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The British Origins of America's Political Divide

18/08/2014 12:28 BST | Updated 15/10/2014 10:59 BST

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Last month Pew Research released a highly detailed study confirming what we already knew: polarization is the defining quality of politics in twenty first century America. Two decades ago over half Republicans and Democrats agreed on some issues but now more than ninety percent strongly disagree. Twice as many people think the opposing party is a 'danger to the country'. So it is no wonder the last two presidents are the most unpopular in history.

The odd thing is, on the big political questions there is probably more consensus in America than anywhere else. Socialism has never been an option, unlike virtually every other democracy. Instead, the most hotly debated issues aren't really party political at all. They rage around gay marriage, abortion, race relations, gun violence, and the scope of central government.

Why is it that America, seen as a steamroller of modernity from outside, divides so passionately around these moral questions while other democracies argue from far left to far right?

One answer usually overlooked outside academy is the regional, or cultural explanation. Twenty five years ago Pulitzer Prize winning American historian David Hackett Fisher first published 'Albion's Seed: Four British Folk Ways in America'. Another award winning journalist and academic, Colin Woodward, has followed up with his 2011 book 'American Nations' depicting rival geographic cultures battling for national power.

They argue it is the different values British settlers brought to areas like the South and New England before the American Revolution that explain why they are still heartlands of conservatism and liberalism today. According to the theory, the origins of the Red and Blue state divide go back to the English Civil War of the 1640s, when champions of Parliament fled to Massachusetts and supporters of the King found safe haven in Virginia.

And true enough, the dominant themes of contemporary American politics share profound similarities with the four main libertarian cultures settlers brought with them from the British Isles between 1630 and 1775.

The Puritans that settled New England rebelled fiercely against Crown taxes in the revolution, as they did in the English Civil War. But from the start they built a society with a role for government to establish their freedom without the monarch; in social and urban planning, mass education, and relatively high levels of taxation and political participation, as they had in merchant East Anglia. They deliberately created a 'middling' society by preventing the English aristocracy and underclass from emigrating there.

By contrast, the Royalist Cavaliers who then found refuge in Virginia to flee the Puritans when they took power in England deliberately recreated the inequality they were used to presiding over in southern England. Their preference was for lower taxes and considered education a privilege rather than a right. They brought indentured servants without civil rights with them and then imported the lowest cost labour they could find to expand the plantation economy. This culture also produced superb military leaders like George Washington and Robert E. Lee, in keeping with the martial ethic of the English aristocracy.

Then from 1675 the northern bloc got a boost from inflow to Pennsylvania and the rest of the Delaware Valley by the pacifist Quaker 'Friends Movement' from the English Midlands, sick of state-sponsored persecution and church taxes. They created the first American party system and were almost unique in the English speaking-world for extending the tolerance they expected of their way of life to others'. Peace.

Finally, up to the revolution, a largely Presbyterian warrior caste from the no-man's land between Scotland and England, and also north Ireland, made the Appalachians of the 'Backcountry' home. They loved to drink (whiskey) and they loved to fight. Now referred to slightly misleadingly as 'Scots-Irish', this lot shared many of the ideas of small government, uncompromising Christianity and retributive justice of the Virginian gentry.

Increased interest in these early regional sects is timely as there is an argument American politics is going back to the future. Barack Obama carried almost exactly the same states Abraham Lincoln did in 1860 on the eve of the American Civil War to get elected, though one was Democrat and the other Republican. Nor do economics explain it; wealthier states are more liberal and poorer states more conservative. Even Kennedy was more successful in the South (and less so in the North!), despite electoral votes from Mississippi and Alabama for Sen. Harry Flood Byrd, a direct descendant of the English educated Cavalier, Colonel William Byrd II.

The winner-takes-all Electoral College today encourages tech-savvy party strategists to reinforce old regional patterns by appealing to the base, turning states Red or Blue, and whistle past the opposition rather than convince them. Meanwhile, other modern developments like the primary election process, deregulation of campaign finance and the rise of cable news mean the dogmatic grassroots increasingly determine the debate.

So what do we have in the resurgent Red-Blue divide? Remembering that America's first settlers were essentially refugees from the Reformation, today's regionally-charged polarity is a remnant of religious upheaval. The sharp lines of conflict remind us of partition elsewhere in the old empire; in Ireland, the Indian subcontinent, Cyprus, the Middle East and many other places where there has been sectarian strife.

But unlike those troubles, the United States has been a haven for religious and ethnic diversity ever since the four folkways banded together to dispose of the British monarchy and set up a republic in the American Revolution. That's why the optimistic rhetoric of practically any American politician's stump speech to this day, from either party, still includes those original values all the earliest sects shared: liberty, commerce, hard work, family values and a sense of religious providence.

And in today's polarized climate, also how they disagreed: on these older questions of personal morality, civil rights, when deadly violence by individuals or the state is justified, and what scope the national government has to impose tax on private society, and policy on the regions.

The answer? One practical solution would be to abolish the Electoral College for a more centrist national politics, and according to Gallup a large majority of Americans support this (63-39%). Several state legislatures have already signed up to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact that would commit them to electing the presidential candidate with the most popular votes. But it will struggle to find the support it needs in states that leverage the existing arrangement to punch above their weight.

More likely is that the wisdom of the silent majority will eventually prevail. For two cycles the Republican Party has produced presidential nominees with the 'Omnibus candidate' credentials that have traditionally broken the regional stalemate since William Henry Harrison showed how to do it in 1840. Both John McCain and Mitt Romney offered the same combination of mixed regional pedigree, experience outside politics and demonstrated moral character.

But economic polarization favours a candidate like Hillary Clinton who can convince Middle America she feels their pain. So in 2016 the superficial unifier of dynastic values may triumph once again, just as they did in the election of George W Bush. This is also how old England tried to heal the partisan wounds after its republican experiment, with the familiar face of King Charles II. But that didn't solve the problem either, as the American Revolution proved.