Many people seem surprised that Hillary Clinton won a plurality of votes in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, after Barack Obama's triumph in Iowa. I'm not sure why. Clinton's win was something of a foregone conclusion: she was the home-team candidate. I say this not in a literal geographical sense but rather looking through the filter of American regional culture, as set forth in the book Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer. Viewing the Democratic presidential nomination as a contest among several different ways of being American, three things become apparent: First, that events are unfolding exactly the way one would expect them to; second, that the candidate with the best shot at winning big in the general election is, in all likelihood, John Edwards; and third, that because of the makeup of the Democratic Party, he probably will not receive the nomination.
It's been about a year since Albion's Seed began to draw attention in the blogosphere, beginning with
Jane Smiley's review in the Huffington Post. DKos diarist Paul Rosenberg has written several posts on Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer (see here, here and here). The book bowled me over as much as it did them.
In a nutshell, Albion's Seed traces the roots of American regional culture to four waves of migration from the British Isles: the Puritan migration from East Anglia to New England, the Cavalier migration from southwest England to Virginia, the Quaker migration from Mercia and Wales to the Delaware Valley, and the Borderer ("Scotch-Irish") migration from Northumberland to the highland South. These led to, respectively, a communitarian tradition, which valued literacy and wisdom; a hierarchical tradition, which valued wealth and status; an egalitarian tradition, which valued tolerance and brotherhood; and a libertarian tradition, which valued strength and loyalty.
All four traditions valued liberty, but they defined it differently. To the Puritans, it meant the freedom of a community to set and live according to shared values. To the Cavaliers, the freedom not to be dominated by others, while dominating whomever else you might. To the Quakers, freedom of conscience. To the Borderers, freedom from all outside interference. In today's America, these four strands have evolved into two that can be characterized as liberal (Puritan, Quaker), two conservative (Cavalier, Borderer); also, two elitist (Puritan, Cavalier) and two populist (Quaker, Borderer).
Smiley summarizes the four groups' characteristics in more detail and with cheerful, shameless bias:
- Puritans from East Anglia to New England, 1629-1641. Characteristics in both England and America: Calvinist, family-oriented (the ratio of men to women was 3-2, rather than 4-1, as in Virginia), highly motivated, closely related to one another, intently focused on moral principles and precepts, urban, and generally middle-class and highly literate. Women were not equal, but they were relatively independent agents who entered into the marriage contract, could be divorced, could inherit, and often were powers in the community. Children were considered the responsibility of both parents, and they were required to conform. Fathers were expected to be strict but affectionate. Local government, as we all know, relied heavily on the input of all members of the town, and on the town meeting. Political and religious life was hierarchical, but the hierarchy was short and continuing power for any individual depended continuing exercise of good behavior and responsibility (not so elsewhere, as we shall see). New Englanders had a well-thought-out and organized idea of liberty--groups should free to establish their own rules; certain individuals might be granted "liberties" to do otherwise proscribed things; the individual was free to follow his or her religious obligations (at the time Calvinist); and the individual should be free from want (which meant that members of the community were obliged to help their unfortunate neighbors). Above all, New Englanders were expected to cultivate and act upon their consciences and to work.
- Cavaliers and Indentured Servants from the south of England to Virginia, 1642-1675. Characteristics in both England and America: Anglican, status- and wealth-based, highly hierachical, focused on familial inheritance rather than community, rural, with an emphasis on large estates. Women were legally possessions rather than agents and often referred to as "breeders", but were prized for beauty and fiery independence. Children were absolutely subject to fathers, but frequently indulged, expected to retain their independence of spirit (sounds like contradictory parenting to me, but way American). Pleasure was encouraged rather than disapproved of, and Virginians had lots of pleasures, many of them blood sports. Government was seen as essentially and properly hierarchical, punishments of offenders were violent, and office- and power-holding were class and family based. Virginian ideas of liberty were hierarchical, also--two categories existed, "freedom" and "slavery". Freedom was when you did what you wanted and caused others to do what you wanted them to, and slavery was when you had to do what someone else wanted. Liberty was specifically reserved for "free-born Englishmen" and their descendants in Virginia (makes you mad, doesn't it?)
- Quakers from the North Midlands to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, 1675-1725. Characteristics in both England and America: Quakers and Quaker sympathizers were both anti- hierarchical and anti-doctrinal. They believed in a God of love, not punishment, and did away with rituals, sacraments, and professional ministers. Communities of Quakers were ethnically diverse and had strong ties to communities with similar beliefs in Europe; they were welcoming to the large number of German immigrants who came after them, but not welcoming to the next set of English immigrants, the North Borderers (see below). Quakers tended to be working-class, and many of their journeys to America were subsidized by Quaker groups back home. They came from a section of England that was not yet urbanized--still sparsely settled and often frightening to outsiders, home to a culture that in the 17th century still owed a lot to the Norse conquest of the end of the first millennium. People tended to be independent, egalitarian, rural, plain-spoken, and receptive to unorthodox religious ideas. In America, Quaker families were love-oriented rather than rule- or status-oriented, and more child-nurturing than other English cultures; husbands and wives were more or less equal, based on the idea that "in souls there is no sex" (p. 490). One notable aspect of government was that Pennsylvanians slashed the number of death-penalty offenses from 200, as in England, to 2--treason and intentional murder. In prisons, they focused on rehab rather than punishments. Such liberals! You've got a friend in Pensylvania, indeed. And the Quaker idea of liberty of conscience was based, not on rules, but on thought and choice, recognizing that different people could make different choices, and that those choices could still be conscientious. Certainly, this idea grew out of the Quakers' understanding of the facts of life--other religions and ideas were everywhere around them, and, as they had never been dominant, it was likely, if not certain, that they never would be.
- Scots-Irish "New Light" Protestants from the Border Counties and Ulster to the Appalachian Backcountry, 1717-1775. Characteristics in both Britain and America: Mean as a snake and twice as quick...oh, excuse me. I am losing my judicious tone. Let me begin again. Scots-Irish immigrants from the northern parts of Britain and from Ulster were generally fleeing what was an increasingly archaic, warrior-based society. Most were tenant farmers or the tenants of tenants. As Irishmen and Scots, they had built up years of economic resentment and Celtic pride with regard to their English neighbors and landlords. The social arrangements of the Borders grew out of the constant warfare (1040-1745) between Scotland and England over who owned the borderlands (remember that the Act of Union that made Scotland part of England was only enacted in 1707). Men on both sides of the border were expected to be alert and aggressive, ready to fight at a moment's notice. When the kings of England and Scotland weren't fighting, local warlords were. Tenancy was based on the ability to fight, and the economy was primitive compared to other parts of England. Keywords: poverty and violence. The legal system relied on vengeance and the economic system relied on protection money. Through the 17th century, the Borders were "pacified", which as we all know is actually a process of singling out the most independent warlords and putting them to death as an example to the others (gallows were placed on hilltops, so that the hanging bodies could be see from far and wide). Absentee English landlords also got rid of tenants by means of exorbitant rent increases (rack-renting), land enclosure, construction of new roads, and imposition of new laws. Throughout the 18th century, the Borderers came to America, more or less, as refugees from forced modernization (where have we seen that before?) Their religious beliefs were diverse on the surface, but shared an underlying intensity and tribal character--they were believers, simultaneously, in grace and sectarian conflict. As Fischer writes, "The North Britons brought with them the ancient border habit of belligerence toward other ethnic groups." [p. 632] The Quakers would not allow them to settle nearby, and they moved west in Pennsylvania, then south through the Appalachians. Clannish, suspicious, well-armed, and believers in "bride abduction" (!) as a good method of courtship. In marriage, men dominant, women absolutely subservient, and wife beating considered normal. Rage a typical (if not desired) feature of child-raising; beatings common. Religion--"emotional, evangelical, and personal", deeply informed by superstition as a method of folk wisdom for avoiding ever-present injury and death. You can see what I'm getting at.
At this point I'd like to switch my focus to the three Democratic front-runners in this year's presidential race: Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama.
Hillary Clinton was born in Chicago, a northern city with a mixed Puritan/Quaker influence (to head off protests about the immigrant influence on northern cities, let me quote Fischer: "The growth of ethnic pluralism did not diminish regional identities. On balance, it actually enhanced them. This was so because the new immigrants did not distribute themselves randomly through the United States. They tended to flock together in specific regions. Ethnic pluralism itself thus became a regional variable. Further, the new immigrants did not assimilate American culture in general. They tended to adopt the folkways of the regions in which they settled. This was specially the case among immigrant elites" ) and grew up in suburban Park Ridge, Ill. Her father was a staunch Republican and a descendant of Welsh miners in Pennsylvania -- members of the Quaker culture. However, much of her rhetoric is communitarian in style (remember her fondness for quoting Marian Wright Edelman, "It takes a village to raise a child"?), and her hawkish record in Congress runs counter to Quaker pacifism. Her stump speeches and debate performances often take on a lecturish tone, similar in style to New England Congregationalism. I would therefore characterize her political style as being primarily Puritan, with weak elements of Quaker.
John Edwards was born in a far western corner of South Carolina; during his youth, his family moved to North Carolina, in a highland part of the state. His background is pure Borderer. He belongs to the United Methodist Church (so does Clinton, supposedly, but you'd hardly know it). His fiery speeches occasionally take on the air of a tent revival. His willingness to advocate for the working poor, when other candidates talk only of the plight of the middle class, and his eagerness to challenge corporations and other established interests come to mind when one reads Fischer's description of the Borderer disregard for differences in social status: "Extreme inequalities of material condition were joined to an intense concern for equality of esteem. Visitors of exalted rank complained that they were not treated with the same respect as in other parts of British America. ... These complaints rose from fundamental differences in social manners and expectations. In the backcountry, rich and poor men dealt with one another more or less as social equals." (754)
Barack Obama is impossible to pigeonhole if one looks solely at his background -- the mixed-race son of a Kenyan and a Kansan, born in Hawai'i and schooled for part of his youth in Indonesia before attending Harvard University and subsequently becoming a community organizer on the African-American South Side of Chicago. But only a sample of his rhetoric is needed to place him squarely in the Quaker tradition. Only he and Dennis Kucinich opposed the Iraq War from the start. His campaign rhetoric suggests the sharing of a personal spiritual experience. Of all the candidates, his is the most forceful voice for tolerance and brotherhood. Both in his person and in his platform, he represents pluralism -- a Quaker virtue, shunned by the other traditions.
So it really is no surprise that Iowa, an overwhelmingly Midland (Quaker) state with a sizable Borderer presence in its southwest corner and substantial Northern (Puritan) presence only in Dubuque and Sioux City, favored Barack Obama. John Edwards performed strongest in those southwestern counties, winning a couple of them outright, while Hillary Clinton cleaned up around Sioux City.
And it also is no surprise that Hillary Clinton finished first in New Hampshire, and that John Edwards performed poorly there. New Hampshire is purely Puritan territory, and Clinton is the candidate with the most Puritan cred. Edwards' southern accent was almost certainly a drastic liability; there was no way his Borderer rhetoric would take root in New England soil. Regional antipathies are hard to overcome.
And it's for this very reason that I believe Hillary Clinton, and to a lesser extent Barack Obama, will have an impossible time cracking the regional voting blocs that have formed over the last 40 years.
But first, some historical perspective. At the time Albion's Seed went to press, 18 U.S. presidents "were descended in whole or in part from North British borderers" (834), more than from any other tradition. Since then, we've also had Borderer Bill Clinton and Borderer-wannabe George W. Bush. Fischer also notes that while candidates' personal backgrounds have become less pure in their derivation from one cultural strain or another, regional voting patterns have, if anything, intensified. And this intensification has had a dramatic effect on candidates' electability.
These new regional patterns in American politics tended to break down from time to time, just as earlier alignments had done. They came apart when one party nominated a candidate from the regional base of the other. The Democrats, for example, had their strongest successes in this period when they ran Texan Lyndon Johnson (1964) and Georgian Jimmy Carter (1976). ...
These regional patterns were also evident in the presidential campaign of 1988. Among Democratic contenders, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis combined his Greek and Yankee heritage in a manner reminiscent of the Irish Yankee John Kennedy; Dukakis's managerial style was in the tradition of New England ideas of ordered liberty. Jesse Jackson also combined an ethnic and a regional identity -- a black minister and politician, who had been born in upcountry South Carolina, and christened with an older border name -- his style was descended from three centuries of field preaching in the region of his birth. Richard Gephardt was a backcountry politician who ran heavily on a single issue, which was to apply the old border rule of lex talionis to a foreign affairs; his message was well received in his own region, but found little support outside it. Among Republicans, Robert Dole of Kansas was also a midland candidate who did well in his region and badly everywhere else; Pat Robertson came from the "backcountry ascendancy" and had a very strong regional identity. The candidates who did worst in both parties (Hart, Babbitt, Schroeder, Kemp, Haig, Dupont) had no firm base in any cultural region. The one who did the best, Republican George [H.W.] Bush, had a base in more regions than one -- with his old New England origins, his long residence in Texas, and an accent that combined both a Yankee twang and a southern drawl -- an extraordinary feat of political linguistics. (884-87)
Edwards is the Borderer candidate. With him, the Democratic Party can hope to pick up not only its safe states but also states in the Southwest, Midwest and Mississippi Valley. Averages of December 2007 head-to-head polls at Real Clear Politics show Edwards beating John McCain by 3.7 percentage points (Obama ties, Clinton loses by 5), beating Mike Huckabee by 14.3 percentage points (Obama wins by 10.4, Clinton by 4.8) and beating Mitt Romney by 16.5 percentage points (Obama wins by 12.2, Clinton by 4.8). Of course, as we all know, it's not the popular vote that matters in the general election, but the electoral college, in which the Republicans have a structural advantage in that lots of small states break for them. Or rather, they have had this structural advantage. Edwards' background gives him a good shot at tearing some of these states away.
Unfortunately, Edwards' advantage in the general election is his disadvantage in the primaries. So far, he has gotten a large amount of his support from independent voters casting ballots in open primaries. But today's Democratic Party is essentially a Quaker-Puritan coalition. Certainly there must be Borderers who not only vote Democratic but are registered Democrats, but the Democratic Party is not their natural home the way it is to Quakers and Puritans, so their voice in the party will not be strong.
Which is why I'm starting to think that, ultimately, Barack Obama will win the Democratic Primary. As Fischer said, "The candidates who did worst in both parties (Hart, Babbitt, Schroeder, Kemp, Haig, Dupont) had no firm base in any cultural region." Obama's base is the Midland region, the old Quaker culture, which stretches from coast to coast right through the American heartland. In contrast, Hillary Clinton is essentially a Puritan by default. Her base, if she can be said to have a base, is in New York City, and New York City is a cultural region all its own, rooted in Dutch culture, unaffiliated with the four English traditions that grew to dominate America. (Which is why Rudy Giuliani, for all the hype, has utterly washed out as a candidate for the Republican nomination. Only one native New Yorker, Martin Van Buren, has ever been elected to the presidency. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelts' background, as Fischer notes, was primarily Puritan Yankee.)
We can expect Obama to dominate Democratic primaries across the heartland, Clinton to dominate in New England, and Clinton and Obama to wage inconclusive battles across the South and Southwest (except in states with open primaries, in which Edwards will surge). But as for the general election ... Borderer culture and Quaker culture share a longstanding mutual hostility. Quaker peacemaking, brotherhood and tolerance clash with Borderer violence, clannishness and sensitivity to insult. As long as terrorism and the war are issues, they will be wedge issues between these two groups. And, not to put too fine a point on it, Borderer culture also has a nasty xenophobic streak, which Obama's face and name could easily antagonize. The voters that Edwards might well pull into the Democratic column, Obama might well drive out of it. On the other hand, Borderer culture remains the most overtly and devoutly religious of the four, so Obama's God talk might entice a few family-values voters back to the Democratic Party -- unless he's running against Huckabee.
As for Clinton, should she win the Democratic nomination, she can also be expected to struggle to pick up Borderer votes, despite her hawkishness on terrorism and Iraq. It's not likely to be enough to overcome the historically extreme male dominance of Borderer culture. Hostility toward Hillary Clinton has always radiated most intensely from this conservative, evangelical segment of America. She'll be especially vulnerable against Huckabee, the personification of Borderer religious values, and McCain, the "maverick" war hero.
The fact that Obama seems to have the best chance to capture the Democratic nomination in no way means that Edwards or his supporters should concede the nomination. If anything, it means they should focus their efforts intensely on bringing Borderer voters into the Democratic tent, while aggressively pitching the Edwards victory scenario to pragmatic Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. The past two elections have shown the importance of not just winning (which Barack Obama can do) but winning big, both in the popular vote and in the electoral vote (which I believe only Edwards can do). Can Barack Obama win enough votes from swing states to put him in the White House? Perhaps. But I believe it's a certainty that John Edwards can.