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The Roots of Red vs. Blue Politics



    The cultural and regional divisions wracking this nation are the latest flare-up of a persistent conflict in American politics. But it's more than just a rematch of the Civil War. It's even deeper than that. It goes all the way back to Britain, where the ancestors of today's Northerners and Southerners didn't get along, either. The colonists brought their squabbling cultures to North America, where the fight continues to this day. 

    The ancestral homeland of today's Democratic Party is a place called East Anglia, in the lowlands of southeastern England. Its people were mostly Saxons, and they governed themselves through councils called "folkmoots," which became the model for the New England Town Meeting. Many East Anglians were middle-class artisans, and their literacy rate was twice the rest of England's - Cambridge University is located here. They were also anti-aristocratic - during the English Civil War, they sided with Oliver Cromwell in his fight to defeat Charles I and the Divine Right of Kings.

    The East Anglians brought their book-learning ways to New England, where they founded Harvard. To this day, New England has higher levels of income and education than any other part of the country. In his book Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in North America, Fischer describes their philosophy of government as "ordered liberty," which is another way of saying "liberalism."

    "Ordered liberty" also meant accepting restraints on one's behavior to preserve social harmony. In modern terms, that means gun control, sexual harassment laws and environmental regulations. It's also why you see so many small cars in New England.

    Virginia was settled by the Cavaliers, the Puritans' royalist enemies in the English Civil War. They came from southwestern England, which was Norman-influenced and aristocratic.

    Virginians believed in hierarchy. Their laws were designed to preserve the power of masters over servants. In a New England town, the cop was an elected constable. In a Virginia county, it was a sheriff, appointed by the king. Executions were common, but only for poor folks. Gentlemen were often let off with a brand on the thumb.

    You can't be a lord without someone to lord it over, so Virginia imported slaves from Africa.

    The very first contested election for president was a tilt between Massachusetts and Virginia: in 1796, John Adams, the Boston lawyer with the Harvard degree, defeated Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia slaveholder.

    After the Revolution, these cultures spread out across America. The New Englanders settled in upstate New York, the Western Reserve of Ohio, and then moved onward to Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, northern Indiana and northern Illinois. In his book The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America, historian Kevin Phillips calls this region Greater New England. It was a world of middle-class farmers, liberal arts colleges and abolitionism. Eventually, it came to encompass Washington and Oregon as well. This part of the country voted overwhelmingly for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and strongly supported the Union during the Civil War. Today, it's Democratic turf. Six generations later, Greater New England, added to the Delaware Valley, is an almost perfect overlay of what we call the Blue States.

    The regions diverge strongly on the use of violence. The Cavaliers brought with them an honor culture, in which duels and feuds were acceptable ways to avenge insults. Andrew Jackson, the first Scotch-Irish president, once killed a man in a duel. In New England, writes Fischer, "for more than three centuries, town schools have taught children not to use violence to solve their social problems." As Sen. James Webb, D-Va., once put it, "There's an old saying in the mountain South. Insult a Yankee and he'll sue you. Insult a mountain boy and he'll kill you." The murder rate in the South is 7 per 100,000. In New England, it is 2.4.

    "[The South] strongly supported every American war no matter what it was about or who it was against," Fischer writes. "Southern ideas of honor and the warrior ethic combined to create regional war fevers of great intensity in 1798, 1812, 1846, 1861, 1898, 1941, 1950 and 1965." And, he could add, in 2003.

    The bitter deadlock could also end with the rise of what Fischer calls an "omnibus candidate" who unites every region in a time of crisis. The greatest omnibus candidate of the 20th Century was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Once he left office, the nation lapsed back into its regional sniping.

    Four years ago, there was hope that Barack Obama could be the same sort of president, but if you look at a map of where Obama and Mitt Romney stand in the polls, you can see the battle lines are still there.


    This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $9.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.