Bobbi gave me the book American Nations by Colin Woodard for Christmas. It's helped me fill in some of the huge gaps in my understanding of American history, and has given me some new insight into the current political landscape by telling an illuminating story of how things got to be the way they are.
Woodard's premise is that we are not and never have been one nation. We've instead been at least eleven different ones, each with its own values, cultures, and tendencies. Each of those nations, he argues, is based on the philosophy of the people who originally settled those parts.
Culture is powerful, we know. A management book, somewhere in my past, had this remembered aphorism, explaining why change is so difficult in an organization: "When you put cucumbers in brine, the cucumbers get pickled more than the brine gets cucumbered."
From folk wisdom to science: we know from experiments in psychology that not only are peoples' expressed options manifestly changed by the stated views of the people around them, their perceptions are changed as well.
A first, foundational study in the area was conducted in 1951 by Solomon Asch at Swarthmore college. Participants in a group were asked to compare the length of a set of lines. In a typical group of eight, one was a test subject, the others were confederates of the experimenter. In some cases, the confederates gave wrong answers to test what a test subject would do in a social conflict situation.
The perception test was sufficiently unambiguous that the unbiased error rate was less than 1%. By comparing that baseline with the accuracy of subjects in groups where as many as seven people gave manifestly wrong answers, Asch was able to quantify their degree of conformance. In high conflict situations, only 25% of the subjects never conformed. 75% of the subjects conformed at least once, and on the average, the conformity rate was 33%.
After this part of the experiment the subjects were interviewed, told the real purpose of the study, and questioned about their feelings in the experimental setting. Among those who conformed Asch described three tendencies: "distortion in perception" in which subjects actually saw the lines the way they reported; "distortion of action" in which subjects maintained accurate perceptions, but behaved in a way that was inconsistent with what they perceived. The balance experienced what the experimenters described as "distortion of judgment." After a few conflicted trials, they concluded that they must be wrong and the majority must be right and sided with the majority.
Similar experiments have shown that the tendency is robust. In political terms it implies, for example, that if someone with liberal views moves to a region where the majority hold conservative views, that the liberal will become less liberal; similarly a conservative who moves to a liberal region will become more liberal. The reverse is also true and backed by research: people have their original views (or biases) deepened and confirmed when surrounded by people who share them.
The result, Woodard points out, explains why despite the mobility of our population, many regions of the country continue to bear the strong cultural stamp of the people who first settled there.
Because I know my own biases, and I am sure that I share the experimentally confirmed tendency of nearly all subjects to try and have their biases confirmed, I'm wary of anything that supports beliefs I already have. Woodard's book is a mixed bag. It clarifies some of my already formed ideas and gives me some new perspectives. But it does very little to contradict anything I already believe. Because of that spent a little time surfing for criticism. I've not found a great deal.
This review, by Steve Kettmann in the Daily Beast, likewise praises the book and offers this succinct summary.
The Daily Show has evolved toward more open-minded consideration of the issues of the day and less outright comedy because Stewart still thinks honest people of good faith can cut through the nonsense and figure out problems in a way any reasonable person can admit makes sense. Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America pulls off the unlikely feat of both offering the tools for just such a broader, deeper understanding—and demonstrates why, in a larger sense, that effort is doomed.
I think I was more hopeful about political reconciliation before I read the book than after. Woodard takes a strong position, which Barone contradicts, that the country is in decline. I'm not more optimistic than Woodard, but perhaps more hopeful.
In this post, the second of a two-part review titled Tossed Salad, not Melting Pot, in The Evangelical Outpost--not usual reading for me--the author, Nathaniel Bennett, interprets the book through a Christian lens, an interesting perspective. And he points out:
...the culture wars that we hear about in church involving abortion, gay marriage, gun control, religious liberty, and other social and political issues may well be part of a true culture war, but which culture? Consider the controversy surrounding Judge Roy Moore and the Ten Commandments monument that he put outside a courthouse in Alabama: according to the multiple nation idea put forth in American Nations, the controversy could be as much about the North (in the ACLU) saying, “You can’t just put up whatever you want outside of a courthouse!” and the South saying, “Stop messing with the South! Enough!” Some causes upheld in the name of Christianity might be nationalistic rather than Christian.
This review in the Wall Street Journal comes the closest to challenging it. It contradicts some of his scholarship and the reviewer, Michael Barone, states that these lapses make him wary of the analysis. Nonetheless, he does praise it.
If you're interested in understanding the fault-lines of this country's politics this book is a worthwhile read.
I'll probably post some more after I've had a chance to think some more. It's certainly thought-provoking material.