A Minnesota Yankee in King Arthur’s Court? Questions on Regional Cultures and Philanthropy

During the 2014 Annual Conference - Philanthropy Exchange - we will be posting blogs written by speakers and attendees. If you are interested in blogging with the Council, contact john.cochrane@cof.org.

Can you be part of Yankeedom if you live in Minnesota? Have you ever been to “New France?” Are your grantees based in “El Norte?” Sunday’s opening plenary featured a provocative presentation from author Colin Woodard about 11 regional cultures that shape American life and politics, and that in his view explain enduring patterns of political polarization. He used the term “nations” to describe these cultures, but since there was only a passing mention to Native nations, who were a big part of the settlement process that Woodard traces, I prefer not to reinforce that confusion, and instead will focus on the regional cultures he discusses.

Woodard’s argument is based on the religious, national, and political affiliations of early settlers. Those affiliation shaped 11 distinct, and indeed “rival” regional cultures, ranging from Yankeedom to the Deep South to the Left Coast. These cultures cut across state lines and the typical regions used to divide up the country. For example, “Yankeedom” extends from New England over the Upper Midwest, because in Woodard’s view, Scandinavian settlers in the upper Midwest shared more with English settlers in New England than they did with those in the lower Midwest.

Many questions came up for me as I listened and tweeted:

  • The U.S. population has a lot of social mobility, so I wanted to know more about how those cultures have evolved over time. For example, how did the Great Migration of African-American workers and their families from the Deep South to Yankeedom and the Midlands change regional cultures in those areas? Even if the answer is, “well, there was de facto segregation, so they were mostly kept apart from the rest of that society,” the very act of exclusion shapes a majority culture. So I wanted to know more about how the cultures have differed in their reactions to and relations with migration-related changes. Relatedly, subsequent waves of immigrants and refugees beyond original settlers have shaped regional cultures. What have those effects been?
  • I was trained as a political scientist, so of course I have to object to the assertion (which got a lot of tweets) that political parties don’t really matter, just because they’ve evolved over time. I would counter that political parties have been a critical space for the articulation and negotiation of elements of a national culture that transcends regional cultures and in turn shapes their evolution. Woodard points out that the Whigs and the Federalists disappeared over time, and that the blue-red electoral map was exactly flipped a hundred years ago. But the U.S. is overwhelmingly a two-party political system, and has been for more than a century. This is a huge fact of our political history, related to the winner-take-all electoral system we use. Other countries have proportional representation and thus have many different parties. Their regional dynamics play out differently because political coalitions have to be formed differently. So I’d want to know more about how the parties evolved over time in tandem with the evolution of regional cultures.
  • Woodard’s argument can be described as a form of “path dependence.” Conditions are set up at a certain key turning point in history, and those conditions “lock in” over time, influencing subsequent outcomes and making it hard to change the original conditions. The classic example is the QWERTY keyboard. It’s not really the best keyboard, but once it became popular and enough people learned to type on it, it became practically impossible to replace it. And so I’m typing this on a QWERTY keyboard. It’s a tempting idea, but when you’re applying it to social phenomena (and having done so in my dissertation, I’m aware of the challenges), you have to identify the mechanism by which the original conditions get reproduced. During the session, Woodard emphasized the broadly popular nature of enduring regional cultures, but I suspect that local and regional elites had more to do with their reproduction. These are folks who have an interest in maintaining the status quo, and for those who represent local and regional interests at the state or federal level, they have an interest in defining a distinctive regional or local identity, which can be part of their political capital and what makes them distinct in the larger body. So what does Woodard see as the mechanisms by which regional cultures are reproduced over time, and survive to the present day?

In fact, it’s those local and regional elites that provide for me the most relevant link to philanthropy. This includes both civic and business leaders, as well as elected and appointed officials. These are the folks who sit on foundation boards, and who are the major donors to grantmaking public charities and to the nonprofits that foundations support. To what extent are they aware of regional cultures, and what is their interest in preserving or evolving those cultures? Do they see themselves as guardians of a traditional regional or local culture, or responsible for helping it to evolve?

Overall, I appreciated the opportunity to consider the historical origins of our current polarization. For this audience, I would have appreciated some mention of how the fortunes that underlie many of the longer-standing foundations emerged as part of the settlement process. Kevin Walker of the Northwest Area Foundation did a good job of this with regard to the institution he leads during the closing plenary of the JAG Unity Summit.

Woodard’s suggestion is a good one: it’s likely illuminating for funders to identify and think through the implications of the regional cultures that inform the perspectives of their state and federal representatives and of the local elites who make up their boards and/or donor bases. But they should also think through how those cultures are evolving over time.

How valid do you find the 11-nations analysis in your region and locality? How do you see “your” regional culture evolving? How do your board members or fellow board members relate to the regional or local culture?

Chris Cardona is Director of Philanthropy at TCC Group.

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