on 28 April 2013
Colin Woodard has written an interesting book. His basic thesis is very straightforward: that it is possible to have nations that don't have their own states. Using this thesis, he explores the idea that in North American there are multiple nations spread across north Mexico, the USA, and Canada. Woodard traces the origins of these nations from their founding through the various key historical events, such as the American Revolution, the framing of the Constitution, and the Civil War.
Along the way he explains the culture of each nation and discusses how it relates to where the original settlers that constituted each nation came from. Later settlers sought out and settled in areas with a similar background and thus reinforced the original culture. An almost subterranean thread running through the book is an understanding that nations without states aspire, either overtly or instinctively, to become nation states. If there are indeed, as Woodard postulates (and one should note that he is not alone in advancing this idea) multiple stateless nations in North America, then some sort of a redrawing of boundaries is going to take place sooner or later.
Woodard admits as much in his epilogue, but is - correctly in my view - unwilling to speculate on how, when or where. If you accept his initial thesis, and I'm inclined to, then Woodard makes a very persuasive case for there being 11 stateless nations, each with its own ideology and culture, spread across the continent of North America.
Whether you agree with the idea or not, and many won't, I'm sure you will find in this well written book much food for thought. Recommended.
Anyone who wants to understand why America is the way it is, why Americans vote the way they do, why political parties are so adversarial and why political squabbles seem to generate such viciousness and hostility, why these days it seems more like the Divided States of America, than the United, should read this book.
The answer is, to Woodward, because America has never been a united nation to begin with. Never was, probably never will be. Woodward's argument is that America is effectively a confederation of eleven stateless nations that have maintained consistent internal identities over centuries, whilst interacting and allying with one another in different combinations to produce different political outcomes. To quote this book, "it is fruitless to search for the characteristics of an 'American' identity, because each nation has its own notion of what being American should mean." One of the major tensions produced by these differing stateless nations has been the emergence of two effective superpowers, Yankeedom and the Deep South, two regions almost diametrically opposed to one another's cultural, political, moral, civil and religious values. This conflict has been playing out throughout the lifetime of the United States and there seems to be plenty of mileage left.
Reading this book one can't help but feel that it might have been the best thing for the United States as a nation to let the Confederacy go peacefully in 1861, rather than fighting a civil war to preserve the Union. The Deep South bloc, as Woodward calls it, has been a divisive drain on America ever since, consistently obstructing and stymieing progress on everything from civil rights to health care, religious freedom, abortion, environmental issues, labour rights, capitalist exploitation and of course gun control. And because the conflict is not just about politics but about ethnoregional differences with such deep roots that most people are barely even conscious of the existence of these distinct regional groupings, it's hard to see how they could be overcome and result in any kind of consensus or peaceful coexistence.
This was an utterly fascinating read, one I could hardly put down, and it displays a real deep understanding of America's roots and founding, much much deeper than the traditional Yankee-centric mythistory most people learn. If this doesn't end up pored over by political scientists and made required reading in political studies classes, it damn well should be.
on 16 May 2016
Colin Woodard is an award-winning journalist. In “American Nations”, he argues that US history is best explained as a centuries-long saga of conflict and compromise between rival regional cultures, which in many ways resemble separate nations. This trumps both class and post-1776 immigrant identities. It also explains what lies behind the North-South divide and the red state/blue state dichotomy. Woodard himself is a liberal Democrat and a resident of Maine.
When Woodard calls the regional cultures “nations”, he does so quite literally. They inhabit distinct territories, have different ethnic origins, and speak different dialects of English. Some don't use English at all. The regional cultures also have separate histories until the eve of the American Revolution (and sometimes beyond). Unsurprisingly, their respective ethoses are quite distinct. The author mentions eleven “nations” which he calls Yankeedom, New Netherland, the Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, the Deep South, El Norte, the Far West, the Left Coast, New France and First Nation. Of these, New France and First Nation are Canadian and play a less central role in the author's narrative. In the United States, the regional cultures most resembling real nations are Yankeedom, the Deep South and El Norte. Traditionally, the main protagonists in American politics have been Yankeedom and the Deep South, with the others either lining up behind one of these, or trying to play a mediating role between them. Today, El Norte (the Mexicans of the US Southwest) has become another central player. Curiously, Woodard doesn't count Blacks as a separate nation. He seems to regard them as an idiosyncratic (and oppressed) component of the Deep South.
Woodard doesn't deny that the cultures of some of the nations have changed. The most obvious example is Yankeedom, which has gone from strict and intolerant Puritanism to modern Democratic Party liberalism. However, the author believes that there is a more fundamental continuity at work. In the case of Yankeedom, it's the Messianic notion of transforming the world according to a higher ideal by assimilating everyone into whatever Yankee culture is at the moment. The Puritan emphasis on community has been projected onto the state and federal governments, but the underlying idea of placing “common good” above rugged individualism is the same. Modern liberalism is thus simply a secularized form of good ol' Puritanism. Presumably, Woodard believes that the modern Deep South mentality (including union-busting, deregulation, lower taxes for big corporations and support for the military) is simply the modern form of the aristocratic-martial planter society where the plebs, poor White and Black alike, “knew their place”. An interesting point made by the author is that El Norte (the US Southwest) is specifically connected to northern Mexico, rather than to Mexico City or the regions further south. The cultural divides in Mexico are just as large as in the United States. He therefore predicts the future formation of a nation-state uniting the US Southwest and northern Mexico, while excluding the rest of that country!
Woodard's analysis is very convincing in some respects, much less so in others. He is weakest when discussing 20th and 21st century politics. Here, it's almost impossible to get things straight without taking class and globalization into account. Thus, Woodard points out that the Deep South hypocritically attacks immigration while super-exploiting immigrants (both legal and illegal) in practice. But the “Northern” elite does pretty much the same thing, except that in their case, they hypocritically pretend to actually *like* the immigrants! One cannot therefore blame a neo-liberal immigration policy on the Deep South alone. The analysis is equally weak when discussing US imperialism abroad. Both liberal and conservative elite groups supported the expansion of American power, especially after World War II. Woodard wants to claim Yankeedom for anti-interventionism, but that is unconvincing from the late 19th century onwards. The Messianic streak of secular Puritanism can be easily turned into a powerful argument for interventionism ("the White man's burden").
Woodard explains Lyndon Johnson's bellicosity against North Vietnam by his “Appalachian” background, but LBJ also supported desegregation and the Great Society, which by the author's standards are Yankee values. The Neo-Conservatives are said to be representatives of the Deep South, a frankly ridiculous statement. The Neo-Cons are better seen as an un-American globalist elite group spouting a peculiar blend of Yankee, Far West and Southern rhetoric. Ostensibly Hamiltonian nation-building in Iraq and the spreading of democracy around the globe are “Yankee” ideas. Woodard doesn't discuss the SJW phenomenon, which could be seen as a bizarre form of Left Coast culture, a kind of Left Coast-ism on a bad acid trip. However, SJWs are also fundamentally un-American and globalist.
As a liberal Yank, the author speculates about how the US would look like without the Deep South and its allies. He reaches the conclusion that it would resemble Canada, a country the present course of which he clearly admires. Woodard doesn't want to predict the future destiny of the nine US “nations”, but at least tacitly he prefers a looser federation which would give Yankeedom and its allies an opportunity to cooperate more closely with Canada, while El Norte would do likewise with Mexico. What would happen with the South in this future is less clear. Would it wither on the wane? A more pessimistic take is obviously possible here. In a peak oil/long descent/long emergency scenario, the United States could get Balkanized, the globalized power elites would collapse, and old regional rivalries reemerge (just as they did when the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia were dissolved). I wouldn't be entirely surprised if such conflicts would follow the cleavages described in “American Nations”, although the nice guy liberalism would have to go, with Yankeedom perhaps reverting to a less secular form of Puritanism?
When reading the book, I compared Woodard's description of the eleven different ethoses with my own cultural presuppositions (I'm an immigrant of very mixed descent living in Sweden). I realized that they were somewhere in between Yankeedom and the Midlands, presumably as they looked like circa 1900. Or 1950? This is intriguing, since most Swedes moving to the US settled in Minnesota, part of Yankeedom. It also proves that I am, ahem, a well assimilated immigrant… To all intents and purposes, I'm Swedish!
“American Nations”, while hardly a perfect book, does raise a lot of interesting questions and may give rise to intriguing reflections. It should perhaps be read by everyone interested in the culture, history and future of the United (?) States of America.