American Nations. Colin Woodard.

Woodard, Collin. American Nations. Penguin, New York, 2011. NF;2/19.

A friend lent me this book in paper form and I started it worrying that I’d have trouble getting all the way through. But no problem, it’s fascinating, takes a creative view of American and North American history, and does a pretty good job of balancing its political views at least until the very final chapters.

Woodard is a journalist who has written four or five books on American culture and history, writes for a couple of northeastern US newspapers, and has been nominated for some awards. Here he presents the idea that, far from being dominated by the boundaries of its 50 states, the US has in four centuries culturally and politically comprised 11 “nations”.

Yankeedom is the English Puritan-founded area in the country’s extreme northeast with a history of and persisting preoccupation with Protestant religion, the “greater good” of the community, at the primacy of education. Its influence spread to the West to include Midwest states around the Great Lakes. New Netherland is essentially today’s New York City, settled by the Dutch and focused on successful entrepreneurship, featuring tolerance for individual differences, as long as the priority remains free enterprise. Midlands began on the east coast and spread into the center of the continent and then north and south, originally peopled by English Quakers, but also comprising a population of German descent, all strongly in favour of the interests of ordinary people and suspicious of government authority.

Tidewater is Woodard’s name for the next further south settlement around what is now the state of Virginia originally occupied by members of the English aristocracy. Their culture was similar to that of the southwestern United States, emphasizing the right of aristocratic people to control society. A huge area eventually stretching from just west of Tidewater west and southward to encompass most of Texas is Greater Appalachia, settled by poor people from England, Ireland, and Scotland. The dominant attitude here is the right of individuals to conduct their own lives and defend their homes. The Deep South started when land barons from Barbados settled in the southwest part of the continent, originally using desperately poor labourers and thriving from the tobacco trade, gradually switching to mixed agriculture including cotton using African slaves. Woodard characterizes this “nation” as “closed Protestant” in religion (using literal Bible interpretations to justify aristocratic control of “inferior” people) and determined to maintain a hierarchy based on genetic superiority.

New France exists in Québec and in Louisiana, and has had generally a liberal and egalitarian outlook. El Norte is the northern Mexican population which extends into Southern California and neighbouring American states and has more cultural similarity with southwestern America than with the southern part of Mexico. The Left Coast is a strip along the west coast beginning around San Francisco and extending all the way to Juneau Alaska. The cities of San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver are characterized as left-leaning, environmentally sensitive, community- and education-oriented, and cosmopolitan. First Nation has northern Canadian indigenous people, and the Far West, the largest geographical area, extends from about halfway across the continent all the way to the edges of the Left Coast, and includes the Canadian Prairie provinces.

It always surprises me, reading about United States history, how little of that (none, really) I was taught in high school. Studying literature, philosophy, and science in university I didn’t get much of it either. Woodard’s description of these 11 “nations” exposed me to some American history and I now know a little more about the American Revolution and the US Civil War for example.

Woodard gradually develops the idea that American politics have not been driven by the two political parties or by the interests of states as they developed through history, but by the cultural and political exigencies of his 11 nations. But particularly the coalition of Yankeedom, the Left Coast, and New Amsterdam opposing that of the Deep South, Tidewater, and parts of the Midlands and Greater Appalachia, the “Dixie bloc”. Dixie’s preoccupation with avoiding government control, maintaining a caste system with indentured or at least cheap labour controlled by an aristocracy, and fundamentalist religion as a justification is described as at odds with the Yankee values of strong community and education.

Dixie’s wealthy ruling class gradually changed toward favouring legislation and a culture that protected the interests of corporations at the expense of a subjugated working-class and of the environment, eventually (although to me surprisingly recently) represented by the Republican Party. The Yankee coalition when recently in power has favoured protection of workers, advancement of education and healthcare, feminism and gay rights, and separation of church and state, and now supports the Democrats. A pretty clear “left” and “right”, in other words.

Mr. Woodard ultimately leaves no doubt which side he is on. He finally after stating that nobody can predict what the history of the United States as he sees it will bring forth next praises the First Nation people as communalistic, environmentally-minded, and feminist in orientation.

This for me is a fascinating and enlightening trip through American history emphasizing broad cultural interests that are clearly antagonistic. The two opposed coalitions vye for the support of the “middle America” nations whose primary interest seems to be getting on with their lives, but author Woodard apparently agrees with me that the two opposed worldviews represented by Dixie and Yankeedom are getting further apart, foreclosing the possibility of compromise. This author also characterizes the recent American experience as looking a lot like that of former world-leading empires in decline: Holland, England, even Rome.

I’ve had a bright and I guess coloured light shone on the history of the US, with a description of how its two dominant political and cultural views came to be. My description oversimplifies Woodard’s story, but there is a tendency for his generalities to suggest that, at least in the committed blocs he describes, one doesn’t find much that’s contrary to the local prevailing views. I’ve never been in the Deep South outside of airports, but I can say with confidence that right-of-centre ideas are alive and well in the Left Coast. I have at least three good friends in Vancouver who are politically conservative, all of them strong in their views and no less thoughtful and smart than other friends whose views are left-oriented.

Thanks Dale. Reading American Nations helped me see a bit better the development of the two very strongly opposed American political cultures. This book was published before the 2016 election. I wonder what Colin Woodard thinks of Donald Trump.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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