Are we one country?  I haven’t finished reading Colin Woodard’s American Nations, but it already helps me make sense of the chaos, the confusion, the peculiarity of the fall hysteria called a national election.  Woodard’s basic thesis is that eleven groups of people―ethnic groups, class groups, religious groups―came to this continent, beginning with the ones he calls “First Nation” who came from the west.  These eleven groups spread across the continent.  The group that got to any region in sufficient numbers first made its imprint on the culture in that place.  Others who came later, though they came from other “nations,” were absorbed into the existing culture rather than changing it.  The map of the continent showing these nations is a set of very wiggly lines. These lines rarely bear any relation to present state or even national borders.  The territories vary from wide to very narrow bands.  The map, which is on the front of the paper cover of the book, looks like an etch-a-sketch drawing gone wild.

Some of the “nations” make immediate sense.  In particular, the “First Nation” dominates part of Canada, and “El Norte” is the name given for the Spanish movement up from Mexico.  France had a significant influence in the areas now represented by Quebec and New Orleans.  The other nations take some study and persuasion.  Most of them were founded by the English.  The different classes and religious formations, however, produced very different views of what political life should look like.

I won’t go into all of Woodard’s claims and explanations here.  He might be horrified at my simplifications of his detailed arguments. The book is well written and an easy read in spite of the complications of his argument.  I recommend it.

To begin with the founding of the country, I learned long ago that the establishment of the government involved major compromise between the New England and the Southern ideas.  Woodard makes clear that even the language was different.  From the beginning New Englanders, because of their covenantal religious structure, were committed to participatory democracy in town meetings where everyone could speak, but expected considerable social conformity.  They were big on schools, since reading the Bible was important. The leaders of Tidewater Virginia, in contrast, were country gentlemen who expected “liberties” according to their class, and considered government a privilege and responsibility of the elite.

“Midlanders” the “nation” which first settled New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, were a mixed lot, Quaker, Dutch and German, who valued tolerance, with minimal interference in one anothers’ cultures.  A second group came in through Pennsylvania, settled in the interior and then moved down into Appalachia.  Woodard calls these “Borderlanders” because they came from the desperate border areas of Britain.  For the Scots, Irish and Scotch-Irish, the sense of community was in family and clan and they valued fighting skill, honor and independence.  “Freedom” to them meant being left alone, a contrast to the freedom of the Yankees to participate in government.

These groups spread west, so that the Midwestern states are divided in bands of different cultures, with Yankees in the northern sections and Borderlanders in the south, with a narrow strip of Midlanders in between.  My one sentence summaries of their different attitudes should make it clear that these three groups will be seeking totally different conditions in their governments.Yankees want to put everyone in school; Borderlanders want to be left alone.  Midlanders want to get along, both socially and economically.  Thus the Midlanders come to be the swing votes in the swing states.

Woodard claims that it was the Midlander vote going for Obama which gave him the win in 2008.  It will be interesting to see how he characterizes the 2012 election.  He makes me wish we had a lot more “Midlanders” in Congress.  My sense of the election results is that we, the country, are going to need all the tolerance we can get from our leadership.

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