Tuesday, April 15, 2008

American Demographics and Elections

As a general rule, I don't blog about politics. It's not that I don't have political views; it's that my views are so strong that I'm in constant danger of getting too wound up over the issues, and I tend to start thinking uncharitable thoughts about my neighbors. I recognize this as a character flaw in myself, and so I try to spend most of my time thinking about other, more worthy and more noble things. When I do start looking at the political scene, I try to remain focused on first principles and underlying issues rather than getting caught up with political personalities; to do otherwise would be to cultivate that "casual contempt" that I commented about in my previous post.

But I am very interested in what might be termed meta-politics--the trends in philosophy, demography, religion, and culture that express themselves (among other things) in the way we pick our leaders, and in what we expect these leaders to do for us.


One of the joys of being married to a professional librarian is that she brought a whole lot of good books into the marriage. One of the authors she introduced me to was the eminent historian (and Brandeis professor) David Hackett Fischer, whose specialty is in the history of American culture. We have a very dog-eared, sticky-noted copy of his masterpiece Albion's Seed, which traces the different effects on American culture caused by four distinct waves of (pre-Revolution) immigration to the American colonies from the British Isles. In a (very short) nutshell, these immigration waves were:
  1. The New England Puritans. They left England partly to escape from official persecution, and partly because of the dream of founding a new, orderly, and holy society in a (supposedly) empty continent.
  2. The Cavaliers. This was the tidewater plantation culture that developed along the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, and the like. The social elites in this wave included many cavaliers, loyal to the monarchy, who had left England during the Puritan reign of Oliver Cromwell.
  3. The Quakers and other assorted religious misfits (German Pietists, Swiss Anabaptists, Dutch, Scandinavians, French, and other Continental types). Many groups went to Pennsylvania for its religious freedoms, hoping to form simple, peaceful, holy communities.
  4. The Backwoodsmen types. These came from the Scottish borderlands and from Northern Ireland. This was a warrior culture that didn't care much for education or for the finer things in life; they came to get away from the Old World and strike out on their own in a land devoid of stultifying authority.
Fischer's work is quite exhaustive in describing the folkways of these four groups--everything from their religions and their political structures, to their cuisine and their clothing styles. And for kicks, he describes what these four groups thought of each other. For the most part, they couldn't stand each other.

But it's interesting to note why they couldn't stand each other.

In particular (since this moves toward the whole point of this blog post), the Puritans had an interesting relationship with the other three groups. Puritan society was all about order; and this order had to be built upon a strong moral foundation. This is not the order of the dictator, but rather the order of a society with a strong, widely shared religious mission. We are here to build a shining city on a hill, and therefore we must act like it. So the Puritans developed strong social institutions to carry out this vision: local governments built on written constitutions, a politics based on consensus rather than brute political power, numerous universities (many of which make up today's Ivy League), managed economies designed to keep anyone from getting too poor or too rich.

And they thought they were more enlightened, more moral, and just plain better than anyone from the other three groups--especially the Backwoodsmen, who were seen as little more than unenlightened barbarians. Their harsh Calvinist religion taught them that all men were utterly depraved, but unlike all those other people, they were actually cognizant of their sorry state, which made them just that much more holy....

And the contempt they felt for the other three groups was pretty well reciprocated. The New Englanders were seen as arrogant, imperious (since they were always trying to foist their will on everyone else), and nosy; they couldn't appreciate the joys of a lazy afternoon; they wouldn't slow down to enjoy the simple pleasures of life; with the Yankees it was always about industriousness and busy-ness and organization. Even their recreational games were generally over-organized affairs with way too many rules.

Now, one point that Fischer makes is that the culture of the Puritans never actually died out. It has echoes in contemporary society, in much the same way that Old English has echoes in our modern tongue. Fischer traces the descendants of those New Englanders after the Revolution, as they migrated across the continent into new states and enclaves. And guess what? Every place in the country that took a sizable New England immigrant population developed a local politics similar in many respects to that of the Puritans. They aren't as hung up about sex as their Puritan forebears are popularly supposed to be (although Fischer makes the interesting point that the Puritans were actually pretty earthy), but these "Greater New England" regions all seem to have politics and societies that are:
  • Consensus-Based.
  • Moralistic.
  • Intolerant of dissent.
  • Tending toward pacifistic (though not always, as the moralism sometimes kicks in).
  • More interested in shaping society (and the people therein) to be constantly better.
  • Less interested in defending individual rights, when those rights conflict with societal consensus.
  • Strongly supportive of public educational institutions, which have an explicit goal of enculturation of the society's values.
  • Somewhat disdainful of the culture, economic bases, religion, educational systems, and social values of the rest of the country.
The regions of the country that took large numbers of New England expatriates during the 19th century include the Great Lakes region, many of the Northern Plains states, the Pacific Northwest, much of Northern California, Utah(!), and various cities sprinkled throughout the land (Denver, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and the like).

And this pattern continues to show up from time to time in Presidential elections, even all the way through the twentieth century and to the present day. This is a picture of the 2004 election results, state by state. It is also a map of those states that took most of the 19th century New England migrations. Most of them (all but the Dakotas, other high plains states, and Utah) voted for Kerry, and are thus painted blue. Those states that didn't have the New England immigrants, mostly voted for Bush and are painted red.


Ok, all that is background to something that I read today. It's a political analysis of the voting patterns in the Democratic primaries, courtesy of Salon.com.

Obama has gotten himself in some hot water in the last few days with ill-advised comments about the supposed mindsets of the rural Pennsylvania voters who appear poised to vote against him a week from now. Without going into the details, the article sets forth the theory that Obama has grown up in a social climate heavily shaped by these modern-day Children of New England. The academic world is filled with them, and they figure heavily in religious movements that espouse the "Social Gospel."

But just as the New England Puritan was viewed as arrogant and snobbish by the members of the three other immigrant waves, so too Obama has trouble connecting with the cultural descendants of these waves. The backwoodsman of three hundred years ago passed on his values and worldview too; and his descendants (literal and figurative) are today popularly denigrated as "rednecks" and "white trash." But while they are often caricatured (quite unfairly) as uneducated and stupid, the fact is that they tend to be very good at sniffing out those who hold them in contempt, personally or collectively; and they don't take kindly to them.

Some of Obama's best primaries to date have been in the "Greater New England" states I mentioned above. His worst have been in those states that didn't have a whole lot of 19th century New England immigration. The Salon article argues that this is not, as some have suggested, because of "latent racism"; it is because Obama is appealing to the same kind of Democrats who went for Adlai Stevenson, who are descended from the New Englanders; and is turning off the kind of Democrats that went for Harry Truman, who are descended from the other three waves.

Anyway, I found it an interesting read. I find it fascinating that our elections are often driven by the same kinds of social forces, and break along the same kinds of social lines, as they did two hundred years ago. The issues may come and go, but the character archetypes of the voters don't (or rather, they chagne much more slowly). If this is true, it has some definite long-term ramifications for politics in this country--and it puts some outside bounds on what changes we can actually expect politics to deliver in our country.

1 comment:

Karen said...

For someone who purportedly has writer's blog, you've written quite the interesting post!

I have that book, Albion's Seed, upon recommendation of a friend but never taken the time to read it. Maybe I need to move it to the top of the pile!