Jon Stewart can’t do it all alone. The Daily Show has evolved toward more open-minded consideration of the issues of the day and less outright comedy because Stewart still thinks honest people of good faith can cut through the nonsense and figure out problems in a way any reasonable person can admit makes sense. Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America pulls off the unlikely feat of both offering the tools for just such a broader, deeper understanding—and demonstrates why, in a larger sense, that effort is doomed.
Many readers will be skeptical at first, and I was, too. No doubt Thomas Frank (What’s the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America) and others have done valuable work in looking deeper than the familiar red state/blue state divide to try to explain why people in different regions think and vote the way they do. But come on! Eleven nations? And right there in the map on the cover of Woodard’s book, we can see that the bottom half of Florida has simply been ignored, included in no “nation,” left uncolored as if by a kindergartner who got called to recess before he or she could finish drawing.
In fact Woodard pulls it off. He compellingly lays out his vision of why it makes sense to throw state boundaries out the window for the most part and think instead of 11 nations, each defined by its history, by a common culture and set of assumptions about government and life. I always hated the term “Left Coast,” the way any self-respecting San Franciscan hates the term “Frisco,” since it seemed to carry the hint that even someone like me, fourth-generation Californian on both sides, was somehow not part of America. Yes, Woodard explains, that is exactly right: “Left Coast” culture, running in a coastal strip from around just north of San Luis Obispo, California, up to British Columbia, does in key respects stand apart from “the Far West,” “El Norte,” “First Nation,” “New France,” “the Midlands,” “Greater Appalachia,” “the Deep South,” “Tidewater,” “the New Netherlands,” and “Yankeedom.”
“America’s most essential and abiding divisions are not between red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals, capital and labor, blacks and whites, the faithful and the secular,” Woodard writes in his introduction. “Rather, our divisions stem from this fact: the United States is a federation comprised of the whole or part of 11 regional nations, some of which truly do not see eye to eye with one another … Few have shown any indication that they are melting into some sort of unified American culture. On the contrary, since 1960 the fault lines between these nations have been growing wider, fueling culture wars, constitutional struggles, and ever more frequent pleas for unity.”
The key to the book’s effectiveness is Woodard’s skill—and irreverence—in delving into history with no qualms about being both brisk and contrarian. New Yorkers, for example, are not always going to feel great stirrings of pride in reading about the history of New Amsterdam, especially the period shortly before the Civil War when residents of Manhattan were far from the forefront of anti-slavery. Yankees come off the worst, though, as important as they have been to U.S. history, and Woodard seems particularly aghast at their eagerness to claim the U.S. narrative as their own. He takes glee in pointing out that rebellion in the North American colonies against the rule of a distant king started not in the 1770s, but in the 1680s, and not “as a united force of Americans eager to create a new nation, but in a series of separate rebellions, each seeking to preserve a distinct regional culture, political system, and religious tradition threatened by the distant seat of empire.”
Rather than playing around with his concepts, Woodard focuses most of the book on giving the history of each of his 11 nations; we’re more than 250 pages in by the time he finishes off the “Founding the Far West” chapter. What could have been an entire book-length riff of its own, “The Struggle for Power,” gets squeezed into two short chapters near the end, in which Woodard explains how the balance of power in the U.S. has shifted based on how swing nations align themselves—either with the northern alliance of Yankeedom, the New Netherlands and the Left Coast or with the Dixie alliance, the Deep South and Greater Appalachia joined by the “junior partner” Tidewater. The better we understand the orientation of each of the nations, the better we can grasp the way individual politicians have set about cobbling together support.
“George W. Bush may have been the son of a Yankee president and raised in far western Texas, but he was a creature of east Texas, where he lived, built his political career, found God, and cultivated his business interests and political alliances,” he writes. “His domestic policy priorities as president were those of the Deep Southern oligarchy; cut taxes for the wealthy, privatize Social Security, deregulate energy markets… Meanwhile, Bush garnered support among ordinary Dixie residents by advertising his fundamentalist Christian beliefs, banning stem-cell research and late-term abortions, and attempting to transfer government welfare programs to religious institutions.”
I’d have preferred to see more application of the ideas to contemporary politics, but maybe that will have to wait for the next book. In the meantime, American Nations may not leave much room for optimism about our dysfunctional political dynamic improving any time soon, but in offering us a way to better understand the forces at play in the rumpus room of current American politics, Colin Woodard has scored a true triumph. I am going to order copies for my father and sister immediately—and I hope Woodard gets a wide hearing for this fascinating study.