Monday, February 17, 2014

Pacific Standard on American Nations

Pacific Standard -- the magazine formerly known as Miller-McCune -- recently took up the question "Why Do Different States Have Such Wildly Different Ideas About Government?" It's a thoughtful piece and well worth a read. Here's the nut:

"Political scientists describe a phenomenon known as state political culture, which is a set of beliefs and attitudes that are consistent over time and confined to a certain geographic area. Some experts say that we owe these variations in political beliefs to the original immigrants who settled in different parts of the country.
These immigrants brought their grudges and Old World values to the United States, and those views melded with new American values. The Puritans stamped their views of society and politics on the Northeast, and the Scandinavians put their own mark on the Midwest. Northern New Jersey, which I call home, was shaped by the original Dutch settlers, as well as by the latecomers of Irish and Italians to the port-side cities."
Indeed, Laura McKenna goes on to trace this line of thinking, citing Daniel Elazar's (state-level) thesis, David Hackett Fisher's (four-culture) Albion's Seed and, I'm pleased to say, American Nations and my recent article on violence and regional cultures, which went viral a few months ago. The conclusion:

Perhaps we should accept that we are a country that agrees about certain basic things, but clashes over the specifics. We’re a very large and very dysfunctional family at the Thanksgiving dinner table that quarrels about the side dishes, but all expect—and overlook—the turkey main course. Dysfunctional families, after all, work, and their flexibility might ward off bigger crises and conflict. There’s a place for everyone.
Broadly speaking, I agree with the spirit of Laura McKenna's argument. But I'm not sure the clashing definitions of what "freedom" or "liberty" mean -- or what role the federal government should have -- constitute side dishes. We fought a Civil War over these things. A better analogy might be that we agree that there's a dinner table and place settings and maybe what wine we should be drinking with our meal, but fundamentally disagree on how the turkey should be cooked, carved, and presented.

And, of course, state-level analysis misses a great deal, given that many states are riven with profound cultural cleavages dating back to different settlement streams in the colonial era. (Witness Upstate and Downstate Illinois or north Coastal California and that state's south and, separately, interior.) Many state's political cultures are defined by massive sectional disagreements. The real question might be: why do some states have broad agreement on the great questions of government -- within New England, for instance -- and others suffer from massive internal disagreements?

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