I'll be honest and say that I initially had very low expectations for this book. It looked like a good airplane book which is my way of saying that I purchased it with the idea that I would read it while being held captive in a tube hurtling over Greenland. It turned out to be much better than I ever imagined and while I still have questions and quibbles with Colin Woodard's argument, I am convinced that he's on to something.
What he is asking us to do is to suspend our vision of the United States of America as one country "indivisible" with 50 states under one written constitution. Look underneath all this, he says, and you can identify at least 11 radically different nations who have been at odds with each other ever since independence. Of those 11 different nations, "Six joined together to liberate themselves from the British. Four were conquered but not vanquished by English-speaking rivals. Two more were founded in the West by a mix of American frontiersmen in the second half of the nineteenth century." All are defined by either cultural pluralism (the minority) or by their European origins (the majority): French, Spanish, or "Anglo-Saxon" heritage.
In a country of diverse immigration are these roots imagined or are they real? Woodard argues that, yes, they are real and it does make a difference even in the early 21st century. All these nations (with the exception of Native Americans) came from somewhere else and they brought their cultural baggage with them: languages, religions, morals, cultural practices. He argues that these thing continue to matter even where the original settlers gradually became a minority in the oldest areas of settlement. This theory is called The Doctrine of First Effective Settlement and was first posited by Wilbur Zelinsky of Pennsylvania State University in the early 1970's.
Here are the nations Mr. Woodard sees underneath the "legible" political boundaries:
Yankeedom: Founded by English Calvinists. Characterized by faith in government, social engineering, local government. When the French talk about Americans as being "Puritans" this is the nation they are talking about.
New Netherland: Founded by the Dutch. Commercial, multi-cultural, committed to trade. Basically New York City and surrounding areas.
The Midlands: Founded by English Quakers. Also multi-cultural (Germans eventually became the majority in this region), suspicious of government and politically moderate.
Tidewater: Also founded by the English. Aristocratic, semi-feudal, conservative.
Greater Appalachia: Founded by people from Northern Ireland, Northern England and Scotland. Highly suspicious of government with a deep commitment to personal liberty. Religious with a deeply personal faith that is often lived outside established churches. Traditionally much of the U.S. military comes from this region.
The Deep South: Founded by the English from Barbados - aristocrats committed to slavery. Still very suspicious of democracy. It is also the heartland of African-American culture in the U.S.
New France: Founded by the French. Egalitarian, politically very liberal, and multi-cultural with a lot of mixing with Native Americans.
El Norte: Founded by the Spanish. This is the oldest European civilization in North America. Multi-cultural mixing Spanish, Native American and Anglo cultures. An area to watch because "The Pew Research Center predicts that by 2050 the proportion of the U.S. population that self-identifies as Hispanic will reach 29 percent..."
The Left Coast: Colonized by people from New England (merchants and missionaries) and Appalachia (farmers, prospectors and fur traders). The culture is a combination of "Yankee faith in good government and social reform with a commitment to individual self-exploration and discovery..."
The Far West: An environmentally hostile area colonized by diverse people - both internal migrants and immigrants. Individualistic and anti-government but highly dependent on it.
The First Nation: The original Americans. Very diverse peoples that have lived through centuries of reduced sovereignty. This is changing. In Canada, Greenland and the U.S. they are asserting their sovereignty over the regions under their control and they are acting in the political realm of the states under which they live.
Woodard asserts (and I would agree) that the above nations do not correspond to state or international boundaries. I have only to look at my own region, the Pacific Northwest (Left Coast), which borders the Canadian province of British Columbia, to see it. Cut in half by a chain of mountains, the seaboard side of the state of Washington is a temperate rain forest, mostly urban, politically liberal and culturally pluralistic settled by a mix of Asians, Scandinavians and New Englanders. Go east across the mountains and you are in a different country: desert, rural, politically conservative, agricultural. The city of Seattle has more in common with the city of Vancouver in Canada than it does with Spokane, an American city in the same state near the Idaho border.
The above is just a brief overview of Colin Woodard's entire argument and I certainly can not do it justice in a short blog post. Nonetheless, within it I see some possible trends that have implications for North America and its relationship with other regions like the EU.
Is it possible, for example, that the rise of anti-government rhetoric in the U.S. (which has very deep cultural roots) will lead to a lessening of Federal power and influence and eventually make the United States government look more like the present European Union? Is it so hard to imagine the EU on one trajectory toward greater union even as the U.S. regresses in the direction of less union and more regional autonomy and sovereignty?
There is also the matter of shifting demographics. If Pew is correct Hispanics will be a large and powerful minority in the U.S. in the near future. This has the potential to radically change the U.S. relationship to Mexico and perhaps also to Europe. Up until now the closest relationships that the U.S. has had with Europe are primarily with Northern Europe: United Kingdom and Germany, for example. It also has important ties with the Anglosphere all over the world (Canada, Australia, New Zealand...) Is it possible that this affinity could change in favor of the Mediterranean countries and its settler colonies? Spain, for example, or even France and by extension the associated settler nations: Phillipines, Latin and Central America and French-speaking Canada.
This book is a great read. It's not entirely original - other people have postulated similar ideas and Mr. Woodard pays homage to all of them. Whatever arguments I had with specifics were overshadowed by the overall thesis which is well-argued and well-written If nothing else, you will never look at North America the same way again.