Monday, August 11, 2008

The four American cultures

According to Brandeis historian David Hackett Fischer, the United States is populated by the cultural descendants of four different cultures from Great Britain, and these cultures provide an explanation for much of the conflict and differing attitudes we observe in American politics.

Sara Robinson has kindly offered a summary of the four cultures which I show below:
To quickly summarize, the first of these groups were the Puritans, the bulk of whom arrived in New England between 1630 and1650. They were Reform Protestants who brought with them a notion of "ordered liberty." They believed that government authority, including the right to use force, properly belongs not to individuals, but to communities; and that individuals would necessarily need to conform their will to that of the larger whole for society to succeed. In the generations that followed, their descendants spread Puritan culture across the northern tier of the county, into the Pacific Northwest, and down the West Coast to northern California. These are, today, still the most liberal parts of the country.

They were followed, starting in 1660s, by Cavaliers -- Anglican royalists from the south of England who took refuge from the English Civil War by settling up the Chesapeake and the coastal south. They believed that liberty and authority rightly accompany tradition, wealth, and inherited social status; and that government had no right to infringe on the God-given absolute "freedom" of the highest-ranking people to order the lives of those under their authority. If you're poor, you don't deserve freedom. If you're rich, you have a sacred right to do whatever you see fit to whomever you please. The lowland South is still dominated by traditional, hierarchy-oriented Cavalier values, from tidewater Virginia all the way around to New Orleans, and remains one of the most conservative parts of the country.

In the 1670s, the Quakers began arriving from England's industrial midlands. They were working class and middle class, earnest, hardworking, and nonviolent. The most productive and successful of all the British immigrant groups, they introduced the ideas of tolerance and racial and gender equality to the American conversation. For them, people were entitled to freedom to the degree that they were willing to grant the same freedoms to others -- a perspective that gave them a very expansive view of human rights. They valued a rough-and-tumble party politics that engaged everyone in political debate to solve problems. Their ancestors (most of whom eventually converted, and became Methodists or Baptists) spread out across the Midwest, where the plain-spoken, plain-living, deeply egalitarian Quaker way still flavors the culture.

And, finally, in the early 1700s, the Borderers (more commonly known as the Scots-Irish) started arriving from the borderlands of northern England, lowland Scotland, and northern Ireland. The area they came from had been a constant war zone between English and Scottish kings for some 700 years; and the never-ending violence had made them clannish, tough, fiercely independent, contemptuous of all forms of authority, and firm believers in a vision of "natural liberty" -- including the God-given rights of man that were eventually enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Philadelphia Quakers and Charleston Cavaliers took one look at this unruly, self-sufficient warrior society, shuddered, and immediately shipped them far off to their own highland frontiers. When we speak of "pioneer stock," we're talking about the Borderers. Their wandering descendants spread out and settled up the roughest places of the south, west and southwest, and gave us cowboys and country music along the way. Wherever you find populists and libertarians, you're likely among Borderers.

Fischer argues that these four groups formed the original cultural and political matrix into which later-arriving immigrant groups adapted themselves; and their ancient differences underlie many of the regional and philosophical differences Americans still grapple with today. The migration patterns of these four groups have largely determined the geography of civil and women's rights, economic justice movements, and many other social and political trends. And it seems possible to me that these conflicting value systems may also be at the cultural root of the strikingly ineffectual way that Democratic candidates have consistently responded to GOP attacks over the past 50 years.

[Highlighting mine - Editor]
I find this explanation intuitively very appealing.

I don't think you will find a lot of people who are purely of one culture or another, though. I think that individuals come from families that tend towards one culture, then are impressed by the culture in which they live. But the attitudes can be seen in election results.

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