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North America was settled by people with distinct religious, political, and ethnographic characteristics, creating regional cultures that have been at odds with one another ever since. Subsequent immigrants didn't confront or assimilate into an "American" or "Canadian" culture, but rather into one of the 11 distinct regional ones that spread over the continent, each staking out mutually exclusive territory.
In American Nations, Colin Woodard leads us on a journey through the history of our fractured continent and the rivalries and alliances between its component nations, which conform to neither state nor international boundaries. He illustrates and explains why "American" values vary sharply from one region to another.
Woodard reveals how intranational differences have played a pivotal role at every point in the continent's history, from the American Revolution and the Civil War to the tumultuous sixties and the "blue county/red county" maps of recent presidential elections. American Nations is a revolutionary and revelatory take on America's myriad identities and how the conflicts between them have shaped our past and are molding our future.
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By Theo Horesh on 02-28-13
One of a Kind Masterpiece
The thesis of American Nations is that America can best be understood as a series of eleven regional cultures. American history can thus be best understood as the outcomes of interactions amongst these several cultures. There is, of course, nothing new in viewing American culture as a series of encounters between North and South. And political analysts regularly take note of regional differences in voting patterns.
But Woodard goes deeper, exploring the history that shaped not just North and South and West. Woodard includes the French culture of Louisiana and Quebec and the culture of El Norte, which spans not just large swathes of the Southwest United States but also much of northern Mexico. He also divides the South into the Deep South, the Tidewater of Virginia, and Appalachia. He notes differences between Yankee New Englanders and the diverse Dutch culture of New York (this is only confusing because of the name of a baseball team). He differentiates the Left Coast from the more libertarian western rockies region. The nuances strengthen the thesis, because they make regional explanations work better.
Woodard delves deeply into the original groups of settlers that laid down the patterns of these regional cultures. He then demonstrates how these cultures attracted other like-minded cultures. For instance, the non-violent Quakers of Pennsylvania attracted German farmers, who then pushed into the Midwest. This shared culture, in turn, attracted the highly cooperative Scandinavians. Over time, they moderated between the Yankees of New England and the Deep South.
Woodard traces the patterns of migrations that took say the Scotch-Irish from upstate New York south along the Appalachians. He traces patterns of voting behavior, patterns of regional alignment, and the sources of power in American politics. All of this holds extraordinary explanatory value. And it makes for a very interesting and entertaining listen.
However, it is not altogether clear what Woodard thinks holds these cultures together over time. To believe his thesis, we would need to negate environmental, economic, and political explanations of behavior. Somehow, we would have to account for how in moving from agricultural to industrial to post-industrial society, these cultural difference have somehow held. Altogether, these concerns suggest the thesis is overstated, that understanding these regional sub-cultures is merely one important strand in understanding what makes America work.
But as we become an increasingly diverse culture, it is heartening to look back upon our shared history not as some ever shifting monolith, but rather as a series of conflicts and compromises amongst quite different sub-cultures. For recognizing how our institutions have already accommodated so much difference, of not just immigrants but of the most deeply American patriots, suggests that we have more resources for integrating diversity than we might believe.
The book made me look at our nation differently. It laid down a paradigm through which I viewed the next couple of dozen American history books I read after it. It is hard to ask more of a history book. Certainly it holds more explanatory power than much longer books like Paul Johnson's "History of the American People." If you choose to read American Nations and you like it, check out, "Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement," by David Hackett Fischer. It is at one and the same time more specific and more academic and also a great listen. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
101 of 104 people found this review helpful
By Pam on 05-05-14
Must-Listen Before the 2016 Election
I started reading this book because I wanted to understand why my home state of Ohio is so important in American elections. As it turns out, Ohio mixes three distinct "nations": Midland, Appalachia, and Yankee, which accounts for the wildly diverging politics of different parts of the state. In that sense, Ohio really is a microcosm of a large swath of the United States.
Thanks to this book, I have a much better grasp of the foundations of the Republican and Democratic parties. Certain contradictions in behavior now make much more sense.
The latter portion of the book serves as an excellent primer for the political forces that will shape the 2016 presidential election. It also suggests why American politics is currently stagnating.
For that reason, I would call it a good companion book to "Maxwell's Demon and the Golden Apple" by Randall L. Schweller, which discusses the importance of chaos in energizing a political system (but is not yet available in audio).
29 of 32 people found this review helpful
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By Tobias Engberg on 04-27-16
This book is just fantastic....hard to express just how good it is...insightful, balanced, comprehensive and extremely informative. I have learned SO much about Northern America through this book.