are,” says Tom Davis, a former Republican representative from northern Virginia who once chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee. “There is no question [that] long term, it is a losing proposition.”

Even in the unlikely (but not inconceivable) event that Trump squeezes out another Electoral College victory, it seems almost certain that Biden will win the national popular vote. If he does, Democrats will have won the most votes in seven of the past eight presidential elections. No party has managed that since the formation of the modern party system in 1828. Likewise, the 47 current Democratic senators won 14 million more votes in their most recent elections than the 53 current Republicans, according to calculations by the Brookings Institution’s Molly Reynolds. With Democrats poised for Senate gains in midsize and larger states—such as Colorado, Arizona, and possibly North Carolina and Georgia—that imbalance will widen next week. Democrats don’t have the power in Washington to show for it right now, but in this century they have a much stronger claim than Republicans to be the nation’s majority party.

The increasing influence of the racially diverse, heavily secular, and well-educated Millennials and Gen Zers will make it difficult for Republicans to dislodge Democrats from that majority position. This year will mark the most profound generational transition in the electorate since around 1980, when the Baby Boom supplanted the Greatest Generation as the largest bloc of voters, according to analysis by the nonpartisan States of Change project. Since then, for a remarkable four decades, Boomers have ruled as the largest group of both eligible and actual voters. But in 2020, for the first time, Millennials and Gen Zers have matched the Boomers as a share of eligible voters. And by 2024, the two younger generations will equal the Boomers and even older generations at the ballot box, and will surpass them by substantial margins very quickly thereafter, States of Change projects.

That’s an ominous prospect for the GOP. Trump has run well among Baby Boomers, but he has defined the party in opposition to seemingly every priority that the younger generations have embraced, including climate change, racial equity, and gay rights. Trump might as well try to convince fish to fear water as to persuade young people to view the diverse country around them as harmful to American traditions. “On every one of these issues that has to do with a more pluralistic, cosmopolitan America, they grow up living in that world,” Robert P. Jones, PRRI’s founder and CEO, told me. “There is no conceivable way most of them will be sold on the idea that it’s a threat.”

Yet it’s far from clear that the coalition of transformation can implement its agenda, even if it convincingly establishes itself as the nation’s majority through the coming decade. Republicans benefit from multiple features of the current electoral system that could allow them to hobble Democrats.

The Electoral College and the Senate magnify the influence of the small, mostly white and Christian interior states that now lean reliably toward the GOP. Even if Biden wins next week, control of the Senate remains on the knife’s edge. And even if Democrats do win a narrow Senate majority, the Senate filibuster, which amplifies small states’ power, could stymie much of their agenda. Senators representing states with as little as 11 percent of the population can muster the 41 votes to maintain a filibuster, according to calculations from Adam Jentleson, a former deputy chief of staff to onetime Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid and the author of an upcoming book arguing for Senate reform. “You can get to 41 votes to sustain a filibuster simply by assembling states that Trump won by 20 points or more,” Jentleson told me.

If Democrats win the upper chamber, they might terminate the filibuster, as a growing number in the party have proposed. But even then, they would face the last line of GOP defense: the new six-to-three Republican majority on the Supreme Court. The justices could repeatedly invalidate Democratic legislation and executive-branch actions. For instance, it’s not hard to imagine that with unified control of government, Democrats might take the monumental step of ending the Senate filibuster to pass a new Voting Rights Act, only to see the Republican Court majority strike it down (as the 2013 Shelby County decision did to a key element of the original VRA). With the oldest members of that Republican bloc only in their early 70s, this conservative Court majority could easily persist through the entire decade of the 2020s. Unless Democrats pursue legislation to change the Court’s structure, the oldest Millennials might turn 50 before the current conservative majority is dislodged.

These same flammable ingredients were present in the 1850s, when a rising majority found it impossible to impose its agenda because of all the structural obstacles laid down by the retreating minority. As the decade proceeded, it became more and more clear that the newly formed Republican Party, dedicated to barring the spread of slavery to the territories, constituted an emerging national majority. It was centered on the northern states, which by 1860 would represent 60 percent of America’s population, including 70 percent of its white population. In their writings and speeches, southerners were acutely conscious of their status as a national minority. Yet for decades they successfully maneuvered to block restrictions on slavery through their powerful position in the Senate and their influence over pro-slavery Democratic presidents. That allowed them not only to suppress most legislative threats, but also to establish a friendly majority on the Supreme Court. In the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court, with seven of its nine justices appointed by earlier pro-South Democratic presidents, declared that Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories. As the Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz recently told me, “what Dred Scott did, in effect, was to declare the platform of the Republican Party unconstitutional.”

Whether Abraham Lincoln could have maneuvered around those obstacles we’ll never know, because the South seceded before anyone could find out. Even if Democrats consistently win elections through the 2020s, red states aren’t likely to follow the example of the pre–Civil War South and quit the union. But Republican behavior in recent years suggests that they share the antebellum South’s determination to control the nation’s direction as a minority. That determination is evident in the extraordinary steps Republicans have taken to shift the Supreme Court, including denying a vote on Obama nominee Merrick Garland in 2016 and then rushing a vote on Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett this month, after more than 60 million Americans had already voted. It’s evident in the flood of laws that Republican states have passed over the past decade making it more difficult to vote. And it’s evident in the fervent efforts from the party to restrict access to mail-in voting this year. In many ways, recent history has suggested that Republicans believe they have a better chance of maintaining power by suppressing the diverse new generations entering the electorate than by courting them.

What’s unclear is whether a Trump defeat could cause Republicans to reconsider that path. After the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee commissioned its heralded “autopsy,” which concluded that the GOP must expand its appeal to young and nonwhite voters. Instead, Trump pursued the polar-opposite strategy: maximizing support among older and non-college-educated white people by presenting those growing constituencies as a threat. A Trump defeat might well prompt Republicans to exhume the autopsy. But if more of the GOP’s white-collar voters abandon the party next week, as seems virtually certain, there may not be much of an electoral foundation for such a reconsideration.

The reason: If racial and cultural moderates abandon the GOP, the voters left in the party will tilt even further toward Trump’s message of racial and cultural resentment. “The Republican Party is going to continue to shrink and become more monolithic and less relevant and more regionalized,” Madrid, the Lincoln Project co-founder, told me. “They believe they are the last stand for America and [that] America is the white Christian nation. They believe they are what America is. And that kind of identity gets stronger as it loses—it becomes more self-righteous as it loses.”

The inexorable change coming to the Democratic Party could make the GOP even more reactionary. Biden has defined himself as a “transitional” figure, and demands are already building for a Democratic leadership corps that reflects the party’s increasing reliance on young people and people of color. It’s not hard to imagine that by 2024, Democrats will be led by presidential nominee Kamala Harris, who is of Jamaican and Indian descent; vice-presidential nominee Pete Buttigieg, an openly gay man; and House Speaker Hakeem Jeffries, who would be the first Black person to hold that post. Much like Obama did in 2008, such a roster would symbolize a changing America in a way that inspires the coalition of transformation—but terrifies many in the coalition of restoration. “It would touch on everything that a lot of Trump supporters were reacting to when they supported him in 2016—this sense of feeling threatened by the [challenge] to white supremacy in the U.S.,” Schaffner told me.

California over the past 30 years may offer a hopeful vision of how America could work through these coming conflicts. During the 1990s, as minorities were slowly becoming a majority of the state’s population, racial tension soared. With preponderant support from white voters, conservatives passed a series of ballot initiatives targeting those minority groups, including Proposition 187, which cut off services for undocumented immigrants; a ban on bilingual education; and tougher criminal-sentencing laws. But once California passed the racial tipping point and the sky didn’t fall, tensions dramatically eased. In years since, the state has repealed much of the hard-line agenda it approved during the 1990s. If that’s the nation’s path, the next few years may be rocky, but today’s political fault lines could slowly dissolve. Americans could re-sort themselves around less volatile differences over taxes and spending, instead of their feelings about racial and cultural change.

The alternative is the 1850s scenario. On that path, the Republican coalition remains centered on culturally conservative white Americans who grow more embittered and radical as evidence mounts that they cannot stop the emerging majority from instituting its agenda. If this many non-college-educated and Christian white voters are receptive to a Trump-style racial-identity message when they constitute a little more than 40 percent of the population, there’s little reason to believe fewer of them will respond to it when they fall to 38 or 36 percent as the decade proceeds. Already, research by the Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartels has found that a stunningly high percentage of Republican voters express sympathy for an array of antidemocratic sentiments, such as the half who agreed that the “traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” A similar impulse to embrace any means necessary for maintaining power is evident in the virtual silence from GOP leaders as Trump has openly called for criminal prosecution of Obama and Hillary Clinton, as well as Biden and his family (not to mention the choice by every Republican in Congress, except Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, to decline sanctioning Trump for trying to extort Ukraine to manufacture dirt on Biden).

A Republican Party deepening its reliance on the most racially resentful white voters, as Democrats more thoroughly represent the nation’s accelerating diversity, could test the bonds of the union to the greatest extent since the Civil War. If Trump wins a second term, that crisis could come very quickly: Blue America isn’t likely to quietly acquiesce if a reelected Trump follows through on any of his multiple threats to criminalize his opponents, deploy large numbers of federal law-enforcement officers to blue cities, or pursue punitive actions against media institutions and technology companies he considers threats.

Winning next week would give Biden an opportunity to temper partisan hostilities and “bind up the nation’s wounds,” as Lincoln put it. But through his long career, the former vice president has not often shown the dexterity required to satisfy the ascendant left in his own party while building meaningful bridges to the other party. Nor is there much reason to believe that the Republicans remaining in Congress after a big Democratic win—a group that would be concentrated in Trump country even more than today’s GOP caucus—would have much interest in reaching back out to Biden. The 2020 election has been among the most vitriolic and divisive America has ever experienced, with the prospect of further disruption and even violence still lingering in its aftermath. But all of that may be just the opening bell for a decade that tests the nation’s cohesion like few others ever have.