Colin Woodard's book American Nations delineates the 11 separate nations within the political state of the United States, explains their origins and interactions with the others, and uses the historical record to better understand how the country's social tensions develop, ebb, flow, and either mesh or conflict with each other. Ranging from the earliest European settlements in the New World through the present day, Woodard's approach melds primary research (including detailed election analysis) with historiography and broader social-science assessments to draw a clear picture of these United States.The Portland Phoenix caught up with him to talk about how this approach might be useful to understanding (and even solving) our many national problems.
IN THE EPILOGUE THERE'S A REALLY BLEAK PICTURE OF THE FUTURE OF THE UNION OF THE UNITED STATES. YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW THEY MIGHT BE RESOLVED, BUT OBSERVE THESE KINDS OF CONFLICTS HAVEN'T BEEN RESOLVED VERY WELL IN THE PAST. My real goal in writing the book was to understand where we've come to in the present and to look back in the past and be able to actually identify the big problems that lead to the divisions and political stalemate that we're in now. I wanted to show that those divisions have existed over a long period of time, and in the process give a new framework for better understanding American history and identity and how certain events from the American Revolution, through the Constitutional conventions, and the American Civil War, really came together — and how regionalism was so important. However, everyone always asks about the future. It was not my goal, so I can't claim that I spent years thinking about exactly what would happen. It's fair to say that nobody knows where we will be in the year 2100 but the essential fractured or balkanized nature of North America on regional grounds does give one cause to pause and reflect on whether or not by the end of this century the nation will be intact — and the likelihood that some dramatic change that could involve fracturing the country on these lines is entirely possible.
Canada has a history of being on the verge of their federation falling apart, mostly because of Quebecois separatism. That can't be discounted. As recent as 1995 there was a referendum that was defeated by the slightest sliver in Quebec that would have potentially led to the collapse of Canada. And still at the time, people of French and Quebecois extraction voted for it; they were just outvoted by the people of what I call First Nation up in Northern Quebec and English speakers and immigrants pretty much outweighed there. Both of our other federations are not necessarily stable. I think Canada is probably the most stable of the three because Canada has come to recognize the fractured and poly-cultural characteristics of their nation, and has accommodated them accordingly. So I think Canada actually stands in pretty good shape. So that brings us to the US and we can see in our current state of affairs where the country is deadlocked and deadlocked in a political conversation that largely falls on regional lines.
There is the possibility that, in a time of crisis that we can't predict now, what if the pandemic flu of the variety that struck the world at the end of World War I were to take place where suddenly you have everybody in the world becoming sick and staggering mortality rates, like some epidemiologists predict? Or you have some horrific terrorist attacks greater than 9/11 of the sort that we hope don't happen, but we know there are people who are out there who would like to cause them to happen. It's hard to say. What if you actually had to declare martial law and have to suspend most of our liberties because it really was a crisis that required that. If there's a pandemic you'd need to be able to stop people from moving from place to place and defend hospitals and those kinds of things.
What would happen in the aftermath of such an event like that? It's hard to know, but given the fractures and the political differences we have in a time of peace, at least domestic peace, it does give you cause to pause. There are scenarios you could imagine where the status quo is brutally shaken and it's hard to say whether or not everything would hold together in those kind of situations.
What I'm saying is there are these fault lines that can become active in a time of crisis. And I personally hope they don't because even though it's difficult for these separate regional cultures to live together under one roof, I fear from my time in the Balkans that separating such a place would be fraught with even greater dangers. Now, the optimistic spin is hey, we've been through a lot of crises as a federation before and somehow carried on through it. So one can hope that that would be what would happen in the case of a crisis going forward.
Our track record is fairly good at holding it together, so it's also entirely possible that we'd hold it together, but by no means assured.
If we wish to have this federation of ours, this United States, continue in something resembling its current form, it's really important that we respect this sort of shared bargain we all have, which is the Constitution as generally understood. Once you start pouring solvent on the basic understandings of what it does and doesn't mean, you're destroying one of the few adhesives that holds our sprawling and poly-national federation together.
YOU DO SAY AT ONE POINT IN THE BOOK THAT IF THE UNION IS GOING TO SURVIVE, AMERICANS "HAD BEST RESPECT THE FUNDAMENTAL TENETS OF OUR UNLIKELY UNION." BUT DOESN'T EVERYBODY MAKE THE DEAL FOR A DIFFERENT REASON? ISN'T PART OF YOUR POINT THAT EVERYBODY HAS A DIFFERENT FUNDAMENTAL TENET THEY'RE HANGING ON TO? They do, but the Constitution, it's a peculiar and in some ways self-contradicting document. Particularly as originally drafted. Slavery being one of the most obvious points. How could you have a democracy with the sort of lofty ideals that we think of, the United States as holding, and yet also allowing for some people to be counted as three-fifths of a human? By the way, that was considered a triumph by liberals and anti-slaveholders because they were trying to reduce the influence of the slave lords in the Congress. If they were able to count all their slaves as whole people, and obviously the slaves had no political independence to vote at all, or vote for anybody they wanted to. So that was actually a compromise to try to reduce slave power. Even though that is kind of forgotten today. Even worse than that framework, if slaves had been counted as whole people and yet had no political rights, that would have made things even more complicated.
What I'm saying is The Constitution has always been a document that was essentially a compromise between extremely different visions of what America should be and American ideals. And we've been fighting over it ever since. In the aftermath of the Civil War we settled a few things about the Constitution, and to be messing around with some of those primary tenets and the notions of what the bargain was, is in historic terms, not the safest and wisest thing to be doing. Take separation of church and state; the role of any particular religion in public life. That's been sort of a long-standing Constitutional bargain. Back in the day when they were working on the Constitution, greater New England, Yankeedom, actually had a state-sponsored church where state taxes were imposed on them. And they were worried about losing that. An other people didn't want the Yankee Congregational Church to be ruling over them of course. In fact,
If you had a federal government, whose church? Different areas had different religious heritages. Some were dominant Anglican, some were dominant Calvinist, some were founded like New Netherland on the ideal of tolerance of all different religions. You couldn't possibly pick one that was going to be the federal religion and therefore the deal was none of them will be. You keep that out of our government framework because otherwise we're going to be fighting about which one.
That seems to have been forgotten in the evangelical Christian right side now where they say we're a Christian nation and they mean a particular interpretation of Christianity on top of that. Many people are not Christian and many many many people are not from the Protestant tradition that is concerned primarily with personal salvation rather than trying to make the world as it exists now better. They're two very different ways of looking at religion's role in life.
It's fraught with danger once you start trying to bring religion into the public sphere because we've made the deal that for the good of the religion and for the good of the public sphere you don't mix those two. Only one religion would be able to be dominant, and everybody else wouldn't be happy about it. That's the bargain. For one or multiple regions where the majority culture are adherents of a particular religious worldview to think that somehow the Founding Fathers wanted that worldview to be exercised by public institutions across the federation is ahistorical and it's also entirely impractical and if ever imposed would be something of a deal-breaker for the future of the federation because many regions in the country would not tolerate that. Them's fighting words.
ANOTHER THING YOU WRITE IS THAT ONE OF THE WAYS THE COUNTRY MIGHT CONTINUE TO EXIST IS LIMITING CENTRAL GOVERNMENT. That's another scenario. But that would be a change in our current form. If we want to continue in our current form we need to respect the grand bargains of the Constitution and the way some of them were settled after the Civil War, because some of these things were settled by force. There were different regional interpretations of it meant and what it should mean and we had a horrific war about it and it will be good for the Union as a whole if weren't re-fighting those same battles.
When you hear especially Deep Southern political leaders talking about states' rights, what does that mean if they want to roll back federal power significantly and increase those of state governments? In effect, in most locations what they're talking about is transferring powers in the Deep South to regions — they control quite a number of state governments — and removing federal oversight over many aspects that the federal government does have now, protections and enforcement of certain interpretations of what the Constitution means in education or in religion and public life and so on and so forth. So When you talk about states' rights you're talking about devolving authority away from the central government and you're starting to create something that resembles more the original confederation before the 1789 Constitution or resembles, oddly enough, today's European Union — a weaker set of shared central institutions and a stronger set of sovereign individual governments. In fact there are whole regions of the country, whether or not they've thought through it clearly, that are basically advocating policies that would lead us to being more of an European Union than a strong federation as we have been. Those who like to shake the American flag around in a nationalistic way, many of them, oddly enough, are advocating policies that would make us more like "wicked" Europe, structurally and politically.
THROUGHOUT THE BOOK YOU QUOTE PEOPLE, COLONIAL AND POST-COLONIAL LEADERS AND EVEN THROUGH THE CIVIL WAR, WHO ARE TACITLY ACKNOWLEDGING THESE BOUNDARIES AND THE CONFLICTS BETWEEN THE REGIONS. IT SEEMS LIKE THAT UNDERSTANDING DOESN'T EXIST ANYMORE IN THE BROADER SOCIAL DIALOGUE.It's not obvious. When people step back in the big picture it's often forgotten, but you get a little closer to the ground and people still know where those fissures are. I mean every Marylander knows there are three Marylands and they could probably tell you exactly where the line is between them. Southern Maryland is a very different place from Northern Maryland or Western Maryland and the same thing in Texas. Every Texan knows that Austin is the capital but that Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio are the hubs of three very different Texases. California, upstate Illinois, downstate Illinois, I mean it goes on and on, but recall that line from Primary Colors where the James Carville character is giving one of the other characters a primer on Pennsylvania politics: "It's Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and Alabama in between." If you're speaking of Highland Alabama that's essentially correct in regional cultural terms. When you look at it state by state people sort of know that. We just forget about talking about it often when we, you know, start actually covering national politics. Those divisions have remained; they are just not always focused on.
I'm not the first person to notice these and know of the importance of them in politics. Kevin Phillips, the Republican strategist who created the plan Nixon used to win and predicted, in this book The Emerging Republican Majority. In 1969, he predicted everything that was going to happen for the next 40 years in American politics: this crazy idea that the Republicans were going to become the majority party by abandoning their former stronghold as the party of greater New England and embracing a Southern strategy and the growing demographic and political power of an area which he called the Sun Belt. All of that happened, and he did it by looking at these ethnographic, historic, and regional patterns across the country. He did that back in 1969 and was able to use it like a political prophet to predict everything that happened since. These things have not been entirely forgotten and are sort of known. We look at them in different fields. Pollsters know some of these things as they look at the map in a certain way, historians look at it in another way, and anthropologists in another, but it's been a long time since it was integrated and synthesized so you could see the grand picture and set it out on the table for us to really talk about, to pull it out from behind the curtain and say look, these divisions we're seeing are largely geographic and this same geography has been affecting our country's history ever since the beginning. That's the contribution I'm trying to make, is I'm trying to draw it all together and deliver it onto the national stage in a synthesized form.
THERE ARE A LOT OF SIGNS THAT AMERICAN CULTURE, UNITED STATES CULTURE I SUPPOSE I SHOULD SAY, HAS BECOME MORE HOMOGENEOUS, WITH YOUNG PEOPLE — BY WHICH I MEAN KIDS, TEENS, TWENTY-SOMETHINGS — SHARING A LOT OF VALUES ABOUT, FOR EXAMPLE, SAME-SEX MARRIAGE AND DIFFERENT ASPECTS OF SOCIAL OR ECONOMIC JUSTICE ACROSS SOME OF THESE REGIONAL LINES. WILL THAT HOLD WITH THEM, OR WILL THESE REGIONAL LINES CONTINUE? I think the regional lines will continue to exist. What you're saying is true of a subset of any generation, particularly in their youth, but they're people with all sorts of political beliefs and persuasions. We as individuals think all sorts of things. The question is, are we living in an area where we feel like we're battering our head against the wall with them? Or do we have the wind at our backs and feel like we live somewhere where you feel like you fit and belong and the cultural majority is in agreement with you in applying policies in the same way? If you look at the vote in almost any city anywhere, there's usually 20 to 30 percent of the population voting for the guy that didn't win. That still translates, in most states, to hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
So it's not like you can't get a bunch of people who are willing to protest almost anywhere. You could probably get a sizable anti-Mormon protest in Salt Lake City. It doesn't mean that the dominant culture is at their backs. Any particular movement, whether it's the Christian right or the anti-corporate left, is going to find that in certain regions, their protests will have wider popular support than in other regions and that you will find the maps I provided will probably give you a pretty good indication and way of predicting in what places the political establishment and governors and senators and congressmen are going to be likely to back the protestors' point of view, and what areas they'll be entirely rejected. That's the key.
I WAS LOOKING AT A MOTHER JONES MAP OF THE LOCATIONS OF THE OCCUPY PROTESTS AND NOTICING NOT JUST THE FACT THAT THERE ARE LOTS OF THEM ALL OVER THE PLACE, BUT AS I STARTED LOOKING MORE CLOSELY AND LOOKING AT THE MAPS IN YOUR BOOK, AND THERE'S RELATIVELY LITTLE OCCUPY ACTIVITY IN THE SOUTH, THERE'S VERY LITTLE IN THE FAR WEST. It seems to be that most major cities have it happen, but conspicuously the Deep South I mean, there seems to be far less activity, even in the big cities. You get the college towns, the universities. Research Triangle is engineers and scientists and researchers from all over the world moving to that technology cluster, which is great, but it does mean that there are a lot of transient people with the regional people in addition. That's not to say that there might not be plenty of traction ultimately in Greater Appalachia. There's a now latent populist tradition in Appalachia fighting against outside interests like mining companies and such that there's no deep inherent cultural reason for them not to be upset with the bankers in that region and have a history of expressing their dissatisfaction vocally.
The Far West too, like Appalachia, is currently latent but has a long populist tradition as well because the Far West is characterized by considerable upset at having been treated as an internal colony by both the federal government and big corporate interests, be they mining, ranching, railroads, and so on that were based outside the region. Prior to World War II the populist tradition was actually bucking a lot of the corporate powers that were making decisions over what happened in those places that were often to the detriment of the Far West itself.
More recently though it's been primarily directed at the federal government and the ways in which the federal government has treated the Far West as an internal colony. There's no reason also why you couldn't have that re-actualized as in Appalachia and have people upset at the role of banks out there as well.
Those are the two of the current what I call Dixie Coalition, the successful coalition that was built in the aftermath of the 1960s, that's the Republican regional coalition now, but the two weak partners are Far West and Greater Appalachia because of those populist streaks. And the two nations you identify on this particular map you showed me conspicuously not having many protests (Tidewater and Deep South) are also the two that have the tradition of deference to a hierarchical order and to authority, and very little emphasis on popular participation in politics.
I WANT TO ASK YOU A LITTLE BIT ABOUT MAINE, BECAUSE WE'VE OBVIOUSLY GOT A TEA PARTY GOVERNOR, AND I'M ALSO LOOKING AT PEOPLE LIKE MICHELE BACHMANN WHO'S A BIG TEA PARTY ICON FROM MINNESOTA, YANKEEDOM. IN READING THE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE NATIONS AND HOW THEY CARRY THINGS OUT, TO ME THE TEA PARTY SEEMS DEEP SOUTH IN CHARACTER. It is indeed, and the regional nature of the Tea Party is to be discussed in a feature that I wrote for Washington Monthly that's coming out in about a week or two. I'll be treating it in great detail. I don't want to steal their thunder, and I will back it with statistics and everything in that article, but yes, the vast majority of the Tea Party caucus in Congress, the self-identified Tea Party caucus, come from the four nations that form the Dixie Bloc coalition with a staggering number from the Deep South, and there are only three from the entirety of Yankeedom, none from New Netherland, none from Left Coast, and almost all of the Tea Party's most high-profile leaders, with the exception of Bachmann, all come from the Far West or Deep South or Greater Appalachia, and those who have succeeded here, the Tea Party has seen major setbacks in Yankeedom, including in Maine. Scott Walker in Wisconsin who won by very little, it's not as though the majority culture of Wisconsin has embraced his platform. He's encountered enormous headwinds, including the successful recall of state senators. Paul LePage's agenda, he won in a vote split. Not only are his opinion-poll ratings staggeringly low, but within a month and a half he managed to alienate the legislative Republican leadership in the state and is well-known to not be friendly with the conservative head of the Republican Party. So yes, the Tea Party appears to be national at first glance, but in fact when you actually look at where it's succeeding and where it's failing, it's extremely regional. But details on that coming up shortly in that magazine piece.
What the book is ultimately suggesting is where we see all these divisions today and the country seems to be so polarized and everyone's worried about it and the federal government's having difficulty functioning, what I bring forward in American Nations is that a lot of these divisions that we see now are regional in nature and in fact the country has seen those same regional divisions throughout our history, in all sorts of events. We've always been divided on regional grounds ever since the beginning. I think people sort of forget that. In times of crisis, we often are trying to look back at the Founding Fathers to recapture the supposedly lost set of shared ideals. You know, that if we only could recover those the country would be healed again.A crucial point is that the Founding Fathers were not the people who founded the country. They were the great-great-great-great-grandchildren of the actual founders, who founded separate countries, and didn't think that they were working together to found one place. They were all founding separate clusters of colonies. And there were contradictory missions of those colonies and very different religious and ethnographic backgrounds. There's no one set of American values and ideals. There's no one great intent of the Founders. There are separate intents. There are separate sets of American ideals and separate sets of American values, and always have been. That's the reason we can't seem to agree on what those founding values were, because they were separate sets of values. It was a grand compromise between often contradictory sets of values. It's important for us, in order to negotiate these problems we have, to understand the true nature of the problem. Only by identifying the problem correctly can we begin to talk about it and perhaps work toward some kind of solution for it. Otherwise we're going to keep talking past each other about what the true set of American ideals are. Are we based on an ethic of tolerance and pluralism, or are we a Christian nation, or an Anglo-Saxon Protestant one? We can't be fundamentally both. It's not reconcilable that we be a Christian nation and a nation founded on freedom of inquiry and conscience. You can't be both simultaneously. But in fact we are; it's just that different regions were based on those different things. That's something that seems to have been forgotten in the argument about who we are as a people.
Briefly (abridged from a clear, thorough explanation in the book's introduction), the nations Woodard' treats and some of their basic characteristics are below. See the accompanying map for their locations within the US.
YANKEEDOM founded as religious utopia where pursuit of the "greater good" was paramount; high education, civic involvement, views government as means to improve people's lives
NEW NETHERLAND originally a Dutch colony; highly tolerant of ethnic and religious diversity; committed to free inquiry; based in commerce and exchange of goods and ideas
MIDLANDS founded by English Quakers; pluralistic approach to ethnic and religious diversity; believes society should benefit regular people; suspicious of government intrusion
TIDEWATER founded by younger sons of English gentry to expand aristocratic manorial society; high respect for authority and tradition; low value on equality and public engagement in politics
GREATER APPALACHIA founded by clannish warrior frontiersmen from Scotland, Northern Ireland, and northern England; suspicious of outsiders; committed to individual liberty and personal sovereignty
DEEP SOUTH founded by Barbados slave masters as exploitative, despotic society with overlords and underlings; like ancient slave cultures, believes democracy is a privilege, not a right
NEW FRANCE based in eastern Canada (and with an exclave in southern Louisiana after the British takeover of Acadia); egalitarian, consensus-driven; draws attitudes from northern France mixed with Native American traditions
EL NORTE a hybrid between Anglo and Spanish America; Americanized Mexico mixed with Mexicanized United States; independent, self-sufficient, revolutionary in the service of democratic reforms
LEFT COAST colonized by Yankee traders and missionaries, and farmers and outdoorsmen from Greater Appalachia; mixes intellectualism and social-reform drive with individualism and self-discovery
FAR WEST colonized and controlled by corporations; few traditions of settlers' origins survived the altitude and dry climate; an internal colony, exploited by other nations for economic gain; distrusts government intervention but is dependent upon it
FIRST NATION still occupied by indigenous people with their culture largely intact; working to reclaim sovereignty and political power