Who Are We?

Maine author Colin Woodard continues his exploration of what unites and divides us.

American Character, Colin Woodard[I]n his critically acclaimed book American Nations, Colin Woodard plumbed the origins of American pluralism, tossing out the news media’s familiar red and blue election maps in favor of one that delineates 11 cultural “nations” of North America. Woodard, the state and national affairs reporter for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, argued that these regions’ social, political, and religious roots are so entrenched, they continue to shape the regions’ distinct identities today — often in ways that put them at odds.

With American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good (Viking; hardcover, 308 pages; $29), Woodard continues his quest to define a national identity by focusing on what divides us. Just as he rejected those red and blue maps, Woodard dismisses easy analyses that summarize American political conflict in terms of Republicans versus Democrats or conservatives versus liberals — camps whose core values, he points out, have fluctuated greatly over time.

Woodard again looks to regional differences to argue that most of our country’s major political clashes stem from two pillars of American social thought — the rights of the individual versus the interest of the common good. Tracing the country’s history from the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620 through the Obama era, Woodard finds Americans locked in a continual struggle to balance those two defining ideals, with community-minded descendants of New England Puritans (that’s us!) consistently at one end of the spectrum and Deep South libertarians at the other. American Character is a history text, not a “hot take” on presidential politics, but it is an illuminating national portrait at a particularly divisive time.

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Virginia M. Wright

Virginia M. Wright is the senior editor at Down East.

1 Comment

  • May 16, 2016


    No., thanks!