“Shaping Our Nation”

Published November 3, 2013

The Washington Times

By Michael Barone
Crown Forum, $27, 302 pages

Reading Michael Barone on politics and demography is like sampling a tasting menu prepared by a fine chef. His latest offering, “Shaping Our Nation: How Surges of Migration Transformed America and Its Politics,” does not disappoint.

Mr. Barone takes the reader on a nearly 300-year tale of peoples moving in search of a better place in which to live their lives. Starting with the Scots-Irish, Protestants who moved from lowland Scotland and Northern Ireland into Appalachia and the rural South in the mid-1800s, he weaves an eminently American tale. It is a story full of personality and travails for each group, but ultimately everyone believes and wants the same thing. Everyone believes they can control their own lives, and each wants to live it in a place free from the constraints that restricted them in their earlier abode. Everyone, it seems, has a natural inclination to pursue happiness.

This narrative is at odds with the one often propounded, one that explains international and national migrations merely as economic phenomenon. This “classic” narrative holds that peoples move in response to differing wage rates and standards of living much as water flows to its natural level. Look at economic differentials, and you can explain and predict mass migrations, or so the economists say.

Mr. Barone takes issue with this analysis and notes how none of the migrations can be simply explained by this framework. They start and stop suddenly, and often not in response to a clear economic change. Sometimes they don’t happen at all. Mr. Barone carefully examines how Southerners, black and white alike, did not move to the North in great numbers for the 75 years between the Civil War and World War II despite massive differences in wages and living standards. He surmises this failure to move was cultural: White Southerners did not feel welcomed in the land of their conquerors, and blacks, despite their near-slavery, did not feel Northerners would greet them with open arms. The economic doors were open, but the cultural doors were shut.

This distinction is at the heart of Mr. Barone’s thought. Each group seeks not just to earn a living, but to imprint its way of life on its new surroundings. Germans in the 19th century bring beer, books and brotherhood in the form of communal associations like those they left behind. Yankees migrating West in the early 19th century built churches, schools and are as intolerably self-righteous in Ohio as they were in Massachusetts. Southern grandees and their land-poor imitators flock into the Midwest and newly acquired Plains States eager to bring their plantation mentality, and their slaves, with them. All seek a better economic life, but they differ substantially about how to live that life once comfort is achieved.

These culture clashes are at the root of American politics, Mr. Barone argues. He painstakingly shows how voting patterns follow demographic change, and can endure for centuries. He shows how counties settled by Scots-Irish in the late 18th and early 19th century swung strongly toward fellow Scots-Irishman John McCain in 2008, and how counties settled by Yankees in the early 19th century supplied big majorities for Calvin Coolidge 100 years later. It is these clashes between cultures, not economic arguments, Mr. Barone holds, that produce the heated battles that define American politics.

The book is a delightful read, full of color and stories of people and just enough data to inform and satisfy. One might have wished for a better editor in spots; too often the same words and phrases recur in close proximity. I also would have longed to hear about the migrations from place to place that cut across peoples. The two migrations from farm to factory and from factory to suburb were among the most consequential in American history, but since they were engaged in by multiple ethnic groups, we hear about them only in passing. Perhaps they can be the subject of his next book.

“Shaping Our Nation” will entertain anyone interested in a good story about the people whose coming together have made modern America, and it will inform anyone seeking a deep explanation about why we fight about the things we do. It is a treat for the reader, and will trick you into knowing more about modern politics than you might otherwise have wanted to discover.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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