David Hackett Fischer on Gore's and Bush's Regional Heritages

by Steve Sailer

UPI, October 31, 2000

 

In our modern America of cyberspace and multiculturalism, the old-fashioned regional ways of life brought to America by British colonists should no longer matter, right? Yet, according to famed historian David Hackett Fischer, cultural patterns laid down by different groups of settlers before 1776 explain much about the George W. Bush and Al Gore.

"The family tree of George W. Bush is as close to pure Yankee Puritan as any Presidential candidate's in many decades," said the Brandeis professor from his Massachusetts home. Although the Texas governor benefits from his family's powerful connections in the Northeast, his personal style is radically different. "Bush has mastered the idioms of the backcountry culture he grew up in down in Midland, Texas," Fischer points out. "His subsequent education at Andover and Yale didn't seem to much effect his down-home manner."

This style of speech and behavior, brought to the Appalachian highlands by tough Protestant pioneers from Northern Ireland and the Scottish-English border region, has spread westward across the mid-southern latitudes of the U.S. The Scots-Irish accent dominates country music to this day. "There's something about that style that appeals well to other regions," notes Fischer, the author of the landmark 1989 book, "Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America."

In contrast, Dubya's New England-raised father, President George Bush, always had to battle against "the wimp factor." Despite having been the youngest aircraft carrier pilot in WWII, the captain of the Yale baseball team, and a successful Texas oilman, President Bush's prep school mannerisms struck many Americans as effete.

"The predominance of backcountry Presidents is remarkable," Fischer observes. "There have been more than from any other British group." (All Presidents except Martin Van Buren and John F. Kennedy had British ancestors.) Fischer discovered that 19 American Presidents were descended in large part from Appalachian settlers. The prototype was Andy Jackson.

Over the course of the last eight Presidential elections, the Democrats have won three of the four times they nominated backcountry Southerners. Both "Jimmy" Carter and "Bill" Clinton used folksy diminutives of their given names, a gesture typical of up-country Southerners.

In contrast, the Democrats have lost each of the last four times they nominated someone from the Puritan-influenced northern tier of states: Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale from Minnesota, George McGovern from South Dakota, and Michael Dukakis from Massachusetts. According to Fischer, New Englanders spread westward along the Canadian border. In new states, they established cultural templates that attracted likeminded immigrants, such as Mondale's Norwegian ancestors. Thus, the most reliably "progressive" areas of the country today tend to be regions originally settled by New Englanders, such as Minnesota, Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.

Further, says Fischer, Puritan ways so molded New England that even a massive influx of Catholic immigrants has had surprisingly little impact on local ideology. Dukakis, a Greek-American, was a classic cold-eyed Puritan. Connecticut-born Ralph Nader, the son of Lebanese immigrants, might be an even more perfect cultural descendant of the Adams family. Fischer says, "Nader has a strong Puritan flavor, both in the ways he conducts himself and the positions he takes. His moral fervor, his refusal to compromise is typical of the Puritan style."

Since the Democrats do best when nominating candidates from outside their stronghold in Greater New England, it makes sense that they've turned to another backcountry candidate in Al Gore.

Compared to many of the northern Democrats of his generation, Gore's pugnacious hill country attitude toward foreign policy has helped him appear a more plausible candidate for Commander in Chief. During the Eighties, when most New England Congressmen favored appeasing the Soviet Union by adopting a "nuclear freeze," Gore came up with a radically different idea. He proposed building hundreds of new "Midgetman" nuclear missiles that could better survive a Soviet first strike. Similarly, in 1991 Gore was one of only seven Democrat Senators to vote to attack Saddam Hussein. Fischer contends, "This is the Andy Jackson element in Gore's Tennessee culture."

Gore's regional background is almost the mirror image of George W. Bush's. By genealogy, Gore is a true son of the Appalachians. Yet, his upbringing was split between summers on his father's Tennessee farm and school years among the elite of Washington D.C. Although Fischer cautions against reading too much into this opinion of his, he speculates that Gore's divided youth may have lead to his somewhat disconcerting tendency to use different personal styles at different times. Fischer believes that this leads some voters to perceive "a loss in Gore's sense of authenticity."

For whatever reason, Gore's personality occasionally brings out the hostility other regions feel toward traditional backcountry traits such as aggressiveness and exaggeration. Fischer notes that coastal low-land Southerners, who come from a more formally polite culture, have asked him, "Why can't Gore be more like a gentleman in the debates?"

Likewise, when Gore embellishes his accomplishments, such as when he claimed to have invented the Internet, Fischer says, "Gore is speaking in the Tennessee tradition of the backcountry brag. Think of Davy Crockett and Mike Fink trying to out boast each other." Unfortunately for the Vice President, this hasn't gone over well in the lowland South. According to Fischer, whites of the Deep South, who are the descendents of English aristocrats and their servants, hope their leaders are restrained men of gravity, in the monumental tradition of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Of course, that's asking a lot of any candidate to live up to.

Steve Sailer (www.iSteve.com) is a columnist for VDARE.com and the film critic for The American Conservative.

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