Thursday, November 06, 2008

The four culture model of American history   posted by Razib @ 11/06/2008 05:04:00 PM

The McCain Belt:
So, why did McCain do best, relative to George W. Bush in 2004, in states like #1. Tennessee, #3. Arkansas, #5 Oklahoma, #7 West Virginia, #9 Kentucky, and #10 Alabama?

Here's a map by counties, with counties where McCain improved relative to GWB in 2004 the most shown in reddest red.

Before reading onward, can you figure out why this pattern exists?

Until recently I'll be honest and admit that I had very little interest in American history beyond what I learned in high school (in contrast to my interest in the Classical period or China, etc.). It seemed rather boring because we live in America, the history is all around us, and I could watch documentaries, etc. At least that was my logic, and it's not totally faulty. The problem is that our knowledge of American history which we obtain through direct experience as Americans is implicit, and we tend to lack clarity which would allow us to discern predictable dynamics. My ignorance combined with a lack of formal paradigm meant I simply wouldn't have noted the reemergence of familiar dynamics several times within the past few years.

David Hackett Fisher's Four Folkways aren't perfect, there's a lot you can quarrel with. But it adds a lot of value as a framework which you can use to understand the flows and patterns of American history; dynamics which we ourselves are seeing as a snapshot currently. Since most pundits are ignorant of course they'll miss the big picture. I don't know enough myself to really hazard much which would add value to anyone's understanding aside from what they might get from reading Albion's Seed or The Age of Lincoln. But...though I'm not being original, I think it is important to emphasize that much of the arc of American political history can be conceived of as a set of cyclical dynamics which are the product of alliances across the Four Folkways (the demographic weights of the Four Folkways in American society at a given time are obviously crucial). As an example, during the 1930s and in the early 19th century New England stood alone against the dominant American political configuration, steadfastly adhering to a minority party. In contrast, the 1850s and the current period seem to be witnessing a more equitable division as the two northern and southern folkways align with each other in a "50:50" nation.

I also think that it is important to emphasize that much of popular history which focuses on individuals and wars might not help you generate a good model of the past which has any utility for comprehending the present. The framework above would be implicit within a narrative, humans are embedded in a sociocultural matrix, but you might fail to discern any systematic pattern if you're focusing on the personalities. This is I think a problem with a lot of "pop history" in documentary form; "boring" cultural and economic parameters take a back seat (or are mentioned in passing) to interesting, but structurally trivial, personal epiphenoma (e.g., Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the 4th of July).

Note: An important issue to emphasize about the Four Folkways is that they may evolve so that the way in which they relate to each other changes over time. In 1800 New England was arguably the most socially conservative and evangelical Protestant part of the United States, while the lowland South was at the other end of the spectrum. It was no surprise at the time that the architects of American church-state separation were low country Virginia planters, while explicit state support and preference for a particular church lasted longest in New England. Obviously things have changed, but the point is that New England and the lowland South evolved as roughly discrete units over time due to local dynamics as well as parameters which effected the United States broadly. Even though the distribution of "New England" and the "South" in parameter space has changed as a function of time, they are still discernable discrete distributions.

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