Saturday, June 25, 2005

Greater New England Needs an Ally: Folkways Part 4

In this final post on the Four Folkways, we'll look at the implications of Fischer's work on the political history of the US. I'll rely as well on Michael Lind's article in the American Prospect. He notes that Greater New England, that swath of the US roughly equivalent to today's Blue States (excluding the 'battleground states') has always been associated with a particular political party (varying over time), and has a distinctive political culture with three main facets:

1. Reformism. From Puritan post-millenialism, to Prohibition, to today's anti-tobacco and fast food campaigns, New Englanders have been the standard bearers of most of America's reform movements.

2. Intellectual elitism. Stemming from the Puritan concept of ordered freedom, Lind describes a "preference for meritocratic elitism over the messiness of democracy."

3. Anti-militarism. From the war of 1812, to the Mexican War, to Vietnam and Iraq, none of these wars were popular among New Englanders.

In order to win the presidency however, Greater New England has always required an alliance with at least one other folkway group. The historical moments when it stood alone spelled success for the political party representing the rest of the country, and brought us the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon. But when Greater New England allied with the southern Tidewater Democrats we saw FDR's coalition, and when it allied with mid-Atlantic and midwestern Quaker descendents we saw the original Lincolnian Republican coalition which lasted until the Depression.

Today the Democrats are the New England Party, and as long as they remain so they will lose. Lind suggests the Democrats need to broaden their appeal to midwesterners through economic policies, in order to recreate a Quaker-Yankee coalition. That's certainly an option, but the other way to look at how marginalized folkgroups have reentered the fray, as Fischer himself points out, is by advancing an 'omnibus' candidate, like Eisenhower, who can talk the language of many folkways. Often military heroes, such candidates consciously draw imagery from two or more folkways ("log cabin and hard cider" evoked both the backcountry and the NE temperance movement). In contrast, the Dems have been looking for another JFK since the 60s, charismatic but deeply rooted in the Yankee folkway. In the search of that perfect leader they have neglected many party-building activities that the Right has attended to fastidiously.

If you look at the elected members of the moderate Republican Mainstreet Partnership, you see a few New Englanders, but many more folks in the Quaker settlement belt. Also of note, most of the 'battleground states' fall in this region. With its emphasis on responsible pro-capitalist economic development, environmental stewardship, egalitarian approach to civil rights and progressive nationalism, I would argue that what many refer to as the Moderate Republican philosophy is associated with the Quaker regional folkway. The lesson here is that identifying centrists as 'moderates' along the national political spectrum is not enough; to win their votes, a candidate has to be able to speak directly to the particular target voters' freedom ways.

Hence the dilemma for all centrists: to join the majority party and moderate its voice, or to join the minority party and strengthen its voice. Each of us must make the choice that seems right, but nobody should be surprised when that choice, for most people, seems less about comfort with a party's policies and platforms than its language of liberty.

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