January 29, 2016

The "small government" impulse back East and out West

A commenter asks:

What do you think of Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire often matching western states to an extent in being libertarian, small government, rural small towns? Maine and Vermont were the only states to oppose FDR in one year after all.

It's a good question, and highly relevant to the current electoral season. Trump is YUGE in New England, but much less so out West. (See the map in this NYT article, and some discussion in the comments of this post.) That right there says there can't be too much in common between the political sensibilities of New England and Texas / Utah / California.

First, there are almost no small rural towns out West -- the original settlement proceeded very fast because it was driven by get-rich-quick schemers pouring in searching for virgin niches to exploit. Lots of small towns implies slower population growth.

Most people west of the Mississippi either live in large cities or their surrounding suburbs and exurbs. The exception is the northern Plains, but those rural residents don't really live in small towns so much as family farms in wide-open town-free expanses. Sure, folks who live in Missoula have easy access to unmolested nature -- but they don't actually live out there. They live in a city or a suburb.

So the person out West who prefers lower population density doesn't actually want to be part of a tightly knit small town, but to be a rugged individualist (at most accompanied by a nuclear family). That means either an urban or suburban mountain LARP-er, or someone who lives in a remote area -- unattached to a broader network of other people and institutions.

The low-pop-density person back East longs for the cozy intimacy of an interconnected group of families and peers.

Libertarians would probably refer to this difference as "communitarian" vs. "individualist" libertarianism, but it seems like a false similarity since the core of libertarianism is laissez-faire. Small-gov communitarianism vs. small-gov individualism, is more like it (small-gov being a modifier, not the essence or substance, which are radically opposite).

Perhaps it's more useful to ask what the two groups want in place of a large state that intervenes and regulates their local area. Communitarians want a rich network of civic institutions and organizations that are bottom-up, where members regulate one another. These are the "third way" solutions that Elinor Ostrom surveyed in the undeveloped economies -- neither leaving things up to an unregulated market, nor having top-down state regulation or control. Their closest analog in the developed world would be those whose disappearance is chronicled by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone -- labor unions, fraternal organizations, the PTA, and so on.

The individualists want more of a culture of honor solution. It's not as though there aren't any livestock herders back East -- but they aren't known for rustling one another's cattle, or getting into armed stand-offs with the government over grazing rights. The lawlessness and disdain for society is familiar from other cultures of honor around the Mediterranean and Middle East, particularly among nomadic pastoralists rather than settled agriculturalists.

There is another important difference -- over religion. New England communitarians are not very religious, spiritual, or anything like that. West of the Mississippi, the individualists may or may not be religious, but it's a decent possibility as opposed to non-existent. And their religion is feverishly apocalyptic -- understandable if their worldview lacks any man-made regulating forces, whether bottom-up or top-down, meaning that chaos and annihilation are always just around the corner. If there are no natural regulating forces, that can only mean that supernatural forces determine our outcomes. Divine intervention takes the place of man-made regulations.

In this way, the libertarians out West are similar to the Islamic fanatics in the anarchic Arabian culture of honor. White converts to Islam and ISIS sure seem more common out West than back East.

It also accounts for the out-West mania for the Old Testament, Israel, and "Judeo-Christian" values. The God of the Old Testament must be properly treated because he holds our fates in his hands, and we want to stay on his good side. That comes from the days when the Jews were just another bunch of Semitic pastoralist hillbillies, living in a mostly lawless environment. Likewise the folks out on the American frontier approach religion from the angle of propitiating the only regulating force in the world, there being no such forces down here on Earth.

Back East, communitarians are more non-religious. But to the extent that they are religious, it's more Christian than quasi-Judaic. The New Testament is more focused on man's relation to one's fellow man, usually from the point-of-view of reforming one's own inner character and actions. Divine intervention plays a minor role, and therefore so does propitiation (praying for God to intervene, offering him a sacrifice, etc.).

In a way the Christian movement was taking the first steps toward a bottom-up, man-made system of regulating our behavior so that we don't blow our society up, although the man-made system is treated as having a divine origin in the man-god Jesus Christ. This began when the Jews had settled down more into towns with more permanent civic groups and governments, compared to their more lawless days as nomadic herders.

Hence the Eastern communitarian's preference for mainline Protestant or Catholic churches, and feeling alien at a more evangelical happening.

Easterners also come from the historical core of the country, and feel more of a responsibility for tradition and stewardship, whereas the Westerners who hail from the rootless frontier shrug that off in favor of creative destruction, what they imagine is the outcome of laissez-faire. This is reflected in their church preferences, with mainline and Catholic churches having deeper roots and more codified rituals than whatever the trend du jour happens to be among evangelical churches.

That shows up in their feelings about government. The communitarians want there to be some kind of institution that preserves historic places, and that regulates the altering or destruction of existing natural and built environments. For individualists, nothing should get in the way of good ol' creative destruction and re-development, if that's what the individuals involved want (past and future generations do not get a say in the individualist / libertarian world).

There's more to say, but you get the idea. There really isn't much of a libertarian strain back East, certainly not in New England. Call them communitarians, civic cultists, descendants of de Tocqueville, or whatever you want, but they aren't rugged individualists or de-regulators. Although desiring a small government, they still want a rich system of social regulations in place, only locally and from the bottom-up, and connecting a tightly knit social network rather than isolated households run by the paranoid bunker mindset.


  1. I was born and raised Catholic and never heard of this "Judeo-Christianity" stuff until the rise of the Neocons (Kikeservatives) and Evangelicals (Cuckservatives).

  2. The western archetype describes my father's family background. Came from German forests and started in northern Virginia in the 1780s, then constantly moving west and/or south until the 1940s. Always settling in isolated areas. Always had some violent malcontent sons who had to leave and never come back.

    Not scheming middle eastern types, but restless, bad tempered and fatalistic.

  3. Agnostic, I think in one of your posts about the Mormons, you mentioned their gullibility for get-rich-quick schemes and scams, possibly as an evolved side effect of living for several generations under the guidance of their ridiculous cult. We see this in rural Mormons' weakness for affinity scams involving survivalism. The people who runt these companies frighten unsophisticated Mormons with propaganda about economic collapse, martial law, FEMA death camps and similar fantasies, so that they can sell these rubes survival products and supplies that they scarcely afford and won't ever likely need. I don't have the impression that many people who live in the rooted communities in the East fall for this nonsense.

  4. Having lived in both places, I would say I much prefer the culture, energy, scenery, and real estate out West. The West represents the best of America.

    The people, however, are not as direct as East Coast people, which can often result in annoying misunderstandings.

    Don't forget that New England and the South have their own weird religious traditions, starting with the Puritans, Quakers, and Mormons. Mormonism after all started in New England-settled Upstate New York (itself the birthplace of numerous odd Protestant cults). The crazy preachers and snake-handlers are today mostly confined to the South.

    Around here we have evangelical "mega-churches," but I don't know if they are common elsewhere.

  5. "Mormonism after all started in New England-settled Upstate New York"

    Not quite -- the Latter Day Saint movement under Joseph Smith began in New York, but it was immediately pushed further and further westward to Ohio, Illinois, etc., showing that it did not resonate at all with Eastern folkways.

    It broke into two separate churches, one heading out West to Utah and led by Brigham Young. This is what is properly called Mormonism -- the history of polygamy, the cult-like Temple initiation rituals borrowed from the Freemasons, the violent stand-offs against the federal government, the zealous missionary work, and so on.

    The other church remained in Missouri -- still West of the Mississippi -- and was led by Joseph Smith's eldest surviving son, Joseph Smith III. It was historically called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but has rebranded itself as the Community of Christ. It's about as close to a mainline Protestant Christian church as the non-Christian LDS movement has gotten. It's also much, much smaller than the Mormons.

    It did not practice polygamy, did not borrow Masonic initiation rituals nor even build Temples, did not stand off against the government, did not send missionaries all over the world in the Mormon numbers, and only uses the Book of Mormon as its distinctive sacred text. (The Mormons added the Doctrines and Covenants, which set out the Mormon framework for beliefs and practices, along with the Pearl of Great Price.)

    So, the LDS movement is a distinctly out-West phenomenon -- the smaller church being just over the Mississippi in Missouri, and the flourishing church being way out in the Mountain states and West Coast.

  6. "We see this in rural Mormons' weakness for affinity scams involving survivalism."

    Right, the whole zombie apocalypse sensation only resonates out West. But it's for good reason -- communities and individuals are incredibly fragile to even small disturbances, due to rootlessness and weak social networks. No safety net.

    The rise of the Tea Party is part and parcel of the zombie apocalypse / paranoid loner phenomenon. No surprise that the ultimate snake-oil salesman, Ted Cruz, is such a hit out there.

    In the Mormons' case, they were genetically selected to be more gullible than average. But most folks out west of the Mississippi have the same nature of being gentle, child-like, free-spirited, ditzy cult-followers.

    Part of that could be genetic (their ancestors who set out for the Frontier were not a random sample of the back-East population).

    But I think a lot is the effect of growing up in an environment where there is basically no society. It leaves you feeling incredibly anxious about safety. Since nobody trusts anyone, they aren't going to form civic groups that could pool resources and provide public goods -- including abstract ones like "feeling of belonging" and "sense of security".

    They still need *some* solution, though -- nobody is going to live their life so exposed to risk of annihilation, without trying to find some kind of insurance or protection. However, lacking the feeling of stewardship, they don't want a permanent solution. And lacking a collective orientation, they are happy to find a solution that only protects their household.

    Enter the traveling salesman, or the cult guru if his appeal is less materialistic. The former sells the survivalist snake oil, while the latter founds a megachurch.

    It's bizarre how just moving beyond the Mississippi River lands you in churches that feel like hippie cult happenings. Not just Texas and Kansas and Arizona, but including Iowa and Arkansas. The mainline and Catholic churches back East have tried to imitate these out-West evangelical cult happenings, but not to much success.

    Partly because folks in the historical half the country already get enough emotional support from their families, friends, and communities, that they don't need to feel that much more elated when they go to church on Sunday (if they do at all).

    The rapturous evangelical concert crowds are clearly starving for emotional sustenance that they aren't getting throughout the rest of the week, season, and year.

    Stable and robust communities don't require such a concentrated overdose of emotional energy, almost like their Sunday church gathering is like a Saturday night binging rager at a frat house. Church members who are already emotionally well-fed will conduct more sober and reverent rituals on Sunday.

  7. Mormonism was a direct product of the burned-over district in Upstate New York (settled mainly by West-migrating New Englanders) that produced so many social reform/SJW movements: feminism/women's rights, abolition, utopian communities, etc..

    It's important to note that Smith--who was from Vermont in New England--had his vision in New York State, not Utah.

    New York/New England had a longstanding history of producing these weird cults. Any history of religious sects in America should not neglect their founding and proliferation on the East Coast, among them:

    *Brook Farm
    *Harmony Society
    *Seventh Day Adventists
    *Jehovah's Witnesses

    Again, these are all East Coast--arguably primarily New England Protestant in origin--phenomena.

    The US east of the Mississippi was the home of so many of these weird religious and utopian sects, it's no wonder so many people went West to escape them!

    These days Vermont is known for its hippies and hippie culture just as much as CA is (or was).

  8. "Having lived in both places, I would say I much prefer the culture, energy, scenery, and real estate out West."

    I've lived in both, too, although in the Mountain region rather than California, which I imagine is better living -- if you're wealthy enough to live away from the Tower of Babel.

    I was definitely more emotionally on-edge while living out West, and long-time readers may have noticed me being mellower over the past year or so (although still retaining the eccentricities you come here for).

    It's more than just not having any roots or networks out West, because you're not the only transplant. Almost *nobody* around you has deep roots there either, so you can't even get adopted into a family, social circle, or community that is well settled and connected.

    That's the only form of transplanting I find viable -- getting adopted into the place, or marrying into it, not just showing up uninvited. Whether that's moving into a new place, or joining a new church.

    With most everybody having shallow roots, Westerners are more like members of a Dickensian gang of orphaned street urchins.

    That does give it a cultural dynamism, since Westerners have to invent a common culture with peers every generation, rather than passing on what has been invented by their ancestors.

    But it also means that little is shared over time, and you feel culturally alienated within your own lifetime -- definitely by middle age. Not that there aren't generational culture gaps back East, but the historical, stewarded regional folkways are a lot stronger. It makes you feel still part of the culture when you're middle-aged and elderly.

    There is definitely more manic frenzy out West, but like I said most Westerners only ramp up their energy levels that much because they aren't getting their emotional needs met in normal ways (family, friends, neighbors). Everyone acts like your best bud to the max, even though you're just a customer at a Starbucks.

    Don't forget that the West also has higher rates of divorce, suicide, depression, pill-popping, and plastic surgery.

    So it's more like the West is more bipolar, rather than happier.

  9. TL;DR -- If you value rollercoaster dynamism over all else, out West is the place to be. But for most people naive to the reality, moving there will leave them feeling empty and longing for stability and belonging back East. It feels like less of a fairytale amusement park, but that's a good thing -- you're only supposed to visit such places occasionally for a nice thrill, and then back to real life.

    Westerners are trying to subsist on a steady diet of sugar rushes, rather than satiating meat.

  10. You're confused -- or maybe cynically equivocating -- about where a movement is founded, and where it thrives.

    The eastern half of the country was not a stable equilibrium for either of the LDS churches -- they only settled in out West.

    Of course the cults back then began back East -- there was nobody living out West to found anything.

    In our time, Jim Jones was born and raised east of the Mississippi in Indiana -- but had to move out west to San Francisco to find any degree of cult success, with the People's Temple who founded a flower-child hippie commune in the Central American tropics, and committed mass suicide by literally drinking the Kool-Aid, when the federal government sent down some officials to investigate. Before the mass suicide, the Jonestown cult shot Leo Ryan -- the only sitting US Representative to be assassinated.

    (That's for the Millennials who didn't learn about the '70s.)

    And somehow the utopian movements back East left lasting communities -- most famously in Oneida, NY, where they had a burgeoning industry of manufacturing silverware, supporting a large community. Although by that time it had shed its hippie-dippie roots.

    The New England hippies are not the naive gullible flower-children cult-followers that you find out West. They're just looking to simplify their material lives -- not follow a guru who lifts them up in emotional rapture and gives people who feel like orphans and runaways a sense of belonging.

    You've already said that the East does not have the kind of manic energy that the West does, so even it's counter-culture is not the same creature that it is out West.

  11. Agnostic, your description of the evangelical megachurches out West is extremely accurate. Pretty much dead on.

    What is religious life like in the East? The East Coast Catholics seem very similar to West Coast Catholics, reasonably devout, decent church attendance.

    But what are the East Coast protestants like? We know that no one attends mainline Protestant churches any more. Does anyone actually attend the loony UCC churches? I have an aunt and uncle in CT who actually attend one of those churches, but I have always assumed that they are the exception rather than the rule. Do they have megachurches with stage lighting out East? Basically, does anyone attend church at all out East?

    There are tight-knit communities in the West, but you really have to find them. In general there are not strong communities here, there is no denying that. To be honest, Mormons are really good at building tight-knit communities. Unfortunately their lunatic religion is what brings them together, but they have genuine communities. In general, Mormons are people of excellent character with wholesome values. That community does produce a disproportionate share of snake-oil salesmen, that's true, but if you have any degree of cynicism at all, you can spot the hucksters a mile off, it's not hard. But by and large Mormons are outstanding people and Mormon communities are all-American, close-knit and wholesome. I'm not going to defend their theology, I can't, but they are decent people.

  12. Well, if no one back East attends the mainline churches, then no one out West attends the evangelical ones. They're both minorities in their regions. What I meant was, zoom in on those people who do attend church -- what is the character of that institution in either region?

    Actually, folks back East attend church more than out West. An earlier post on the godless Frontier, using Pew data (as it were):


    There's also a north-south difference, where southerners attend more frequently than northerners. But at a given latitude, the easterners attend more frequently -- Alabamans more so than Texans, Ohioans more than Oregonians, etc.

    As for those I have any real experience with, it's the United Methodist Church -- still the largest mainline church, second only to the Southern Baptist Convention (both of which are centered back East of the Mississippi).

    It's pretty liturgical, and its forms of worship derive from the Anglican Church before it got infested with AIDS, and so is just a hop skip and a jump from Catholic liturgy. Not that they're speaking the same language, but at least mutually intelligible dialects.

    Methodists also sing a lot more hymns, but then they're from a predominantly Celtic culture (that happens to speak a Germanic language).

    In 4th or 5th grade I was an acolyte (like the altar boys in the Catholic service), and that left an impression. Going through highly ritualized, solemn motions, words, and so on, takes you out of your own little world, and also makes it more memorable later on... probably 25 years ago now.

    Our family stopped going soon after that, although I've attended Christmas services here and there when visiting my aunt. It's technically a Wesleyan church, but more or less the same thing.

    Only now there's a lot more media (Power Points in church, for the love of God), more recorded music, and less liturgy / more freeform worship.

    The church I used to go to records video of its services and puts them up on the web. The "traditional" service looked exactly like it did when I was growing up.

    But during the '90s, there was the rise of "contemporary" worship styles -- basically a lame acoustic / soft rock concert, where the singing is about a generic god rather than specifically the God of the New Testament, Jesus Christ, the Apostles, and so on. Dress is informal, dark lighting, people seated around tables like an awards show, you get the idea.

    These changes were meant to keep the stodgy old liturgy from turning off new members or current members who were thinking about bailing. I hope "contemporary" services bite the dust, but sadly the demographics point the other way. Everyone in the pews at the traditional service was over 70, plus at most three young parent groups. The contempo service was everyone under 50. Apparently the Boomers dropped out altogether -- I didn't see many in either service, and they're such a huge bulge in the age pyramid.

    So while it's not as solemn and ritualized as the most historical of Christian churches, it's far more on that side of the spectrum than the do-whatever-feels-good-and-trendy evangelical services I've seen.

  13. Mormons do form tightly knit communities, but they do have a cult-like feel to them, unlike the tightly knit communities of small/medium towns back East (Mormons are also all urban or suburban).

    To the point of the small-gov impulse out West, Mormon settlements are more of an "intentional community" where people choose to live around those like them in some way (religion, here). Whatever relationships develop out of them, their roots are artificial rather than organic. Not that it keeps them from doing great things, but they *are* like a bunch of Ned Flanders types deliberated to design an alternative lifestyle commune.

    They're not exactly gated communities, but in that direction. Government paranoia is always just under the surface of intentional communities -- paranoia about all outsiders in fact. Rural towns back East may not want or trust outsiders, but they don't have a below-the-surface paranoia about outsiders trying to get them.

    As for survivalism, one of the distinctive practices of Mormons is to stockpile food -- in the mid-1900s, it was two years' worth, then one year's worth, and now three months' worth. That's a lot of food given those big Mormon families.

    There's typically a separate pantry or even an entire food storage room. It derives from an apocalyptic prophesy about coming food shortages, or being prepared for Jesus' second coming -- when obviously nobody else would be able to help you out, there being no larger society out West, so you'd better stockpile food and supplies in your own nuclear household.

    Google Mormon food storage -- just another one of those things that make them look like the cult you originally suspected them to be, and then gave them a pass because Ned Flanders couldn't be that weird. The practice blends a lot of Western themes -- survivalism, apocalypticism, societal paranoia, and cult-like intentional communities as a buffer against utter anarchy and the end of the world as we know it... all from those nice clean-cut men and women.

  14. Straight from the horse's mouth:


    Be sure to open up all the links to further info -- it is incredibly detailed, and will really open up your eyes to how apocalyptic and survivalist the Mormons are.

    A news report on how Utah is at the center of the survivalist food kit industry, both for local Mormons and "preppers" around the country (or around the West, at any rate):


  15. No surprise but Portland is the least religiously affiliated big city. The West dominates the list.


    I am in WA state just east of the cascades. This is the more religious part of the state and those rock band, feel good, non-denominational mega churches are all the rage here. I have had friends drag me to them. I am in my 40s and usually one of the older people there. Lot's of young, attractive women there. My sense is there are a lot of broken people there such as ex meth addicts. Never a fire and brimstone sermon. It's always a positive "Jesus loves you, Jesus forgives you". It can get quite emotional with the loud music and everyone raising their hands in the air. The last church I went to had us High Five everyone around us. Then in the parking lot everyone was high fiving each other saying " Jesus". A surprising number of Hispanics go to these churches, usually young adult English speakers, I suppose they drifted from Catholicism because it's not entertaining enough.


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