We claim we admire complex thinking. But, it’s a discipline that’s easy to let slip. Exactly like bipartisanship, it needs steady jolts of support.
Author Colin Woodard’s just-released book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, debunks many simple notions about governing this continent and leaves it nearly as messy as all the others.
Steve Kettmann in the Daily Beast captures Woodard’s idea:
“America’s most essential and abiding divisions are not between red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals, capital and labor, blacks and whites, the faithful and the secular,” Woodard writes in his introduction. “Rather, our divisions stem from this fact: the United States is a federation comprised of the whole or part of 11 regional nations, some of which truly do not see eye to eye with one another … Few have shown any indication that they are melting into some sort of unified American culture. On the contrary, since 1960 the fault lines between these nations have been growing wider, fueling culture wars, constitutional struggles, and ever more frequent pleas for unity.”
One impulse that unites Canadians who treasure their border and Americans who despair of their political institutions is the myth that their forebears were fleshing out just two national identities, two sets of political and social values.
In both nations, individuals would thrive, they would know who they were and what was expected of them—and they would broadly agree on what they might expect in turn from their governments. (Being undefeated and younger than other united nations, they assumed that each would eventually have a century or two of their own.)
This solidarity myth—adopted by defensive conservatives in Canada and defensive revolutionaries in America—quickly captured the popular imagination.
The myths of the “melting pot” in the United States and “two nations” in Canada are carefully scrutinized as if they ever approximated the truth.
The actual business of brokering internal differences and deciding who benefits and pays for collective action is largely left in the shadows to insiders and “the system.”
American federalism looks mediocre and the Canadian border looks logical strictly against a perfectionist illusion: there’s across the USA one nation that wants to elect representatives to act on that one nation’s behalf.
To defensive regions and Canadian nationalists, that illusion sustains the conviction that America’s dominant political culture is imperial, that without borders, filibusters, checks and balances, nostalgia, and religious excess it will swallow up all our differences.
To rational urban liberals, of course, the illusion of a more perfect union around the corner ultimately leads to disillusion: the evening news conviction in both countries that the US federation is dysfunctional—that the Canadian border, for Canadians at least, is the luckiest accident on the North American map.
Woodard’s thesis ought to give fresh life to disruptive questions:
If eleven distinct and disputatious political cultures can persist within the US federation, why can’t the US federation accommodate wholly, rather than merely elements, of those regional cultures that reside north of the 49th parallel?
If one federation of economically strong and outspoken regions can hold together and manage as a dominant world power for nearly a century, is there any logical reason to suggest it can’t keep growing?
If Europe, with its infinitely greater differences and infinitely lesser prospects, can continue building one European federation, can we at least stop celebrating the border that separates two?