He Saw America’s Crackup Coming in 2011—He Says It’s Worse Now

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Brent Stirton/Getty
Brent Stirton/Getty

“Another outside possibility is that, faced with a major crisis, the federation’s leaders will betray their oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, the primary adhesive holding the union together,” Colin Woodard wrote in the epilogue to his prescient 2011 book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures in North America.

”In the midst of, say, a deadly pandemic outbreak or the destruction of several cities by terrorists, a fearful public might condone the suspension of civil rights, the dissolution of Congress, or the incarceration of Supreme Court justices.”

A decade later, the specters of MAGA-mania and Charlottesville torches, police and protester clashes, COVID-19, and a Capitol Hill insurrection all haunt the passage. Still, even the author was startled by the arrival of the calamity he’d foreseen.

“I knew the country was brittle and if we kept going down the road we're on that there would be trouble ahead, but it's the speed at which it’s happened, right?” Woodard said over the phone from Portland, Maine.

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The new 10th anniversary edition carries a fresh afterword with additional observations about the alarming last decade. They aren’t soothing. Growing authoritarian threats, widening polarization, Woodard summed it all up:

“We’re terribly out of balance. To have a liberal democracy, you must have a balance between those two forces and aspects of freedom, between building and sustaining community and individual liberty,” he said. “Neither can exist long without the other and taken to extremes, they each contain the seeds of their own destruction. Orwellian on one side, oligarchical on the other.”

In American Nations, the onetime Pulitzer Prize finalist took a lofty academic premise about the downstream effects of colonists with divergent aims, merged it with centuries of history, and still crafted an accessible story of the nation’s long-standing inner turmoil. Sales figures—“more than a quarter-million copies” per Woodard—and awards attest to its effectiveness.

His inspiration began overseas. Sparked by first-hand observations in Eastern Europe as Balkanization unfolded, Woodard took note of similar cultural rifts after returning stateside to live in regions beyond his native New England. Time in Washington, D.C., made it most obvious. Inner Maryland showed German influence while place names closer to the coast were associated with British royalty.

“We'd be driving [to Chesapeake] and you could almost see where the two zones met. Suddenly the baseball teams you would see practicing started being de facto segregated by race whereas they hadn’t been a few miles before,” Woodard said.

Woodward wrote his book not so long after cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky first clarified his Doctrine of First Effective Settlement in the 1970s, showing how a few hundred or less colonizers can affect thousands of later occupants. The Europeans who established Jamestown, Plymouth, New Orleans, and other regional centers brought cultural values that shaped their descendants and our entire national story. Immigrants might bring additional flavor, but they generally assimilate into the established culture. Other academic scholars agreed.

Woodard named these regions accordingly. British gentry recreated their serfdom-dependent system on the Virginia coast, a region Woodard tagged Tidewater. The Dutch built a colony dominated by commercial pursuit, a nexus for diverse capital interests the author called New Netherlands. Beleaguered Quakers and German immigrants built the chiefly middle-class Midlands. Volatile and fiercely independent refugees from the British Isles populated Greater Appalachia.

However, Woodard pointed to the conflict between two regions as the primary source of American troubles over centuries. The Calvinists and Puritans who formed the Massachusetts colony established a belief in bottom-up self-rule, community responsibility, and a commitment to education in forming a better world, albeit one filtered through a stringent religious perspective. Residents were chiefly craftsmen, lawyers, doctors, and yeoman farmers. The author called it Yankeedom.

Conversely, the Barbados slave lords who formed the Deep South instilled a savage oligarchical system of vast wealth disparity, where “state-sponsored terror” maintained a caste system rooted in race and birthright. The dominant ethos stood in direct opposition to Yankeedom beliefs. Ironically, religion’s role as a social force was just as dominant in the Deep South as it was in colonial Yankeedom.

Each rival gathered allies from neighboring regions: the Deep South with Tidewater and, later, Greater Appalachia while the Midlands and New Netherlands sided with Yankeedom. The conflict simmered into the Three-Fifths Compromise, Dred Scott, Bloody Kansas and finally roiled into the Civil War. It boiled over into Manifest Destiny. The Deep South influenced the libertarian-minded Far West. Yankeedom shaped the Left Coast.

The overall pattern manifests in current American politics, jurisprudence, and social mores. It’s even reflected in health-care trends and genetic studies showing the spread of haplogroups and ethnic ancestry.

Further heightening cultural regional fissures are the migration patterns of the last half-century. Americans are more mobile than ever, increasingly relocating to places that harbor their beliefs. Conservatives leave the Left Coast to settle in the Far West. Liberals depart the Deep South. The contemporary ability to silo news and information compounds these trends. Polarization increases.

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Widely hailed as a “Rosetta Stone” of American struggle and dysfunction, American Nations has detractors, too. Deep South readers often accuse Woodard of bias. Pedantic disputes arise over regional boundaries.

As to his foresight, Woodard gently pushed away any anointment of seer status when he noted obvious history. Nations through time are built and broken around consistent human frailty.

“If you had fractures or underlying rot or whatever you want to call it, you could hold together just fine until the stress tests come, and too many of them—Rome had all kinds of problems before the Barbarians were at the gates, but then the Barbarians kind of shattered it,” Woodard said.

His pandemic reference wasn’t an outlier, either. The 1918 flu, smallpox, and polio were worldwide scourges just in the last century. When Woodard penned American Nations, he leaned on previous SARS virus research and health officials concerned about a hypothetical virus “even more contagious” with “rationed care” and “unrest.”

“I was aware people in that universe were worried that eventually a respiratory, air-transmitted virus was going to happen and that we were unprepared,” Woodard said.

Even the public response to COVID-19 preventative measures and vaccines followed Woodard’s contentions. Regions imbued with civic responsibility, communal empowerment and educational emphasis boasted high vaccine rates. Regions marked by suspicion of government trailed in vaccine numbers.

Wedges persist. A June 2021 survey by the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats determined 21 million Americans believe President Joe Biden is illegitimate and 8 percent think Donald Trump should be reinstated by violence, if need be. The University of Virginia Center for Politics found 52 percent of Trump voters polled in July 2021 want conservative sectors to secede.

Woodard pointed to the Civil War’s aftermath, territory covered in American Nations follow-ups American Character and Union. An overarching commitment to ideals must be forged or the tenuous federation of regions dissolves.

“Are we devoted to natural rights and the notion that all humans are created equal with the right to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, representative self-government, or are we in fact the ethno-state of the subset of people, that some people are written out of the promise of the Declaration [of Independence] because they don't belong to the herrenvolk?” Woodard said.

American ethnonationalism ascended during the 1910s and ’20s. Something more transcendent clawed into the consciousness following World War II as the nation was forced to see itself in comparison to the Axis powers. Revelations of the Nazis’ open admiration and adapted version of the Jim Crow South’s American apartheid was sobering.

“Fascism so discredited supremacist models, it became horrifying. No longer could you openly articulate that and not have serious pushback and discomfort. Charles Lindbergh could be an open fascist in the ’20s, or Woodrow Wilson supremacist in his own way, but it was much more complicated after the realization of the Holocaust and what it had been,” Woodard said.

He is concerned with the resurgence of once disfavored sentiments and noted less than a third of the population can still spark warfare. State-level trends toward vigilantism, where Texas neighbors are prompted to turn on each other for sizable cash rewards, sow more division.

“From lawlessness comes disorder and the slide toward the abyss. The fact the majority of the current Supreme Court has been OK with tacitly allowing it to happen is not a good commentary on the health of the republic. The hour is later than you think,” Woodard said.

Woodard still hopes “the generational shift is the most powerful of all.” Though regional differences exist, culture remains “humanity’s chief tool of adaptation” and marked shifts in generational attitudes—Silent Generation to Boomer, Gen X to Millennials and Gen Z—are notable in the last century. Regional biases remain, but their depth and number vary. Woodard cited polling of youth skewed against ethnonationalism and toward a more inclusive society, and just crosses his fingers that they can ward off cynicism stirred by the United States’ shortfall of its aspirational ideals.

“There’s a window through which the republic can be overthrown. You have to cease to have fair and democratic elections before it closes, before that generation takes over, or the authoritarians are done for,” Woodard said.

Which isn’t to say the author surrendered wariness. He’s scrutinized and relayed too much perilous history for it.

“Jan. 6 was essentially a coup to overthrow a free election and the constitutional order of the country and it's not over yet. We're still in crisis,” Woodard said. “I think we’re going to make it, but we need to get our act together.

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