the aftermath of the US election, the pattern of Democratic blue
and Republican red on the electoral map is baffling, unless you
know how to read it. Ideology does not help much. "Left" and "right"
are irrelevant terms from 19th and 20th-century Europe. Geographic
dichotomies--big states versus small states, interior versus coasts--merely
supply questions, not answers.
The clue to the US electoral map lies in ethnography. As the
historian David Hackett Fischer and the commentator Kevin Phillips
(among others) have demonstrated, ideology and region are surrogates
for race and ethnicity in the US. American politics is, and always
has been, a struggle for power between two coalitions of tribes.
Two coalitions, instead of three or four, because the US inherited
the "plurality" or first-past-the-post voting system from early
modern Britain. Plurality systems ensure that third-party votes
are wasted and so give countries relatively stable two-party democracy.
In most periods from 1789 to the present, the US has had two
dominant national parties competing to control government: Federalists
vs Republicans (1790s-1810s), National Republicans vs Democratic
Republicans (1810s-1830s), Whigs vs Democrats (1830s-1850s), Republicans
vs Democrats (1850s-present). Despite the changing names, the
underlying coalitions have been remarkably stable. In effect,
there have been only two main parties in American history: the
northern party and the southern party.
The core of the northern party (originally Federalists, Whigs
and Republicans, and now Democrats) has been citizens of New England
and the "greater New England" region settled by the descendants
of colonial-era New Englanders, an enormous area which includes
the great lakes, the upper prairie and the Pacific north-west.
The culture of these "Yankees" originated in 17th-century English
Puritanism. Its legacy remains in a distinct New England Yankee
culture which values moral rectitude and social reform.
The historic rivals to the greater New England Yankees in US
politics have been the coastal southerners of Virginia, South
Carolina, and the Gulf coast region, which they settled from the
Florida panhandle to east Texas. Royalist refugees from Cromwell's
Puritan dictatorship--the so-called "Cavaliers"--created a hierarchical,
traditional, aristocratic society based on a plantation economy.
They have always dominated the southern party (originally Jeffersonian
Republicans, then Jacksonian and Rooseveltian Democrats, and now
On opposite sides in the English civil war, and then in the US
civil war, the Yankees and Cavaliers have always been on opposite
sides in US politics. For generations, the moralism of Protestants
in New England, such as Cotton Mather and John Adams, has clashed
with the worldly honour code of renaissance country gentlemen
in the south, such as Thomas Jefferson and Robert E Lee. In New
England, the politics of reform was organised around the town
meeting; in the coastal south, the politics of deference and patronage
was based on the courthouse gang. "Good government" is a New England
idea. So is the idea of American exceptionalism, of an American
mission to set an example to the world, or to save it. The ancestors
of the New England Yankees emigrated to the American colonies
in order to found a perfect Calvinist commonwealth. By contrast,
the ancestors of the southern elite emigrated to the colonies
in order to get rich quick by lording it over Indians, blacks,
and poor whites. For New England, the US is--or should be--a New
Jerusalem. For the south, the US is simply the successor to the
British empire. The southern oligarchs, like their cousins who
once ran imperial Britain, think in terms of profit, not providence.
As soon as the new federal government got started in 1789, a
Yankee party, the Federalists, headed by President Washington's
Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, began fighting
with the southern party, the Republicans, headed by President
Washington's Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. The rival New
England and coastal southern elites needed electoral allies. The
southerners found friends among working-class whites in the north--particularly
Irish Catholics. The alliance between southern whites and northern
Catholics--symbolised in 1960 by the Democrat ticket of John F
Kennedy (Boston Irish) and Lyndon B Johnson (Texan Protestant)--was
the basis of the southern party for 200 years. It is an alliance
of convenience, not conviction. Southern white Protestants of
British descent, and Irish and continental European Catholics,
share little other than a common enemy: the Yankee Protestants
of the northeast and midwest. While the southern oligarchy sought
to undermine its Yankee rivals by teaming up with immigrant Catholics
in the north, the Yankee elite has consistently championed the
rights of black Americans. In part, Yankee concern for black rights
was genuinely inspired by Protestant moral fervour, but it was
also influenced by the same strategic principle which underlay
the southern-Catholic alliance: "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
Indeed, other than their opposition to white southerners, white
Massachusetts Unitarians and black Mississippi Baptists have almost
nothing in common.
The history of US politics is little more than the history of
these two coalitions: the southern-Catholic alliance and the Yankee-black
alliance. For most of American history the southern-Catholic alliance
has been predominant, controlling the national government for
the greater part of 1801-1861, and again from 1933 to the present.
The New England-led northern party, by contrast, controlled Washington
DC only in the period between Lincoln and Hoover, 1861-1933. The
historic success of the southern-Catholic alliance resulted in
part from the effective disenfranchisement of black Americans
until the 1960s. White supremacy united the working-class Catholics
of the north (threatened by black economic and social competition)
with the white population of the south (whose "way of life" was
based on the subordination of blacks). For their part, the Yankees
combined real or nominal support for black rights with a nasty
strain of anti-Catholic nativism and anti-Irish bigotry.
Successive waves of immigration from Britain and continental
Europe have modified this pattern without destroying it. Beginning
in the 1840s, the main immigrant groups were the Germans and the
Irish. Well-behaved hordes of Germans and Scandinavians settled
alongside Yankee pioneers in midwestern states such as Kansas,
Minnesota and the Dakotas. The social traditions of 19th-century
Germanic immigrants meshed well with the Protestant social reform
ethic of the Yankees. European Catholics, by contrast, tended
to join the Irish, who controlled many big-city governments in
the north and midwest, in an alliance with the white south.
German Jews were such a small minority that they tended to blend
in with local populations where they settled. Most American Jews
are descendants of migrants from Russia and Russian-ruled eastern
Europe in the 1900s. Their political culture was deeply influenced
by Marxism. During the early 20th century, Jewish labour activists
concentrated in the garment industry tended to ally themselves
with working-class Catholics in the labour wing of the Democratic
party. But the civil rights movement united Jews with blacks and
their traditional allies, greater New England Protestants and
Germanic Americans, against white southerners and northern white
Catholics. Today, Jews are the most loyal white ethnic group in
the northern coalition, which nowadays goes by the name of the
How did the Democrats go from being the southern party in 1900
to being the northern party in 2000? Beginning in the 1960s, as
a result of the civil rights revolution, a weird realignment took
place in US politics, in which the two parties switched constituencies.
Democrats, historically the more racist of the two parties, took
up the cause of civil rights under the leadership of Lyndon B
Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. In response, white southerners left
the party, becoming mostly Republican by the 1990s. Many of the
leaders of the hard right in the Congressional Republican party,
such as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, began their careers
in politics as conservative Democrats.
Meanwhile, liberal Yankee and Germanic Republicans in the north
and midwest and on the Pacific coast, appalled by the influx of
drawling right-wing Dixiecrats into what had once been the party
of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, migrated into the Democratic
party. One of them was Hillary Clinton, a Yankee Methodist raised
as a Republican in Illinois. The descendants of progressive Lincoln
and La Follette Republicans from the Germanic prairie states also
tend to be liberal Democrats nowadays. The names of the midwestern
leaders of the Democratic party in the House and the Senate, respectively,
are echt-Teutonic patronyms: Gephardt and Daschle.Conversely,
there are a growing number of Republicans--such as New York mayor
Rudolph Giuliani and New York state governor George Pataki--from
a once-solid constituency for the old Democratic party: Americans
whose last names end in vowels.
This realignment of constituencies has given each of the two
parties an identity crisis. The Republicans claim to be the party
of Lincoln, although most of their present-day constituents descend
from people who fought for the Confederacy--or at least supported
it--and thought Lincoln was a tyrant. For their part, contemporary
Democrats, based in the old Federalist, Whig and Republican strongholds
of the northeast and midwest, are embarrassed by institutions
such as the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, which celebrates
the southern slaveholders who are the patron saints of states'
rights (Jefferson) and the ethnic cleansing of the Cherokee Indians
(Jackson). In 1996, the Democrat Bill Clinton won--and lost--almost
exactly the same states which were won--and lost--by the Republican
William McKinley in 1896. Confused? If you ignore the labels,
however, the two parties are pretty much what they have always
been--a southern-Catholic coalition against a Yankee-black coalition,
enlarged by Germanic and Jewish Americans.
The fissures in US culture parallel those in US politics. To
put the matter simply, America's elite culture is north-eastern;
its popular culture is southern and western. For most of American
history, American intellectual life has been dominated by elite
New Englanders--for the simple reason that Puritan cultural tradition
encourages book-learning, which was (and is) considered vulgar
by Virginia patricians, and pretentious by Kentucky populists.
In the first half of the 20th century there was a concerted attack
on the New England tradition in American literature and philosophy
by a motley collection of right-wing southern literati, left-wing
Jewish intellectuals, and one grumpy German-American: HL Mencken.
Since the 1970s, however, the left-liberal literary intelligentsia
has purged the literary canon of southern writers and thinkers
from John C Calhoun to William Faulkner, most of whom are "politically
incorrect" with respect to race and feminism. By default, therefore,
the New England tradition has become almost the only American
intellectual tradition studied in the elite universities, which
treat American literature as a tale of two cities: the Boston
of Emerson and the New York of Whitman and various 20th-century
"New York schools." At the same time, beginning in the 1970s,
faux-WASP gentility, marketed by Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and
Martha Stewart, has become the common culture of status-seeking
Americans of all regions. Sipping fine wine while perusing the
New Yorker at a summer cottage on Martha's Vineyard or in the
Hamptons is the daydream of social strivers from coast to coast.
While New England has conquered the tiny bastions of education
and taste, the south, with a little help from the west, governs
the much bigger territory of American popular culture. Although
salsa and Tejano music are growing in popularity, American radio
stations and music video channels are still ruled by versions
of southern black music (rock, rap, jazz, R&B) and country and
western (actually southern white) music. Today's mass media, like
the minstrel shows and vaudeville acts of the 19th century, disseminate
southern music and slang to the white working-class inhabitants
of every region.
If southern music provides the cultural koine for the high school
educated working-class majority in all parts of the US (and even
overseas), the west provides the lifestyle symbolism. In the 1950s,
"ranch-style homes" were popular even on Long Island. In the 1990s,
the suburbs were menaced by mild-mannered moms and dads navigating
gigantic sport utility vehicles (SUVs) which, according to television
ads, are capable of climbing mesas in the desert west.
This conflation of the south and west reflects a little-known
quirk of US cultural history. In the 19th century, most of the
west--from the prairies to the Rockies to California--was actually
settled, primarily, by pioneers from New England and the Yankee
midwest, along with Germans and Scandinavians. Southern migrants
got no further west than Texas and Oklahoma. Nevertheless, in
Hollywood movies, westerners usually have southern accents, rather
than the authentic greater New England accents. Because the south
was the most rural region of the US in the early 20th century,
when the movie industry got started, the "southern rube" stereotype
became the western stereotype as well, on stage and screen. To
compound the irony, the most violent part of America in the 19th
century, as it is today, was not the west, but the south. In 1880
you were much more likely to be shot on a street in Mississippi
For the past three decades, conservative politicians in the US
have profited by spurning tweedy Yankee elitism for twangy country
and western populism (which plays as well among northern white
Catholics and Latinos as among white southerners and westerners).
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was frequently photographed riding
a horse and chopping wood on his ranch. The last Democratic president
to play cowboy was Lyndon B Johnson. The liberal intellectuals
made fun of him. But it is no coincidence that Johnson was the
last Democratic president to win a majority of the white vote.
Nor is it a coincidence that the only two Democrats to be elected
president since 1964 have been two centre-right southerners posing
as folksy populists: Carter and Clinton. Gore's popularity rose
when he got rid of his tie and vowed to fight "for the people"
in a Tennessee twang. (Even so, he lost his ancestral state, and
Clinton's Arkansas as well, to a cowboy boot-wearing, ranch-owning
Texan born in Connecticut: George W Bush).
What does all this mean for the policies pursued by the two coalitions?
When it comes to foreign policy, the divisions between the northern
party and the southern party are dramatic, enduring, and somewhat
contrary to received wisdom. For two centuries, the northern party
(yesterday's Republicans, today's Democrats) has been the more
protectionist and isolationist of the two coalitions, while the
southern party (yesterday's Democrats, today's Republicans) has
traditionally supported free trade, a strong military and an assertive
The differences between the two coalitions in trade policy reflect
the old division between the industrial north and midwest and
the agrarian south and mountain west. During the period of northern
hegemony, 1861-1933, high tariffs protected northern American
factories from British and European competition, while forcing
southern and western farmers to pay more for industrial goods.
The post-1945 global trading system was inspired by the free-trade
ideology of conservative southern Democrats such as Cordell Hull,
Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of State and a former Tennessee
Senator--an ideology inherited by today's southern Republicans.
Support for protectionism remains concentrated in the northern
manufacturing states where Democrats have succeeded Republicans
as the dominant party.
Partisan divisions over the military reflect much deeper cultural
factors. "From the quasi-war with France [1798-1800] to the Vietnam
war," writes historian David Hackett Fischer, "the two southern
cultures strongly supported every American war no matter what
it was about or who it was against. Southern ideas of honour and
the warrior ethic combined to create regional war fevers of great
intensity in 1798, 1812, 1846, 1861, 1898, 1941, 1950 and 1965."
At the same time, the greater New England region has been home
to the most intense opposition to American foreign wars--including
the second world war. For 50 years, liberal American historians
have spoken of "right-wing isolationists" but the fact is that
most isolationists in the 1930s were liberals or leftists. Ironically,
Roosevelt found the strongest supporters for his anti-Hitler foreign
policy among racist Southern conservatives, who hated New Deal
liberalism but were eager to save Britain and defeat Germany.
The isolationist America First committee was a miserable failure
in the south.
As the southern states have gone Republican in recent years,
so has America's military, in which southern whites have always
been over-represented. In November 2000, during the electoral
college crisis, Democratic party operatives in the contested state
of Florida tried to disqualify, on technical grounds, as many
overseas ballots from US military personnel as they could, on
the correct assumption that American soldiers are overwhelmingly
What explains the deeply-ingrained military ethic of southerners--and
the equally intense anti-military sentiments of greater New Englanders?
Again, culture is the answer. The New England Puritans frowned
on violence as a way of resolving social conflicts. The southern
cavalier code, however, endorsed violence when personal or national
honour was being "disrespected" or "dissed." According to the
sociologists Richard E Nisbet and Dov Cohen, although white southerners
are no more likely than northern whites to kill strangers for
money, they are much more likely to kill spouses, lovers, friends,
and acquaintances who have insulted them. These differences explain
why southern states have higher rates of homicide--and more executions.
Most black Americans share southern culture (and the Latin American
culture of honour is very similar). When murders committed by
blacks and Latinos are not counted, the anthropologist Marvin
Harris has observed, "America's rates of violent crime are much
closer to the rates found in Japan." If southern whites were then
subtracted from the murder figures, the US murder rate would be
All of this means that the talk in recent years about a supposed
"resurgence of right-wing isolationism" is misleading. Many commentators
have found themselves confused by the ambitious liberal interventionism
of Clinton and Gore and the right-wing isolationism of Patrick
Buchanan. But neither Clinton nor Buchanan are typical of their
parties. Buchanan has little influence on the Republican right,
which has repudiated his isolationism as well as his protectionism.
Clinton, like Gore, emerged from the shrinking southern conservative
wing of the Democratic party. His southern-style interventionism
was supported by many Jewish liberals who want a US forward military
presence capable of protecting Israel and who viewed Serbia's
ethnic cleansing in the Balkans as a replay of the Holocaust.
But the interventionist sentiments of Jewish liberals are not
shared by other groups in the Democratic electoral base, like
Yankees, Germanic Americans and blacks.
This is why Europeans and Asians who believe that the Democrats
will be more "internationalist" than the Republicans are mistaken.
True, liberal Yankees are more in favour of constructive engagement
with international institutions and norms than their southern
rivals: compare the support of Clinton and Gore for the Kyoto
treaty with George W Bush's hostility to UN peacekeeping missions.
But when the US uses military power--unilaterally or as part of
an alliance like Nato--the fiercest opposition always comes from
left-wing Democrats. Republicans may not like open-ended peace-keeping
operations in the Balkans, but where US and allied security interests
are clearly at stake, as in the Persian Gulf or the Taiwan Strait,
they are hawks. By contrast, much of the Democratic left denounced
Clinton as a war criminal during the Kosovo war. If a Republican
president had led the Nato effort in the Balkans, most Democrats
in Congress would probably have opposed it, just as most congressional
Democrats voted against the Gulf war. Tony Blair may not like
their thinking on domestic politics, but if he wants a strong
Anglo-American alliance then his natural allies will be found
among Anglophile Virginia Republicans, not among pacifist Democrats
in Massachusetts or Oregon.
An America dominated by northern Democrats would be more likely
to erect trade barriers in the name of labour standards, human
rights and the environment. It would also be more likely to retreat
in the face of military challenges in Asia, the middle east and
Europe. George McGovern's 1972 motto--"Come home, America"--still
resonates among Democrats and Green voters. Chinese generals and
French Gaullists who fear globalisation and dream of a multipolar
world should root for the Democrats. On the other hand, Atlanticist
Europeans and pro-US Asians who want to preserve a global trading
system underwritten by US military power should hope that the
southern-led Republicans prevail.
The ethno-cultural bases of the northern and southern parties
also explain some of the policy differences on civil rights. Democrats
uniformly support racial preferences for blacks and Latinos (although
not Asian-Americans), while Republicans, almost as uniformly,
denounce quotas as a violation of the principle of individual
rights. When the subject is rights for gays and lesbians, the
positions are somewhat different: the Democrats invoke the idea
that individuals, rather than groups, have rights, while Republicans
under pressure from the religious right tend to oppose civil rights
In the immediate future, neither tribal coalition will get its
way, given the near-parity of the presidential vote and the almost-even
split in Congress. Indeed, America's medium-term political fate
may be in the hands of two groups of swing voters: white Catholics
and non-white immigrants.
Northern white Catholics are divided in their loyalties. They
are attracted by the social conservatism of the newly southernised
Republican party, but Republican economic conservatism, and the
anti-Catholic bigotry of some Protestant religious right leaders,
has deterred many of them from following their traditional southern
allies into the GOP. As a result, undecided working-class white
Catholics in industrial great lakes states like Michigan and Wisconsin
have become an important bloc of voters in American presidential
and congressional politics.
It remains to be seen how the growing numbers of Latin American
and East Asian immigrants and their descendants will influence
the two big parties over the coming decades. In the 1990s, Asian-Americans
tilted toward the Republicans, while Latinos were largely Democratic.
But these patterns may change as the immigrants assimilate. Second
and third-generation Asian-Americans, shedding Confucian social
conservatism, may assimilate to the subculture of affluent, socially
liberal northern Protestants and Jews, two groups whom they resemble
in academic and economic success.
Mexican-Americans are by far the biggest Latino group. They tend
to become more Republican as they move up the social ladder. In
Texas, where there are many more third, fourth and fifth-generation
Mexican-Americans than there are in California, Republicans like
George W Bush have sometimes captured almost half the vote. In
their social conservatism, as in their Catholic heritage, Mexican-Americans
resemble Irish or Italian-Americans (the historic allies of white
southerners) more than they resemble blacks (the historic victims
and rivals of white southerners). What is more, the high degree
of intermarriage among Latinos and white "Anglos" will soon produce
a new mixed-race population in California, Texas, New Mexico,
Arizona and Florida--symbolised by George W Bush's half-Latino
"Spanglo" nephew, George P Bush.
In the game of tribal coalit