Midwest vs Coasts: history, culture & politics

Often in reading about politics, my Midwestern worldview can make me feel like I’m working from a slightly different context than mainstream culture. The mainstream media tends to put issues in terms of Northeastern Democrats versus Southern Republicans or else East Coast Establishment versus West Coast Libertarianism/Liberalism. The Midwest is none of these.

I was thinking about this last night when I was reading American Nations by Colin Woodard (which I came across in my recent research that began with an earlier post). Here is one of the passages that made me think about this (Kindle Locations 2962-3053):

“New Englanders headed west across the northern tier of the Northwest Territory, land-hungry settlers from the Midlands were pouring into the central Midwest. The Midlanders—a great many of them German speaking—carried their pluralistic culture into the Heartland, a place long since identified with neighborliness, family-centered progress, practical politics, and a distrust of big government. Spanning the north-central portions of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, the Greater Midlands spread through central and southern Iowa, northern Missouri, eastern Nebraska and Kansas, and even northernmost Texas—an area many times greater than its original hearth on the shores of the Delaware Bay. Its settlements—a collection of mutually tolerant ethnic enclaves—served as a buffer between the intolerant, communitarian morality of Greater Yankeedom and the individualistic hedonism of Greater Appalachia, just as they had earlier on the eastern seaboard. New Englanders and Appalachian people often settled among them, but neither group’s values took hold. The Midland Midwest would develop as a center of moderation and tolerance, where people of many faiths and ethnicities lived side by side, largely minding their own business. Few Midwestern Midlanders were Quakers, but they unconsciously carried aspects of William Penn’s vision to fruition.”

(Note: Here in Eastern Iowa, there are a fair number of Quakers. Offhand, I know of 3 Quaker churches and a Quaker school in the immediate area. Demographic maps show a relatively higher percentage of Quakers in the Midwest, particularly in Ohio, Indiana and Iowa; where I live, Johnson County, is only a county away from one of the concentrated Quaker communities in the US, Keokuk County. However, maybe this only increased after the early immigrants came to the region. I noticed a 1914 book about Quakers in Iowa which notes, “Although the Quakers have not been numerous in Iowa, the influence of their attitude toward life has been considerable in the history of the Commonwealth.” Maybe living near a concentrated population of Quakers biases my perception of the Midwest slightly.)

“Most Midlanders reached the region on the National Road, which guided their settlement to the Mississippi and beyond. Pennsylvania Germans did their best to replicate the towns they’d left behind. New Philadelphia, Ohio, was founded by a congregation of Moravians and soon attracted German-speaking Mennonites. In Ohio, Pennsylvania Dutch dominated a fifty-mile-wide belt of farms south of the Yankee Western Reserve in settlements called Berlin, Hanover, Dresden, Frankfort, Potsdam, Strasburg, or Winesburg. Amish and Dunkers founded Nazareth, Canaan, and Bethlehem. Pennsylvania Dutch barns and United Brethren churches sprang up amid tidy farmhouses and fields of wheat. From the 1830s this familiar cultural environment attracted huge numbers of immigrants directly from Germany who congregated in Cincinnati.1

“In Indiana the Midlander belt of settlement was narrower due to their discomfort with the Appalachian dominance over the territory’s affairs. Indiana’s Borderlanders called themselves Hoosiers, came from the backcountry of Kentucky and western Virginia, and were ambivalent about slavery. But to Yankees and Midlanders they might as well have come from the Deep South. “Avoid settling in those states where negro slavery prevails,” a Philadelphia newspaper advised would-be emigrants to the west. “Your children will be corrupted by their vices and the slave lords will never treat you like Christians or fellow citizens.” To settle in Yankee-dominated Michigan or Wisconsin, meanwhile, meant putting up with the New Englanders’ irritating desire to make everyone into a Yankee. Many Midlanders did ultimately put down roots there (Milwaukee would declare itself the “German capital of America”), but they had to expend time and energy resisting Yankee attempts to close their beer gardens on the Sabbath, to force English-only public schools on their children, and to stamp out their Germanness. In the Midland zone, foreigners, Catholics, and others found a society untroubled by diversity but skeptical of slave labor, warfare, and the cult of the individual.2″

(Note: My mom’s family who were Germans would be included in the above mentioned ‘Hoosiers’. They originally settled in Southern Indiana from Kentucky, but I don’t know how long they were in Kentucky. If they had only stopped in Kentucky on there way to Indiana, they might not have picked up as much of the Appalachian culture. However, living in Southern Indiana, they inevitably picked up some of that culture. In fact, my mom raised in Northern Indiana still to this day speaks with some of the Appalachian dialect that she apparently got from her family. Anyway, from what I know of my family on that side, it would seem they took on a fair amount of the Appalachian culture, beyond just dialect. My ancestors probably would have maintained more of their own German culture had they initially settled in a more Northern or more Western region of the Midlands. Yankee culture tried to enforce assimilation, but the Scots-Irish of Appalachia weren’t known for being friendly to other cultures either.)

“Midlanders settled a swath of the north-central area of Illinois, anchored by the border cities of Chicago and St. Louis. Northern Missouri became a Midland stronghold as well, with St. Louis supporting two German-language daily newspapers by 1845. Bavarian immigrant George Schneider founded the Bavarian Brewery there in 1852, selling it to Eberhard Anheuser and Adolphus Busch a few years later. Continued immigration from Germany enabled Midland civilization to dominate the American Heartland despite competition from aggressive Yankees and Borderlanders. By midcentury, German immigrants were arriving by riverboat in St. Louis and from there fanning out across northern Missouri and the eastern prairies. Railroads followed, carrying immigrants from Europe and the coastal Midlands alike.3

“Germans had many reasons to abandon central Europe, where forty independent German states were squabbling over the great issues raised by the French Revolution: the legitimacy of feudalism, monarchies, and an economic system in which most people lived in dire poverty. Efforts to unify the region into a single state under a representative government failed in 1848, and many Germans looked to escape the military autocracy that followed. Even before the collapse of the so-called ’48 Revolution, liberals had wished for a place where they could build a New Germany, a model for the democratic, egalitarian society they had hoped their own splintered nation could become. “The foundations of a new and free Germany in the great north American republic can be laid by us,” the leader of one German colonization expedition to the American Midwest told his followers in 1833. “We may in at least one of the American territories create a state that is German from its foundations up, in which all those to whom the future here at home may seem . . . intolerable, can find refuge.” This and other expeditions were drawn to northern Missouri by the writings of Prussian-born resident Gottfried Duden, who extolled the region as a ready-made utopia. They were further encouraged by the new German Society of Philadelphia, which sought to found “a New Germany” in the west as “a secure refuge for ourselves, our children, and our descendants.” As the United States headed to the brink of civil war in the late 1850s, two leading German political analysts predicted the union would break into a number of independent states, some “under German rule.” These ideas are probably not what ultimately motivated the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Germans who actually made the move to the American Midlands, but they did provide the means for many of them to get there, in the form of useful information, organized emigration societies, and political assistance. No state would ever come close to being dominated by the German-born—Wisconsin stalled at 16 percent in 1860—but the 1830–1860 exodus from the Fatherland ensured that the diverse and tolerant Midlander civilization would come to dominate the American Heartland.4

The flow of Quaker migrants was much smaller, but they were drawn to the Midland Midwest for similar reasons. In the early nineteenth century, Friends still sought to separate themselves from the world, and many found it harder and harder to do so on the densely populated eastern seaboard. During the course of the century, a number of Quaker enclaves outside of the Midlands relocated to Ohio and Central Indiana. Disgusted by slavery, century-old Quaker communities abandoned Tidewater and the Deep South. Indiana eclipsed Philadelphia as the center of North American Quakers in the 1850s. To this day, Richmond, Indiana, is second only to the City of Brotherly Love in total Quaker population. Nestled among communities of Germans, Scots-Irish, English Methodists, Moravians, Amish, and others, the Quakers had found a cultural landscape almost identical to that of southeastern Pennsylvania.5

Like the Yankee Midwest, the Greater Midlands was settled by groups of families who had been neighbors on the eastern seaboard or in Europe. Unlike Yankees, they generally weren’t interested in assimilating people in neighboring communities, let alone in entire states. As in the Delaware Valley, individual towns were often dominated by a particular ethnic group, but counties tended to be pluralistic. Midwestern towns took their gridiron street plans from Pennsylvania precedents. The Germans set the tone, generally buying land with the intent to build lasting family homesteads rather than as speculative investments. They sought a permanent, organic connection to their land, taking unusual care to ensure its long-term productivity through soil and forest conservation measures first perfected on the tiny farm plots of central Europe. Whether arriving from Europe or Pennsylvania, they built their homes from stone whenever possible, as it was more durable than the wood used by the Yankees or Appalachian people.6

“Scholars have observed that the Germans insisted on entering the American melting pot collectively, on their own terms, and bearing ingredients they felt the country was lacking. Germans arriving from Europe usually had a higher standard of education, craftsmanship, and farming knowledge than most of their American neighbors, whom they found grasping and uncultured. “Americans are in their regard for art half-barbarian,” immigrant Gustave Koerner remarked in 1834, “and their taste is not much better than that of the Indian aborigines, who stick metal rings through their noses.” The Germans avoided assimilating, using their language in schools and newspapers and almost exclusively marrying other Germans as late as the 1880s. In a country rushing madly toward the frontier, the Germans distinguished themselves by their emphasis on stable, permanent, rooted communities, where families would work the same piece of land for generations. This rootedness would be perhaps their most lasting contribution to the culture of the Midlands and, by extension, the American Midwest.7″

(Note: The above is what I had in mind when I was writing yesterday my post Radicals & Reformers of Indiana. In that post, I was discussing the revisionist history that claims assimilation was the norm prior to the multiculturalism of 20th century progressivism. In reality, America was in many ways more culturally diverse and less culturally assimilated in the 19th century than it is today.)

The people of the Midland Midwest had political values that distinguished the region from both the Yankee upper Midwest and the Appalachian lower Midwest. Midland areas resisted Yankee cultural imperialism and thus voted against the new Yankee-controlled political vehicle that emerged in the 1850s: the Republican Party. Midlanders did not wish to create a homogeneous nation: Quakers championed religious freedom, at least for Christians; new British immigrants were coming for economic opportunity, not to create an ideal Calvinist republic; Germans were accustomed to living among people of different religions. While these and other groups settling in the Midlands zone may have disliked and disagreed with one another, none sought to rule or assimilate the others beyond the town or neighborhood level. All rejected the Yankee efforts to do so.

(Note: Multiculturalism is and always has been the culture of the Midland Midwest.)

As a result, throughout the 1850s a majority of Midlanders supported the anti-Yankee Democratic Party, which, at the time, was the party of the Deep South, Tidewater, and immigrants, especially Catholics. Democrats in this era rejected the notion that governments had a moral mission to better society, either through assimilating minorities or eliminating slavery. People—whether Deep Southern slave lords or the impoverished Irish Catholic immigrants of Boston—should be left to go about their business as they wished.

But at the end of the 1850s this allegiance to the Democrats began to change as tensions built over the extension of slavery to Missouri, Kansas, and other new states and territories. Midland opinion began to splinter along doctrinal lines. Religious groups whose beliefs emphasized the need to redeem the world through good works, moral reforms, or utopian experiments found common ground with the Yankees, first on slavery, and later on efforts to curb alcoholism, blasphemous speech, and antisocial behaviors; this led Dutch Calvinists, German Sectarians, Swedish Lutherans, Northern Methodists, Free Will Baptists, and General Synod German Lutherans to embrace the Republican Party. People whose religious beliefs did not emphasize—or actively discouraged—efforts to make the present world holy stuck with the laissez-faire Democrats: Confessional German Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, and Southern Methodists. Groups occupying the middle ground on these issues (Anglicans, the Disciples of Christ) were split.8

The end result was characteristically Midland: a large region of swing voters whose support could make or break nearly every future federal coalition around any given issue. On the eve of the Civil War, slavery would push a narrow majority of Midlanders into the Republican camp. Careful forensic analysis of the 1860 presidential vote by late twentieth-century political scientists has shown that this shift in Midlander opinion—particularly among Germans—tipped Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana into Abraham Lincoln’s column, giving him control of the White House. Defeated on the federal stage by the defection of the Midland Midwest, the Deep South would move to secede almost immediately.9″

My Mom’s family is mostly German-Americans who came through the Appalachian country of Kentucky and finally settled in Indiana (interestingly, Abraham Lincoln’s family also went from Kentucky to Indiana where he spent most of his childhood, the reason given for the move was partly because of the slavery issue, Kentucky being a slave state and Indiana a non-slave state; by the way, Lincoln had a personal and political connection to the utopian socialist New Harmony community that was located near the area where Lincoln’s family and my family lived; also, like Paine who inspired him, Lincoln had family ties to Quakerism and, like Paine, sought to self-educate himself as was encouraged in the Quaker tradition). My mom’s family seems to have a bit more of what people think of as the Scots-Irish culture (not known for tendencies toward socialism and self-education), but I was born in the Midlands of German-American Ohio and raised in the Midlands of various states with Iowa as my home state. Both the Midlands Midwest and Appalachia have cultures that mistrust big government, although for different reasons, the former because of a focus on local communities (local governance and civic mindedness) and the latter because of a focus on individualism and a disinterest in any collective organization beyond kinship.

The Midlands has never easily fit into the categories of Southern aristocratic conservatism or Northeastern paternalistic liberalism. Certainly, the Northeast did add a certain flavor to Midwestern culture, especially with some of the New England type of college towns that can be found as far as Iowa. However, the Midwest had to deal with multiculturalism in a way that many other regions of the country didn’t have to deal with. The closest parallel might be parts of the West Coast which makes sense considering many Midwesterners moved to the West Coast during the Dust Bowl years, thus giving to the West Coast its Standard American English. The Midwest shares with the Northeast and the West Coast a love of multiculturalism, although the Midwest gives a very different spin to it.

Midwesterners are liberal in this sense, but this liberalism isn’t always perceived by the rest of the country. Midwesterners are so laidback and not generally outspoken in politics. Texans and other Southerners may speak of live and let live, but Midwesterners genuinely live this motto to a greater extent. Many Americans outside of the Midwest might find it odd how radicaly left-wing the Midwestern states can be at times. We have high union membership, we have some states with same-sex marriage or same-sex union rights, and we have a history of socialism.

Eugene V. Debs, one of the most influential American socialists, was born and raised in Indiana. We also had many socialists communities starting in the 19th century through the 20th century, including New Harmony in Southern Indiana around the time my family moved into that area and including decades of Sewer Socialist mayors in Milwaukee. Big business and big government oppression led many Midwestern socialists to flee to Canada, but even to this day there are successful socialist communities such as Eastwind which is located in the lower Midwest. Despite the decline of overt socialism, social democracy which is closely allied with socialism continues to reign as the dominant political system of the Midwest. My home of Iowa City is a perfect example of social democracy in action.

The following is another section from the same book (Kindle Locations 3799-3819):

Despite a long history of abolitionist sentiment, the Midlands had been ambivalent about Southern secession prior to the attack on Sumter. The Quaker/Anabaptist commitment to pacifism trumped moral qualms about slavery. Newspapers and politicians from Midland areas of Pennsylvania advocated allowing the Deep South to secede peacefully. Midland-controlled northern Delaware found itself at odds with the Tidewater-dominated south of the state, with some fearing violence might break out between the sections. Midland southern New Jersey had no intention of joining a slave-trading Gotham city-state, even if northern Jersey did.

In the 1860 presidential election the Midlands voted overwhelmingly for Lincoln, except for northern Maryland and Delaware, where he did not appear on the ballot. (In those places, Midlanders voted for the moderate Bell instead.) Lincoln easily won most of the Midland Midwest from central Ohio to southern Iowa, tipping Illinois and Indiana into his column. While Midlanders voted with their Yankee neighbors, they had no desire to be governed by them. Faced with the possibility of a national dissolution, most Midland political and opinion leaders hoped to join the Appalachian-controlled states to create a Central Confederacy stretching from New Jersey to Arkansas. The proposed nation would serve as a neutral buffer area between Yankeedom and the Deep South, preventing the antagonists from going to war with each other. John Pendleton Kennedy, a Baltimore publisher and former congressman, championed this “Confederacy of Border States,” which opposed both the Deep South’s program of expansion by conquest and the Yankee plans to preserve the Union by force. It was, he argued, the “natural and appropriate medium through which the settlement of all differences is eventually to be obtained.” Maryland’s governor, Thomas Hicks, saw merit in the proposal, which could preserve the peace in a state split between Midland, Appalachian, and Tidewater sections; he corresponded with governors of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Ohio, and Missouri (all of which had substantial Midland sections) plus New York and Virginia to lay the groundwork for such an alliance should the Union break up.13

But the Deep South lost all Midland support after Sumter. In Philadelphia, Easton, and West Chester—Pennsylvania communities that had previously been centers of secessionist sympathy—mobs destroyed pro-Southern newspaper offices, drove pro-Southern politicians from their homes, assaulted secessionists in the streets, and forced homes and businesses to display Union flags. In Maryland the Central Confederacy proposal became obsolete overnight; Midland and Appalachian sections rallied to the Union, Tidewater ones to the Southern Confederacy. Their flag attacked, Midland sections of Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri threw in their lot with the Yankees.14″

Isn’t that interesting?

Imagine if a Central Confederacy had formed. If the South had resisted turning to violence, the Midland Midwest (and upper Appalachia) wouldn’t have turned to fight with the Northeast in defense of the Union. Also, if the South hadn’t tried to force its slaveholding aristocracy onto the rest of the country (through undemocratically forcing slavery onto new states and by forcing non-slave states to submit to the power and authority of slave states), most Americans in the rest of the country would have been fine with leaving Southerners alone. It was force, oppression and violence that Midlanders and Borderlanders refused to accept from the South. It was the principle of it that bothered these Americans. If the North had first turned to violence in a similar manner, they very well might have gone to the defense of the South.

This is why it is so important for American presidential campaigns to begin in Iowa, in the Heartland. To win the heart of America usually means to win the entire country or at least to win the popular vote. Republicans try to look good in Iowa despite the fact that Iowa in recent history usually goes to Democrats.

I don’t know if that clarifies what I was stated at the beginning of this post. I’m a Midwesterner in my outlook on life. When I come across discussions about politics, especially when it involves those on the far right or far left, I feel like my own understanding is ignored.

I don’t think it is intentional. It’s simply that most Americans are from different regions than I am from. The most densely populated regions are on or near the coasts (West and East, Northeast and Deep South), and it is these regions where most political extremists are found. If I try to join discussions with such people, I feel like I have to translate my own views into their political terms and their social context. I realize that I understand them better than they understand me. As a member of fly-over territory, I constantly am barraged by the mainstream media that comes from the coasts. Those on the coasts, however, are mostly unaware of Midwestern media and hence unaware of the Midwest in general. Sadly, because of coastal dominance, even average Midwesterners have become increasingly uninformed and misinformed about the history, culture and politics of the Midwest.

In some ways, I think the Midwest is more radical than any other region of the US. It is radical because it is something entirely different, something that challenges the very notion of what this country is, what this country has been and could become. The Midwest is largely the creation of cultures from Northern Europe such as Germany. This Northern European culture still remains in the Midwest. Like Northern Europe, the Midwest has low economic inequality and low rates of social problems. Maybe it is time for average Americans to stop defining themselves according to the worldview of coastal elites.

 * * * *

After writing the above, I realized I had forgotten about one issue that motivated my thinking in this direction. I was reading an interview/discussion and a guest post over at SKEPOET’s blog. In both, the issue of regions came up, although only in terms of comparing countries. In the first one linked, one particular section of the discussion stood out:

Keith418:  [ . . . ] I don’t see a criticism of the managed society developing on the right or on the left. Instead, people pick vaguely defined managerial forces they wish to see prevail, but the structure and core operating beliefs of these experts is seldom acknowledged or challenged. Many people on the left just want more humane and caring management – which is quite a different demand from that of the people themselves being allowed to make the most important decisions that effect their lives. There are those on the paleocon right who evidence a kind of cranky antipathy towards the managerial elites, but these folks still don’t seem truly ready to abandon the technological society these same trained experts have provided for them. The neocon right has always cultivated its own managers and think tanks and has always been quite ready to enjoy what a “big government” made of empowered managers can provided.  For both the left and the right, taking power back from those they have ceded it to will take effort and energy. Who is ready to start that process and what sacrifices will they make to get there? The alternative is just to insist on better management – and not to attack and question the power and role of the managers at all.

He does make a fair point here, but such generalizations can be problematic. Instead of just comparing countries or international cultures, I was wondering if more insight might be gained by a more fine-tuned analysis of the regions within the US (and within other countries). If we don’t look in detail at how we got here, how can we speak of where we are going and where we might end up?

The ideal of a society managed by an elite has tended to be more of a coastal phenomenon. In the Midwest, there is the ideal of managing at the local level of communities where there can be a balance between a “more humane and caring management” and “the people themselves being allowed to make the most important decisions that effect their lives”. The most notable example of this balance is that of the Milwaukee Sewer Socialists.

We ignore this cultural tradition and its future potential at our own peril. Instead of looking outside for rupture from the present system, why not look inward for the native traditions that can erupt naturally as part of the culture? If we want to avoid technocrats, then any revolution must arise naturally rather than being externally foced upon the population.

Skepoet: Would you say that right and left are largely irrelevant positions?

Keith418:  Well, even if I did, what would be gained? Why do people still cling to these terms and think and act as if they were, indeed, still profoundly meaningful? Since the ’60s – I’m thinking of Karl Hess and even before him – many have tried to point out differing, and more determining and accurate kinds of dichotomies. Centralized vs. decentralized approaches, authoritarian vs. individualistic choices, top-down vs. bottom up styles. Why, after all this time, do people keep using “left and right”? What is concealed, what unrevealed truth is carried in these terms that continues to prevent their exhaustion?

Maybe we cling to these terms because what needs to be resolved is at the ground level of culture rather than in the heavenly sphere of ideas. The devil is in the details, not in the abstractions. Likewise, to borrow a phrase from Philip K. Dick, God is in the garbage. The real fight is in the dirt and muck of local culture. That is the only place ideological conflict can be fundamentally resolved. As former neocon Francis Fukuyama came to understand, healthy institutions must arise from within a culture as part of the local traditions and knowledge of communities.

Skepoet: What do you think remains unresolved at the core of the idea of left and right then as the fact that categories do not seem to leave us would indicate?   In my mind, when categories won’t go away despite the existence of more precise semantic categories, there is something unresolved at the core of the idea. Perhaps I am wrong about this, but I suspect you approach this similarly, although it may be for different reasons.

Keith418: Well, what are the origin of the terms? They go back to the days of the French Revolution. What remains unresolved from that point? What questions were asked then that still haven’t been answered – and which our political definition still, somehow, entail? [ . . . ]

To me, these terms represent differing sides on the nature of the dream of shared human life, the great motivating metaphysical dream that floats above us and lives through us as we seek to create a world for ourselves.

Maybe so. I’m not unfamiliar with nor uninterested in such metaphysical perspective. However, for my thinking at the moment, I feel drawn to ground these metaphysical dreams in worldly particulars.

Metaphysical dreams don’t just float. They are more like the mist hovering along the ground drenching the world with its wetness, condensing into water that feeds life and then evaporating once again. Such mist follows closely the geography of hills and hollows, obscuring the world beyond the immediate place we stand even as it gives form to the air we breathe.