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American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard

December 15, 2018

 

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Like many people, I’ve spent a lot of the past year asking “How did we get here?” To this divided, polarized world where reality is defined as much by one’s political views as empirical truth. Where a term like “alternative facts” can be coined and almost any statement can rebutted with The Dude’s wisdom: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

The titles of popular books suggest a rational apocalypse in America: A re-release of Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (national bestseller), The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani (NYTimes bestseller), The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols, Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire (NYTimes bestseller). These aren’t subtle titles. Is it really that bad? Are we really more polarized than we have been in the past? Are we on the verge of another Civil War?

While some of these other books give a historical perspective—notably Andersen’s Fantasyland—none that I’ve read is as broad as American Nations. Woodard makes a convincing case that many of our cultural differences can be literally mapped into eleven geographic regions and traced back to the founding stories of those regions.

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To understand this framing, Woodard first distinguishes “nation” from “state.” A state has a border that has been prescribed by governments—often arbitrary or motivated by political convenience. A nation, in contrast, is cultural, defined by shared values. While state borders remain fixed (except in times of war, usually), national borders can shift with economic, social and political movements. To understand our American debates and disagreements, loyalties and alliances, looking at our states (as we do with election maps) is less instructive than considering our nations.

Take, for example, the nation of Greater Appalachia:

Greater Appalachia was founded in the early eighteenth century by wave upon wave of rough, bellicose settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England, and the Scottish lowlands. Lampooned by writers, journalists, filmmakers, and television producers as “rednecks,” “hillbillies,” “crackers,” and “white trash,” these clannish Scots-Irish, Scots, and north English frontiersmen spread across the highland South and on into the southern tiers of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois…

The people of Greater Appalachia have in their cultural DNA a “warrior ethic and a deep commitment to individual liberty and personal sovereignty” along with an intense “suspicion of aristocrats and social reformers alike.” It’s not hard to see how these values, then, would inform views about a candidate who comes from a lineage of politicians and Ivy-league schools, running on a platform of social change and government-run healthcare.

With each of the eleven regions, Woodard lays out the history of their settlement, the forces that shaped their ethos. He then charts the path they took over the centuries and how they impacted (and were impacted by) the seismic events in U.S. history—the Civil War, the Great Migration, the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, etc.

The delineation of the nations naturally relies on some generalizations, but holds up remarkably well. It’s fascinating to see when, how and why alliances formed, and instructive to understand how these cultural roots inform views on modern issues. Immigration, voter rights, education, the role of the federal government, land rights and views on pretty much every other hot-button issue have deep, deep roots in who people are and where they come from. Political debates often end with name-calling because these are cultural, not rational issues. We are not minds engaged in debate—we are nations at war.

The plot becomes less clear through the latter part of the 19th century, but that’s to be expected as new media and intergenerational dynamics have more impact on the cultures. And plenty has been already written charting the cultural tides of the 60’s on.

Still, with the introduction of major media—television, Internet and digital social, in particular—it’s quite possible that Woodards “nations” will take on new meaning. They will likely remain ideological but tied less to geography. In other words, “Greater Appalachia” could become be a mindset shared by the upper south, rural California and parts of Maine, Oregon and Washington.

Overall, American Nations maybe the most enlightening non-fiction book I read in 2018. It certainly gives a new and fascinating context to our modern political environment. We have deep underlying fissures in our national fabric that have always been there. Like a family with different personality types, in times of stress, these same old differences surface time and again, and the same dynamics play out, regardless of the topic at hand. Whether this is comforting or exasperating depends on where you come from. But either way, it’s critical that we understand them.

If you’d like a quicker, but no less fascinating, version of the book, here’s Colin Woodward giving a presentation of his findings at Iowa State University in 2015. 

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