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Diane Mufson: America’s past continues to affect today’s politics

August 23, 2018

While outsiders may see Americans as people with similar views, values, behaviors and experiences, we know this is false.

Whether we like it or not, we have incorporated our immigrant backgrounds, experiences and ways of life into our daily functioning. Popular opinion says our nation’s current strong political divisions are basically rural/urban and coastal/midlands conflicts. However, one political theorist, Colin Woodard, suggests that today’s major conflict issues can be traced way back to our country’s colonization.

Woodard’s 2011 book “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” offers some food for political understanding. Many Americans believe that because a large proportion of Americans relocate from state to state, our regional differences have disappeared over the years. Some differences may have been minimized, but our melting pot is more theory than soup.

Along the East Coast, Woodward proposes four primary historic regions. They include Yankeedom, New Netherland, Tidewater and Deep South. The first two, which basically include the New England states and New York, are said to reflect multicultural acceptance, valuing the common good over individual needs, but with an emphasis on global trade, business and materialism.

The Tidewater area, largely representing coastal Virginia, is based on upper-class English life with conservative values and respect for tradition and authority. The Deep South stretches from Virginia to Houston (skipping New Orleans) and was modeled on expectations and experiences of English speaking slave-lords from the Caribbean. It is not difficult to see how the two Northern and the dominant two Southern areas had little in common when founded and how their experiences and values continue to separate them socially and politically.

Greater Appalachia encompassed an area from Pittsburgh to St. Louis and included Oklahoma City and much of northern Texas. Today, Appalachia includes 13 states from Alabama to New York, with only West Virginia located completely within. Woodward describes this region as settlers from northern England and Scotland who value individual liberty and distrust government authority. The Midlands were founded by Quakers and are thought to reject government interference. The Far West includes most of the Western and Southwest states except for those along the coast and borders and because of its history, distrusts corporations and government.

The Left Coast is the narrow strip along the Pacific which is described as a place for individual exploration and development. El Norte is the border along Texas and California and has the influence of Spain and Mexico along with self-sufficiency and a strong work ethic. Two smaller enclaves, New France, represented by the New Orleans area and Spanish Caribbean, located in the southern third of Florida, completed the 11 settlement areas.

As we try to understand our political extremes, the analysis of regional histories and settlements sheds some light. It should not be surprising that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., thinks that health care insurance and college tuition for all is desirable, while Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., fully rejects those ideas. President Trump seems to be a fine “New Netherlander” valuing global trading and materialism.

Woodward states, “Our true regional fissures can be traced back to the contrasting ideals of the distinct European colonial cultures” which started on the East Coast and continued across the country. Our history still affects our present politics.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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