“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America.” Barack Obama
The above quote from the 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote speech displays the naivete of the young Illinois senator’s hope for a cross-party reunification of a nation deeply divided across political, philosophical, religious, and economical beliefs. Speaking in a period in the shadows of the brief but feigned apparent unification following 9/11, the country was in discord following the ruptures of the Bush Administration’s policies that ignited a cultural rift about this nation’s identity and goals. The campaign that Obama triumphantly road upon in 2008 was a message of hope that we could collectively come together and mend ourselves despite that rift. However, now that we are already into the second term of Obama’s presidency it is apparently clear that once celebrated hope for reunification has long since dwindled. The United States appears united only in name as the consistent clash of red and blue voting lines incapacitates the effectiveness of a government that is apparently unable to collaborate on issues of taxation, gun control, woman’s rights, or just about anything. The Republican pundits would have us believe that this division is Obama’s fault just as the Democratic pundits would have us believe that the division was Bush’s fault before him.
It never is really that simple.
The blame can never really be pinned on just one politician’s policies or failings. There is always more to the story. The pundits would like us to find comfort in pointing the blame because blame pointing is always the easy way out and the path of least resistance. Blame pointing is a form of ignorance. The problem that the pundits ignore (as did the naive Obama) is that the historical evidence shows that despite our patriotic hopes, we do live in a liberal America and a conservative America and there never was a United America. We may be united through our legal and economic relationships but we are thoroughly disunited in our culture and identity.
In his book, American Nations, Colin Woodard presents a unique perspective, arguing that the current cultural divisions have been part of the American continent long before the United States ever existed as a federal union. The geographic regions that currently make up the United States were colonized and founded by peoples from several distinct European backgrounds each with specific goals motivating their immigration. Their motivations shaped the cultures of the regions they immigrated into and these cultural distinctions thrive on, even in our current day. Our history books love to celebrate the Mayflower landing on Plymouth Rock, but this is only one of many foundation stories that make up the American pastoral. In American Nations, Woodward argues that there are actually 11 distinct “nations” that make up the continental United States, Canada, and northern Mexico and each of these nations have distinct cultural motivations that sometimes benefit one another and sometimes conflict with one another.
When speaking of the “American Nations,” Woodward clarifies that his use of the term nation reflects an ethnogeographic identity and not a geopolitical. Unlike a state, which is a region with a strict border and distinct government, “a nation is a group of people who share – or believe they share – a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts, and symbols (3).” The shared beliefs that comprise a nation are tied to the geographic location as well as the historical influence of the region. Although many nations are contained within the borders of a state, nations often exist beyond the boundaries of state lines. One only need reflect on external examples such as the Iraq/Turkish “Kurdish” nation or the Palestinian nation divided by the state of Israel to to appreciate the concept that Woodward applies to the eleven distinct American Nations.
As explained through Woodard’s argument, the Plymouth Rock story is really the story of the Yankee nation founded by Puritans who were in exile from Great Britain, who after briefly living in Holland, eventually came to North America with the goal of founding a a just and pure society that promoted individual responsibility and citizenship. The Yankee story is the story we celebrate in our history books primarily because the Yankee nation is the American culture that most values education and assimilation. But their story isn’t the only story of the North American continent. The El Norte nation was founded by Spanish missionaries nearly a century before the Yankees and obviously the Native Americans were on this continent before any European settler imagined that a boat could leave port to distant lands. Although the Native Americans continue on in small disjointed “reservations” within the United States and as a thriving First Nation in northern Canada, the American story is really the the story of European settlers taking the lands from the First Nation people and using it to create a new and just society better than their European ancestry. Or so we would believe from the Yankee educational system’s perspective, unless we looked at the culture of New France in Eastern Canada and Louisiana where the French tolerantly lived alongside and intermingled with the Native Americans.
The story of America isn’t really as simple as we are lead to believe.
The region considered the realm of the Yankees was also partially claimed by the New Netherland nation, a people motivated not by a spiritual calling for a Puritanical Eden but were rather motivated by economic principles that were far more tolerant towards religious and ethnic differences than were their Yankee neighbors. Although the Dutch population was small, their cultural foundation would eventually become the culture of the unique city of New York that thrives as the cultural and economic capital of this country. Further south there were the Midlanders, a pacifist people of German descent that originally landed in Pennsylvanian and settled much of the “Midwest.” Even further south was the Tidewater nation of aristocratic slaveholders in Virginia and Carolina, and the Deep South nation of white supremacy motivated by cheap labor available through slavery. The Appalachian nation of Scotch and Irish borderlanders were a unique culture motivated by honor and familial ties that wanted nothing better than to escape the hegemony of aristocracy and Yankee influence. All long before the celebrated revolution of 1776, these early nations were at conflict with one another from the start and had distinct cultural motivations that continue to this day. The later nations of the Left Coast (a preliminary Yankee colony that developed its own identity surrounding environmentalism) and the Far West (an arid region dependent on corporate and government subsidy but adverse to governmental intervention) would only later add themselves to the country we identify as the United States of America.
Woodard provides a historical narrative that catalogs the development of each nation and its relationship to the sister nations. Woodard also explores each nations’ development and progression through the three or four centuries that define each nation’s existence. This narrative is both enlightening and troubling. It is enlightening in that the narrative of the American nations provides a rational perspective about the divisions that stifle our current political environment. This is troubling because once one accepts that the current divisions are founded on centuries old cultural dichotomies, the hope for unification is realized as a potentially unachievable reality.
This division is no better explained than Woodard’s analysis of the cultural clashes that arose during the 1960’s. The “Dixie” regions that comprised the Tidewater, Appalachia, and Deep South were experiencing social upheaval during the Civil Rights campaign while the Yankee, Midland, and Left Coast were at odds with the sexual revolution and antiwar movement. These periods of upheaval were “combining the utopia-seeking moral impulses of secularized Puritanism, the intellectual freedom of New Netherland, and the tolerant pacifism of the Midlands, the social movement south to remake and improve the world by breaking down the very sorts of institutional and social taboos Dixie whites were fighting to protect” (278-9). The same cultural and moral impulses prevail through the 90’s and 2000’s, revealing the deep rooted impacts of the multifaceted cultural foundations of the nation we claim to call the United States of America.
The word of warning that Woodard argues we must acknowledge is that the divisions of this country threaten to limit the viability of the empire’s preeminent role in the international theater. The United States is at increasing risk of falling towards a Roman and British style dissolution unless it takes a spirited self assessment of its identity and role within the world. This disjointed country may continue to thrive only if it adopts a European Union model (that actually reflects the model of the early US Constitution) of shared national statehood or risk collapse into several disparate nation-states dependent on outside investment and support. These decisions may have been core to the identity of the United States since the country’s inception, but the significance of this multi-cultural quadri only becomes more imminent as the global national narrative continues to evolve.