What Americans Rejected This Week: The President as Warlord

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

We’ve heard a lot of speculation about what this year’s presidential election supposedly means. Were Americans simply voting for Barack Obama, a charismatic peacemaker with a worker-friendly tax plan? Or were they also voting against something, and if so, what? Republican incompetence? Neocon arrogance? The Iraq War? The economic meltdown? Negative campaigning?

After reading georgia10’s front-page story “22%” on Daily Kos — specifically, after looking at the New York Times maps she embedded — I think we can figure out what most Americans were voting against in a single glance, by seeing who embraced Obama and, more important, who rejected him.

Does this map look familiar? If you’ve read my Daily Kos diaries on David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, it should.

Here’s another map to compare it with:

This is a dialect map of the United States. American English dialects track closely with the settlement patterns of early Americans and their descendants. According to Fischer, Americans arrived on this continent from England in four waves:

  1. Puritans from East Anglia to New England, 1629-1641
  2. Cavaliers and indentured servants from the south of England to Virginia, 1642-1675
  3. Quakers from the North Midlands to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, 1675-1725
  4. Scots-Irish “New Light” Protestants from the Border Counties and Ulster to the Appalachian backcountry, 1717-1775

These four groups brought with them the forerunners of the New England, Northern and Upper Midwestern dialects; the Coastal Southern dialect; the North Midland dialect; and the Highland Southern (Appalachian) and South Midland dialects. Where their descendants moved, they took their way of speaking with them.

They also took their ideology. Puritan New Englanders were communitarian, relatively egalitarian and highly literate, with a strong work ethic. Southern Cavaliers were hierarchical, traditionalist and highly authoritarian, with a great love of wealth and sharply divided sex roles. Midland Quakers were anti-hierarchical, anti-doctrinal, gentle, tolerant and respectful of conscience. And highland Borderers were belligerent, clan-centric, deferential to their own leaders but not toward outsiders, evangelical in their religion and suspicious of book-learning.

As the groups migrated westward beyond the Mississippi River, in some places they began to mix to form hybrid cultures. In the Great Basin of the Mountain West, Mormon exiles from the North and Midlands mixed with Highland Southerners; in Southern California, and later the rest of the Southwest, Midlanders and Highland Southerners were accompanied by Eastern Jews and Hispanics.

Looking again at the top map, and comparing it with the second map, what we see is that the counties that voted more Republican this year than in 2004 track the settlement patterns of Highland Southerners. There are two ways to look at this, both of which are probably equally true:

  1. McCain is a Borderer kind of candidate. According to Fischer, the most esteemed individual in Borderer society was the aged warlord, because in a society accustomed to constant fighting, being an old fighter means that one is a skilled survivor — strong and shrewd. McCain is not only an old warrior, he comes from a family of old warriors. Like the stereotypical Borderer, McCain is quick-tempered and sensitive to insult, academically undistinguished (near the bottom of his Naval Academy graduating class), and ready and willing to take on all comers. Also stereotypically, he shows exceptional loyalty to his friends — often valuing loyalty above competence — and his “maverick” character (I swear to you, this is the last time I’ll ever use that word to refer to him!) is reflective of the characteristic Borderer “Nobody tells me what to do” assertion of autonomy and disdain for rank. His “freedom” is the freedom to be left alone.

    But even more important . . .

  2. Obama is the anti-Borderer. The Quaker-like Obama is everything that Borderers are not. He advocates cooperative partnership and brotherhood; brushes off insults; proclaims a desire to sit down with enemies and talk rather than fight; and projects openness, tolerance and trust. He’s highly educated and sophisticated in his speech and has never been in the military. His family background is nothing like the traditional American family; everyone can look at him and find something “other” about him. As for his community organizer background, rather than being a code for “blackness,” as some have suggested, I conjecture that it represents something much more threatening to the fatalistic Borderer mentality: that hardship is not inevitable, but can be risen above through generosity and cooperation. His “freedom” is freedom of conscience, not freedom from responsibility.

So we can see why Borderer voters would react to Obama with revulsion and be quite happy with McCain as an alternative (especially with the even more conspicuously Borderer Sarah Palin on the ticket). But what about the rest of the country? Why would it be drawn so strongly to Obama?

Because America is sick of Borderer domination of its culture and politics.

We’ve had eight years of a president, George W. Bush, who has brought Borderer belligerence, anti-intellectualism, xenophobia and authoritarianism to the White House; who has redefined the presidency from chief executive to warlord-in-chief; and turned America’s image before the rest of the world into a distinctly Borderer visage: independent, defiant, demanding of loyalty, resistant to reason and raring for a fight. Bush himself, though his family comes from New England, embraces and projects a Borderer image as if he’d been born and bred in that tradition.

But even before Bush, we had Bill Clinton. Clinton is what a Borderer Democrat looks like. Though he’s educated and intellectual, he’s selective about showing that side of himself and often slathers a folksy veneer over it. Despite never having joined the military, he showed little hesitation to apply military force. His own emphasis on personal loyalty is storied. And as with McCain and Palin, there’s an undeniable streak of dysfunctionality in his family life. For all their talk of “family values,” Borderers have traditionally had trouble putting them into practice, according to Fischer: spousal and child abuse, adultery, divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancy all occur at higher rates in the Highland South than in any other region of the United States.

Before the Civil War, American politics swung on a Puritan-Cavalier axis. But in the mid- to late 20th century, the dynamic changed: the Democratic Party became a Puritan-Quaker coalition, with the Quaker strain becoming dominant; while the Republican Party became a Borderer-Cavalier coalition, the Borderer strain rising with the power of the Christian Coalition and reaching its ascendancy under George W. Bush. Borderer voters have been kingmakers for several generations: you have to go back 80 years, to Herbert Hoover, to find a president whose winning coalition did not include the Borderer vote.

Until now.

Obama has won without the Borderers. His winning coalition consists of the descendants of Puritans and Quakers, a few descendants of Cavaliers and a lot of those Cavaliers’ onetime servants and slaves. He represents not just the rebirth of liberalism and the dwindling of our obsession with race, not just a new communitarianism, a new diplomacy and a new competence, but the repudiation of an American culture that tried to portray itself as the “real” America, the only America, then seized the levers of power and ran the nation into the ground. He broke the lock, the monopoly that the Borderer culture has had on America’s personality, and gave us a chance to redefine what freedom means, what equality means, what justice means, what family means . . . a chance to celebrate America the diverse rather than America the narrowly defined. A chance for America to be as thoughtful, as complicated, as generous and as hopeful as he is himself.


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  1. . . . for a non-Borderer America.

    • OPOL on November 6, 2008 at 18:43

    Great work.

    • Edger on November 6, 2008 at 18:53

    cooperative partnership and brotherhood; brushes off insults; proclaims a desire to sit down with enemies and talk rather than fight; and projects openness, tolerance and trust

    While borderer suggests strong insecurities?

    quick-tempered and sensitive to insult

  2. If not in actual heritage then certainly in mentality. Thanks for sharing this here.

  3. . . . that, apart from Alaska and Arizona–anomalous in 2008 for obvious reasons–the only part of the country that’s voting more Republican as the 21st century advances is the white south.  The GOP is flirting with becoming a regional party.

  4. your conclusions…but from what I know about the Highland Scots, this info is dead-on accurate.

    I am (slightly) more qualified to discuss the Quakers & Anabaptists of PA: and one reason this state was historically more tolerant was the insistence by William Penn that it be so.  For example, at one point in the mid-1600s, there were some “witches” here and Penn pardoned them all because he did not believe in witchcraft.  Compare that to what was happening in Massachusetts. (Apologies: I had PA history drummed into me K-12.)  The Anabaptists, OTOH, just wanted to be left alone to follow their religion.

    When you put the two groups together, you have a major reason that this was an important stop in the Underground Railroad: if you could make it to PA and find Quakers or Anabaptists, they could get you to Canada.  And did so, as frequently as they were able.

    Not too fond of PA as a rule, but I do rather like its history.

  5. but the “strong military” meme runs throughout the Obama candidacy, unfortunately.

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