Sunday, November 6, 2011

South Dakota Is Really Part Of Two Nations

It's not just East River or West River or Native Americans and European culture according to Colin Woodard, author of  American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.

Woodard places Eastern South Dakota in The Midlands.

Arguably the most “American” of the nations, the Midlands was founded by English Quakers on the shores of Delaware Bay. Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, the Midlands spawned the culture of Middle America and the Heartland, where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion has been moderate, even apathetic. Long an ethnic mosaic, with people of German descent -- not Anglo-Saxons -- making up the largest group since the 1600s, the Midlands includes those who, like Yankees, believe society should be organized to benefit ordinary people, but they are skeptical of top-down government intervention, as many of their ancestors fled from European tyrannies. The Midlands is home to a dialect long considered “standard American,” a bellwether for national political attitudes and the key swing vote in every national debate from the abolition of slavery to the 2008 presidential contest.
From its cultural hearth in southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and northern Delaware and Maryland, Midland culture spread through much of the heartland: central Ohio, Indiana and Illinois; northern Missouri; most of Iowa; and the less-arid eastern halves of South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. It shares the key border cities of Chicago (with Yankeedom) and St. Louis (with Greater Appalachia, a nation to be discussed in a later installment). It also has an important extension in southern Ontario, where many Midlanders emigrated after the American Revolution, forming the central core of English- speaking Canada. Although less concerned with its national identity, the Midlands is, nonetheless, an enormously influential moderating force in continental politics, as it agrees with only part of its neighbors’ strident agendas.
Woodard places West River in the Far West.
Climate and geography have shaped all the 11 nations to some extent, but the Far West is the only one where environmental factors have truly trumped ethnic ones. High, dry and remote, the interior West presented conditions so severe that they effectively destroyed would-be settlers who tried to apply the farming and lifestyle techniques they had used in Greater Appalachia, the Midlands and other nations. With minor exceptions, this vast region couldn’t be effectively colonized without the deployment of vast industrial resources: railroads, heavy mining equipment, ore smelters, dams and irrigation systems.
As a result, the colonization of much of the region was facilitated and directed by large corporations based in distant New York, Boston, Chicago or San Francisco, or by the federal government itself, which controlled much of the land.
Even if they didn’t work for one of the colonizing companies, settlers were dependent on the railroads for transportation to and from far-off markets and manufacturing centers. Seaboard nations treated the region as an internal colony, exploiting it for their benefit. And the region remains in a state of semi-dependency, despite significant industrialization during the World War II and the Cold War.
Its political class tends to revile the government for interfering in its affairs -- a stance that often aligns it with the Deep South -- while demanding that it continue to receive federal largesse. Yet the Far West rarely challenges its corporate masters, who retain near-Gilded Age levels of influence over the region.
Today, this nation encompasses all of the interior U.S. west of the 100th meridian, from the northern boundary of El Norte up to the southern frontier of First Nation. It includes northernArizona; the interiors of California, Washington and Oregon; much of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alaska; portions of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories; the arid western halves of the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas; and all or nearly all of Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. 
I'm assuming Woodard is unaware of the kuchen vs. kolache vs. lefse feuds that dominate the Dakotas or he would not have written off the power of ethnic disputes so blithely.

At the national level, Woodard contends that the regional divisions may be widening.
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 results of the political divisions is rather predictable.

The U.S. is wracked by internal discord between two blocs formed by seven of its 11 regional nations -- the conservative bloc that includes the Deep South, Tidewater and much of greater Appalachia, pitted against the more liberal alliance of Yankeedom, New Netherland, the Midlands and the Left Coast. Increasingly, through American history, the conflict between these two blocs has been driving the nation apart.
The country has been exhibiting the classic symptoms of an empire in decline. Kevin Phillips -- the political strategist who, back in 1969, used regional ethnography to accurately predict the ensuing 40 years of American political development - - has pointed out parallels with late imperial Holland and Britain. Like its superpower predecessors, the U.S. has built up a staggering trade deficit and sovereign debt while overreaching militarily. As financial services have come to account for a larger and larger share of national output, religious extremists have come to play a bigger and bigger role in political life.
 Woodard suggests adopting a Canadian mindset; that effort seems doomed to fail, so he offers important albeit vague suggestions for moving forward.

One thing is certain: If Americans want the U.S. to continue to exist in something like its current form, they will need to respect the fundamental tenets of our unlikely union. It can’t survive if we end the separation of church and state or ban the expression (or criticism) of offensive ideas. We won’t hold together if presidents appoint political ideologues to the Supreme Court, or if party loyalists try to win elections by trying to stop people from voting. The union can’t function if national coalitions continue to use House and Senate rules to prevent decision-making on important issues.
Other sovereign democratic states have central governments more dysfunctional than our own, but most can fall back on unifying elements we lack: common ethnicity, a shared religion or near-universal consensus on many fundamental political issues. Our constitutional order -- an arrangement negotiated among the regional cultures -- assumes and requires compromise in order to function at all.
And the U.S. needs its central government to function cleanly, openly and efficiently because it’s one of the few important things that bind us together.
 Woodard gives an overview of his 11 nations' analysis here, here, here, here, and here.


Colin Woodard said...

Plainsman - Thanks much for taking up American Nations; I'm pleased the geographic split I assert sits well with you.

You are absolutely correct: I was ignorant of the great kuchen/kolache/lefse debate in your fair state, but have brought myself up to speed over the past half hour. What is it with state dessert debates these days? Here in Maine, our legislators were fighting over whether the Whoopie Pie should be made our official one before our rivals in Pennsylvania claimed it. (Are the Koch Brothers funding dessert initiatives in the states?)

LK said...

Thanks for checking in on a small blog.

I do appreciate the distinctions that you draw. Dividing the country between red/blue or North/South is far too simplistic.

I was unaware that Whoopie Pies had such loyal fans. The divide and conquer over desserts technique does smack of the Koch brothers.

My larger point is that ethnic divisions, especially in the Western half of North Dakota where I grew up still matter. Many of the small towns retain the ethic character of their original settlers. By the way, thanks for going beyond the Fargo stereotypes.

The arguments between Norwegians and German-Russians may not be as well known as those between Irish and Italians but they seem similar.

You are correct that environment especially mineral extraction is a powerful factor influencing the culture of the western Dakotas.

I also apologize for misspelling your name in the last sentence. I have corrected it.

yanktonirishred said...

I have held for years that the Dakota's should have been split along the river with East and West as opposed to North and South. With the larger population centers/water traffic/farming in the east and mining/ranching/tourism in the west it seemed a perfect fit.

I am always baffled by the designation of imaginary boundaries when obvious real boundaries exist.

Colin Woodard said...

Plainsman - No worries about the misspelling. The Woodwards have us outnumbered ten to one, and that Bob guy casts a broad shadow over journalism.

I'd argue that the Midlands is defined by ethnic pluralism -- many ethnic communities living side-by-side and not necessarily mingling (or even agreeing) with one another. This definition doesn't contradict the eastern South Dakota experience you've just described, it embraces it.