14 March 2016

The Woodard thesis, again rearing its head

Over at the Unz Review they are clearly having a lot of fun watching the Trump campaign. (And why shouldn’t they? The Trump campaign is highly entertaining, in a trashy reality-TV kind of way.) There is even an article up there now, attempting to explain how it happens that Trump is showing so poorly in the Plains states and the Upper Midwest. Clearly the economic, class-driven explanation is not good enough in this case, because these states too have been hit hard by hard times, and there is a phenomenon of longer standing whereby the small towns and villages of the Plains states have been, to use Jayman’s phrase, ‘boiled off’ by economic globalisation: those with the means and the will to achieve class mobility leave for the large cities, and those who remain tend to be both poorer and politically more conservative. If the economic vectors of the analysis of the New York Times are to be believed, these voters – whites with ‘old economy’ jobs and not-particularly-high educational attainment – ought to be turning out in droves for Trump as they have been for Sanders, but that’s not what’s been happening.

The Unz article therefore looks (or rather, looks again) to the Woodard thesis, combined with the OCEAN personality test-driven ‘mood map’ of the United States that was published awhile back in Time. (As my gentle readers know, there is seldom an internet quiz of this sort that I, wretched egotistical sinner that I am, can successfully resist: I scored O20-C69-E05-A79-N14 on the personality quiz, and the Time quiz plonked me down in Nebraska, right in the middle of the ‘friendly and conventional’ Plains-and-Upper-Midwest.) I have a love-hate relationship – more an infatuation-quibble relationship, to be honest – with the Woodard thesis. Jayman’s article on Unz is in part a demonstration of one of the quibbles I have that renders the Woodard thesis a possible annoyance: attributing cultural differences to heredity, rather than to ethnic and linguistic pathways.

But it’s a fascinating argument that Jayman assembles, as to why Trump shows poorly in the ‘friendly and conventional’ states and does so well in the ‘temperamental and unhibited’ ones. The long and short of it is: culture matters, and Woodard has a working model for ethno-linguistic and cultural differences on the North American continent which offers a certain degree of explanatory power. Generally speaking, Trump’s abrasive tough-guy New Netherland bluster might indeed play very well among the Scots-Irish of the Inland South, but among us German and Scandinavian flatlanders it comes off as ‘big-city gasbag’. On the other hand, clearly we have been responding well to Sanders: Sanders won big in Kansas, Nebraska and Minnesota, and he even put up a tough fight in the counties of north Texas – it was east Texas which carried Hillary to victory there. I maintain that this is consistent with the radical Populist legacy on the Plains, which is currently dormant but, as witnessed by the enthusiastic embrace of Sanders, far from dead.

At any rate, this is a riveting election to watch, even though I can’t really in good conscience bring myself to support any of the mainstream candidates. (I’m a fan of some of the third party options, though.) The candidates themselves are less interesting to me than their supporters, and how those supporters are showing some of the deep cultural fault lines in American society in some spectacular ways. Very similar to the election of 1860 – where the Democrats fragmented into Northern and Southern blocs, and where the Whigs after their reorganisation as the Republicans also drove some of their disgruntled former members into the Constitutional Union Party – what we may be seeing here is the unravelling of our current party system as some of the old ‘national’ alliances reorient themselves.

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