December 16, 2012

Commentary: Republicans have a Yankee problem

By embracing Southern-style conservatism, the party is all but extinct in the region of its birth.

By Colin Woodard
Staff Writer

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Staff Photo Illustration/Michael Fisher

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SOURCE: Colin Woodard, "American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America"

Indeed, in all of Yankeedom, Republicans remain competitive only in Michigan and Wisconsin, where they still retain the governorships, a majority of each state's U.S. House delegations, and control of the state legislatures. If cultural patterns hold -- and they usually do -- the party's efforts to geld labor unions in each of those states will turn out to be overreach. Gov. Scott Walker's drive to weaken public-sector unions wouldn't have raised a fuss if it had taken place in the Deep South; in Yankee Wisconsin there were massive protests, a successful recall of state senators, and a vote to remove Walker himself. Southern states passed their "right to work" laws with little local opposition; Michigan's passage of such a law this week triggered a maelstrom that could undercut Gov. Rick Snyder's 2014 re-election bid.

What went wrong? The Republican's "Southern strategy" -- the effort from the late 1960s onward to attract and absorb Dixie conservatives -- has come home to roost. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, the party was able to co-opt right-wing Southern Democrats like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, and over the next four decades became a party largely led by Southerners and advocating a Dixie political program at odds with the Yankee ethos.

Since its founding in the early 17th century, Yankee culture has embraced the notion of the common good, even to the point of encumbering individual liberty to ensure its achievement. It's a culture that actually considers self-denial virtuous (how strangely un-American, that) and one that has greater faith in the possibility of improving society through public institutions than its peers and rivals to the South and West. Appalachian people were the hardy, individualistic frontiersmen of American lore, suspicious of government and championing individualism. By contrast, early Puritans arrived on the frontier as communities, promptly built a public schoolhouse, town hall, and place of worship around a shared town green, and taxed themselves to pay for their upkeep. These practices continued as their descendants spread across the northernmost tier of what would become the United States.

More utopian and communitarian than the other major cultural regions of the country, Yankeedom begat the party of Lincoln, which first sought to confront slavery and then (under Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner) to expand the rights of African Americans, to protect the environment, break up monopolies and regulate the food industry (under Theodore Roosevelt), and to try to apply government regulation to address social ills ranging from child labor to (less successfully) alcohol consumption. As the Republicans abandoned these positions they began gaining strength in the Deep South, Appalachia and the interior West, while losing ground in Yankeedom, which has always resisted Dixie conservatives' efforts to weaken government and public institutions, privatize services and roll back regulations, consumer safety protections and taxes on wealth and the wealthy.

Yankeedom's fundamental political ethos hasn't changed that much over the last 40 years, but the party's has. Back when the Republicans stood for fiscal responsibility, social progress and the protection of the environment, they dominated the region, and Maine along with it. So long as it embraces the Dixie conservatives' agenda, expect it to remain a critically endangered species in its native habitat, and critically hobbled on the national stage.

Colin Woodard is the Maine Sunday Telegram's state and national affairs writer and author of "American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America." He can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:


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