Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Author exposes eleven North American Nations

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?


  1. Mr. Horswill - Thanks much for including American Nations in your thinking.

    I'd posit that one of the biggest obstacles to a grand union between the US and Canada would be that the two federations have a very different mix of regional cultures, and that Canadians, by and large, would have difficulty accepting the concessions inherent in joining an entity where the Deep South and Greater Appalachia are powerful political forces. (Indeed, the differences in the ideals of these "nations" and those of what I call Yankeedom, the Left Coast, and New France -- all major components of the Canadian federation -- are perhaps greater than those between any two E.U. member states.)

    1. I made sweeping shot at Europe while praising your complex analysis of North America and went too far. I feel you, however, are too hard on us.
      I can't see, in present circumstances, that we are too divided to match and better the European Union. We continue to say nasty things about each other. However, we do far more together poltitically than Europeans. Our governing elites, in our eleven nations, don't call themselves social democrats but through our federal governments we share over five times more of our wealth across our nations than do the Europeans.
      Europeans speak up more frequently for the unity of their young federation. However, your federal institutions still have full authority to finance the biggest government in the world,maintain the biggest military and wage war, protect individual liberties in any state, maintain free interstate commerce, sustain minimum social standards,and the most expensive, if not the best, public health system in the world.Your differences and ours haven't got in the way of an awful lot of collective action.
      I would envision a "grand bargain" between us much like what Democrats and Republicans will fashion on the structural deficit within the next year.
      Our eleven northern and southern nations ought to be able to run one federation using the federal liberal principles they both espouse and employ now.
      After accepting that everyone should have roughly the same power at the polling station and same rights before the law, they would should all be free to go back to quarreling in public and giving Euopean intellectuals a steady supply of scarry new material about our mental stability and future prospects.

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  3. I listened to your presentation Canada + The United States= a more perfect union via the internet and was really taken by it. Before then, i had already embarked on a journey of finding out more about North American integration: i'd picked up books like "The North American Idea", "Drifting Together", "Canada and the United States: Ambivalent Allies", "Making North America", "Brave New Canada", and "Merger of the Century" but yours was one of the first oral presentations i ever heard and it felt much more personal as you were addressing Americans. I'm sold on the idea of union for many reasons but i became very disheartened about my ability to affect change upon my realization this would have to start at a grassroots level, which would undoubtedly involve speaking with ordinary Canadians, which until coming to University was difficult (for me) to do. I am the descendant of slaves who have lived in Louisiana since being brought by the Confederate General Hampton 180 some odd years ago and my knowledge about Canada, its people, customs, ect was embarrassingly negligible. More recently i've taken up residence in Texas and attend the University of Texas at Austin and have two very good Canadian American friends, one of whom served in the US armed forces. I’ve started to probe their feelings on the subject and their replies give me hope, but two people is still a long way from building any sort of consensus. In any case, thanks for the inspiration and though i wish i lived a bit nearer, so i could have the conversation more directly with Canadians, i’m trying to come up with ways to do all i can from here. Cheers!