The key to American politics is not ideology or class but ethnicity and culture. It all boils down to north v southby Michael Lind / January 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
In the aftermath of the US election, the pattern of Democratic blue and Republican red on the electoral map is baffling, unless you know how to read it. Ideology does not help much. “Left” and “right” are irrelevant terms from 19th and 20th-century Europe. Geographic dichotomies-big states versus small states, interior versus coasts-merely supply questions, not answers.
The clue to the US electoral map lies in ethnography. As the historian David Hackett Fischer and the commentator Kevin Phillips (among others) have demonstrated, ideology and region are surrogates for race and ethnicity in the US. American politics is, and always has been, a struggle for power between two coalitions of tribes. Two coalitions, instead of three or four, because the US inherited the “plurality” or first-past-the-post voting system from early modern Britain. Plurality systems ensure that third-party votes are wasted and so give countries relatively stable two-party democracy.
In most periods from 1789 to the present, the US has had two dominant national parties competing to control government: Federalists vs Republicans (1790s-1810s), National Republicans vs Democratic Republicans (1810s-1830s), Whigs vs Democrats (1830s-1850s), Republicans vs Democrats (1850s-present). Despite the changing names, the underlying coalitions have been remarkably stable. In effect, there have been only two main parties in American history: the northern party and the southern party.
The core of the northern party (originally Federalists, Whigs and Republicans, and now Democrats) has been citizens of New England and the “greater New England” region settled by the descendants of colonial-era New Englanders, an enormous area which includes the great lakes, the upper prairie and the Pacific north-west. The culture of these “Yankees” originated in 17th-century English Puritanism. Its legacy remains in a distinct New England Yankee culture which values moral rectitude and social reform.
The historic rivals to the greater New England Yankees in US politics have been the coastal southerners of Virginia, South Carolina, and the Gulf coast region, which they settled from the Florida panhandle to east Texas. Royalist refugees from Cromwell’s Puritan dictatorship-the so-called “Cavaliers”-created a hierarchical, traditional, aristocratic society based on a plantation economy. They have always dominated the southern party (originally Jeffersonian Republicans, then Jacksonian and Rooseveltian Democrats, and now Republicans).
On opposite sides in the English civil war, and then in the US civil war, the Yankees and Cavaliers have always been on opposite sides in US politics. For generations, the moralism of Protestants in New…