I spent several hours last week driving around New York City. For a guy like myself from the wide open Rocky Mountain West, it was rather hellish. I plan to drive in NYC again approximately when hell is covered with a thick sheet of glacial ice.

It could have been worse, I suppose. I’m not a native Westerner . I grew up in the suburbs of New York. So I had a good idea of what driving in “the City” might be like. I knew that, if you live in the tri-state area, “the City” (and indeed each of its boroughs) is a distinct region, far different from its suburbs.

And I knew that my wife, a native Midwesterner, made a terrible linguistic faux pas when she told someone that she had business meetings “on” Manhattan and “in” Long Island. She got the prepositions exactly reversed. There’s no logic to it. It’s all just local knowledge.

I had already been thinking a lot about the power of locale and regionalism in America before my trip to New York. I had just read Ira Katznelson’s recent study of the New Deal, Fear Itself. Katznelson’s main theme is the immense power of the Southern bloc in Congress in the 1930s and 1940s, a power wielded primarily to maintain the harsh cruelty of segregation. Southerners were happy enough to support the New Deal in its earliest years, he argues.

But during Franklin Roosevelt’s second term they began to see, dimly on the horizon, the possibility that New Deal policies (especially the empowerment of labor unions) might give even a tiny amount of increased political strength, wages, and autonomy to African Americans. The vaguest hint of such changes sent the Southern legislators into a frenzy of opposition, and the New Deal’s energy soon began to sputter.

Katznelson mentions in passing that the Southerners could wield such power because they allied with Republicans, who were equally fiercely opposed to the New Deal. But everyone already knows about the Republicans, so there’s no need to go into any detail there. What’s new in Katznelson’s book is the obstructive power of the Democrats from the South, so that’s what gets all the attention.

Whether we are talking about visiting New York City or analyzing the New Deal – or pretty much anything else in America and its history — you can’t understand it unless you pay close attention to the power of regionalism.

Of course there is always the countervailing power of nationalism. When I wanted caffeine to keep up the sharp attention and quick reflexes a driver in New York City needs to survive, the only place I could find to sit and drink coffee was a Starbuck’s.

More seriously, Katznelson explains at length that, when FDR put out a patriotic call to all Americans to aid of Britain in its fight against Nazi Germany, white Southerners were the first to rally round the flag. They had good economic reasons: Their agricultural-based economy benefited most from free trade policies that were threatened by the Nazis, and the Roosevelt administration wooed them by putting a disproportionate number of new military bases in the South. FDR insured white Southern support by promising to keep the rapidly growing military strictly segregated.

But the white South was also moved by its traditional masculine code of honor, which had always been acted out most vividly in wartime. And white Southerners, despite their intense regionalism, still felt wounded by their lingering sense of being treated as second-class Americans (at best), a vestige of the Civil War that remained very much alive three-quarters of a century later.

Now the president was warning that the whole nation was imperiled and only a massively expanded military could save it. Whether FDR was right or wrong was hotly debated then in most of the country (and still is debated by thoughtful historians). But in the white South there was little debate. By rallying to the purported defense of the whole nation, white Southerners could exercise their sense of honor and show that they were fully equal to other regions in their patriotism — thus proving that they now deserved to be treated as fully equal Americans in every sense.

Ever since, the South has been far over-represented among Americans in military uniform (though since the 1960s that over-representation has included black and Latino as well as white Southerners).

All this got me thinking about the role of regionalism and its limits in American culture and politics — especially, in our own time, its limits. It’s really striking how relatively small a role regional identity now plays in American life, compared with the past. The long-term trend seems clearly to be working against regionalism.

When the nation was born, regional conflicts were fierce. So were state conflicts, even within the same region — so fierce that there was great doubt a union of the 13 original states could endure. Political compromises and economic ties were cultivated by political leaders quite intentionally to overcome the centrifugal forces. But the two key factors that held the union together emerged less consciously and more organically: a set of national myths and, among European-Americans, a largely unquestioned assumption of white supremacy.

Both of those factors played critical roles in reasserting the unity of the nation after it was torn apart by the Civil War. It was only after the Civil War that people began talking “the United States” in the singular, instead of the plural form that had been universal before the war: “these United States.”

One of the few things that really unified white people across the United States in those post-war years was white supremacy. Those who had lost loved ones fighting for slavery and those who had lost loved ones fighting against it agreed (with only a few murmurs of dissent) that white people were inherently different from and superior to those of other “races.” (The quotations mark are there to acknowledge that the concepts of race and of the various races are all social constructions.)

In recent decades the issue of national unity has been widely raised again. What holds the Union and all its people together? That question has disturbed some substantial number of Americans – at least among those who speak and write in the public arena – since the 1960s. But it has not been sparked by any significant resurgence of regionalism. Race and myth are still the key factors.

It’s no coincidence that the ’60s was the era of proud self-assertion among the “non-white races.” Those who have raised the question of national unity in worried tones have virtually all been white. In effect, many seem to be asking: Now that we can no longer assume that white people are the “normative” Americans, how can we know what norms bind us all together? The intense reactions stirred by proposals for immigration reform and the acquittal of George Zimmerman are stark reminders that racial issues still carry a powerful punch.

Of course it’s not fair to assume racial overtones whenever the question of national unity is raised. In the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s, all of the nation’s traditions, not merely its racial biases, were widely called into question. So even among those who sympathized with demands for genuine racial equality, some worried that the nation might not survive the dissolution of its other binding force, its national myths.

Take, for example, Richard Hughes, author of one of the very few recent books devoted to serious analysis of American political myths, Myths America Lives By. Hughes goes out of his way to note how racially loaded these myths have been, and how differently they are read by African-Americans. When he worries that the nation is “in peril of disintegration” he blames not any racial group, nor racial tensions in general, but political factions: the so-called “fundamentalists of the left, who can find no good in America whatsoever,” and the equally dangerous (in his view) fanatics on the right, who cling unquestioningly to the old myths that have so oppressed minority groups.

The proper middle ground, Hughes argues, is to revise the myths in light of current notions of equality by building on the one narrative that he claims is more than a myth: the national “Creed” that all men (and women too, of course) are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Americans must not “scuttle their national myths,” Hughes concludes, but embrace them “in their highest and noblest form … with extraordinary humility. … In this way, their national myths might yet sustain the promise of the American Creed.”

Is it a feasible project? That’s a question worthy of much more debate than it gets. The myths Hughes writes about — “the Chosen Nation,” “the Christian Nation,” “the Millennial Nation,” “the Innocent Nation” — may very well be so imbued with the seeds of oppression (racial and otherwise) that they are beyond saving in any noble form that can sustain the promise of liberty and justice for all.

But when a Westerner like me survives the rigors of New York City and studies about the depth of Southern influence in the demise of the New Deal spirit, he’s led to ask another question that deserves just as much debate and gets even less. It’s not just whether national unity is really possible, but why it remains such a crucial issue in American public life at all. Why do thoughtful people like Richard Hughes, and so many others, lie awake at night worrying about “what holds us together”?

What would be wrong with imagining “the United States” as merely a loose administrative structure for a group of quite autonomous regions? Or perhaps an agency for safeguarding human rights and redistributing wealth in the interests of greater equity, or an entity serving only the purpose of protecting its various regions from threats coming from outside U.S. borders, or a vast debating society where we congenially discuss competing myths and values, or any number of other functions one might think of that “the United States” could play, while leaving regions as the principal source of political-cultural identity?

It’s worth asking why such questions are so rarely raised, while it’s widely assumed that the one question, “What holds us together as a nation?” is a burning question that must be answered, quickly and decisively, if we are to avoid perishing in some imagined catastrophe.

 


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