As the descendant of “communitarian Yankees” and “unsophisticated” Scots-Irish alike, I found this Michael Hirsh item whining about the alleged Southern domination of American politics (no, this is not a joke) to be one of the worst things I have read all year. Here is the Yankee-as-besieged-enlightener morality tale:
This region was heavily settled by Scots-Irish immigrants–the same ethnic mix King James I sent to Northern Ireland to clear out the native Celtic Catholics [bold mine-DL]. After succeeding at that, they then settled the American Frontier, suffering Indian raids and fighting for their lives every step of the way. And the Southern frontiersmen never got over their hatred of the East Coast elites and a belief in the morality and nobility of defying them. Their champion was the Indian-fighter Andrew Jackson. The outcome was that a substantial portion of the new nation developed, over many generations, a rather savage, unsophisticated set of mores. Traditionally, it has been balanced by a more diplomatic, communitarian Yankee sensibility from the Northeast and upper Midwest. But that latter sensibility has been losing ground in population numbers–and cultural weight.
Where to begin? One might note that Scots-Irish are also a Celtic people, which makes the designation of Irish Catholics as Celtic rather redundant. Nowhere in this does Hirsh seem to consider the possibility that despising the Eastern elite was, is, a good idea. The “communitarian Yankee” sensibility is not really waning. Indeed, I would argue that it remains disturbingly strong despite its long history of doing great harm to this country.
Every foreign war or foreign policy leading to involvement in war since 1898 has largely been supported and waged by the “diplomatic, communitarian Yankee” set. Who wanted us to go to war with Spain? Overwhelmingly, it was Northeasterners who fueled the frenzy and a Midwesterner who presided over it. Who took us to the edge of war with Great Britain over a Venezuelan boundary line? A New Yorker named Cleveland (who was otherwise actually quite sound on foreign policy). Who wanted us to enter WWI? Liberal Protestants and Anglophiles from the Eastern Establishment. Wilson was from the mid-Atlantic region for almost his entire life, and eschewed the Jeffersonian restraint in foreign affairs of the land of his birth. Who urged entry into WWII? The same people as had urged entry into WWI, and often for the same reasons. Southerners, Westerners, fundamentalists, the “unsophisticated” of the land were overwhelmingly against involvement in European wars. Panama, the Gulf War, Kosovo–all were the products of “realists” and internationalists. No doubt Hirsh thinks involvement in those wars, which grew out of the internationalism and/or economic interests of the Easterners, was desirable,. but he cannot pretend that America has usually gone to war because of the Scots-Irish. The Scots-Irish typically are unenthusiastic about the war, but serve disproportionately in the military because they believe patriotism and duty require it. Meanwhile, the preachers of American nationalism were typically Northerners, whether we trace it back to Webster and
Clay (correction: as has been pointed out in the comments, Clay was a Kentuckian, so he doesn’t really belong in this sentence–I regret the mistake) or consider Lincoln as one of its main proponents or look to T.R. and FDR. Who has given us the Iraq war? Bush may have lived in Texas for a while, but he is by background and education as thoroughly a product of the Eastern establishment as anyone alive. Do the so-called “Jacksonians” tend to support the war more than others? Yes, but not always enthusiastically or zealously; they support American wars because they believe, sometimes mistakenly, that it is their patriotic duty to do so. It takes Easterners, particularly those reared in the “realist” and “internationalist” schools and weaned on Wilsonian fantasies about democracy and self-determination, to come up with the sort of interventionist and ideologically-motivated crusading of the last twenty years. Middle Americans will support wars they believe are waged in self-defense or for the sake of national security; it takes Easterners to concoct preposterous theories of targeting potentially hostile states with “preventive” invasions. The unsophisticated yokels of the backwaters, as Hirsh would see them, do not, would not, imagine such elaborate nonsense.
No one can look at American politics today, seeing the main presidential candidates who are now running for the White House, and conclude that the South has triumphed in any meaningful way: we have two out-and-out Northerners and a transplant whose ancestors may be Scots-Irish but whose loyalties are to the central state and the status quo and who has immersed himself fully in the culture of the capital. The South has become the most populous region, and yet it still wields vastly less cultural power than the major urban centers of the East Coast and California. Hirsh is free to prefer the urban, Eastern liberals, but he should give up on the idea that the power and influence of Easterners are meaningfully in decline.
After all, who still has the real power? Overwhelmingly, they and urban elites around the country do, while Middle Americans will express their displeasure only if these people openly mock or belittle their beliefs. So long as the pandering and the charade of phony populism continue, Scots-Irish folks and Southerners seem mostly content to accept and even to support a system that consistently works against them, their history and their interests.