Colin Woodard’s previous book, “American Nations,” made the current state of American politics at least somewhat comprehensible. Who has not wondered why people from one part of the United States, as intelligent, educated and informed as those from another, come to diametrically opposed conclusions on how the country should be run? By subdividing America into 11 different “nations,” Woodard made a persuasive case that it all goes back to how and from whence the early colonists came to these shores. The book was an eye-opener.

Now comes “American Character,” in which the same author looks at the same “American nations” through the lens of two opposing – and defining – values: “Individual Liberty and the Common Good,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. A healthy democracy needs to balance the two; either one alone leads to disaster.


Colin Woodard Press Herald file/Gordon Chibroski

Communism and fascism are cited as the result of unalloyed collectivism. As for social Darwinism (when individualism runs amok), today’s “failed states” qualify, Woodard says, but he finds a more compelling example closer to home. Deliberate minimization of restraints on individuals (at least, the elite) was the hallmark of the landed gentry who settled Virginia and the bullies from Britain’s sugar-growing colony in Barbados who established the same ruthless order in the Deep South.

“Political conflict in the United States is often said to be between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives,’ or between ‘elitists’ and ‘hardworking Americans,’ or between Democrats and Republicans,” writes Woodard, who is state and national affairs writer for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. But such tags have routinely swapped places in balancing the rights of individuals and the public weal. More relevant are the traditional differences in the “character” of each community.

The social democratic norms that work in Scandinavia will always be a poor fit for the United States because there is no single “American” character. Rather, says Woodard, one political side tends to increase its power until it overreaches and triggers a backlash, thereby setting up the other side to repeat the process. In this endless seesaw, the various “nations” realign themselves from time to time. However, the poles remain steadfastly represented by the descendants of community-minded Puritan Yankees and Southern libertarians.

America is “far too individualistic to tolerate social democracy, let alone socialism,” Woodard admits. And yet, he is much too loyal a communitarian “Yankee” to make any bones about his political affiliation. The current crop of “radical libertarians” are the “greatest present threat to individual freedom and America’s world-changing, 250-year experiment with liberal democracy.”

“American Character” adds a further prism to the public-private spectrum. “The struggle for freedom is not bilateral, but instead triangular,” Woodard writes. “The participants are the state, the people, and the would-be aristocracy or oligarchy. Liberal democracy … relies on keeping these three forces in balance.”

The history of that struggle is a big-dipper ride through four centuries as first collectivists then individualists take their turn at managing the country.


Lurking just below the surface are always mirrors reflecting our own times. As frontiersman Andrew Jackson deposes the patrician line of the founders, one can only think of Donald Trump. “The duties of all public offices,” said Jackson, “are so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance.”

In absorbing a colossal amount of research, Woodard employs an understated style with a nicely sly edge when needed. In the predominantly Hispanic Southwest, “government is seen as an agent of the common good, even if there is little expectation that it will be able to perform its role without prejudice in favor of the region’s elites.” Of the meaning of freedom to the capitalists of the Gilded Age: “People, in short, had to remain free to be exploited.”

The dialectic tension that is the subject of “American Character” has a metaphysical counterpart in the balance between generalization and the exceptions that may or may not prove the rule.

Woodard somewhat overbills American exceptionalism in his comparisons with other nations. Certainly the French, with their famous 350 or more cheeses, would be surprised to see themselves held up as a model of national uniformity. To say that at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, “voters were having a hard time distinguishing between the two parties” – and to confirm it with a quote from Ralph Nader – is, in my view, harsh. As is calling Obama a “liberal Republican … more akin to Eisenhower and the first Bush … than Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Johnson,” a statement that is similarly backed up by another polemicist, Cornel West.

But such disagreements are matters of degree. Colin Woodard’s essential thesis is vital to understand. It’s not his fault that it cannot explain the silliness of this year’s primary season.

Thomas Urquhart is a former director of Maine Audubon and the author of “For the Beauty of the Earth.”