Cultural Folkways in Flux

By Razib Khan | March 31, 2012 10:43 am

A fascinating post over at The Crux, Votes and Vowels: A Changing Accent Shows How Language Parallels Politics. Here’s the section which I might quibble with though:

Labov points out that the residents of the Inland North have long-standing differences with their neighbors to the south, who speak what’s known as the Midland dialect. The two groups originated from distinct groups of settlers; the Inland Northerners migrated west from New England, while the Midlanders originated in Pennsylvania via the Appalachian region. Historically, the two settlement streams typically found themselves with sharply diverging political views and voting habits, with the northerners aligning much more closely with agenerally being more liberal ideology.

But first, here is a map of the dialects in question:

 


Now compare to a map of Yankee settlement in the mid-19th century:

I do not object to the argument that old historical patterns in the USA redound down to the present in surprising and often cryptic ways. I refer to this as the “dark matter” of American history; deep structural patterns which shape the cultural geography of the world around us to which we are totally blind (in part because we take it for granted). But, I do think we need to be careful about how we label and conceptualize the folkways.

Here is the 2008 county voting pattern for the presidential election. Blue represents the Democrat vote, liberal, and red the Republican vote, conservative.

The correspondence is striking, and in line with the argument in the blog post. But here’s the election of 1936. Again, blue represents Democrats, and red the Republicans:

Notice something? Some of the underlying structural relationships of the regions in terms of how they vote together are preserved, but the ideological valence has inverted. Here is the map for the 1932 election.

What’s going on here? Here is the first year that the Republican party reasonably contested for the presidency, 1856. Again, Republican counties are in red:

Notice something? The Republican party in its origins began as a Yankee party par excellence. By Yankee, I do not mean generic Northerner, but rather New Englanders and their cultural auxiliaries (e.g., the New England Diaspora, as well as reformist oriented immigrant groups, such as Protestant Germans). The long Republican ascendancy at the national level between 1864 and the 1930s was cemented in large part by the alignment of the Midland North and West with the Republican party (the prior Democratic domination had been held together by a Midland North-Southern coalition), with the Democratic strongholds outside the South being localized to urban districts with many ethnic white Catholics. In the 1930s a “New Deal Coalition” emerged which broke the Republican stranglehold on national politics, and the Republican party regressed to its old founding heartland, Yankeedom.

The story of how Yankeedom switched to the Democratic party is a different one, but the point here is that what unified Greater New England was not ideology as much it was a tribal affiliation to a particular political party. Today that affiliation manifests in both politics and language. But just as linguistic dialects change, so political orientations can evolve and change in quality and substance. Ultimately, it may not be what you believe and how you speak, but what your cultural kin believe and how they speak.

Image credit: NGHIS, Tilden76

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
  • https://twitter.com/#!/christopherburd Christopher Burd

    “…what unified Greater New England was not ideology as much it was a tribal affiliation to a particular political.”

    There seems to be a word missing after “political”. I’d understand your point better if I knew what it was.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    Did the early Democrats have a “liberal” ideology? I know the Federalist party might be identified with a kind of “high church” conservatism, but the later Whigs shared the name of the “liberal” party in England and the Republicans began as a sort of Whig offshoot.

    At the same time, there is significant continuity over the lifetime of the GOP. It has long been relatively strong in rural areas (with the complicating factor of the Dem south being more rural), identified with big business and the largest (or normative) ethnic/religious group of Americans. Over that time period the Democrats have been more a coalition of “outsiders”, in the Inductivist’s framing.

    On the other hand, lots of metaphors across time/place are unhelpful attempts to rely on what we’re already familiar with. “Sunnis & Shias are like Catholics & Protestants”, for example. I’m somewhat skeptical that left vs right actually mean anything universally other than serving as ingroup-outgroup designations.

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

    #2, the dems of the 1830s were certainly the ‘left populist’ party. on the other hand, in relation to the federalists or the early whigs they were also the ‘white man’s party’; populist northern dems were instrumental in pushing through universal white male suffrage, while removing voting rights from black property holders.

    i think it is too strong to call the republicans a white offshoot, though that’s defensible. rather, they were a fusion between free soil reformist democrats and reformist whigs. the white party had a substantial presence in parts of the south, especially the border states, and those did not join.

  • kirk

    You can clearly see that San Antonio is the northern extent of the New Aztec Empire. Just pointing out that there is another European language on the continent.

  • http://juliesedivy.com Julie Sedivy

    “Ultimately, it may not be what you believe and how you speak, but what your cultural kin believe and how they speak.”

    Thanks for the clarification, Razib, it’s well worth making. Since social identity is such a strong driver of accent and dialect, you’d really expect to see a correlation between politics and dialect only to the extent that political affiliation or ideology is important to the social identity of a group.

    As for the shift from Republican to Democratic allegiances, Labov discusses this in detail in his book (Principles of Linguistic Change, vol. III), and notes that there’s a very tight correlation between the counties that voted for the abolitionist Republican party in the mid-nineteenth century and those that supported the civil rights movement and voted Democrat in the 1960s. Which suggests some real continuity in political orientation in this area, just the kind of stability perhaps that might lead to politics becoming linked with regional identity.

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

    and notes that there’s a very tight correlation between the counties that voted for the abolitionist Republican party in the mid-nineteenth century and those that supported the civil rights movement and voted Democrat in the 1960s. Which suggests some real continuity in political orientation in this area, just the kind of stability perhaps that might lead to politics becoming linked with regional identity.

    right. i just object to the labeling of political orientation as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’ in the early 19th century greater yankeedom was the stronghold of federalist ‘conservatism.’ in the 1830s the modern democratic party emerged as a populist and anti-elite mass movement, which simultaneously embraced white men, including immigrants, and rejected claims of non-whites in totality to citizenship.

  • John Emerson

    The liberal v. conservative R vs. D divide really only goes back to about 1948, by which time most of the liberal Republicans were gone.

    There always have been conservative Democrats, including in the North.

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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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