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Sohrab Ahmari, David French, and the 11 Nations of America

Perhaps you’ve been following the intra-conservative dust-up unfolding between Sohrab Ahmari and David French. It begun in the confined space of tweets but has since broadened to a full essay from Ahmari, lamenting his perceptions of the strategy and tactics of more libertarian-minded conservatives, picking a fight by declaring it “David Frenchism.”

French and his body of work don’t accurately fit Ahmari’s perceptions, and French is notably defended by fellow conservatives here, here, and here. French has more recently responded directly as well. Yet, Ahmari’s clarion call remains troublesome:

Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral.

Ahmari is in effect calling for a responding to Robespierre with more Robespierre, rather than responding to Robespierre with Burke. That’s something, but it’s not conservatism (and French’s retort directly counters the troubling statism latent in Ahmari’s position).

Moreover, Ahamri is calling for like-minded allies to:

[F]ight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.

Eh, ok. Aside from disputing how one might get there – I much prefer Burke to Robespierre – Ahmari is pining for an America that never existed.

One of the better books about our modern politics includes a visual you may have seen before:

Image credit: Colin Woodard.

Those are the “11 Nations” of America, as described by Colin Woodard in “American Nations,” published in 2011.

A key point in the book is these 11 Nations are often irrelevant to state borders. Which is why for example, the politics of the coastal portions of states on the Pacific Coast differs mightily from the politics of the interior portions of the same states. And an essential element of what Woodard discusses is the immense variety of culture and norms across the different parts of America. From its beginning!

Meaning, the perception of “a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good” never existed in even the initial diversity of the 13 colonies.

Critically for our understanding today, a foundational attribute of the Nations as described by Woodard is even as migration occurs, the Nations tend maintain their culture and newcomers largely assimilate. Thus, for example, the influx of Irish and Italian and many other peoples into New Netherland (the New York City metro area) over history has not fundamentally changed key factors in its culture rooted in 16th and 17th century Holland.

The risk of oversimplification in this discussion is real and the breakdown doesn’t neatly match all modern partisan lines, but the 11 Nations is still a durable framework to understand how different parts of the country act and react to the political issues and events of the day. A quick summary of each of the 11 Nations is helpful:

The Left Coast: a fusion of “Yankee utopianism and Appalachian self-expression” which creates tension between the nanny-state and a concurrent, libertarian ethos. Similarly, innovation and progress are common yet sometimes war with small “c” conservatism resistant to change (see urban liberals resisting zoning for increased housing supply in high cost cities).

The Far West: shaped by physical environment more than any other region and formed with heavily influence the federal government and large corporations, yet today often resistant to the directives of both big government and big business. A home of classic American individualism.

El Norte: a place apart from much of the United States, individualistic, with a strong work ethic. It’s Hispanic and Latino roots include stronger cultural alignment to northern Mexico than much the rest of the United States…or Mexico City and southern Mexico for that matter

The Midlands: the swing demographic of America, middle class-centric, with notable pacifist or anti-confrontational roots, and not prone to support active government

Greater Appalachia: well captured by Jim Webb’s “Born Fighting,” and marked by fierce individualism and the warrior of ethic of the Scots-Irish who fled the troubles of the northern British Isles in the 18th & 19th centuries? Deeply disdainful of distant, powerful authority.

Deep South: still bears the legacy of the culture of West Indian slave plantations that spread across the fertile, tropical South, locking in a system of racial castes that is still being undone to this day. Generally opposed to government intervention absent the spreading of government largesse.

Tidewater: favors tradition and stability, elitism – even authoritarianism – rooted in the English gentry and planters (see Washington and Jefferson). Hemmed in geographically and being squeezed by the growth of the DC metro area.

New Netherland: deeply tolerant, embracing of free inquiry, and a hotbed of trade & commerce. That was in the 17th century and still true in the New York City metro area today.

Yankeedom: community-focused, embracing of social engineering and regulation, and favoring the common good over individualism.

New France: egalitarian, multicultural, tolerant, and largely accepting of government regulation.

First Nation: important if one has spent time in Alaska or Canada but otherwise not highly relevant to the main body politic of the United States.

The ideas behind the 11 Nations are even more important as our society increasingly self-selects into more homogeneous communities of people who share the same interests, faith, lifestyles, and political beliefs. Indeed, if one factor is responsible for current questions about the electoral college it is the growing concentration of blue voters in selected urban areas.

Such self-sorting is why understanding those that are different than us is essential to navigating the American political experience given the diversity of our nation. Again, such diversity does not align with Ahmari’s goal of recapturing a common public square that never existed across America.

I’ve found this true in my own experience. I lived much of my nearly 44 years on the Left Coast, in the Seattle area. Yet, my parents grew up in the Far West (Eastern Washington) and while living for decades in one of the countries liberal havens I’ve also had dozens of trips – family, professional, and personal – all across that most libertarian part of America.

In contrast, I went to college in Tidewater (Fredericksburg, VA). Interestingly, there was nary a soul there from the Deep South, but aside from the dominant Tidewater, there was many people who came East or South from Greater Appalachia, The Midlands, New Netherland, and Yankeedom to go to school. Needless to say it was an eclectic and instructive mix. Personal and professional travels as an adult have since taken me throughout those regions as well.

Today, I live in New Orleans, described as a “border city” by Woodard, where the Deep South meets New France; and I’d argue a bit of the Spanish Caribbean holds sway too (Chicago is another example of a border city, where Yankeedom meets The Midlands).

To the degree to which the common public square exists, metaphorically, in any of those parts of America, they are most definitely not the same across the 11 Nations.

One significant takeaway from digesting Woodard’s work has been to validate the importance for reasons of politics to understand the culture contributing to the politics of people in each of the Nations. And understanding goes a long way towards having an awareness of the good faith ideas that motivate someone’s political positions, even if one disagrees – perhaps strongly. David French is good at this, which is part of what separates him from his current antagonist.

Indeed, Ahmari and his supporters could use a refresher on what America has and has not been historically as they push for what sounds like a totalitarian culture war victory…and thus not very American. Ahmari sounds like the Puritans of old, the roots of Yankeedom, insisting on one set of mores and outcomes for society, in the quest of a perceived common good. The trick: most of the other nations Woodward describes don’t agree on that common good.

Woodward’s work itself isn’t perfect. The closer he gets to present day the more his personal politics take over the narrative. Irony abounds as his Yankee roots (he’s from Maine) come pouring out as he grapples with the politics of today’s libertarian Far West or hilariously assesses the tenure of President George W. Bush paired with a GOP Congress after 2000 amounted to a Deep South takeover of American government.

Yet, the broader study of history in “American Nations” outweighs the lesser instances of commentary on more modern politics. The culture and roots of the 11 Nations still ring true today. And are worth studying for anyone interested in understanding why our varied and diverse American politics are what they are. Including Sohrab Ahmari.

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