Frozen in Time: A Theory of National Stagnation
A Polish nurse, outside of Cleveland, told me that she does not involve herself with the Polish-American community in Ohio. “They do all this polka music that no one does in Warsaw. It’s very old fashioned,” she said.
This is not the first time someone commented to me about how America is full of ethnic communities that are more conservative, old-fashioned and antiquated than in their nation of origin. Cubans in Miami dream of pre-1959 Cuba while Indian-American parents raise their children in the India of the 1970s. Tony Soprano shouts at his daughter, “It’s the 1990s out there, but it is 1954 in here.”
But it isn’t just exiles singing “Guantanamera” on Calle Ocho lost in the world of today. Walt Disney modeled Main Street USA in Disneyland on his Missouri hometown of Marceline…. forever frozen in the year 1905. Stefan Zweig mourned the destruction of Hapsburg-era Vienna after fleeing from Europe during World War II, most pointedly in his memoir The World of Yesterday. An American would not have written a memoir. Rather, they’d have Vienna rebuilt as a theme park of the mythic past.
Walt Disney was on to something though. Perhaps Disney’s world is indeed our world. But I’d argue that the United States is frozen not in 1905, but in the patterns and habits of 1600s England.
Why We Can’t Get Along…. or Evolve
Glance at a map of the 1860 presidential election and a map of the 2004 election. How can so much have changed in 150 years (trains, plains, automobiles, Internet, highways), but still have the same two archaic parties? The Republicans morphed into the party of the South and Mountain West, while the Democrats replaced them as the party of New England, the Great Lakes States, and the West Coast.
Mapping elections onto a map of tribal cultural boundaries (and not artificial state borders) excavates the political nostalgia to its roots. Roughly, the Puritan culture of New England, which spread west to the northern cities of the Great Lakes to the northern parts of the West Coast, allied with the Quaker culture of Pennsylvania, which spread west through the central portions of the Great Lakes states. The Puritan and Quaker regions approximated the Republicans and now vote Democratic. The Cavalier culture of Virginia spread across the deep South and typically allied itself with the Borderlands culture of Appalachia and the upper South. Once Democratic, it has been electing Republicans federally for years.
The continuation of the Civil War via the two-party system has led to paralysis of any sort of initiative at the federal level. I argue that it has led to a paralysis at the social level in our diverse American regional cultures; encased in amber in the 1600s as seeds from Albion. In the absence of a positive national agenda, we mostly vote against the regions we dislike and babble about freedom, a word that has completely different meanings for each community (1). We have federal elections talking about who we are when in reality we aren’t really one thing.
What Would Evolution Look Like?
If American cultural regions had been split up into different nations or under a loose confederation like Canada or Switzerland, the cultures and politics could have evolved, alongside the growth of our technology and businesses.
Canadians understand that they are quite different from each other and unite only for national goals of defense, foreign policy, and immigration (2). Canadian Medicare is run separately by each province with some federal rules. Correspondingly, their knowledge of their provincial government’s activities is far greater than American knowledge of state government.
Regions have changed dramatically politically and socially, even in our own lifetimes.
Quebec for decades was in a conservative Catholic Dark Age until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. Liberal Party rule switched to the independence minded Parti Québécois which dramatically lost power in the 2010s. Alberta, a weird kind of cross between Texas and Colorado, has had five fascinating shifts in party control, with the most recent in 2015.
The United States north of the Ohio River could have become a more normal Western nation, combining lumberjack radicalism of the Northwest with the intellectual brainpower of New England with the industrial might of the Great Lakes States. While it would be a greedier or more individualistic Canada, it would be politically liberated. If the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party and the North Dakota Non-Partisan League had allied with New York and Milwaukee Socialists, they could have formed an alternative to the Democrats and the Republicans. Without having to make electoral pacts with Southern slavery and Jim Crow like FDR did, we would probably have universal health care, maternity leave, and guaranteed paid vacation. The Quaker-Puritan regions could have dropped the navel gazing and dour provincialism as a nation or sub-nation. And you couldn’t blame the filibuster and Dixie for a lack of progress.
Southern politics wouldn’t get to blame those faraway New York and Hollywood elites for all their problems. Instead, the eyes would be trained on our modernized planter class, a class as vicious and anti-democratic as it was in the antebellum era. Untethered from northern industry, the agricultural elites would have to decide on how to develop without the Yankees footing the defense budget. Perhaps the South could have modernized via caudillo style politics like Huey Long and Big Jim Folsom. The Populist Party might have won an election separate from the Democrats… or gone into an insurgency. Populist or popular-left nationalists like Chavez, Aristide, Lula da Silva, and Michael Manley all seem possible in a post-slavery Southern society. Instead we have the patently ridiculous picture of Ted Cruz looking for votes in the Bronx in a Republican primary.
Instead, we live like a gerrymandered African nation that forgot about the gerrymandering or our tribe of birth. Amnestic to ancestry, we can only hark back to World War II to find a time when all of the states did something together. Like Benjamin Button, history moves forward but we go backwards in time.
Featured image: “Thames Frost Fair, 1683–84.” Thomas Wyke
This is a philosophical point repeatedly made by the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, that terms like freedom and justice are used interchangeably while having totally different meanings depending on context, ideology, region, etc.
See Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989)
This piece was originally published on March 11th.