History obviates surprises

By Razib Khan | November 21, 2011 1:12 pm

There’s a piece in The New Republic, Mormonism’s Surprisingly Deep Affinity For Progressive Politics. It’s interesting, but I think that the niche for these sorts of pieces relies on the reality that there’s a deep lack of interest in American history on the part of the moderately educated public. Many of the “trends” or “surprises” we see today can actually be understood and made more explicable with a marginal amount of historical knowledge, something that came home to me when I began to read some American history in depth and detail ~2008.

The first thing to recall about Mormons and politics is that a greater proportion of Utah’s vote went to Franklin Roosevelt than in his home state of New York in 1932. Utah had a higher rate of voting for socialist Eugene Debs in 1912 than the national average. This can be explained by simple materialism. In the early 20th century Utah was a poor state which benefited from federal public works programs which developed and subsidized its economy.

Second, there are deep historical reasons why the conservatism of American Mormons today may be less than alien to American progressivism. This is part of what I call the “Dark History” or “Forgotten History” of the modern era. By this, I mean that because of the emphasis on explicit ethnicity (e.g., Jews, Irish Catholics, etc.) and race in the modern discourse we forget the deep fissures between the Anglo folkways at the American Founding, which persisted down in a very salient manner up to the Civil War. One of those folkways is “Greater New England,” which stretches from New England proper to the Upper Midwest, and assimilated into its purview Protestant Germans and Scandinavians in the 19th century. As I have noted before the one descendant of Greater New England which is part of “Red America” is Mormon America. Despite the confluence of values and interests between Mormons and Southern Anglos, there is a deep fissure of sensibility which almost certainly ties back to the fact that the cultural template of Mormon America goes back to the Yankees who founded it, and the Northern European immigrants who were assimilated to it. Mormonism was one of the “-isms” which the Southern intellectual class abhorred in the years before the Civil War, and the Mormon conflict with transplanted Southerners in Missouri and southern Illinois took the form of a literal cultural civil war, prefiguring the “Blood Kansas” of later years. The politics of Michael Dukakis and Mitt Romney are very different, but in their affect there are profound similarities. Likely this is a coincidence, but it may also reflect the old emphasis on efficiency and technocratic order which has deep roots in the scions of Puritan America, a flinty aversion to bombast and charisma which would never go down well in the South.

  • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey

    Interesting angle. I suspect this fissure is why southerners tend to feel more comfortable with the thought of President Cain (who is squarely from the South) than President Obama (who isn’t really a northerner [despite his clipped diction] but is definitely not a southerner).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #1, minor note, hawaii is arguably part of greater new england. lots of the early white settlers/missionaries, sailors, etc., from that part of the USA.

  • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey

    Interesting. Did not know that.

  • pconroy

    Yeah, years ago when I was in Lahaina, Maui, I saw the original mission school there, which was the first Anglo school West of the Mississippi – from the 1820’s or so.

  • Clark

    I’m skeptical that identity politics from early in American history have much to do with this…

    That said the transition of Mormonism to modern conservatism is pretty interesting. I don’t think the real analysis of the transition has been written yet.

    My guess (and it’s just speculation) is that Mormons at the beginning of the 20th century were more open to quasi-socialist programs simply because Mormonism up to 1894 had been largely a communitarian society with various collectivist experiments ranging from small scale communal societies to various co-ops. Everyone knows the federal government demanded polygamy end or else face practical destruction of the church but many people don’t realize the other demand of the feds was to abandon their communitarian programs. Thus there was a fairly direct move to assimilate.

    Despite the assimilationist move though early Mormons still had that communitarian mindset and saw in the progressive politics of many early 20th century national programs. You can even find early lesson manuals from the 1920’s with a fairly pro-progressive mindset. Ultimately though I think your statement about poverty is the correct one. Through the 1950’s Mormons in the west were extremely poor and thus looked to programs that could help with that. I sometimes think folks get so caught up in philosophy or supposed historical forces that they miss the simple explanations. When you are desperately poor you support programs designed to solve that.

    It’s interesting that Butch Cassidy as an anti-banker folk hero of southern Utah Mormons gets overlooked. There was a strong anti-financial mindset in the 19th century that continued for a long time. Ironically during the transitionary period of Mormon history the head Mormon leader, Heber J. Grant, was a banker.

    BTW – Russell Fox has an interesting rejoinder to the TNR article.


    Matt, the author of the TNR piece shows up in the comments. (He’s a Mormon as well)

  • syon

    Yeah, the “dark history” of the USA is a fascinating topic. Reading ALBION’S SEED was a real revelation for me when I first read it; it just explained so much that had previously been inexplicable to my mind. For example, the influence of New England on the San Francisco Bay area explains some of the puzzling cultural differences between northern and southern California.

  • http://www.rishon-rishon.com David Boxenhorn

    Razib, the whole Rocky Mountain region, not just the Mormon part of it, plus the northern plains states, is a conservative Greater New England. I’m not sure what to make of it. Do these areas represent an older form of New England-style thought? Or, a fork in the road of cultural development? In any case, I think it is important to distinguish between conservative or progressive policies, and the cultural currants that result in support for them – policies can be considered conservative in one era and progressive in another.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #7, there are many parks of the rockies, especially the southern section, where a border south element is prominent. there are parts of inland eastern oregon settled from the border south relatively recently (late 19th/early 20th cent), and you can tell from the accent.

    I think it is important to distinguish between conservative or progressive policies, and the cultural currants that result in support for them – policies can be considered conservative in one era and progressive in another.

    yes. people forget that in 1800 new england was the most ‘conservative’ and ‘orthodox’ christian section of the USA. the south, and southern elites, were sympathetic to heterodox xtianity and the radicalism of the french revolution.

  • Charles Nydorf

    Can the culture of New York City be interpreted as a continuation of Anglo-Saxon folkways? The culture of New York is quite distinct from that of New England or Pennsylvania.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #9, please read albion’s seed for an elucidation of this issue. the short answer is not really i’d say, but that’s because in a strange way the cosmopolitan set up of the dutch period persisted over the centuries. one of the original ‘anglo-saxon’ folkways was actually a cosmopolitan element in the mid-atlantic which drew upon dutch, german, swedish, hugenot, etc., influences between the chesakpeake and manhattan.

  • http://www.rishon-rishon.com David Boxenhorn

    There might be pockets of Southerners in the Rocky Mountains, but this is the general map, (with explanations):


  • 4runner

    Hate to say it, but so much of modern politics in indeed explained by racism.

    In any case– another random Mormon voting fact:– In the 1992 presidential, Bill Clinton was neck-and-neck with some guy named Bo Gritz (after Bush and Perot) in some counties in Mormon Idaho.

  • marcel

    My recollection (I think I am a decade or two older than the average age of this blog’s readers) is that Bo Gritz was a former Green Beret, fairly right wing, with at least one (self-proclaimed) clandestine trip into Vietnam during the 1980s in search of MIA/POWs. I also vaguely recall mention of him since that election in connection with some militia organization, be less certain of that.

    Wikipedia is my friend, and bears out most of my memory.


  • free thinker

    The Mormons didn’t shift from being progressives to conservatives. After the success of the Civil Rights revolution, the Democrats shifted from being a party primarily concerned with economic issues to one primarily concerned with social and moral issues. As the most socially conservative Christian sect this side of the Amish, the Mormons couldn’t follow them there. I find myself in a similar position. I am a “blue dog” Democrat who votes for Republicans as a protest.

  • Clark

    4Runner I think that says more about how poorly Clinton was thought of in the west than anything about Bo Gritz. As I recall that was around the time that gun rights was really taking off and Gritz played that up as best he could. There was also a lot of people fed up with both parties at that time. While Perot was pretty crazy IMO he got a lot of protest vote by many. Perot got 27% in Utah, for instance while Bush got 43% which was remarkably low for a Republican. Gritz wasn’t really close though getting on. He got only 100,000 votes nationally. I couldn’t find a breakdown for Utah or Idaho but Other (excluding Perot) was 34,537 in Utah and 12,061. Clinton got 183,429 in Utah and 137.013 in Idaho. Gritz would have been only a fraction of those Other since the Libertarian vote tends to pick up a lot in Utah and Idaho.

    There was one county that Gritz did well in – on par with Clinton. as you mentioned. Once again I suspect that says more about perceptions of Clinton and Democrats in certain counties than it does Gritz. It was the county on the Idaho side of Logan which is pretty small and even today has a population of only around 11,000. If I recall that’s the county that Napolean Dynamite makes fun of. (I could be wrong in that)

  • ackbark

    I have always wondered about, what seems to me, to be the greater general interest in science fiction among Mormons.

    Is this a persistence of a Progressive, Utopian undercurrent?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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