American culture is significantly more regional than people assume. Diametrically opposed mind sets and world views bubble just beneath the surface of the national conversation. Rooted in 400 years of history, the threads that drive politics, economics and manners are surprisingly similar to our predecessors’.
This is the ‘more things change the more they stay the same’ theme of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. Colin Woodard‘s short (and interesting) book, offers a view of today’s America that is rooted in the histories of the various groups who settled the country. The groups who began the country didn’t really get along with each other very well.
Only when London began treating its colonies as a single unit— and enacted policies threatening to nearly all— did some of these distinct societies briefly come together to win a revolution and create a joint government. Nearly all of them would seriously consider leaving the Union in the eighty- year period after Yorktown; several went to war to do so in the 1860s. All of these centuries- old cultures are still with us today, and have spread their people, ideas, and influence across mutually exclusive bands of the continent. There isn’t and never has been one America, but rather several Americas.
Any effort to “restore” fundamental American values runs into an even greater obstacle: Each of our founding cultures had its own set of cherished principles, and they oft en contradicted one another. By the middle of the eighteenth century, eight discrete Euro- American cultures had been established on the southern and eastern rims of North America. For generations these distinct cultural hearths developed in remarkable isolation from one another, consolidating characteristic values, practices, dialects, and ideals.
Some championed individualism, others utopian social reform. Some believed themselves guided by divine purpose, others championed freedom of conscience and inquiry. Some embraced an Anglo- Saxon Protestant identity, others ethnic and religious pluralism. Some valued equality and democratic participation, others deference to a traditional aristocratic order. All of them continue to champion some version of their founding ideals in the present day. The United States had Founding Fathers, to be sure, but they were the grandfathers, great- grandfathers, or great-great-grandfathers of the men who met to sign the Declaration of Independence and to draft our first two constitutions. Our true Founders didn’t have an “original intent” we can refer back to in challenging times; they had original intents. (Colin Woodard in American Nations)
Woodard takes the reader on a tour of the wild twists and turns that resulted from the conflicting assumptions of the cultures that compose the United States. It’s no accident that New England, with its emphasis on community as the center of spirituality, was the first place to embrace the industrial era. The deep South, rooted in the Charleston plantation business, had individual redemption at its core. The question of the relative importance of community versus individual responsibility has been with us ever since.
The real, historically based regional map of our continent respects neither state nor international boundaries, but it has profoundly influenced our history since the days of Jamestown and Plymouth, and continues to dictate the terms of political debate today. I spent years exploring the founding, expansion, and influence of these regional entities— stateless nations, really—while writing my new book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. It demonstrates that our country has never been united, either in purpose, principles, or political behavior.
We’ve never been a nation-state in the European sense; we’re a federation of nations, more akin to the European Union than the Republic of France, and this confounds both collective efforts to find common ground and radical campaigns to force one component nation’s values on the others. Once you recognize the real map (see above), you’ll see its shadow everywhere: in linguists’ dialect maps, cultural anthropologist’s maps of the spread of material culture, cultural geographer’s maps of religious regions, and the famous blue county/red county maps of nearly every hotly contested presidential election of the past two centuries. Understanding America’s true component “nations” is essential to comprehending the Tea Party movement, just as it clarifies the events of the American Revolution or the U.S. Civil War.
Our regional divides stem from the fact that the original clusters of North American colonies were settled by people from distinct regions of the British Islands—and from France, the Netherlands, and Spain—each with their own religious, political, and ethnographic characteristics. For generations, these discrete Euro-American cultures developed in remarkable isolation from one another, consolidating their own cherished principles and fundamental values, and expanding across the eastern half of the continent in nearly exclusive settlement bans.
Some championed individualism, others utopian social reform. Some believed themselves guided by divine purpose, others championed freedom of conscience and inquiry. Some embraced an Anglo-Protestant identity, others ethnic and religious pluralism. Some valued equality and democratic participation, others deference to a traditional aristocratic order modeled on the slave states of classical antiquity. Throughout the colonial period and the Early Republic, they saw themselves as competitors— for land, settlers, and capital—and even as enemies, taking opposing sides in the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812.
Nearly all of these regional cultures would consider leaving the Union in the eighty-year period after Yorktown, and two went to war to do so in the 1860s. Immigration enriched these nations—or, more accurately, the nations that were attractive to immigrants—but it did not fundamentally alter the characteristics of these “dominant” cultures; the children and grandchildren of immigrants didn’t assimilate into an American culture, instead tending to assimilate to the norms of the regional culture in which they found themselves. There’s never been an America, but rather several Americas, and there are eleven today. (Colin Woodard in Washington Monthly)
While there are some obvious political implications of the analysis, this set of ideas is critically important to people management processes everywhere.
America’s most essential and abiding divisions stem from the fact that the U.S. is a federation composed of the whole or parts of 11 disparate regional cultures — each exhibiting conflicting agendas and the characteristics of nationhood — and which respect neither state nor international boundaries, bleeding over the borders of Canada and Mexico as readily as they divide California, Texas, Illinois or Pennsylvania. The differences between them shaped the scope and nature of the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution and, most tragically, the Civil War. Since 1960, the fault lines between these nations have been growing wider, fueling culture wars, constitutional struggles and those ever- present pleas for unity.
What this all amounts to is this: As Americans sort themselves into like-minded communities, they’re also sorting themselves, more than ever, into like-minded nations, cultural fiefdoms where the forces of contention between nations are more easily rallied, rendering the compromise and consensus necessary to move the wheels of the federal government increasingly difficult to achieve. (Colin Woodard in Bloomberg)
Almost accidentally, Woodard delivers a clear and compelling view of what a culture actually is. By noticing that America’s fabled mobility is really an ongoing attempt to group like minded people with each other, he points to the fact that cultural fit (both nationally and on the job) is a question that transcends any individual company. Regional culture is the setting in which and organization’s own culture is formed.
While this will surely seem like hyper-intellectual crud to many readers, Woodard has provided us with a tool for predicting the likelihood that mergers and acquisitions will work. The Taleo/Oracle match is likely to have some disconnects at the roots. The SAP/SuccessFactors will integrate every bit as well as the SAP Labs have done with the home office.
It’s also a guide to thinking about whether or not a new employee will mesh with the existing team and a great way to think about the foundations of the culture in your company.