Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Since the national Republican defeat last month, political pundits, analysts and operatives have been discussing the party's manifold electoral shortcomings.
Staff Photo Illustration/Michael Fisher
SOURCE: Colin Woodard, "American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America"
The election results starkly revealed its weakness with the fast-growing Hispanic vote (Mitt Romney lost it 71 percent to 27 percent), with African-Americans (93 percent to 7 percent) and Asian-Americans (73 percent to 27 percent), young people (60 percent to 40 percent) and even women (55 percent to 45 percent). The party, it is said, must find a way to extend its base beyond the white and the wealthy if it is to survive in a country becoming more diverse and unequal by the day. Texas will soon have a non-white majority, after all, and if it turns reliably blue, the Democrats will have a mathematical lock on the Electoral College and a devastating advantage on the congressional map. an enormous advantage in their effort to control Congress.
While this is all most certainly true, Republicans confront yet another problem on the electoral map: their virtual extinction in the region of the party's birth.
I'm taking about Yankeedom, a great swath of the country from Maine to Minnesota that was first effectively colonized by New England Puritans and their descendants. This cultural region -- one of 11 in North America I've described in my recent book, "American Nations" -- includes New England and the regions New Englanders colonized in the 18th and early 19th centuries: upstate New York, the Western Reserve of Ohio, the Upper Great Lakes states, the northern tier of Illinois, and part of Iowa. The birthplace of the GOP and the center of its support for the first century of its existence, today it is home to 54 million people, few of whom are genetically related to the early settlers of the Bay Colony, but all of whom are profoundly affected by the cultural DNA they left behind.
This election cycle, Yankeedom's Republicans, long in retreat, faced their Waterloo.
We saw it here in Maine, of course. Although we're a rural, white, and not particularly affluent state -- just the sort of place national pundits would expect to embrace today's GOP -- Democrats had their day. Barack Obama won 15 of 16 counties. Democratic incumbents trounced their opponents in the U.S. House races. Olympia Snowe was replaced by Angus King, who will caucus with the Democrats. Republicans lost control of both houses of the state Legislature, putting the brakes on Gov. Paul LePage's Dixie-compatible agenda.
We were by no means an anomaly. In New England, Mitt Romney didn't capture a single Electoral College vote and Republicans lost every major federal and statewide contest. Scott Brown lost his U.S. Senate seat to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts. In "Live Free or Die" New Hampshire, Republicans lost the governor's race, both U.S. House seats and -- in a massive turnaround -- the lower chamber of the State House. Romney won only five of 63 New England counties, and not a single one in Vermont, Rhode Island or Massachusetts, all states with large white majorities. In the wake of the election New England doesn't have a single GOP congressperson. Only two of its 12 U.S. senators are Republicans. LePage is its last remaining Republican governor.
And the carnage is by no means limited to the New England core. Romney lost every state dominated by Yankeedom -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota -- and all those with significant Yankee sections, including New York and Ohio. Republican U.S. Senate candidates lost in every Yankee-dominated state as well, while Democrat Sherrod Brown owed his Senate victory in Ohio to overwhelming support in the Yankee-founded Western Reserve. Republicans lost 10 of 12 Yankee-controlled House seats in Illinois, 5 of 8 in Minnesota, 4 of 9 in upstate New York, and both in eastern Iowa. They clearly lost the Western Reserve as well, though that Democratic bastion has been so intensively gerrymandered it's impossible to make a firm count of its congressional districts.
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: