After the 2016 presidential election, I decided I didn’t understand America as much as I thought. So I spent the last few years readying American history. And you know what? Despite the many, many news stories saying otherwise, there isn’t a red/Republican America and a separate blue/Democratic America.
It’s true that we are deeply polarized politically. A recent in-depth poll by Pew regarding the impeachment of President Trump found 86 percent of Republicans think the Senate trial should end with Trump remaining in office, while 85 percent of Democrats thought he should be removed — exact mirror images. But we shouldn’t take findings like that to mean there are Republican and Democratic Americans sprinkled evenly across the country, torn in half like two sides of an open book. It does not imply we have each carefully considered our own philosophies of the proper role of government, the meaning of freedom and the goals of public policy.
In reading history, I noticed one state kept popping up in the text — South Carolina. You don’t read much about South Carolina, at least where I’m from. More than anyplace else, it seems to pop up in politics, especially during the presidential primary. But it’s not Texas, New York or California, dominant in economics, pop culture and politics. Once I realized South Carolina seemed to be disproportionately historical, if you will, I began to notice a sort of echo in the history books — Massachusetts. If you see one mentioned, you can expect that nearby in the chapter there is an answer from the other.
Following this intriguing thread of regionalism in political history and perpetual power struggle, I found Colin Woodard’s work American Nations (actually first in a NYT op-ed, but this was based on the book). Woodard will lead you to David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed. These two works do more to explain the American polictal dynamic than any others, in my experience.
I wish there was a snappy name for their approach, but I haven’t come across it. The premise is simple, however. America was not a single culture, founded on Plymouth Rock and spreading west to Waikiki. England and other European powers colonized North America more than once and in more than one place. Each one colony, even those from the same mother country, had its own cultural approach to freedom, government, power, labor, class, religion — all of it.
Massachusetts and South Carolina represent the seed beds of the two most dominant of those cultures, the former founded by priggish Puritans, and the later by slave-holding planters from Barbados.
Most of us have a place on the political spectrum, but that spectrum is set by the culture in which we live. A Boston conservative is not necessarily in much agreement with a Charleston conservative. When we look at the map, we see that there isn’t a blue America, in which everyone mysteriously agrees with the Democratic Party. Rather, the Democratic Party has it’s power base in the land of the Yankees, and to the degree it can flex to attract dissidents in other regions, it creates a map of blue America.
Likewise, the definition of what it means to be a Republican has evolved to resemble a prototypical patrician of the Deep South.
The upshot is this: America hasn’t been pulled apart into red and blue camps of liberals and conservatives. American political parties have been pulled back into alignment with the oldest and deepest divide in America itself — North vs. South.