Happy 4th of July!
I hope you are out there enjoying yourself and celebrating being an American. But it seems like that is harder for some folks to do these days. Just this weekend, I saw articles in the paper questioning, what can bring America together? Can we really say we are “E Pluribus Unum”?
Every new development seems to send us winging apart. Consider this recent press release:
“The governors of California, Oregon and Washington today issued a Multi-State Commitment to defend access to reproductive health care, including abortion and contraceptives, and committed to protecting patients and doctors against efforts by other states to export their abortion bans to our states. “
That’s from the governors of the West Coast: Jay Inslee of Washington, Kate Brown of Oregon and Gavin Newsom of California, railing against the recent US Supreme Court decision overturning a right to abortion as found in Roe v. Wade.
And the West Coast is not just locked up on the issue of abortion.
Coronavirus has been hard to move past for the Left Coast. We lifted the mask mandate a while ago, but it’s been hard for folks around here,
- Seattle high school students protest lifting mask mandate
- “Every time we try to get hasty and toss our masks off, we have another spike and another thousand people die,” said Eridon Stewart, a 17-year-old senior at Nova High, who spoke at the rally.
- West coast governors lifted their mask mandate late, on March 21. Only Hawaii took longer.
It’s not just big, hot button issues like masks and abortion, either:
- Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman was the last Republican in statewide office on the left coast. Now she’s gone; took a job in the Biden administration. No Republican can win in a statewide contest in WA, OR or California.
- Newsom faced a recall in which the GOP couldn’t find a viable alternative, especially because Newsom made everyone of them look like Trump
- In Oregon, there are still — two years later — protests and property destruction in Portland. In May, a Republican candidate for governor said protesters attacked his supporters. And just the other day a candidate for governor said Portland was “full of roaches.”
- The school board in San Francisco was primed to rename as many as 44 schools in the past few years, including canceling such historical names as “Abraham Lincoln” and “George Washington.”
How did we on the West Coast end up so far out here on the political spectrum?
It could be some other way..
Most people just say, Well, that’s the coasts. Liberals! Elites!
The thing is used to explain itself.
I’d like us to explore a deeper question — how did the West Coast become this way? Why is it not some other way? Why is California a big liberal state, and Texas a big conservative state — instead of the other way around?
I can give you the answer hidden in a quote from a man named Richard Henry Dana from Massachusetts.
He traveled to California about two hundred years ago — before it was part of the United States. He said, “In hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!”
I love that quote. It is so very, very Puritan. And it explains exactly how the West Coast became the left coast.
Let me explain.
We as Americans are not one big happy culture. The South was founded by English planters who had learned their trade in the caribbean.
If you listened to another podcast episode of mine — the New Civil War — you know that New York City is home to a culture founded by the Dutch.
And that the warrior culture of the Scotch Irish spread down the Appalachian Mountains and out toward the west.
But the North, as in the Union side in the civil war, is dominated by a culture that started in Massachusetts in 1630. The Puritans spread out from there to take over all of New England, upstate New York, and west into Michigan, northern Illinois and Ohio, on to Wisconsin and Minnesota.
And that culture is the backbone of modern American liberalism. Or progressivism. What have you.
I have a theory on what has happened to American politics over the past 20 years, I call it the Compass of Power.
Basically, I think we have become so polarized and acrimonious because the center of American population has been shifting South — away from the North.
The North called the shots in American culture for a century. And within the various cultures of the North, the Puritans were the shot-callers.
From the Civil War until the 1960s, the North was by far the most populous, richest and most powerful culture in America.
Since the 1960s, the industrial might of the North has been draining away, and along with losing the factories and the jobs, the North has been losing people.
The result is a nation where being a liberal is more or less the same thing as having a Northern point of view, and being a conservative is more or less the same thing as having a Southern point of view.
What are the components of the northern point of view? Why is that the liberal view instead of the other way around?
And if it’s the northern view, why is it found up and down the West Coast, and not in North Dakota and Montana?
How the Puritans got there is super easy. So we’ll settle that in a minute.
Let’s start with, what did the Puritans believe? What was their culture? How in the Lord’s name was it liberal?
A friend of mine likes to say that America was founded by England’s craziest zealots and fanatics. He’s not far off!
First off, “Puritan” isn’t an official title. I’m going to be using it to mean something other than the official members of the old time religion. Let us begin with the religion. These folks emerged mostly in eastern England 400 years ago, and they had an incredible belief in community. In their view, the official Church of England — Anglicanism — was still too Roman Catholic, too tied up with priests, bishops, rites. Above all, they didn’t like that the church was unaccountable to the community.
These folks believed very, very strongly all they needed to find salvation was the Bible and a good meeting. They put the power of God in the hands of the community — the congregation. Officially, they were Congregationalists.
But here’s the thing: there are a lot of ways to make a community. It’s not as if the Puritans invented them. Again, the question we are answering today is, how did the West Coast of the United States become a liberal part of the country?
And to answer that, we have to consider the difference between a Puritan community — a congregation of Congregationalists, if you will — and other American communities.
Think about other colonists in the early days. The archetype of the Southern community is basically feudal. You have a lord, a planter, who owns all the land around. Hundreds of people can live on that land, but they all answer to the lord of the manor, the plantation house. Inside the house, you have the family of the planter, which includes kids, cousins, aunts, grandparents, grandchildren, and so forth. Big quasi-royal family. Then you have a few mid-level folks with special authority or skills, like the blacksmith. And furthest down the social ladder, and greatest in number, were the serfs — in America, slaves — permanetly kept in their role by the color of their skin. That was your prototypical Southern community — a plantation.
In a previous episode, we talked about New Yorkers. New York was originally New Amsterdam, a trade post founded by the Dutch. In the beginning, and even today, the New York Community model centers around business and profit.The coin of the realm is the Dollar. But rich or poor, you have the right to free speech and your choice of religions in New York City. Their version of community does not include conformity. New Yorkers are not now, nor will they ever be, known for walking in lock step.
But if we move north, to Massachusetts and the Puritans, we will find whole cities built around being in lock step.
The Congregationalist religion was centered around this idea that you didn’t need a priest to tell you what God thinks is good or bad. If you were literate, and could read, then you could read the Bible and see for yourself what it said.
But — much to these folks’ dismay — not everyone who reads the Bible comes to the same conclusions. Not even people from the same village or the same family. And that’s a problem, because how do you know you are doing the right thing if the neighbor is doing something else? Some folks, like the Quakers who founded Philadelphia, said live and let live.
Not the Congregationalists. They wanted everyone on the same page, or else. And they got that by getting everyone physically in the same room.
They had town meetings. They had church meetings. Kinda the same thing, really.
For any and all problems, these folks got together, talked, debated and otherwise conducted meetings — at the end of which, there was supposed to be community agreement. If you walked out of the meeting still hanging onto your ideas, and not the agreed-upon community ideas — that was very bad. Individual people in these communities had a constant concern with their standing before their neighbors, which was in practice kinda the same thing as their standing before God — a worry which is sometimes called “salvation anxiety.”
And, as you may imagine, a culture that loved reading and analyzing and debating was a Culture that loved politics and parliament. They loved the law and arguing the law in court. They were not so big on edicts by the King, who in England doubled as the head of their rival’s Church of England.
The term “Puritan” was imposed by their enemies in England, who quickly identified their need for moral purity. And they were also known — accurately enough — as “precisionists.”
Congregationalists landed in Massachusetts Bay in 1630 looking to create a heaven on earth, a utopia. No more Royalty-loving Anglicans to deal with. No more Scottish Presbytians. God forbid, no Catholics. Just a nice rugged coast line like back home, and, of course, native tribes.
The first “Great Migration” in American history was from England to Massachusetts. It brought thousands of these remarkably literate, religious and middle-class colonists. Unlike most other early immigrants to the New World, they came as families. And remarkably, the Puritans deliberately discouraged either poor or rich Britons from settling in their commonwealth. They believed work had a moral quality to it — as in, moral people worked, and not working people — rich or poor — had questionable morals.
Very importantly, they lived in towns, not in the rural plantation-style communities found in the American South. In New England, they promptly instituted a town-meeting form of government, in which elite “selectmen” ran routine parish or town affairs, but a far broader base of citizens — nearing 100 percent of local adult men in some cases — met to discuss matters of great importance.
Historian David Hackett Fischer said this about New England town meetings:
“The object was not rule by majority, but by consensus. The purpose of a town meeting was to achieve that consensual goal by discussion, persuasion and mutual adjustment of differences. The numbers of votes were rarely counted, but merely recorded as the ‘will of the town.’ This system was unique to New England, and nearly universal within it.”
These “town meetings” continue to this day in New England, and the general principle applies to all levels of their government. For example, New Hampshire, population 1.36 million, has 400 members of its state House of Representatives. By comparison, Florida, population 21.6 million, has 120 members of its state House of Representatives.
And, remember that everyone needs to be literate in this society, so they can read the Bible. The Puritan colonies gave us common schools — which are the basis for the public K-12 schools now found in every state of the union (they had to be forced on the South after the Civil war).
They had to really train up their ministers, so they established colleges to educate them. To this day, the original Congregationalist Colleges of Harvard and Yale set the standard for American universities. Nowhere more so than in law and on the U.S. Supreme Court. Of nine supreme court justices now on the court — male or female, black, white, Latina or Jewish — all but one are from those two Congregationalist universities.
I hope by now you are seeing the connections between the religious beliefs of the Puritans and modern American liberalism — the high value placed on education, middle-class work and morality, action based on the interests of the community, and an emphasis on right-thinking, as defined by the community.
Think of the big moral movements in American history — the abolition of slavery, or the Civil Rights Act, for example — they won out because they were firmly supported in the Northeast. They aligned with the Puritan mission to create God’s heaven, and his moral order, here on Earth.
I want to quickly put this all together with a brief sketch of a classic Puritan life story in America.
Anne Hutchinson was a follower of minister John Cotton, and she followed him to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634 with her husband and 11 children.
She was outspoken and well-versed. Hutchinson eventually suggested some ministers in the Boston area were preaching a “covenant of works” and not a “covenant of grace.” This seems like a pretty fine religious distinction today. But in true Puritan fashion, it became a dispute, then a crisis. She was put on trial for heresy by the locals in 1637, convicted, and banished from the community. And let’s be clear, banishing someone is a symbolic killing. Humans actually can’t survive very well on their own, so to cast someone out puts their life in danger literally, and certainly terminates their social life even if they can find a new group to take them in. The O.G. Puritans were big on banishment.
Hutchinson found a new place. She helped found what became the state of Rhode Island. But the Boston-based Puritans threatened to take over that land, as well. So, she fled with her children again, to the Dutch-controlled area that today is the Bronx in New York City. Tragically, she and six of her children were killed by members of a local Native American tribe, who themselves were retaliating for attacks by colonists.
My point here is that Hutchinson embodied a pattern we still see in Puritan America. A slight difference of moral opinion escalates to major intellectual debate. Then it becomes a social crisis. People are put on trial — legal and social. Finally, they are excommunicated and banished, never to return.
We have seen this, haven’t we? I mean, just in the last 12 months it’s come up over and over again. There was an article in the Atlantic — based in Boston, completely Puritan in it’s roots — called “The New Puritanism.” What do you think it was about? Cancel culture. Specifically, in higher education. The writer offered all sorts of examples, which fell into a sort of pattern: popular, but slightly controversial professor crosses a social line that had just been moved.
Whatever they said or did was probably OK a year or two ago, but is now called out. Social media firestorm. That leads to an investigation. Here’s a bit from the article:
Here is the first thing that happens once you have been accused of breaking a social code, when you find yourself at the center of a social-media storm because of something you said or purportedly said. The phone stops ringing. People stop talking to you. You become toxic. “I have in my department dozens of colleagues—I think I have spoken to zero of them in the past year,” one academic told me. “One of my colleagues I had lunch with at least once a week for more than a decade—he just refused to speak to me anymore, without asking questions.” End quote.
That IS Puritanism. It is a culture that demands conformity, and when it encounters rebellion, responds by ostracizing the rebel.
There is almost always an apology in an attempt to escape banishment — universities even have instructions on how to write apologies these days. Some of these folks reported they thought college administrators were trying to show how enlightened they are by being tough on the accused. But even in banishment, they usually refuse to speak, for fear of further sanctions — legal or professional. If they speak, they could be fired. If they get fired, they will not get another job.
By now, you’re probably thinking — hey, these folks aren’t even religious. Puritans dressed in black, wore silly hats and read the Bible, and you’re telling me that hyper-liberal university types are somehow cut of the same cloth?
Yes! Remember the core of the personal faith of a Puritan was to read the Bible, and understand the truths there for themselves, a truth they would then negotiate with the town and religious leaders. Because they liked to find their own truth, they found a lot of new interpretations of things!
Many American-born religions are children of the Congregationalist faith. Seventh Day Adventism. Mormonism. Unitarianism.
To be clear, I am not saying that every living Congregationalist is a super-leftist. My point is that the fundamental worldview of the Puritans left a much broader mark on American culture than their church, specifically. Today there are millions of Americans who live in communities that were formed and continue in the Puritan ethos, whether those people are consciously practicing Congregationalism, one of its direct descendants, or no religion at all. In fact, the Puritan way of thinking may be strongest in those who do not belong to any particular religion.
Look at a map of religiosity in the United States. New England is lowest, the Deep South is highest. The same pattern appears over and over again — whether you are looking at COVID restrictions or presidential election results. The places where the Puritans once lived are on the opposite side of the spectrum from where the Southern planters once lived.
I will point out Harvard University’s chief chaplain, Greg Epstein, is an atheist. A person who rejects the idea of God was named chief chaplain of an Ivy League school, a school founded to train Puritan ministers? Is that surprising?
It isn’t really, is it?
I think we all, even if we haven’t analyzed it, know there is a certain school of thought in America that isn’t spiritual, isn’t about God, but is still somehow religious. The level of conviction people have about this school of thought is religious.
They can be zealots about not having religion in school. They can be zealots about veganism, environmentalism, gender issues, racial issues … the political right has a pejorative for this kind of zealtory, “Social justice warrior.” But there are more thoughtful folks who have come to the same general conclusion.
Jack McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, recently wrote a book taking on what is sometimes called “wokesim.” He looked at some of the claims associated with the racial equity movement and came away thinking it wasn’t about logic or reason — for example, White people who don’t date non-whites are considered racist in this space, but if they do date non-whites, they also being racist by “exotifying” their partners. Both these claims can’t be true. McWhorter concludes their beliefs are essentially religious claims, and can’t be argued with on the basis of cold reason.
From a completely different angle, a very religious person, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles, criticized the same movement as “as pseudo-religions, and even replacements and rivals to traditional Christian beliefs.”
Or, from yet another completely different perspective, Jeff Maurer, a former writer for John Oliver’s political comedy show, “Last Week Tonight,” has taken to calling this strain of thinking the “religious left” because, like the religious right, they seem bent on imposing their morality on everyone else.
I agree with these assessments to a point. I don’t think that what we see in the political left now is new. It’s not a super-intense ideology that is on it’s way to becoming a religion. Or working against religion in particular. What I see are places in America that were settled and shaped by a certain religion. That religion’s fundamental worldview is alive and well, 400 years later, in the same places.
All right, I have pounded the desk on this for a while now. It’s important, though. When I realized that the cultural core of modern American liberalism was Puritanism, suddenly, everything made so much more sense. You understand all these threads and seeming contradictions in today’s Democratic politics. I really think more people should understand this.
That was the hard answer. The answer to “what did the Puritans believe, how could that possibly be liberal?”
Now for the easy answer: How did the Puritans get to the West Coast?
Why are towns like San Francisco and Seattle so much like Boston?
We have a story about settling America — we need stories. I am not knocking the need for simple, uplifting narratives that our children can tell about their ancestors.
However, the story about settling America goes straight from east to west. We started on the east coast, we got in wagons, we arrived 90 years later on the west coast. Atlantic to Pacific. Right to left.
Watch the Disney animated version of the Johnny Appleseed story, from 1948. The settlers’ covered wagons unroll a literal carpet of farms and plenty behind them as they move west. Right side of the screen to left side of the screen.
But you see, there’s a little wrinkle in the East-to-West story: there were already people on the West coast.
And I am not just talking about Native American Tribes, who clearly lived there for millenia.
There were European settlers in the form of Spanish colonists. Some were straight from Spain, more were native-born in the Americas, and had migrated to what was then “Alta California” as part of Spain’s own east-to-west migration out of Mexico. Even all the way up here in Washington state, we have the San Juan Islands and Port Angeles — formerly known as Puerto de los Angeles.
So the west coast, what now makes up Oregon, Washington and California, was kinda settled when the settlers arrived. And we are not even getting into Alaska or Hawaii here. The population numbers are small at this point, however, no matter who you are talking about.
And, by the time the covered wagons arrived, there were already Anglo-Americans on the coast. As in, when the dusty wagons rolled up there were houses with people on the front porch who people were all,
“A very good morning to you, you rascals!”
Those were the Yankees.
Here’s the thing: in the days when your options were to walk, ride a horse, or — luxury! — having a horse pull you in a wagon, getting from one coast to the other by land, was really, really hard!
It didn’t just take a long time. You might not make it. You were literally leaving U.S. soil for something not quite politically defined — places that belonged to local tribes, but were claimed by England, Spain and the United States, places that had some settlers, but not many.
Plus, as an American settler you were more than likely either the descendant of northern Europeans or an immigrant straight from northern Europe. You knew jack squat about places where it doesn’t rain — like say, what is now thought of as the “Old West.” Utah. Arizona. Nevada. Even in the western Dakotas and Montana, the olde English farming style was not a guarantee of success.
We could go into the details and talk about the Oregon trail and dysentery. But suffice it to say, there was a better way.
It was easier, faster and safer to go the long way around. To get in a ship, and sail — South to Brazil, cross the equator, continue toward Antarctica, swing around Cape Horn and then head north, back across the equator, past the Galapagos Islands, and arrive in sunny San Francisco. This was known as “doubling the Horn.”
That journey was the better option. That nautical journey of more than 15,000 miles was the easy way.
Of course, there were some requirements to following this route.
You needed a ship.
You needed someone who could sail it
And you needed the money to pay for it.
And you know who had all that?
Puritans. AKA, Yankees.
The maritime merchants of New England had the ships, the sailors and the business connections to make sailing around the horn practical and profitable. By this time — the early 1800s — they had been sailing back and forth between England and New England, fishing the North Atlantic and sailing up and down the American coast for 200 years.
In fact, at the start of the Civil War in 1861, the South’s advantage was it had an Army already — the soldiers and generals were mostly southern. And the North’s advantage was it had a Navy. The ships and the sailors were mostly Yankees.
We’re still familiar with these stereotypes, even out west in the 21st Century. Maine lobster fishermen. The Kennedy home on Cape Cod. Remember the trope in old TV shows — when someone strikes it rich, they would appear in the next scene with a blue blazer, ascot and yacht hat?
They go all Commodore Schmidtlap.
They became yankees.
And that is how you end up with the quote we mentioned earlier, from this dude from Massachusetts who arrives in San Diego in 1834.
He got there by ship. He looks around, and he’s like, this is a nice place!
Too bad all these people are lazy, immoral, layabouts! We could be doing something productive! We could be doing business! God’s work!
I’m exaggerating, but not by much.
Richard Henry Dana was from a prominent Massachusetts family. He went to school at — you guessed it — Harvard.
He said Californians were, quote “an idel, thriftless people.” He remarked on their own racial system, which seemed to rank the Spanish highest and the natives lowest. “They go down by regular shades,” he observed.
But he also noted Anglo-American and British traders had married into well-to-do California families. And, he recognized California-level beauty. Quote “good harbors … fine forests … the water filled with fish, and the plains covered with thousands of cattle; blessed with a climate than which there can be no better in the world.”
He put this all together in the quote I read at the beginning of the podcast:
“In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!”
Dana published an account of his journey after he got back to New England, just one of several works by Puritan visitors that would create a sort of mystical version of California in the eastern mind.
In the period just before the US Civil War, the Puritans got a kind of missionary fever for the West. To most folks these days, San Francisco is linked to hippies, high rent and leftist politics. But back in the day, San Fran’s role as a den of Gold Rush greed made it a target for New England reformers. One minister told San Francisco’s New England Society in 1852,
Quote, “No higher ambition could urge us to noble deeds than, on the basis of the colony of Plymouth, to make California the Massachusetts of the Pacific.”
In Seattle, to this day, they fret about what became of the Duwammish, the tribe that inhabited the land when Anglos arrived. Do you know what the Duwammish called all those Anglos disembarking on the shores of Puget Sound?
The Pacific Northwest was timber country. Lots and lots of the loggers arrived here from the Midwest or Scandianvia. But lots of folks came straight from the Northwoods of Maine, as well.
We were talking about stories in the paper — the Seattle Times, right now, today, is run by Frank A. Blethen — a direct descendant of the founder, Alden Blethen from Maine.
The Yankees got to the West Coast by boat with big ideas. But remember — they were not the only people headed over. Other Americans, especially the Scotch-Irish out of Appalachia made it out west. Sure, they had to do it the hard way. My own family, according to legend, dragged themselves over to Washington state from Missouri with an Ox. An Ox. That’s like the steam engine of animals. But they made it!
In fact, there were more non-Puritans on the West Coast than there were Puritans. But different cultures prioritize different things. And the Puritans were great at making towns and having town meetings! The Applachians basically set up their houses out in the woods, down the road, and told the city-slickers to stop at the fence. So when it came to civics, the Puritans kicked everybody’s ass. When it comes time to set up a government, Puritans dominate.
Historian and author Colin Woodard noted that in early Oregon, Yankees were outnumbered 15-to-1, but still ended up holding most civic offices. Of the state’s 8 first governors, six were Yankees.
OK, so the Yankees are a big part of founding the American West Coast, especially in the port towns like Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. How do we get from there to today, where the West Coast is so much more liberal/progressive/leftist than other parts, like the Southwest, Midwest, Dry west?
To understand that, you have to understand that the political parties have moved around the cultures, not the other way around. The elites of each region have changed their allegiances to different parties in order to stay on opposite teams.
The Puritans became the elites of the West Coast. Although the cities on the Pacific were smaller than their counterparts on the Atlantic, they were the hubs of political and economic power, and it’s in the cities and in businesses where the Puritans were at their best. Anyplace where tight social networks are an advantage, Puritans do well. Think of it as sort of government by Lions Club.
Between the War of 1812 and the Civil War the modern two-party political system was formed. The Republican Party was the party of the North and its elites. The party formed around abolitionism — opposition to slavery. And that was a Puritan crusade. Uncle Tom’s Cabin — the book Abraham Lincoln joked started the Civil War — was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the daughter of Lyman Beecher, a famous New England minister.
But what we have to remember is that the Northerners were not liberal in a modern sense. The best example of this before the Civil War was a big anti-immigrant contingent. Lots of Puritans were very upset by the waves of immigration, especially Irish and German Catholics who came to the US in the 1840s. Puritans saw those folks as a threat to community consensus, to right thinking, to moral discipline, social order, all that. A contest formed in the North to determine whether they would form an anti-immigrant party that absorbed the abolitionists, or an anti-slavery party tht absorbed the nativists. David Potter wrote the definitive book on the pre-Civil War period, and he said:
“It may seem paradoxical in the late twentieth century to say the the same people who oppose the oppression of a racial minority also favored discrimination against a religious minority, but history is frequently illogical and the fact is that much of the rural, Protestant, Puritan-oriented population of the north was sympathetic to antislavery and temperance and navitvism and unsympathetic to the hard-drinking Irish Catholics.”
The Republican Party ultimately formed around the anti-slavery folks, it led the Union to victory in the Civil War and it remained the party of the North for a century after the Civil War. No surprise, then, that it was home for the many Puritan movements that followed. They were big on putting playgrounds in cities for a while, they were big on regulating factory working conditions. I think most of us think of these as good things in retrospect. Just like we think ending slavery is good. But again, they weren’t liberal in the sense that we think of it today. The Republicans in the North were also in favor of Prohibition — a ban on alcohol that was deeply influenced by anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant feelings in the early 20th Century.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first national restriction on immigration, and it was driven by West Coast concerns. And if you go back and look at politicians from the West Coast through that century after the Civil War, you’ll see they tracked right along with the Northern elite. They were Republicans. They were for the Union, as in the North, they were against slavery, and later against alcohol.
WASHINGTON STATE GUY IN PROHIBITION.
If the elites of the coast, the people who became governor and the people who owned the timber mills, were Republicans, then the underclass had to have other representation. We’ve talked about this before — you have the opposing forces in each region that had to be dealt with.
In the North, the opposition were Democrats. They belonged to the unions that represented loggers or aircraft machinists. And they lived in the dry parts of these states, away from the coasts, in places like Fresno, Bend or Spokane.
In the South, you have the opposite situation. The elites were Democrats. And by the end of Reconstruction, there were basically no Southern Republicans left. Black Americans had just won the right to vote. They supported the party of Abraham Lincoln. But in the South, Jim Crow laws made it impossible for them to exercise their right to vote.
Alright, we can’t go through 150 years in history in any kind of detail, so let’s skip to the 1960s. Maybe we should do a whole show on how the Great Depression and World War II cause the poles to flip in American politics. But we’ll jump ahead!
By the 1960s, European immigration to the North has all but stopped. And by the 1960s, for the first time, there were more Black people living in the North than the South. In that environment, the Civil Rights Movement is calling for an end to Jim Crow laws in the South. History repeats itself. To the Puritans, the matter of civil rights becomes a nonnegotiable moral matter, just like abolishing slavery was. And I think most Americans today, North and South, think they were right. I know I do.
But we should remember that by the 1960s, the North had plenty of racial problems. Yet, the action in Congress was squarely aimed at the South. Just like during the Civil War, the North, felt they had a moral obligation to reform the other guys — the South. We don’t have time to talk about a lot about LBJ, who was definitely not a Puritan, but let’s just remember that President Lyndon Johnson was from Texas and he remarked after signing the Civil Rights Act that it may have cost the Democratic Party the South for a generation.
Not only was he right, but the converse was also true. The Southern elite was done with the Democratic party because it sided with Blacks. And the Northern elite was about to switch sides, too.
A lot of folks credit President Richard Nixon, former Republican governor of California, with capitalizing on the opening here. He saw there was a chance for the Republican Party to win white votes in the South for the first time since the 1860s, and you could do it the same way you always won elite votes in the South. You promised civil order. You opposed those moralizing bastards from the Ivy League — and you did not say anything about helping labor, especially not Black labor.
There was Strom Thurmond, former governor of South Carolina, who served 48 years in the US Senate. He took on the FDR/Northern-wing of the Democrats as a “Dixiecrat” in 1948, and in 1964 — when the Civil Rights Act passed — he switched to the Republican Party.
Most people, though, don’t switch parties anymore than they change churches. What they do is just stop attending. Stop voting for the old gang. So, over the next 30 years, from about 1964 to 1994, you had this period in which elite people in the South said they were Democrats but voted for more and more Republicans. At the same time, elite people in the North said they were Republicans but started moving toward Democrats. People started growing up in the other party. If you were born in Georgia in 1994 to a family generally aligned with the power structure, there was never a question about you supporting Democrats. You grew up Republican.
And I say 1994 because if you look at the history books, that is the year Newt Gingrich of Georgia led the Republican revolution,winning a net of 54 House seats in Congress taking back the House from the Democrats for the first time in 40 years.
So, you had this 30-year transition period. And by the end, things basically went back to the way they always had been. Today we have one dominant party in the North and another in the South. If you are part of the underclass in either place, you join the opposition.
That’s why we saw the working class Democrats who loved FDR lose interest in the party as it comes to represent the Northern elite. Of Washington state’s first 10 governors, eight were Republican. But that gets you to 1933, and then they started flipping between the parties, back and forth, until 1992. Since then, the GOP hasn’t won a single gubernatorial election here.
(asterisk on the 2004, race, but let’s move on)
Today, global companies from the North, like say coffee giant Starbucks, are known for their progressive leanings. But the bosses and the hired hands have a hard time in the same political party. That is the source of all the angst over the white working class after they handed a victory to Donald Trump in 2016. Here in Washington state, timber country whose loggers and mill workers had voted for Democrats since the 1930s turned red in 2016 and never went back.
For more on that, listen to my podcast with Melinda McCrady.
But! Post 1964, you see in the South something really new — an underclass that is allowed to vote. Suddenly, not only are the oligarchs voting Republican, but there is a chance for Black voters to put up some wins. So yes, the national Republican leaders like Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Ron DeSantis are from the South. But so are nationally recognized Democratic underdogs like Yale School of Law graduate Stacey Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Let’s sum up a bit: Why is the West Coast so progressive?
First, while land-bound Anglo Americans trudged wearily from East to West, the Yankees of New England sailed to the West Coast and set up shop, bringing their Puritan-based culture with them. They were never many in number, they were very influential in business and politics. In the 20th Century Purtians on both coasts moved to the Democratic Party, just as leaders in the South took over the Republican Party.
The West Coast is liberal because it has the same cultural DNA as the East Coast.
Now for the spice. The thing that makes the Left Coast unique in the U.S.
It’s been exploding with tech innovation, which brings unimaginable money, which brings hordes of people.
And remember — it’s people that move the needle on the Compass of Power.
And money always talks.
More than 30 Fortune 1000 companies are headquartered just in Silicon Valley. Notable residents include:
You get the point. Facebook alone has $86 BILLION in annual revenue and more than 63-thousand employees. More than that, more than 1.8 BILLION PEOPLE use Facebook everyday.
And it’s just one of dozens of massive companies in this little valley. Where? Silicon Valley is basically the Santa Clara Valley just outside — you guessed it — San Francisco!
I want to be really clear. This is not a coincidence. I am not saying that Silicon Valley, Google, Ebay JUST HAPPENED to be founded near a Puritan area on the West Coast. That place didn’t just win some kind of population lottery.
Those companies are there because of the culture there. Puritans, I may have mentioned, are big believers in work. They are big believers in working in coordination.
The word “millionaire” was invented just after the Civil War to describe these Yankees who were getting richer than anyone could have imagined. They were riding high on the industrial revolution. The corporation, as we know it today, is a Yankee phenomenon. Railroad corporations, steel corporations, Standard Oil, these were Northern companies. Remember the monopoly guy? Is he dressed like a planter from Mississippi? No. He’s a Yankee.
But the industrial era in the United States is spent. Manufacturing declined. The rust belt is in the North. As industries age, government regulations catch up. They can’t cut corners like they used to. They become intertwined with government — think of how dependent the coal industry or car manufacturing is on government policy. And old industries tend to get outsourced — to China, or say, the Carolinas.
That is the story of the old North — people are leaving because there aren’t enough jobs. Especially the Puritan areas are shells of their former selves. Look at Michigan — once the heart of America, right? New York state and Massachuesetts are actually losing population — not falling behind in growth. They are losing people, net.
Their decline has been the South and West’s gain. Texas and Florida are getting the seats in Congress that the Northeast is losing.
The only place where Team Puritan is winning is on the West Coast.
Let us clarify, again, that the West Coast is not one solid mass of Puritans. California especially is a big state, and there are several regional cultures there. Southern California, for example, has a long history of large land holders. Those were once gentry favored by the Spanish government. As the Anglos came in and it became American territory, a lot of those estates were transferred to Anglo ownership. There were US Supreme Court cases about these Spanish land grants all the way into the 20th Century. That kind of quasi-fuedal system gave Southern California some similarities to the South.
Not coincidentally, If you look at some of the Republican leaders that have come out of California, like President Ronald Reagan, or the current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, you can see there are real bases of conservative culture in the state.
But if you look at Los Angeles, Burbank, that area, it’s essentially New York City culture. The American film industry was founded in L.A. by New York theater people. And to this day, we can see that Hollywood is liberal, it definitely believes in free speech. But just like the Big Apple, it is about profits first and foremost. It is not, as the Yankees are, interested in reforming people so much as it is concerned with letting folks say whatever they want to say in the interest of furthering commerce.
This is a cultural distinction that most people don’t even consider.
Radio, television, books, movies — all of those forms of mass communication are dominated by the libertarian-liberal views of New York City. They have a very, very broad idea of what is acceptable speech.
Yet, just as with say the auto industry, the film and book industries are not what they once were. A lot of film production, just like car production, has moved to the South, such as Atlanta.
NOT THE CASE for social media. Those companies are going strong. Facebook, Twitter, these platforms that have come to dominate 21st Century discourse. And they are headquartered North of LA, well into the domain of Puritan culture.
Which is why they are much more comfortable telling people what they can and cannot say.
Social media companies have really tried to sell themselves as places for free expression. But we can see that there have been problems with that. And when push has come to shove, they have been willing to silence speech they find problematic. See also, Donald Trump’s Twitter account. Followed by Elon Musk saying he will buy Twitter and restore free speech.
Elon Musk is a very interesting cat because he dabbles in some of the same spaces as cultural Puritans like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, but Musk is from South Africa. Not a Puritan in any way.
Aside from its controversies about free speech, however, Silicon Valley culture has proven hugely successful. If you have ever read “Bowling Alone,” by Robert Putnam, it has a great passage on why Silicon Valley companies were able to beat out East Coast competition. The people in the Bay Area had larger social networks, they passed around ideas and talent, worked for each other on and off, and created an ecosystem of innovation. In that way — the tight social networks — the West Coast Puritans were even more Puritan than the East Coast Puritans.
And, again, this same phenomenon repeated itself in Seattle, another port town set up by the Puritans. Microsoft is headquartered there — a global company with $161 billion in annual revenue and 181,000 employees.
Amazon is headquartered there — another global company with $470 billion in annual revenue and 1.6 million employees across the world.
These companies and the whole ecosystem they support has brought incredible wealth and growth to their hometowns. Seattle had been losing population to its suburbs for decades, but that reversed in the last 20 years. The city itself has been adding population — and it’s geographically quite small, so that has meant big investments in new towers downtown. Bellevue, the rich city east of Seattle, now has more expensive housing than Manhattan.
I can remember going to an Irish pub in the downtown/sodo area of Seattle in the 90s. It was in a dingy back alley, basically. You had to be dedicated to go there. Last time I visited, same pub, the alley was a nicely paved street. Nice sidewalks. Decorative lights strung overhead. And literally a walking tour guide explaining the virtues of this old, once-dingy pub to a horde of tourists.
So, this growth is about more than tech companies. That tour guide had a job that didn’t exist before. You can bet the pub pulls in a bit more money than before.
My wife is very into home design, interior decoration. And there was one company she found that she really loved, called SchoolHouse, based in Portland, Oregon. Not only did they make really cool light fixtures and other appurtenances, they made them right there in Portland. One of their best sellers is this poster that just has some words on it: “Work hard and be nice to people.”
That’s a Puritan haiku. Work hard. Be good. You can’t be good if you don’t work hard.
And just as the industrial revolution supercharged population and economic growth in the Northeast 150 years ago, the digital revolution has supercharged population growth along the West Coast.
Washington added a Congressional seat south of Seattle after the 2010 census. Oregon is adding a congressional seat south of Portland after the 2020 census.
So, the population of the US as a whole is moving South. But if we just look at the North, especially the Puritan-founded areas of the North, we see that the growth is happening on the West Coast. The only place where liberal American culture — the so-called Blue States — are growing is along the West Coast.
And that, my friends, is how you end up in a time when the Pacific Coast states of the lower 48 — Oregon, Washington and California — are the stand out progressive areas. That is why they are the last ones to give up on coronavirus restrictions. That is why they form alliances to continue access to abortion as a right.
Before we close out, I have to say the future is always in motion. I do not believe we can escape our cultural geography. I don’t think you will find a time when a governor raised in San Francisco sees things just like a governor raised in North Texas. But people move. They shift. With them, power shifts and flows.
Even now, there are signs that the West Coast has peaked. California is losing population on the whole.
And, we’ve seen in the dust up over ownership of Twitter. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s had to appear before Congress. Google — which really tried to infuse it’s corporate culture with moralism — is now often at odds with its own people. The free ride tech giants had for the past 20 years is getting bumpy. Regulation is coming. Unions are knocking on the door. If economic growth slows along the Puritan Coast, so will its population growth.
Meanwhile, a new, massive underclass is building in Southern cities, flexing power in local offices.
The Compass of Power for liberal America, once pointed to the northeast, now it’s drifting to the West coast. But in the years to come, it may point South, just like the conservative Compass of Power. And then things will really, really shift.