Saturday, November 19, 2011

Our Politics and Our "Ethnoregional Nations"

In reading Senator Jim Webb’s book, Born Fighting, about his Scots-Irish ancestors I was struck by the characteristics attributed to them: extreme individualism, distrust of authority, and strong evangelical Christian beliefs. The attempt was made to identify these people and their descendents with what has become known as the Tea Party: Born Fighting by Jim Webb. It seemed like such an obvious overlay of characteristics. Kevin Phillips, in his book American Theocracy, had already demonstrated that a map illustrating the location of the Scots-Irish and their immigration pattern out of the Appalachian regions overlaid nicely with the Republican, red-state voting pattern.

Alec MacGillis has an article in the Washington Post that discusses the book American Nations by Colin Woodard that lends further support to the association of Scots-Irish heritage and the current Republican Party. They will be referred to here also as "Borderlanders." The people known as the Scots-Irish originated in the borderlands between England and Scotland where they became devout Calvinists. They immigrated to Northern Ireland and became the cheap labor for the British plantations, and trusty Protestant allies against the indigenous Catholic Irish. It is from Ireland that hundreds of thousands then immigrated to the USA, thus picking up the label Scots-Irish. They ended up settling in the Appalachian areas because their culture and religion made them unwelcome in the coastal lowlands dominated by the better-educated Anglican English.

MacGillis begins with this anecdote:

"The day after the 2008 election, a remarkable map began making the rounds online. It showed the counties where John McCain had won more of the vote than George W. Bush had in his victory four years earlier. It was a nearly contiguous swath of the country, stretching from southwestern Pennsylvania through Appalachia, west across the upland South and into Oklahoma and north-central Texas."

"Presumably, something other than a singular affection for the latest Republican presidential candidate had allowed McCain to outperform Bush in this neck of the woods. But still, why this exact outline of the anti-Obama vote? What was behind it?"

Woodard’s book provides the necessary background.

"As Woodard sees it, the continent has long been divided into 11 rival regional "nations" determined by centuries-old settlement patterns. Yankeedom stretches from the Puritans’ New England to the land settled by their descendants in Upstate New York and the upper Midwest. New Netherland is Greater New York City, more interested in making money than in Yankee moralizing."

"The Midlands stretch from once-Quaker Philadelphia across the heart of the Midwest — German-dominated, open-minded and less inclined toward activist government than Yankeedom. Cavalier-founded Tidewater once ruled supreme but was hemmed in and saw its clout fade."

"The Deep South stretches to East Texas, long in tension but less so now with the Borderlanders, the feisty, individualistic Scots-Irish who scorned both the community-minded Yankees and the aristocrats of the Tidewater and the Deep South. The Borderlanders’ domain spans Appalachia, the southern Midwest and the upland South — the McCain stronghold described above."

Woodard takes the view that our history, past and present, is not easily understood unless one takes into consideration these regional differences.

"These nations looked different from the start: Where Yankeedom had countless towns, Tidewater had barely any — planters simply delivered supplies to their estates up the Chesapeake’s tributaries. The nations mistrusted each other deeply. And they often resorted to arms — the book reminds us of long-forgotten conflicts such as the Paxton Boys’ Borderlander assault on Midlander Philadelphia in 1764 and the Yankee-Pennamite wars in northern Pennsylvania in the late 18th century."

"In Woodard’s retelling, the country was unified in spite of itself. The Revolutionary War was a true insurgency only in Yankeedom; meanwhile, New Netherland became a Loyalist refuge, the pacifist-minded Midlanders lay low, the Deep Southern planters calculated how best to preserve (and expand) their slave economy, the Tidewater split into two camps, and the Borderlanders wrestled over whom they hated more — the British or the coastal elites oppressing them."

Woodard provides us with a concise summary of our recent political history.

"’Since 1877, the driving force in American politics hasn’t primarily been a class struggle or tension between agrarian and commercial interests, or even between competing partisan ideologies, although each has played a role,’ Woodard writes. ‘Ultimately, the determinative political struggle has been a clash between shifting coalitions of ethnoregional nations, one invariably headed by the Deep South, the other by Yankeedom’."

It would seem that culture is an enduring entity. Over two hundred years of living in the same country and initial characteristics persist. Thanks to Woodard and MacGillis for providing such illuminating information.

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