Universal Translator

Monday, December 12, 2011

Book Review: American Nations

Well, I wrapped up Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America over the weekend.  It’s been only about a month since I even learned of the book, and given that I’ve already made reference to it a half-dozen times on this blog, it is fairly safe to say that I really enjoyed reading it, although that is not to say that I was necessarily persuaded of the entirety of the book’s premise.

As usual, so as not to spoil the book for anyone who intends to read it for themselves and draw their own conclusions, my thoughts on American Nations are below the fold.

At the outset, let me explain that although the subtitle refers to “North America,” this book really is about the regional cultures that comprise the United States.  Of the eleven distinct cultures (“nations”) that Woodard identifies, one of them is only very briefly discussed in the book’s epilogue.  This is the “First Nation,” the Inuit Native Americans who control the far northern reaches of Canada.

Two others - “New France” and “El Norte” – get more attention, but are still addressed fairly cursorily.  Woodard defines “New France” as including both the region surrounding Quebec and the small, outlying satellite region of New Orleans.  Woodard defines “El Norte” as the region spilling 100 miles or so both to the north and to the south from the US/Mexican border.  The actual political entities that are Canada and Mexico merit only very brief discussion in the book, again in its epilogue. 

Not that there is anything wrong with this.  As Woodard explains early on, lines have to be drawn somewhere and it is fairly clear that it is the United States with which Woodard is most concerned.

The Book’s Premise
Woodard argues that while we naturally think of the United States as a single entity comprised of fifty states (48 for purposes of this discussion), the country is better understood as a collection of nine different cultural “nations.”  (First Nation doesn’t have a presence in the United States, and while New France does – in New Orleans and Cajun Louisiana – it is so powerless to impose its cultural identity on the rest of the country that it can be disregarded for purposes of national politics.)

Each of these different cultural nations inhabits a specific geographic territory created by the initial settlement and subsequent expansion of the different populations who first established the nations, and these geographic areas spill across and through state lines.  Many political states are in fact shared by more than one of Woodard’s nine different nations.  Woodard suggests that the nine nations’ different essential characters have remained immutable since they were first established, and argues that the United States’ political history can be best understood as the clash between the different nations’ cultures as they have been forced to relate to one another over time.

It is a fascinating premise, but one about which I am fairly skeptical.  As I mentioned the first time I referenced this book, I don’t doubt that there are big cultural differences in the varying regions of America.  But it seems highly unlikely that these differences, generally established 350 to 400 years ago, (i) have not changed significantly over time and (ii) explain all or most of the American people’s varying attitudes toward political authority, civil rights, religion, war, social conformity, community investment, etc.

To be sure, for each of the nations Woodard identifies he is capable of giving a plausible description of its original inhabitants and their temperament, and can generally show how that same temperament predictably contributed to the actions each nation took with respect to, say, the Civil War, or Reconstruction, or WW I, or the Civil Rights and countercultural movements. 

But the mere fact an explanatory narrative is plausible does not mean it necessarily follows that the explanation provided is correct.  Last month I spun out a theory that all the changes in America’s national culture over the past 50 years can be explained by the aging of the Baby Boom Generation.  I think the explanatory narrative I came up with is plausible, but I would never argue that it is therefore accurate.  I haven’t done any real research to support my speculations, I was just spitballing.

And this, ultimately, is the problem for anyone who is reading Woodard’s book with a skeptical eye but who is also looking to be convinced.  Woodard provides copious endnotes to support his argument, but those endnotes consist of nothing more than citations to authority.  Without the ability to actually scrutinize Woodard’s source material to confirm that he has not misinterpreted it and that it does support his premise, one ultimately is left with simply taking Woodard at his word. 

Of course, I don’t doubt Woodard’s good faith for a moment, but his premise does seem to me to be fairly remarkable and therefore before I can agree that it is in fact correct I need to see some fairly remarkable supporting evidence.  That isn’t really presented in this book, but nor can it be and still have the book be interestingly readable.  I would guess that in order to present a tightly supported, verifiable argument such as I’m describing the book itself would end up being 2 or 3 times longer than it already is, and much less accessible.  

So I guess the takeaway points are (i) Woodard’s premise may be correct, but I wouldn’t say he’s made his case with this book; (ii) because of the type of book this is, I don’t really consider this a failing on Woodard’s part; and (iii) I, at least, would be interested in reading a much thicker version of this same book, with more detailed supporting evidence presented. 

All that being said, Woodard’s premise does provide an exceptionally interesting framework for thinking about America’s current and past political conflicts, always taking into account that his descriptions are generalizations about populations as a whole and do not apply uniformly to every individual within a particular nation.  (For example, according to Woodard I am a Deep Southerner despite the fact pretty much every descriptor for a Deep Southerner does not describe me.)

Woodard’s Description of Our Current Political Situation
Woodard argues that that for about the past 150 years American politics has been dominated by two competing alliances of three nations each, both of whom need to attract the support of at least two of the three remaining non-aligned nations in order to prevail nationally in any given political dispute.  He breaks it down as follows:

(Don't worry too much about paying attention to the geographic descriptions; there is a map provided at the end of this little summary.)

(1)  The Northern Alliance – consists of the nations “Yankeedom,” “New Netherland,” and “the Left Coast.”  In turn,

            (i)         Yankeedom – refers to the New England states, upstate New York, and to the northern part of the Midwest into which the original New Englanders expanded, running into about the middle of North Dakota.  Yankees believe in advancing the good of the community before the good of the individual and are marked by a desire to proselytize their culture and virtues to the rest of the world.  They are willing to invest heavily in communal institutions.  Yankeedom is the dominant player in the Northern Alliance, and is one of the two “superpowers” among the American Nations.

            (ii)        New Netherland – refers, essentially, to New York City and its surrounding environs.  Members of this nation believe in cultural diversity, commerce, and the value of a large tax base and government funded infrastructure.

            (iii)       The Left Coast – refers to the coastal area running from Monterey, California north to the Canadian border.  Yankees attempted to export their culture here in order to secure the area from Catholicism, and the culture of the Left Coast remains shaped by Yankee concerns for community improvement.  But the Gold Rush brought in so many people from around the world that they overwhelmed the natural Yankee inclination toward social conformity.  The Left Coast is a fair mix of both the two other Northern Alliance nations, combining the Yankee desire to do what it takes to improve and advance the community with the New Netherland tolerance for cultural diversity.

(2)  The Dixie Blocconsists of the nations “Tidewater,” “The Deep South,” and “Appalachia.”  In turn,

            (iv)       Tidewater – refers to eastern Virginia, northeastern North Carolina, and the Chesapeake area of Maryland and Delaware.  Originally settled by junior members of noble and wealthy English families, Tidewater’s citizens attempted to create their own aristocracy in the New World.  They are marked by a sense of elitism and respect for authority, a disbelief in natural equality, and a general disinterest in public participation in politics.

            (v)        The Deep South – refers to the area stretching from southeastern North Carolina to the mid-point of Florida, and then running west along the Gulf Coast states until it terminates around Corpus Christie, Texas.  Founded by Barbados slaveowners as a West Indies-style slave society, it is very similar to Tidewater in its attitudes, albeit perhaps a bit more extreme regarding its disbelief in equality.  The Deep South is the dominant player in the Dixie Bloc, and is the second of the two “superpowers” among the American Nations.

            (vi)       Appalachia – refers to an area the eastern boundary of which begins in south-central Pennsylvania and runs along the Appalachian mountains through Virginia and North Carolina until it reaches the highlands of South Carolina and Georgia; the territory extends west to include Tennessee, Kentucky, the southern portions of Illinois and Indian, and continues through Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma to end in the panhandle and northern portion of Texas.  Fiercely combative and antagonistic toward authority, “borderlanders” tend to be skeptical of both community investment and Yankee attempts at social engineering.
(3)  The Swing Nations – include “The Midlands,” “El Norte,” and “The Far West.”  In turn,

            (vii)      The Midlands – refers to a narrow band that began in middle Pennsylvania and stretched east to southern New Jersey, and west into Nebraska, where it then spread north to Canada and south into the panhandle of Oklahoma.  Originally settled by Quakers and German farmers, Midlanders tend to pacifistic attitudes and adhere to a live-and-let-live mentality.  They are interested in community advancement but avoid the social proselytizing and engineering of Yankees.

            (viii)     El Norte – is the second oldest of the nations (after “First Nation”), and essentially consists of the northernmost part of Spain’s former New World colonies.  In the United States it runs south from Monterey, California along the coastal area, and then along the US/Mexican border through the southwest states until it terminates in southeastern Texas.  Nortenos share a Mexican culture but are known for being more independent, self-sufficient, adaptable and work-oriented than the more densely populated hierarchical society in southern Mexico.

            (ix)       The Far West – is the youngest of the nations, inasmuch as its land is so inhospitable it could not effectively be settled without the resources of the federal government and/or corporate railroad and mining companies.  Running west from the 100th meridian (approx. the midpoint of North Dakota) to the Left Coast, and from the US/Canada border south to the northern border of El Norte, the Far West is largely a resource exploitation nation that demands federal largesse while resenting the federal government for “interfering” in its business.  However, it “rarely challenges its corporate masters . . . who retain near-Gilded Age levels of influence over Far Western affairs.”

Look!  A map!

Woodard’s Explanation for our Current Political Situation
According to Woodard the two main contenders for dominance of the United States are Yankeedom and the Deep South, both of which have been vying with each other for political control since before the ratification of the Constitution.  My take from the book is that there are two overarching issues about which these nations simply cannot agree.  The first – which I find the most interesting – is the issue of freedom vs. liberty.  The second can be thought of as the Public/Private Protestantism debate.


(1)  Freedom vs. Liberty – I’ve already referenced this idea several times on this blog (see here and here).  Essentially,

Woodard argues that from the very start the country was divided by the northern states’ Germanic idea of “Freiheit” and the southern states’ Latin idea of “libertas.”  Essentially, Freiheit (“freedom”) holds that all people are born free and equal before the law, that they all possess at least certain minimal rights that have to be mutually respected, and that they are capable of self-governance.  Conversely, libertas (“liberty”) holds that people are born into bondage, that liberties are granted as a privilege, that most people are not capable of self-governance, and that only a very few, governing elite can or should enjoy the full blessings of liberty.

The political elite of the Tidewater and Deep South nations – the main two slaveholding nations – fully embraced the concept of libertas, and considered any infringement of their ability to do as they pleased with and to their “inferiors” to be not only deeply insulting, but contrary to the ways of God and the “natural inclination” of Man.  I’ve written before of how these two nations’ embrace of libertas in order to justify slavery eventually led their intellectual leaders to argue in favor of universal enslavement of the poor, regardless of race, for the poor’s own good. 

Indeed, Woodard points out that as the Civil War approached this idea had been stretched until democracy itself was demonized in order to create a race-based justification for the two nations’ gentry’s own supposed “superiority” to the members of their rival nations:

In an 1862 speech, Jefferson Davis told Mississippi legislators that their enemies were “a traditionless and homeless race . . . gathered by Cromwell from the bogs and fens of the north of Ireland and of England” to be “disturbers of peace in the world.”  The war, DeBow’s Review declared, was a struggle to reverse the ill-conceived American Revolution, which had been contrary to “the natural reverence of the Cavalier for the authority of established forms over mere speculative ideas.”  By throwing off monarchy, slaveholders endangered the wondrous “domestic institution” that rested “on the principle of inequality and subordination, and favor[ed] a public policy embodying the ideas of social status.”  Democracy “threw political influence into the hands of inorganic masses” and caused “the subjection of the Cavalier to the intellectual thralldom of the Puritan.”  Other Tidewater and Deep Southern thinkers came to agree that the struggle was really between respect for established aristocratic order and the dangerous Puritan notion that “the individual man was . . . of higher worth than any system of polity.”  As Fitzhugh put it, it was a war “between conservatives and revolutionists; between Christians and infidels . . . the chaste and the libidinous; between marriage and free-love.”  Some even championed the dubious notion that the Confederacy was fighting a Huguenot-Anglican conterreformation against Puritan excess.  Slavery was not the issue, they argued – defeating democracy was.  (emphasis added).

Of course, Yankeedom – with its culture inculcating a respect for human advancement and progress – already was determined to eliminate slavery.  But with Yankeedom’s tradition of town hall meetings and direct democratic governance, it must have felt even further compelled to take action as necessary to protect the very notion of democracy itself.  After the attack on Fort Sumter, the Yankees were finally able to rally the heretofore pacifistic Midlanders and New Netherlanders to join it in fighting to preserve the union – on Yankee terms.

(Interestingly, although Appalachia now forms part of the Dixie Bloc, about half of Appalachia elected to align itself with the Union during the Civil War -- West Virginia, for example.  As Woodard points out, those borderlanders were under no illusions about whom the southern thinkers had in mind when they started talking about the desirability of “the universal enslavement of the poor.”)

(2)  Public/Private Protestantism – closely related to the libertas v. freiheit dispute are the two national groups’ understanding of the place of religion when it comes to community affairs and social engineering.  Woodard argues that from the very beginning Yankees believed strongly in investment in the community for itself.  He traces this to an understanding he calls “Public Protestantism,” which emphasizes collective salvation and the social gospel.  To this end, Yankees were always inclined to focus on working directly to improve the world we live in now by, for example, promoting labor protections, the minimum wage and other collective solutions to reduce poverty.

The Left Coast, deliberately shaped by Yankees in its formative years to adhere to Yankee ideas of progress and freedom, is also naturally inclined to see strong governmental action as a legitimate means of effecting social change and as a necessary bulwark against excesses and abuse by private interests.  New Netherland’s society – with its focus on trade and cultural pluralism – may not have been as interested in advancing “faith based” social projects, but the massive infrastructure necessary to support its way of life absolutely requires a great deal of public investment, so it too is naturally inclined to align itself with the Yankee idea of community reinvestment.

All of which runs directly counter to what Woodard calls the “Private Protestantism” of the Dixie Bloc.  Both Tidewater and the Deep South had a long history of arranging their social and political structures to mimic an aristocracy as closely as possible.  The vast majority of all these nations’ natural and economic resources were funneled to a very few elite who sat at the top of the food chain, and who had very little interest in investing in institutions (Gad! I do love alliteration!) that would serve the public and not them personally.

Woodard seems to suggest that this economic and social structure was at least partly responsible for the rise of Southern Baptists, Southern Methodists, and the Evangelical and Charismatic churches that preached a gospel that focused on saving individual souls and not the community at large.  (“Gotta get yerself right with God, son!”)  Whereas the Northern Alliance nations might launch programs to actually try and eliminate or reduce poverty in the world as it is, the Deep South and Tidewater nations focused on saving the souls of poor people for the world to come.

This “Private Protestantism” meshed very well with the attitudes of the Borderlanders who make up the nation of Appalachia.  According to Woodard, the chief characteristic of this nation is a desire to be let alone and beholden to no outsider.  Borderlanders naturally resented Yankee attempts at social engineering – what they referred to as “interference” – and naturally embraced Private Protestantism, which makes one’s relationship with God a direct, unique and personal thing.

Woodard’s Predictions About Our Current Political Situation
The vast majority of this book is a history and is therefore descriptive, not prescriptive or predictive.  (Gad!  There it – kind of – is again!)  In the epilogue, Woodard speculates about the possibility Mexico may itself fly apart in the near future, and suggests if that were to happen the northern part of the Mexican states (which comprise part of El Norte) might form a break-away republic and attempt to align themselves more closely with the United States so as to maintain the integrity of El Norte itself.  Woodard notes that of the three political entities that make up North America, Canada appears to be the most stable at this point largely because it has ceased trying to establish/impose a uniform “Canadian” culture and its four Anglo nations (Yankeedom, the Midlands, the Far West, and the Left Coast) have learned to compromise culturally with New France.

The United States, Woodard suggests, falls somewhere between these two extremes.  Although we certainly are not as likely as Mexico to disintegrate into its constituent nations any time soon, it also appears unlikely that any of us are prepared yet to accept the kind of cultural compromise achieved by Canada’s nations either.  As Woodard puts it:

The majority of Yankees, New Netherlanders, and Left Coasters simply aren’t going to accept living in an evangelical Christian theocracy with weak or nonexistent social, labor, or environmental protections, public school systems, and checks on corporate power in politics.  Most Deep Southerners will resist paying higher taxes to underwrite the creation of a public health insurance system; a universal network of well-resourced, unionized, and avowedly secular public schools; tuition-free public universities where science – not the King James Bible – guides inquiry; taxpayer-subsidized public transportation, high-speed railroad networks, and renewable energy projects; or vigorous regulatory bodies to ensure compliance with strict financial, food safety, environmental, and campaign finance laws. 

* * *

For my part, and thinking strictly in the short-term, I can easily see the two competing groups further solidifying and actually getting larger as each picks up one more nation as a permanent member. 

For example, I don’t have much difficulty envisioning the Far West, with its heavy emphasis on independence and being let alone by the federal government to exploit the area’s natural resources, effectively deciding to further cement itself to the Dixie Bloc.  I am aware that more and more people in the Far West have begun to be more environmentally sensitive to preserve their way of life, and these concerns would tend to push them toward the Northern Alliance.  But I am cynical about humans’ willingness ultimately to sacrifice short-term profit for long-term, sustainable wealth.  So I can easily see the Far West fitting right in with the traditional exploitation culture of the Deep South.

Similarly, I don’t have much difficulty envisioning El Norte aligning itself with the Northern Alliance.  Of the nine nations important to US politics, El Norte is the only non-Anglo nation.  This makes it a bad fit for the nations of the Dixie bloc, but the Left Coast and New Netherland, with their historical attachment to cultural diversity, would have little problem welcoming El Norte into a tighter alliance with them.

Yankeedom – with its traditional demand for social conformity – would be less inclined than its junior partners to welcome El Norte into the Northern Alliance, but especially if the Dixie Bloc picks up the Far West as a new permanent member the Northern Alliance is going to need El Norte in order to maintain political parity.  (Of course, it won’t really be a situation of parity because El Norte’s population is predicted to continue growing at a rapid rate.  I’ve not seen any projections for the growth of the Far West but given that the entire area is marked by its relative low habitability, I doubt its growth will be able to match that of El Norte.  So in the end the Northern Alliance may well end up slightly more powerful than the Dixie Bloc.)

If all this were to play out, there would still be one non-aligned American nation – a permanent “swing-state state” if you will – whose political decisions would likely prove determinative for all future national political disputes.  The Midlands would in effect become the Justice Kennedy of the 21st century American political landscape. 

And maybe that is only as it should be.  The Midlands, after all, is the nation that Woodard describes as

[a]rguably the most “American” . . . .  Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, the Midlands spawned the culture of Middle America and the Heartland, where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion has been moderate, even apathetic. . . . .  Like Yankees, the Midlanders believe society should be organized to benefit ordinary people, but they are extremely skeptical of top-down governmental intervention, as many of their ancestors fled from European tyrannies.  The Midlands is home to a dialect long considered “standard American,” a bellwether for national political attitudes, and the key “swing vote” in every national debate from the abolition of slavery to the 2008 presidential contest.

Just as with the Supreme Court, if the other eight nations are going to more or less permanently sort themselves out into competing blocs, then the ninth is going end up being the one to decide political cases.  In my opinion, we could probably do a lot worse than have that swing vote held by the Midlands.

In wrapping this up, I’d like to make one final point.  As I said earlier, when I first learned about American Nations I was of course extremely intrigued but I also immediately argued that the United States cannot be adequately defined only by reference to our regional differences.  I argued that America is more than an agglomeration of people united by culture, or by religion, or by language.  We are – at our best – united by an IdeaI wrote at the time:

Say whatever you want about how the United States operates in practice, the idea of the United States is a beautiful thing.  The idea of the United States is that anybody – anybody – can be an American.  We don’t care about your skin color, your religion, your accent, your beliefs, or where you’re from.  To be an American, all you have to do is agree to abide by our laws and our Constitution, agree to respect the principles of representative democracy, and recognize those special “carve outs” for individual rights that may not be trampled on by the majority:  freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of consciousness, equality before the law, etc.

The idea of America functions almost as a national, secular religion (if that isn’t too blatant a contradiction in terms), and I’ve long believed that it provides the necessary glue, the commonality that we all need, to hold us together as a people.  As much as I complain and cavil about my country and the things done in its name, like everyone else I know I’ve never stopped being proud of the ideas for which it stands.  And the unifying nature of those ideals, to which we all consciously pledge our allegiance, vastly outweighs the more instinctive cultural differences found in the United States.

As it turns out, I think Woodard largely agrees with me.  I can’t say that he thinks our adherence to the Idea of the United States outweighs our cultural differences, but he does argue that if we want to continue the United States in its current form we would do well to work harder to instill a respect for the Constitution and the federal institutions we’ve created in its name:

[I]f Americans seriously want the United States to continue to exist in something like its current form, they had best respect the fundamental tenets of our unlikely union.  It cannot survive if we end the separation of church and state or institute the Baptist equivalent of Sharia law.  We won’t hold together if presidents appoint political ideologues to the Justice Department or the Supreme Court of the United States, or if party loyalists try to win elections by trying to stop people from voting rather than winning them over with their ideas. . . .  Other sovereign democratic states have central governments more corrupted than our own, but most can fall back on unifying elements we lack:  common ethnicity, a shared religion, or near-universal consensus on many fundamental political issues.  The United States needs its central government to function cleanly, openly, and efficiently because it’s one of the few things binding us together.

That sounds about right to me.

No comments:

Post a Comment