Saturday, December 24, 2016

Collin Woodard's American Character

First, a word on the book's prequel: I found Colin Woodard's American Nations to be pretty convincing: some slurring of historical specifics, and some occasional weak arguments for interpreting a few events in ways that proved his thesis even when simpler and more cogent solutions seemed available, but that is to be expected in making an argument at the popular level. A chapter on the "first nation" nation would have been nice, but may have been beyond the scope of the book; more of a discussion of how African Americans fit into the proposed nations or if an understanding of an independent, less-geographical African American nation would make more sense--but Woodard acknowledges this.

The basic thesis is that North America, from about 100 miles south of the US/Mexican boarder north, is made up of 11 regional cultures, who's characters, goals, values, ideals and social expectations were largely formed within the first few generations of their settlement, have changed little since, and explain most of the history of the continent better than other paradigms (North vs. South, conservative vs. liberal, urban vs. rural, etc.).

What I find most difficult with the book, however, is how, as the story comes up to the present, Woodard's apparent biases seem to take over the story. While he does a pretty good job of demonstrating in their origins how each nation was behaving in keeping with its national culture, and how this was generally self-serving, by the end of the book it become clear that Woodard sees a direct line
from Barbados slavers to modern conservatives.

In his more recent work, American Character, I unfortunately see the same problem as he seeks to tell the story of the conflict in the history of America between individual freedom, and collective interest.

He starts out seeming to set up an important tension between the two extremes, stating early on,
"American Character will argue that sustaining liberal democracy requires balancing those two essential aspects of human freedom: individual liberty and the freedom of the community. Sacrifice one, and you are on the road to oligarchy or anarchy; lose the other and the shadow of collectivist dictatorship looms. You simply can't have one without the other" (pp. 8-9).
Unfortunately, however, by the end we're back to the old problem, as these two paragraphs demonstrate:
"The northern alliance has been the champion of collective action for the common good, consistently favoring the maintenance of a strong central government, federal checks on corporate power, and the conservation of natural resources, regardless of which party was dominant in the region at any given time. (Recall that prior to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, the Republicans were the party of Yankeedom.) The presidents it has produced--John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, and Barack Obama--have all sought to better society through government programs, expanded civil rights protections, and environmental safeguards. All faced opposition from the Dixie-led nations even from within their own parties. With the southern takeover of the GOP, Yankeedom, New Netherland, and the Left Coast have become overwhelmingly Democratic in recent years.
"The other coalition has been led by the Deep South, whose oligarchy's agenda has remained consistently laissez-faire and social Darwinist. Deep Southern leaders have fought to control and maintain a one-party state with a colonial-style economy based on large-scale agriculture and the extraction of primary resources by a compliant, low-wage workforce with as few labor, workplace safety, health care, and environmental regulations as possible and a tax structure that pushes much of the financial burden on to those least able to afford it. In office, the Deep South's leaders focus on cutting taxes for the rich, funneling massive subsidies to agribusiness and oil companies, rolling back labor and environmental initiatives, and creating "guest worker" programs and "rights to work" laws to ensure a cheap, docile labor supply. Finding coalition partners for such an agenda hasn't been easy, so the Deep South has had to rely on a common strain of libertarianism as the basis for an expedient alliance with the far more populist-minded people of Greater Appalachia and the Far West" (I forgot to get a page reference before returning the book to the library! This is in the conclusion chapter, within the first few pages of that chapter).
This reads like an argument for the "northern coalition" not a statement of the facts of voting trends, which is just the old, binary explanation of the history and politics of the country again. Woodard would have made his argument much better by making more use of the 11 national cultures thesis as it has the potential to move beyond the binary reading. An example of the potential for such a move away from a binary reading can be seen in Arnold Kling's The Three Languages of Politics, which suggests American political discussion happens in one of three languages: liberal (oppressor-oppressed heuristic), conservative (civilization-barbarism heuristic), and libertarian (freedom-coercion heuristic). From this perspective we begin to see the values of each group, and can understand their stances from within their model of understanding, rather than projecting our heuristic onto their rhetoric. In this way we can move toward actual communication and change.

A critique of Woodard's binary assumption of motivations in the above paragraphs may be found in Thomas Leonard's Illiberal Reformers, which exposes that the initial arguments made for much of the collectivist policy which appears so noble in Woodard's final assessment were based on a eugenic understanding of race and motivated by a desire to protect whites from becoming debased by minority groups. Lenoard explains (in an interview about the book) that the argument put forward for the minimum wage by the progressives who first conceived of it was that,
"[I]f you fixed what we today call a binding minimum wage, you would disemploy idle, inferior workers. The idea was that productivity, we'd say today, was connected with some metric of biological inferiority. So if you set a minimum wage high enough you'd make sure that the Jews and Catholics and Orthodox Christians from Southern and Eastern Europe were kept out; that the Asians, who were vilified as coolies were kept out; and those parasites already in the labor force who couldn't be productive enough to justify a properly-set minimum would be idled and could be dealt with appropriately. So that's an example of the way that progressives harnessed eugenic thinking in defense of something as anodyne as a minimum wage. The idea it was not merely raising wages but it was also performing this incredibly important and valuable eugenic social service."
The tension Woodard proposes early in the book between individual freedom and collective interest seems to me an important tension, and it seems more work should be done here. Unfortunately it appears that American Character is not that work because it allows too much bias to creep into its exploration of motivations.
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