America is eiight regional cultures. At least that’s what historian Colin Woodard says in his extremely relevant book American Nations: A History of Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America. Each culture was created by a region’s original settlers or those that came immediately after. All those that followed for centuries were assimilated.
Yankeedom, New Amsterdam, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, The Deep South, Del Norte, The Far West and The Left Coast; all different places with different cultures and defining values, economic interests and voting patterns.
If you’ve lived in more than one, it’s hard to argue with the notion that these places are very different from each other. Woodard’s basic hypothesis, that these regions today are a modern version of the culture their founders settled on, shaped by the interests of those that tread the land for the first time, is hard to ignore. It’s even more compelling when you see what Donald Trump tapped into in 2016 by coupling Greater Appalachia and The Deep South with racial identity politics, while winning narrowly in the Midlands through a sharp message to blue collar America.
For centuries, these eight distinct cultures have been bound together into one nation. They’ve maintained the three things that political scientist Francis Fukuyama says all liberal democracies must have: A strong central government, democratic accountability and the rule of law.
The nuance of the last requirement is important. It’s misunderstood regularly and with great consequence. The rule of law is not the enforcement of laws or an inflated sense of justice. It’s a common set of beliefs that exist and have existed in the nature of those governed since before the body that governs them was charged with governing. The rule of law is those first principles for which the purpose of government is to defend, not create. Man believed in law long before the notion of legislating or creating his own came to him.
For centuries, it was religion that provided it. In medieval Europe, it was the Canonical law of the Catholic Church. In the early Caliphates of the Middle East it was Sharia Law. But in America, we had something else.
The Constitution. It is our religion. And its signers are our saints.
We fractured violently once; pulled apart by the cultures that relied on slavery. But our religion prevailed. If the Declaration of Independence was our Immaculate Conception than the Civil War was our Crucifixion.
The Resurrection was delivered on the battlefield of Gettysburg by the last of our prophets.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
That our government is for us, by us and ceases to be relevant outside that charter is the idea that has bound these seven tribes together into one state. When I was sworn in to serve my country as a young Naval Officer I raised my hand and swore an oath, not to protect my country, or my hometown or my family. I swore it to a document. “That I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.”
It is the common scripture of our people.
Like most religions, there’s a grand struggle over what matters most. Its words and its history and tradition? Or the people who are drawn to the promise they represent. And like most religions, some will do their best to invoke it to maintain the power structure that suits them.
We are constant in our flaws.
Those left behind by our history, unprotected by our rule of law of equality and the pursuit of happiness, have stronger voices today than they once did though. And they are less willing to blindly subscribe to the narrative of our faith that tells them they ought to be grateful for the 240 years that they’ve experienced. It’s been two full generations since the Civil Rights movement ended the subjugation of African Americans. It’s been two full generations since Title IV allowed women equal access to education. Since then, the median wage for women has increased 30%. It’s increased 10% for African Americans.
This growth has come at a time when the overall pie was not growing though. America has been a zero-sum game for 50 years. As some have grown, others have lost. The prime working age man earns 28% less today than he did in 1970.
Scarcity breeds friction.
Our fights today involve statues of our past and the honoring —or lack of—our national anthems and symbology. We see the resurgence of those who have lost power, literal value and standing in our society in the ugly organization and public presence of white supremacists. A refusal to backslide into the America of old and accept less than equal protection under the law or equal treatment in the workplace by those who have gained ground is met with a snap back against those not protected by our laws; immigrants, legal or otherwise. The predictable promise of a strong man to usher in the old ways, is perhaps, sounding the tipping point, one way or another.
When you reconstruct it, it’s near mathematical.
How we reconcile our past, accept our present and plan for a future together is the great question of our time. It’s the great question of any time though.
When the pie is fixed, more for some is less for others. And that means friction. Perhaps a better question to ask than whose lives matters or what statues stay and leave, is this:
How do we unfix the pie?
All thoughtful answers are welcome.