Saturday, November 9, 2013

A new book worth reading| "American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America"

I have always been captivated by books that try to explain why America -- and its parts -- think and vote the way they do.  I carried around Kevin Phillips' seminal (and at the time, controversial) work -- The Emerging Republican Majority (ERM) -- for years, not because I necessarily agreed (or disagreed) with the outcomes he predicted, but because it provided a fascinating (and turns out, mostly accurate) insight into a previously under perceived (or at least under reported) shift then going on in the American psyche.

So it may be with a new book that I first learned about yesterday and then subsequently, off and on, read most of last night and this morning.  Titled "American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America," the book provides a fascinating insight into the current cultural, social and political differences which characterize not only the United States -- but also Canada and parts of Mexico.

I first learned about the book while flipping through the Washington Post's "GovBeat" webpage, was intrigued and then went on to read a larger summary written by the book's author, Colin Woodard, for his college (Tufts) alumni publication, and then started into the book itself after downloading it from Amazon.

As with ERM, the book seems important to me because it rings true with my own experience.  According to the divisions made in the book, I was born, raised and have lived large segments of my life in portions of the country that are defined as "Greater Appalachia" and, indeed, continue to carry many of those characteristics with me now. In his piece for the Tufts alumni magazine, Woodard describes those characteristics as follows:
GREATER APPALACHIA. Founded in the early eighteenth century by wave upon wave of settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England, and the Scottish lowlands, Appalachia has been lampooned by writers and screenwriters as the home of hillbillies and rednecks. It transplanted a culture formed in a state of near constant danger and upheaval, characterized by a warrior ethic and a commitment to personal sovereignty and individual liberty. Intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers alike, Greater Appalachia has shifted alliances depending on who appeared to be the greatest threat to their freedom. It was with the Union in the Civil War. Since Reconstruction, and especially since the upheavals of the 1960s, it has joined with Deep South to counter federal overrides of local preference.
The book's general approach to Alaska also rings true.  While the book does not discuss Alaska extensively, it essentially divides Alaska among three of the eleven nations.  Juneau (and I would assume Southeast generally) is described as being part of "The Left Coast," Anchorage, Fairbanks (and I suspect the Railbelt in general) are included as part of "The Far West" (which has a lot in common with Greater Appalachia), and the remainder of Alaska, along with large portions of Northern Canada and Greenland are included as part of the "First Nation."

That correctly helps capture the uniqueness of Alaska; no other state reflects a mix of those three "nations."

But in addition to that surface explanation, the book also helps provide a deeper dive into what drives Alaska.  As all here recognize, large numbers of Alaskans are either first or second generation "immigrants" from other parts of the country (and indeed, other parts of the world), and often retain much of the culture of the nation from which they moved.  So, depending on the person and the issue, discussions on Alaska policy issues also often reflect characteristics common to "The Midlands," "The Deep South," and even "Yankeedom."

For those similarly interested in such things, I recommend the book highly.  If you aren't sure, you can follow the same track I did -- start by reading the summary on the Washington Post "GovBeat" website, then go to the longer summary written by the author for the Tufts alumni magazine, and then subsequently, if it retains your interest, go on to the book itself.

My guess is, as I did ERM, I will be carrying it around for awhile and referring to it often as a source for understanding the reason for this reaction or that policy position.