Asabiyyah in Steve King’s Iowa

If I reflect on my nearer extended family one curious aspect is that we seem to have a habit of moving a fair amount. My immediately family immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh. But we’ve relocated a few times since we moved to this country, going from one coast to another. But this pattern is older and deeper. My maternal grandfather was a physician who moved rather frequently during my mother’s youth, while both my parents settled in Dhaka, the capital, though they were from the region to the south and east of that city. I have relatives in England, while a second cousin married and had a family in Venezuela, before eventually settling down in Sweden. Other relatives near and more distant have had sojourns in the Middle East, Japan, Brunei, Malaysia, and Australia.

Of course, this isn’t entirely surprising, as around ~4 percent of the population of Bangladesh lives abroad. But even in this country, we keep moving. My mother laments sometimes that her children seem to settle in distant parts of the country from her, but she has to remind herself that she was across several oceans when her parents died.

So I take great anthropological interest in articles such as this in The New Yorker, Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On. In the piece, the author sketches out the peculiarities of a small town in western Iowa, Orange City, where people live around those whom they grew up with. Almost as if they develop the intimacies we associate with hunter-gatherer life.

Settled by Dutch immigrants more than 100 years ago, Orange City, Iowa, retains its peculiar ethnic character to this day. It is overwhelmingly white and dominated by Reformed Protestantism. But this isn’t the story of just one town. This piece is really outlining a microcosm of the sort of thing that happens on a larger scale in southwest Michigan, in towns like Holland. This area is also Dutch American in character, and somehow manages to retain economic vitality in an American landscape defined by the dynamism of a few large metropolitan conglomerations.

If you read Peter Turchin’s work you will note that what Dutch America has is asabiyyah. Social solidarity.

Part of this is likely the broad homogeneity of these regions. The sort of social capital eroded by the forces of diversity that Robert Putnam observed in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. But that can’t be the only part of the story. Much of Appalachia exhibits the same ethno-racial homogeneity of Dutch America, but it’s social statistics are not nearly as positive.

To understand what’s going on one needs to read books such as Albion’s Seed, American Nations or The Cousins’ Wars. These works outline that there are deep and lasting cultural differences among groups of white American Protestants who do not seem “ethnic” in any way moderns understand it. After the Civil War and up to the 1950s white Americans cultivated an ideology of cohesion which smoothed over differences which led to the fractures that broke out in the decades which culminated in the Age of Sectionalism. Central to this self-conception was the normative identity of white Protestants, whom both Jews and Catholics emulated explicitly and implicitly, respectively.

And yet differences persisted underneath the surface. From the piece:

The sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas spent several months in a small Iowa town and found that children who appeared likely to succeed were from an early age groomed for departure by their parents and teachers. Other kids, marked as stayers, were often ignored in school. Everyone realized that encouraging the ambitious kids to leave was killing the town, but the ambition of the children was valued more than the life of the community. The kids most likely to make it big weren’t just permitted to leave—they were pushed.

In Orange City, that kind of pushing was uncommon. People didn’t seem to care about careers as much as they did in other places….

The ACS reports that the largest ancestry components among Iowans were German (35.9%), Irish (13.7%), English (8.5%), American (6.2%), and Norwegian (5.2%). Genetically there is almost no difference between these Northern European groups (they all diverged over the last 4,500 years). But culturally there are differences. “American,” and to a lesser extent Irish and English, ancestry may correlate with migration from the South and the Border States. In contrast, English ancestry was at least in part derived from Yankee settlers from New England. These were very different cultures. Europeans from Scandinavia and Germany tended to align culturally more with the Yankees (with the major exception of alcohol, which set apart the newcomers from the old stock, who had an ambivalent relationship with drink).

In Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution the authors report that in Illinois farmers of British descent behaved differently than those of German descent even after 150 years. Germans tended to pass farms down through the family, forgoing profits in cases where they could sell. In contrast farming families of British ancestry tended to behave more like the rational actors predicted by the theory of the firm. They did not make as many sacrifices to keep farms in the family.

These differences among white Protestants are still clear in the General Social Survey. Limiting to self-identified white non-Hispanic Protestants surveyed after the year 2000, below you can see the highest degree attainments by ethnic identification:

Highest degree attainment of white Protestant Americans, year 2000 and after
  Less than HS HS Associates Bachelors Graduate
Britain 8 47 9 23 14
Nordic 7 46 9 25 13
Dutch 11 61 5 20 4
Irish 11 57 8 16 8
German 9 55 8 19 9
Scottish 4 54 9 23 10
American 23 63 6 4 5

The white Protestants who identify as “American” tend to be concentrated in the border states and in the South. They are not as educated as other white Americans. They are a plural majority in much of Appalachia and are also likely dominant among white populations in areas of the South where the black proportion is higher. These “Americans” are of broadly British and Irish origin, but their residence in this country has been long enough that they no longer identify with Europe in any way.

If you read some history or plumb the depths of social science the uniqueness of Orange City, Iowa, is entirely unsurprising. The “secret” of Orange City is the same secret that the German towns of Wisconsin and the Dutch towns of southwest Michigan exhibit, and that is a cultural folkway passed down through the generations which allows for cohesion and collective action in a world of increasing anomie. The culture of the back-country white settlers in Appalachia, in contrast, was defined from its inception by a certain form of libertarian anomie.

Curiously The New Yorker piece highlights a similarity in social structure between Appalachia and modern urban life: “In Philadelphia, she’d had her close friends, and everyone else was more or less a stranger; in Orange City, there was a large middle category as well. ” Though I am not denigrating communal collective action in Appalachia, it is also true that that region has been characterized by a form of familialism. Though Appalachian whites were enthusiastic Christians, their religion was often individualistic. Their elites hewed to an ordered Presbyterianism, but the masses were pietistic Methodists or Baptists. It was an atomized society.

Modern cosmopolitan urban life is also characterized by the chasm between the stranger and the close friend or kin. To make life tolerable one must rely on the impartiality and efficiency of institutions, which can reduce the transaction costs between strangers, and force trust externally.

What will happen if and when institutions collapse? I do not believe much of America has the social capital of Orange City, Iowa. We have become rational actors, utility optimizers. To some extent, bureaucratic corporate life demands us to behave in this manner. Individual attainment and achievement are lionized, while sacrifice in the public good is the lot of the exceptional saint.

But we will have to rediscover trust in something beyond the bureaucracy and the family, or the swell of barbarism will probably consume us.

25 thoughts on “Asabiyyah in Steve King’s Iowa

  1. Hbd chick could have written this post, although she would have included a reference to the hajnal line: Anglo-Saxons are on one side and the Dutch and Germans are on the other.

    As to institutional breakdown and a wave of barbarism, I don’t think that will happen. The intergroup violence will be suppressed by government violence, and we, like every other multiethnic, multicultural empire will become a brutal police state.

  2. a reference to the hajnal line

    Would that be the line that runs along the northern borders of Kentucky and West Virginia?

  3. Anglo-Saxons are on one side and the Dutch and Germans are on the other.

    sort of. the yankees, many of whom derive ancestry from east anglia, are more like the dutch and germans. the main outliers are the people with roots in the scottish-english borders.

    also it seems pretty clear that all the major ‘folkways’ absorbed people from other groups. for example before the 1840s wave of migration most catholic irish seem to have assimilated into local subcultures. similarly in much of the south german identity seems to have given way to the local anglo one, with the major exception of central texas, where they had critical mass.

  4. Growing up in NW MO, we all noticed the difference between the mostly German towns and the mixed towns. In the two towns I grew up in, twelve miles apart, the social structure can be observed on Facebook. One town, with more German and Dutch (and more Catholic) there is much more friendship across generations (Parents of friends I grew up with are friends with children of my generation – not their own, i.e. there seems to be a much more tight social structure). Even people who’ve left this one tend to return more often and more people from my generation have stayed, even if it meant very long commutes (it also meant better sports teams) One nearby German Catholic community is barely a cross roads, but tight social bonds and big families keep it tied together, even for those who’ve moved far away.

  5. Elam Bend:

    The Germans in the table of the OP are explicitly Protestant. You refer to German Catholic and where you refer only to German, you imply that they are predominantly Catholic. My understanding it that there are reasonably strong cultural differences between German/Austrian Catholics and German Protestants, at least in Europe. You appear to be blurring these. Can you elaborate?

  6. i will put a blog post on this. but i looked a bunch of things and if they don’t have to do with religion (e.g., belief in evolution) ppl who are protestant and ppl who are catholic, but german american, don’t seem much different.

    (i limited earlier sample to protestants for convenience as i wanted to filter out irish catholics in particular)

  7. Sioux County, Iowa (46% Dutch) is located just north of Plymouth County (7%). The two places have nearly identical median incomes: 57,227 vs 58,888. Union County, South Dakota is just to the west and is even richer, even though the apparently ultra-industrious Dutch are only 5% of the population. So I don’t think Dutchitude counts for much, if anything, when it comes to community prosperity. However, % of county Dutch is an extraordinarily good negative predictor of Donald Trump’s vote share in the 2016 primary. Trump won 32.8% of the vote in Plymouth County and a state low of 10.8% in Sioux. Unbelievably, Trump’s worst three counties are also the three most heavily Dutch places in Iowa.

  8. Thought provoking. Re: schooling measures, I’m not so sure how much of the American identified White Protestant groups across regions of the USA have separate ancestry (or even within South), rather than just lower / working class folk who label that way for another cultural reason. Some of both no doubt. Surname analysis would sort out such things (if it hasn’t already, and I’m unaware of it!).

    Also few sets of GSS cross analysis just for broader contextual inference (not contradiction):

    – Although “American Only” White Protestant are relatively most frequent in two of three GSS southern regions (esp. South Atlantic, e.g. West Virginia?), they are a thin sliver of each broad southern region. In the region with most frequent identification as “American Only” by White Protestants, South Atlantic, only 5% WP identify as “American Only” (less than identify as Swedish+Dutch+Norwegian combined)… See: Dwarfed by WP within that region who identify as Scottish+Irish+English (which must be approx 66%).

    Outside a few small subregions at most seems White Protestant Southerners=!White Protestant “Americans”; better proxied as White Protestant British.

    – Education by region and self identified ethnic background within White Protestants:

    To get a sense of how educationally close W P from different regions are to each other Normalize to highest WP mean education level region (New England) at 1 and lowest (E Sou Central) at 0 then:

    N England: 1, Pacific: 0.82, Mountain: 0.75, W South Central: 0.5, South Atlantic: 0.41, W North Central: 0.31, All regions: 0.31, Middle Atlantic: 0.22, E North Central: 0.1, E South Central: 0.00

    (With no filter for religions, so including mostly Catholics, atheists, agnostics:

    N England: 1, Pacific: 0.75, Mountain: 0.62, Middle Atlantic: 0.5, W South Central: 0.48, South Atlantic: 0.46, All regions: 0.46, W North Central 0.25, E North Central: 0.2, E South Central 0).

    – Class and education for each regions (same ethnic filters as above):

    (Disclaimer: USA is not my country though, so I may miss something obvious immediately inconsistent with the above GSS).

  9. Wendell Berry’s 1977 anti-barbarian polemic “The Unsettling of America” remains a perennial bestseller.

    That was written some years before the mid-aughts when, in desperation at events, he lunged at E.O. Wilson’s pocket protector.

  10. Sioux County, Iowa (46% Dutch) is located just north of Plymouth County (7%). The two places have nearly identical median incomes: 57,227 vs 58,888. Union County, South Dakota is just to the west and is even richer, even though the apparently ultra-industrious Dutch are only 5% of the population.

    Yup. One thing that is very helpful to the prosperity of that particular (NW) corner of Iowa is that it has exceptionally fertile soil. People who are industrious (enough), whether Germans (24% of Sioux County), Dutch, or the Yankees would do well there. The Scots-Irish, probably not quite as well.

    In the southern part of Iowa (where the soil is generally not nearly as good), Marion County is more than quarter Dutch in ancestry (has the highest Dutch ancestry in the region) and the median household income is below $55,000. Meanwhile the neighboring Warren County to the west (which is good pig country, to borrow a line from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”), only 5% or so of the populace identify as Dutch-descended and the median household income is $65,000.

    In a heavily rural and agricultural state like Iowa, he who controls the good farmland can act like the better man.

  11. @Halvorson —Sioux County was actually Clinton’s worst in Iowa, and Trump’s second best, with a whopping 82%.

  12. My new co-worker is from Holland, MI and she came to my town because Holland is “so white” and “awful” or something like that LOL. I almost want to move there because it sounds great! I also worked with a Dutch reformed guy from that area and he was a giant asshole but he actually is all about the Dutch and travels to the Netherlands every year. Kind of reminds me of the Greg Cochran “boiling off” theory – Holland stays great because the people that live there have good values. Grand Rapids is doing the same thing with conservatism right now.

  13. a reference to the hajnal line

    Would that be the line that runs along the northern borders of Kentucky and West Virginia?

    That latter is the Ohio River, which the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 made the boundary between slave areas and free areas.

  14. From what I see remarked, the shifting cultural line between Dixie-identified and Yankeeland (“good ol’ boy” vs. “good guy”) is the Sweet Tea Line. Comments of late indicate that unsweetened iced tea is pushing southward from increasingly Yankee-fied Raleigh/Durham, whilst the sweet stuff is creeping northward (long-term holding?) into southern West Virginia…I recently befriended a kid from rural east-Central Indiana, (an opioid overdose nexus) just east of Indianapolis, and he and family hunt coons and identify as “good ol’ boys.”
    I suppose the line falls southward and hits the border by the time you get to Brownsville or so.

  15. The predominant ancestry of Appalachia per Albion’s Seed is commonly known as “Scotch-Irish”, the Scotch part of that, in particular, is from the Scottish borderlands which was an area of weak government control and herding giving rise to a culture of honor. This population was the predominant source of the Protestants in Northern Ireland as they were brought by the English to serve as “enforcers” in Ireland, which is where the “Irish” part comes from. Migrants from both of these closely related populations migrated to Appalachia which was ecologically similar to the Scottish borderlands and also had a weak state as it was on a frontier.

    Since Appalachia was not the subject of any subsequent wave of migration sufficient to have a big cultural impact, Appalachia has also had the most stable dialect of English of any of the major sources of English dialects in the U.S. Descriptive linguists ever generation or so when the discoveries of the last generation are forgotten, rediscover that the dialect of Appalachia which is derived from the Scot-Irish migrants is the closest extant dialect (even compared to dialects in Great Britain which have subsequently evolved through contact with other populations and each other) to that of Shakespearean English.

    Part of the issue of the ethnic “American” designation is that it is self-selecting and intentionally anti-intellectual. In fact, most people who designate as “American” are predominantly Scot-Irish or English, frequently with trace African ancestry. But, better educated folks know and celebrate their ancestral ties to Great Britain or Ireland, while those who self-identify of “American” generally don’t know their ancestral heritage and actively aren’t interested in it. So, “American” represents almost a caste within a pool of people with ancestry from the British Isles who have a distinct cultural and ethnic identification for themselves. (Yankees, or Northerners more generally, almost never identify as “Americans”, despite being more numerous and hence more typical of who Americans actually are).

    This isn’t an entirely “nuts” reaction on the part of those self-designated as “American”, because Appalachia and the American South developed cultures with a distinct and uniquely American character forged in the late 18th and early 19th century in North America (and they have, in turn, to some extent also merged those two rivers of American cultural heritage into something new, a “country-western” culture sometime after Reconstruction in the late 19th and into the 20th centuries with a cultural capital in Nashville, TN).

    For example, the religious ideas that gave rise first to the Methodists and then in the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s to Evangelical Christianity, are home grown faiths that while they have some European antecedents never really caught on in Europe while they became predominant in wide swaths of the United States. Methodists were a “dumbed down” version of the Anglican church better adapted for frontier conditions, and the Baptist and other fundamentalist religious movements of the American South that replaced the Presbyterian religious leaning of the Scots-Irish and the Anglican or Methodist faiths of those in the South (which was the most secular part of the U.S. prior to the Second Great Awakening) was really a clean break and replacement with ideas in part from obscure minor European sects that never amounted to anything and in part home grown religious ideas.

    Why claim an identity with ancestors after you’ve experienced a cultural ethnogenesis that has pretty much replaced your brand new culture with their’s in an intentional rejection of the old culture in favor of the new?

  16. Talented individuals that emigrate from the Scotch-Irish culture to the economic and national cultural centers benefit themselves and the nation as a whole. We want unfettered meritocracy, right? Free movement of talented individuals to economic and cultural centers enhances their productivity and creativity, right? That is the way that society and the rest of us are most likely to benefit from their activities. So in this sense, Scotch-Irish are all about being “American.” What happens to the communities when the most talented emigrate? Fishtowns, right? This is especially true if those communities were individualistic and not very community minded to begin.

  17. “This is especially true if those communities were individualistic and not very community minded to begin.”

    I think “individualistic” is not a very apt description. Scotch-Irish was “clan” oriented, as opposed to either community oriented (as a lot of midwestern immigrants were) or individual oriented (as perhaps NYC and Mid-Atlantic migrants were).

  18. @ohwilleke: “(Yankees, or Northerners more generally, almost never identify as “Americans”, despite being more numerous and hence more typical of who Americans actually are).”

    In the GSS above, I found % White Protestant, and limiting to NW European categories and “American Only”, those identifying as “American Only” was 3.1% in New England, 3rd highest for 9 American regions in GSS, after South Atlantic (4.5%) and E. South Central (3.2%). Certainly more minimal in other regions.

    Still quite a bit relatively rarer in New England region in absolute terms though, as many fewer White Protestants as share of population. Considering all White Americans by region, no filters for religion or NW European backgrounds, only 1% “American Only” in New England vs 2.6% for South Atlantic and E. South Central.

    For percentages of NW European White Protestants only, between 2000-2017, GSS seems to have largest regions as South Atlantic (25%), East North Central (19.2%), and others roughly 7-10%, except New England (2.9%).

    Summing regions 1-4 (North) then 37.9% NW European White Protestants, regions 5-7 (South) 43.3% NW European White Protestants, 8-9 (West Mountain+Pacific) 18.7%. In contrast to White Protestants, total population is 1-4 (North) 43.6%, 5-7 (South) 34.4%, 8-9 (West) 21.9%. South should edge being a plurality (most common region) among NW European White Protestants, even if only representing a third of population as a whole.

    most people who designate as “American” are predominantly Scot-Irish or English, frequently with trace African ancestry

    Generally, in GSS “American Only” group about 38.5% White, 53.5% Black, 8% Other. Identify as “American Only” is 1.4% of White, 11.0% of Black, 1.7% of Other. If not using a race filter, assume “American Only” mostly represents Black Americans. (In GSS more common among White Protestants in the South than elsewhere, but still pretty infrequent and mostly means Black American). See –

  19. They were clan oriented, but there are no more clans. They used family and clans because they could not (would not) create community institutions. Now we don’t have clans or strong community organizations.

  20. @ben-canaan

    I should have specified that I was talking about the caucus. Trump won just 10.8% of the vote in Sioux.

  21. By the way, my wife’s family is what David Brooks calls “outstate Midwest” people, a mixture of the English, Germans, and Scandinavians who live away from major metropolitan areas. They, being a large and affluent clan, are spread from Washington (state) to Missouri, with most of them concentrated heavily in the Midwest.

    I met many members of her extended family during the post-nuptial sojourn among them (a family tradition), and it is amazing how they retain some folk ways based on heritage. For example, the more English parts of her family are usually Episcopalians or Congregationists in religion. The more German (Bavarian-descended) parts are mostly Roman Catholic. Meanwhile, her more Swedish kin are mostly Lutherans. I write “more” repeatedly here, because no one in her family is 100% English, German, or Swedish. They are all intermixed, but with different admixtures.

    Moreover, there are definite professional differences among them. The English ones (“main branch” whence my wife hails, from an officer in the Continental Army) tend to be elite, with lots of doctors, lawyers, and bankers. They are basically aristocrats in the region. The German ones tend to be prosperous farmers and landowners (though they did go through some periods of crisis a couple of decades or so ago). The Swedes are also farmers, but not as well-to-do (I’d say they are the nicest and the most obese among the bunch, by the way). The joke within the extended family – ribbed pretty gently – is that they are the dumb ones, but the best looking (well, if they weren’t obese).

    My wife also has some far less well-off kin in Missouri, who I gather are more Scots-Irish than others. I don’t know what they do for money, but they do love hunting and fishing more than any other in her family. I enjoyed staying with them the most as they were a hoot (though my wife was visibly uncomfortable around most of them).

    As far as I can tell, my wife has no Dutch in her, and no family members with Dutch ancestry. The talk among almost all her kin about the Dutch folks (Sioux County and also Pella in central Iowa) is that they are – their words – “inbred weirdos who keep to themselves and their stupid tulips,” and “think they are better than the rest” (Germans, English, etc.). I found this kind of petty intra-racial, but inter-ethnic slandering quite humorous, given how insular all of them were compared to people outside the region. (Similarly, when I lived in Western Pennsylvania, some people in the area told me quite seriously that West Virginians were hillbillies, unlike, of course, themselves.)

  22. @Matt, interesting work, but I think there are some limitations to that database in terms of the Scots-Irish. They are attested to have arrived just before the American Revolution and moved into the less populated Appalachian Mountain highlands. From there, many would cross into the Ohio River valley that traditionally divides the Midwest from the Upper South.

    The census regions use that mountain and that river as boundaries, when the Scots-Irish are known to have settled on either side. And the areas they settled tended to be more sparsely populated and not particularly good farmland. Basically those regional designations will completely dilute that group.

    If you look at the county-level map, “American” appears to be a choice concentrated around those same areas of Scots-Irish settlement, which is why people make that association:

  23. @PD Shaw, yeah, I think that’s legit to say, that these GSS regions split those borders and any group across those borders will become unconcentrated in this data. Though part of my point was that in GSS data, “American Only” labelling White Protestants are pretty marginal to White Protestants in the South as a whole, and even more marginal across the USA (and that kind of makes that point even more salient).

    I guess one other point I would make prompted by that Wikipedia entry is that it shows that the 2000 Census data shows that “in the Southern United States as a whole 11.2% reported “American” ancestry”, while in the GSS between 2000-2017 this averages about 4% for the three Southern regions for population as a whole, and around 2.5% excluding Black Americans.

    There might be something going on here with different prompts, where GSS asks “From what countries or part of the world did your ancestors come?”, in which case, obviously, you may answer quite differently to a question more like “What ethnic group do you identify with?” or “What are the cultural origins of your ancestors?” (e.g. Census “chose to self-identify”).

    This may slightly square the circle, but in any case though, this means probably we are edging into dodgy territory if we take measures like education for people who think describe their ancestors as only coming from America as representative for other people (perhaps 3x as many!) who identify as American only in terms of culture, but are quite clear that they fully understand their ancestors ultimately came from England, Ireland and Scotland…

    (Mixing Census questions numbers with GSS social indicators a problem here!)

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