Cultural Folkways in Flux

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

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