David M. Oshinsky is a professor of history at New York University and director of the Division of Medical Humanities at NYU Medical Center. His book, “Polio: An American Story,” won the Pulitzer Prize for history.
Five years ago, Colin Woodard caused a stir with his book “American Nations,” a fascinating, if quirky, account of the different regional cultures that have shaped the course of North America. Woodard counted 11 regions in all, nine fully in the United States, such as “Yankeedom,” the moralistic, community-centered territories of New England, New York and the Upper Midwest; “Tidewater,” the slaveholding parts of the Chesapeake Bay area and Virginia that produced civic-minded aristocrats such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; “Greater Appalachia,” home to fiercely independent, anti-elitist folk like Andrew Jackson; and the “Deep South,” the lair of rapacious, ne’er-do-well leaders with no sense “of responsibility to the rest of society.” Later entries included “Far West,” the “high, dry, and remote” province of libertarian ranchers and timber barons; and “Left Coast,” the narrow spit of land from Southern California to Seattle famous for its liberal politics and live-and-let-live social attitudes.
It wasn’t exactly a new concept. Journalist Joel Garreau (“The Nine Nations of North America”) and historian David Hackett Fischer (“Albion’s Seed”) tread this ground before Woodard with more evidence and fewer grandiose claims. But that’s what made “American Nations” such fun to read. One could disagree with much of what Woodard presented but still come away admiring the boldness of his themes.
“American Character,” the sequel, is somewhat less satisfying. Woodard, an award-winning journalist for the Portland Press Herald in Maine, is a terrific writer, and his range is impressive. His musings about the impact of Ayn Rand on American conservatism or a day spent in the terrifying blackness of Nicolae Ceausescu’s crumbling Romanian dictatorship are elegant set pieces. The problem is with the larger thesis of the book. It’s one thing to take on a huge subject such as “the epic struggle between individual liberty and the common good” in our history. It’s quite another to try to squeeze it into the multi-regional model that defined his earlier work. Despite some truly original insights, the result, too often, is a disjointed narrative, lurching from era to era, crisis to crisis, with the leading actors scrutinized by their places of origin — Yankeedom, Tidewater, Far West — as if personal geography was the determining factor in most everything they did.
America works best, Woodard insists, when the anti-government culture of radical libertarianism and laissez-faire conservatism (think Deep South as leader, with Greater Appalachia, Far West and Tidewater sometimes on board) is in balance with the pro-government culture of collective action for the common good (think Yankeedom and Left Coast as primary actors, with sprinklings from other regions). The problem, Woodard says, is that these competing forces are rarely equal — or willing to compromise.
In the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, laissez-faire and libertarianism created the industrial behemoth that is modern America, during a time of extraordinary excess, inequality of wealth, political corruption and working-class misery. In response, the pendulum swung back hard the other way, giving the United States a Progressive Era of needed economic and social reform, but also a time of political overreach in terms of what many Americans expected their government to do. With a few exceptions — the demands of a world war, an economic catastrophe — the competing regional cultures have kept the nation from reaching the sort of consensus that allows fundamental problems to be solved.
Woodard’s heroes are those who have somehow transcended this divide. It’s an eclectic list, and an interesting one. Woodard includes Franklin D. Roosevelt, an odd choice given FDR’s pure Yankeedom roots and reputation as the father of the modern welfare state. Yet, as Woodard notes, Roosevelt took the reins of power at a time when the nation was on its knees. He fought off attempts by the political left to bring socialism to Washington — his goal was to enact reforms needed to preserve capitalism — and steered a moderately liberal course that offended zealots at both ends of the political spectrum. The problem, of course, is that two of the three Republican presidents who preceded FDR — Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge — also came from Yankeedom, as did many of the laissez-faire, libertarian business types who plundered their way through the 1920s.
Like a growing number of observers, Woodard admires Dwight Eisenhower, “a Midland centrist” who “believed in fiscal responsibility, but did not consider that incompatible with making high-return investments in collective projects like education, scientific research, and transportation infrastructure.” He has great respect for Michigan Gov. George Romney, Mitt’s father, who nobly lost the Republican presidential nomination to Richard Nixon in 1968 by pointing out the squalid conditions that helped trigger bloody riots in Detroit and then candidly admitting that he was brainwashed about the Vietnam War by government officials during a trip there a few years earlier (Yankeedom honesty at work). Woodard admires George H.W. Bush (Connecticut roots) for responsibly raising taxes to clean up the “enormous mess” left by Ronald Reagan’s “laissez faire revolution,” but he despises son George W., raised in West Texas but “a creature of Deep Southern East Texas” (I suppose this means Houston), who “presided over perhaps the most craven diversion of public resources to the rich and powerful in the nation’s history.”
The list goes on. Lyndon Johnson is trashed for getting too far ahead of public opinion in his never-ending list of Great Society programs he couldn’t pay for, while Bill Clinton is roughed up for being a bit too enamored of big business and deregulation. Both men, as best I can tell, appear to be hybrids of Deep South and Greater Appalachia thinking. But Woodard’s other point, often obscured in this regional soup, is a valid one. America works best when its leaders find a middle ground between unfettered individualism and unrealistic communalism.
It’s possible for either of our major political parties to find that middle ground, Woodard thinks — or at least enough of it to govern effectively. But his money is on the Democrats. What Americans yearn for, he believes, is a government that ensures fairness in an aggressively competitive country. That means more than nondiscrimination laws and protection of the weak; it means rechanneling wealth, especially inherited wealth, “back into institutions that level the playing field for those born without advantages.” Selling this message won’t be easy, and it may require a lighter hand in pursuing issues that tend to alienate potentially supportive voters, such as affirmative action and perhaps even gun control.
Ever the strategist, Woodard asserts that “a political movement championing the fairness doctrine could capture a reliable majority in seven of our nine regional cultures.” Far be it from me to argue. I’m still trying to figure out how one part of my home state of Pennsylvania wound up in Yankeedom, part in the Midlands and the rest in Greater Appalachia.
By Colin Woodard
Viking. 308 pp. $29