Trac­ing the cul­tural va­ri­ety that pro­pelled Amer­ica

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Henry Olsen


ead­ing Michael Barone on pol­i­tics and de­mog­ra­phy is like sam­pling a tast­ing menu pre­pared by a fine chef. His lat­est of­fer­ing, “Shap­ing Our Na­tion: How Surges of Mi­gra­tion Trans­formed Amer­ica and Its Pol­i­tics,” does not dis­ap­point.

Mr. Barone takes the reader on a nearly 300-year tale of peo­ples mov­ing in search of a bet­ter place in which to live their lives. Start­ing with the Scots-Ir­ish, Protes­tants who moved from low­land Scot­land and North­ern Ire­land into Ap­palachia and the ru­ral South in the mid-1800s, he weaves an em­i­nently Amer­i­can tale. It is a story full of per­son­al­ity and tra­vails for each group, but ul­ti­mately ev­ery­one be­lieves and wants the same thing. Ev­ery­one be­lieves they can con­trol their own lives, and each wants to live it in a place free from the con­straints that re­stricted them in their ear­lier abode. Ev­ery­one, it seems, has a nat­u­ral in­cli­na­tion to pur­sue hap­pi­ness.

This nar­ra­tive is at odds with the one of­ten pro­pounded, one that ex­plains in­ter­na­tional and na­tional mi­gra­tions merely as eco­nomic phe­nom­e­non. This “clas­sic” nar­ra­tive holds that peo­ples move in re­sponse to dif­fer­ing wage rates and stan­dards of liv­ing much as wa­ter flows to its nat­u­ral level. Look at eco­nomic dif­fer­en­tials, and you can ex­plain and pre­dict mass mi­gra­tions, or so the econ­o­mists say.

Mr. Barone takes is­sue with this anal­y­sis and notes how none of the mi­gra­tions can be sim­ply ex­plained by this frame­work. They start and stop sud­denly, and of­ten not in re­sponse to a clear eco­nomic change. Some­times they don’t hap­pen at all. Mr. Barone care­fully ex­am­ines how South­ern­ers, black and white alike, did not move to the North in great num­bers for the 75 years be­tween the Civil War and World War II de­spite mas­sive dif­fer­ences in wages and liv­ing stan­dards. He sur­mises this fail­ure to move was cul­tural: White South­ern­ers did not feel wel­comed in the land of their con­querors, and blacks, de­spite their near-slav­ery, did not feel North­ern­ers would greet them with open arms. The eco­nomic doors were open, but the cul­tural doors were shut.

This dis­tinc­tion is at the heart of Mr. Barone’s thought. Each group seeks not just to earn a liv­ing, but to im­print its way of life on its new sur­round­ings. Ger­mans in the 19th cen­tury bring beer, books and brother­hood in the form of com­mu­nal as­so­ci­a­tions like those they left be­hind. Yan­kees mi­grat­ing West in the early 19th cen­tury built churches, schools and are as in­tol­er­a­bly self-right­eous in Ohio as they were in Mas­sachusetts. South­ern grandees and their land-poor im­i­ta­tors flock into the Mid­west and newly ac­quired Plains States ea­ger to bring their plan­ta­tion men­tal­ity, and their slaves, with them. All seek a bet­ter eco­nomic life, but they dif­fer sub­stan­tially about how to live that life once com­fort is achieved.

Th­ese cul­ture clashes are at the root of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, Mr. Barone ar­gues. He painstak­ingly shows how vot­ing pat­terns fol­low de­mo­graphic change, and can en­dure for cen­turies. He shows how coun­ties set­tled by Scots-Ir­ish in the late 18th and early 19th cen­tury swung strongly to­ward fel­low Scots-Ir­ish­man John McCain in 2008, and how coun­ties set­tled by Yan­kees in the early 19th cen­tury sup­plied big ma­jori­ties for Calvin Coolidge 100 years later. It is th­ese clashes be­tween cul­tures, not eco­nomic ar­gu­ments, Mr. Barone holds, that pro­duce the heated bat­tles that de­fine Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

The book is a de­light­ful read, full of color and sto­ries of peo­ple and just enough data to in­form and sat­isfy. One might have wished for a bet­ter ed­i­tor in spots; too of­ten the same words and phrases re­cur in close prox­im­ity. I also would have longed to hear about the mi­gra­tions from place to place that cut across peo­ples. The two mi­gra­tions from farm to fac­tory and from fac­tory to sub­urb were among the most con­se­quen­tial in Amer­i­can his­tory, but since they were en­gaged in by mul­ti­ple eth­nic groups, we hear about them only in pass­ing. Per­haps they can be the sub­ject of his next book.

“Shap­ing Our Na­tion” will en­ter­tain any­one in­ter­ested in a good story about the peo­ple whose com­ing to­gether have made mod­ern Amer­ica, and it will in­form any­one seek­ing a deep ex­pla­na­tion about why we fight about the things we do. It is a treat for the reader, and will trick you into know­ing more about mod­ern pol­i­tics than you might oth­er­wise have wanted to dis­cover. Henry Olsen is a se­nior fel­low at the Ethics and Pub­lic Pol­icy Center.

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