Friday, May 20, 2011

Political Identity

Leonard Pitts, a columnist for the Miami Herald, wrote a column that was featured in the local paper a while ago entitled, The Civil War, 'A conspiracy of amnesia' contending that The Civil War was not about states' rights, no matter how frequently people say it was. I'd have to say that I largely agree with his column. Go read it for yourself to get a feel for it.

In response, the local paper printed a column by Al McCray, refuting Pitts' column and reasserting the states' rights argument. McCray is black/African American, so it goes against the conventional idea that his column flows from the mind of a white southerner defending the confederacy. Trust me, there are scores of those in the South. When I spent 5 years living in Tennessee that was one of my first culture shock moments, hearing people get worked up about a 140 year-old war as if it happened the previous week. It took some getting used to.

I suppose it makes sense for the South to hold onto the memories of War more tightly than the North; though both sides had enormous casualties, the war was fought in Southern lands with all the destruction and devastation that any war could bring. When it was all over, not only had the South lost the war, but they had lost entire cities and properties and infrastructure.

These two columns, juxtaposed against one another, made me reflect on how Americans view their identity.

In the South, particularly outside of its major cities, there is a strong attachment that people seem to have to their region or state. They think of themselves as Tennesseans, or Alabamans, or Georgians in a way that I never think of myself as a Floridian, or an Illini. I don't have a high degree of loyalty to any particular state. I think of myself as US citizen before I think of myself as a Floridian and that impacts how I survey the political landscape.

When the Right refers to Obama as a socialist, I think this phenomenon is coming into play. For people who have strong ties to a particular community or state, the idea of the federal government overriding that community or state seems like socialism/communism. The federal/national political urge becomes an enemy to the local/statewide political urge.

At this point, the conflict is probably unavoidable and inescapable.

Like it or not, our country's infrastructure and economy is incredibly complex, and requires so many resources, that believing that a single state can survive economically, largely on its own, becomes a near impossibility. We are entangled, one with another, in deeper ways than we were during the Civil War.

Political choices hang on these distinctions. For younger generations who have moved around more than previous generations have, loyalty to a particular region will be inevitably weaker. In areas where the population is more transient, or diverse, or there are large influxes of people from elsewhere, many people will have their first loyalty to the federal government rather than the state government. The particular region they settle in may only be a stopping off point for a few years. They may see the reliance on federal systems as more important if they are likely to relocate to another part of the country at some point.

I think this is why portraying the federal government as an enemy works well in several "red states". Most of the "red states" have a more stable demographic. They possess a strong sense of regional political identity and they recognize that the federal government does not share that specific identity.

How could it? It is supposed to represent all states, not simply the desires of one or two.

As a result, the hard conservatives from these regions will only ever see any national program as an imposition on their self-rule....thus the vitriolic comments about socialism/communism/the dictator in the White House....etc., etc.

I'm not sure who is still reading, considering I haven't posted in forever, but I am curious and want to do an informal poll.

Do you think of yourself as a US citizen first, or as a member of a particular state/region first?


VanceH- said...

Hi Terri, I view myself as a US citizen first. I have lived in Colorado most of my life, but lived outside of the USA for 3 years. I think living outside of the USA really reinforced my sense that my first allegiance was to the US.

-- Vance

JS Allen said...

This post is quite perceptive; I think you're right.

I suspect it's more of a class thing than a "red state" thing, though. When I was growing up in Detroit, I saw a lot of the "313 pride", "DET forever", "Motown Love", etc. that seemed to occur in young people coincident with them realizing that Detroit was probably where they were going to be for the rest of their lives. You see the same thing in proud affiliation with Compton, Oakland, Philly, Boston, etc. which are definitely not Republican bastions.

The young generation graduating today is having a terrible time finding jobs, and cross-state moves are way down because of stagnant/underwater real estate and poor job prospects. Based on this, I bet we'll see an upswing of people affiliating with their hometown.

JS Allen said...

Oh, and to answer your poll, I don't really think of myself as a U.S. citizen first. I have more in common with "global coastals" at this point in life than I do with the typical American or the typical citizen of the state where I currently reside. None of our family friends were born in the U.S., we divide our time between various coastal commercial centers around the world, and all of us have our kids in local private schools or international schools. The culture and lifestyle remain remarkably consistent no matter where it is in the world.

Also, I never thought of myself as "American first" when growing up. We were raised kind of like outsiders in our own community and I never really put down roots.

Lelia Rose Foreman said...

USA citizen. I lived in one house my entire life until the day I got married. Of course I have fondness for my hometown.
During college my husband got a USAF scholarship and we lived in Japan, Oregon, Texas, and Alaska before moving back to family area in WA state. My worst culture shock was in TX.

james said...

Split. I grew up in Africa after we moved several times in the US, so the overall view I have is of the USA and not of a home state. That's the way everybody treats you: "You're a rich American :-) "

Coming back to the US was a little strange, btw--shopping malls still creep me out.

But I'm also attached to my now-longtime neighborhood and city, lunatic though Dane County can be. The state sort of falls in between.

And from time to time comes the call: "This world is not my home, I'm just a-passing through."

terri said...

A well-rounded group here!

Gringo said...

I came here from AVI.

I view myself as an American. I am the offspring of Northern and Southern parents, and have split my life approximately 50-50 between North and South. During the Civil War, family died on both sides. I am both, not either/or.

While I no longer live in the NE, I strongly identify with my home area. I recently read a memoir by a peer from my hometown, and was fascinated to read about people and I events I knew.

From an early age I was aware of distinct differences between areas. There were distinct differences between the places my parents grew up, and where I grew up. The town where we lived, the town where my father worked and where I went to high school, and the town where we shopped all had distinct demographics and cultural characteristics, though all three were within a 10-15 minute drive of each other. While my childhood was stable in its location, due to the differences I saw, there was perhaps as much a sense of displacement as a sense of identification with various places.

In working in Latin America, I learned that there are even more different ways of doing things and looking at things. Working in Latin America increased my nationalism. I saw that by comparison, the US looked pretty good. I am not talking about material wealth, but about efficient and transparent government, and the ways that businesses operate.

pauldst said...

I am split. I do consider myself a US citizen first. However, wherever I am Oklahoma is home. I did not grow up there, but did live there 14 years, and my family roots are there. If there was to be some sort of split I would probably choose OK over the USA, provided that the split was just and right.

As to considering Obama to be a socialist, I so consider him to be because:
1)His actions fit socialistic philosophy and stated goals to a large degree;
2)His actions violate the US Constitution in socialistic ways (and he is not at all alone in this).

We are supposed to be a republic. Central gov't is supposed to be minimized. States are sovereign and are supposed to rule themselves. All of these things are down in black and white. If the desire is to do something that does not abide by our highest law, then there is a way to change it. This has been done in the past, such as the 18th Amendment.

terri said...

Here's an interesting phenomena. When I was in college I studied languages(French/Spanish) and had grand ideas about living abroad and seeing the world...maybe making a living as a translator or something. I hadn't exactly pinned down the details.

Now, while I hope to travel at some point in the when my kids are grown or I win the lottery or something....I have zero desire to live anywhere else besides the USA.

My loyalty to this country has solidified more as I have grown older and seen the value in staying in one place and claiming it as your "home".

The funny thing is that I never wanted to live in Florida. We came here because both sets of our parents were here and we were going to be starting our family. We wanted our children to actually know their grandparents rather than only seeing them once or twice a year.

Now, both of our fathers have passed away, my mother moved away a few years ago and our kids were able to know them and spend time with all of their grand-parents.

And yet, even though most of our original motivation for moving here has evaporated we don't have any plans to go elsewhere. It is starting to feel like "home" and I am beginning to feel the pull of being a "Floridian" though I don't think that pull will ever be as strong as it is for people in some regions of the country.

I think I understand the urge to be loyal to a particular region over the urge to be loyal to a much larger, perhaps impersonal, system.

terri said...


How would you define the "philosophy of socialism"?

You say that states are supposed to be sovereign, but doesn't sovereignty rely a great deal on self-sufficiency?

Is there any state in the nation that doesn't rely heavily on the federal government in innumerable ways, not only for infrastructure but also subsidies for particular industries or agricultural businesses?

Things are way more complicated than they were during the founding of the nation and during the Civil War.

Is the message, "Give us the federal money but don't place any demands on us."?

I'm not sure where the balance is. I know that many conservatives want a smaller, "less intrusive" government.

I wonder if the idea that there are universal absolutes, or inherent rights for individuals, is actually a promoter of larger government, or makes a person prone to espousing a more socialistic philosophy.

Big ideas, or commitments to universals, tend to want to spread those ideas as far and wide as possible.

JS Allen said...

While it's flattering to think that people like me are "loyal to a much larger system", I don't think that's true. We just have a general lack of loyalty.

DH said...

I definitely have a national identity much more so than a local one. Part of that is due to the fact that I've moved around so much over the years. I've developed a genuine affection for most of the areas I've lived, but I've also been able to see the negatives to each area as well. As a result, I don't feel an overwhelming pull toward or identification with one single area.

Though I have a strong identification with being an American and value and appreciate much of what I feel makes this country truly and genuinely unique, I also have seen and appreciate some of the very unique and special qualities of other countries. As a result, I haven't developed the "my country is better than yours" or "every country needs to be exactly like the USA to be any good" attitude. I am proud to be an American, but I don't think that my being an American somehow makes me better than others.