TCS Daily

Sunrise in the West

By William J. Stuntz - November 9, 2004 12:00 AM

The conventional wisdom holds that America is and always has been divided between North and South. Actually, there is a bigger and deeper divide: between East and West. The West is winning, hands down.

Consider these facts. Thirteen times since World War II, the country has elected a President from West of the Mississippi River. Easterners have won the White House twice in that time, and one of those -- Georgian Jimmy Carter -- beat another Easterner, Michigan's Gerald Ford, the only Eastern nominee of his party in the past fifty years. Eight times, an Eastern candidate squared off against a son of the West. The West won seven out of eight. Four of the seven victories were landslides. The East's one win -- John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon in 1960 -- was a squeaker. In today's more Western America, it would probably squeak the other way.

The West's growing dominance has a lot to do with the Republican Party's. Thirteen of its last fifteen nominations have gone to Westerners. Nine of those candidates won; six won at least forty states. The two Easterners, New York's Thomas E. Dewey and Ford, both lost. The Democrats have been more geographically balanced: seven nominees from West of the Mississippi, eight from the East. Also less successful. Easterners Kennedy and Carter won, barely; Carter later lost massively to Californian Ronald Reagan. The other five Eastern Democrats, along with three of the seven Westerners, lost to Western Republicans.

Another way to measure the country's Western tilt is this: Since World War II, tickets with two Westerners have run seven times. They won all seven elections, five by landslides. Tickets with two Easterners have run, and lost, four times. Six of the seven West-West tickets were Republican. All four of the all-East tickets were Democratic.

Some of this can be chalked up to geographical coincidence. But not all, and probably not most. Deep differences of attitude and spirit separate America's two halves.

Easterners like theory and process. Westerners care more about outcomes than procedures, and they like whatever works. Easterners are cautious; Westerners take chances. Easterners like universities, legislatures, and the U.N. Westerners like businesses, the executive branch, and the Army. Eastern politicians are more likely to talk down to voters -- think of Dewey, Adlai Stevenson, or John Kerry -- because they are instinctively less democratic; they come from a world where social and educational class matters and where institutions seem to outlast people. (I teach at a university that is nearly four centuries old.) Western politicians are more optimistic, believe that problems can be solved and limits surpassed. Also that institutions are temporary things: they are the creatures; people are their creators, and creators matter more than the things they create. The flip side of optimism is rootlessness: if life isn't working out, go somewhere else and reinvent yourself, like Easterner-turned-Westerner (and Democrat-turned-Republican) Ronald Reagan. Easterners are more likely to be defined, and confined, by place. Eastern candidates want to protect a lead and play it safe -- Dewey, anyone? -- while Westerners roll the dice, not only in campaigns but in the White House: Reagan's simultaneous tax cuts and defense buildup (Howard Baker called it "a riverboat gamble," and it was), Bush's war in Iraq and his decision to wrap his arms around the third rail of American politics.

The patterns don't always hold. Bob Dole comes from Kansas and is a small-d democrat to his core, but most of his political instincts are Eastern. The elder George Bush voted in Texas but lived most of his life in New England and Washington, D.C., and it shows. John F. Kennedy was Eastern through and through, but his politics showed a Western optimism: cut taxes and revenues will rise; promise that we will walk on the moon, then make it happen. Today, New Yorker Rudy Giuliani is one of the nation's most Western politicians -- like a New Yorker of the last century who loved the West (the West loved him back) and had a Giuliani-like executive temperament: Theodore Roosevelt.

And the regional breakdowns are more complex than first appears. The Pacific Coast votes with the Northeast in national elections, though it still has a different political feel: One can hardly imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger, a classic Westerner, rocketing to the top of Massachusetts politics. So, too, the South -- including its Eastern seaboard -- usually lines up with the West in national elections, a pattern that goes back to William Jennings Bryan, and maybe to Andrew Jackson.

But the West dominates this West-South political alliance, at least in presidential politics. The current President Bush is a good example. Though he is sometimes called a Southerner, Bush's orientation is more West than South. White Southerners (the modifier is important) are instinctive pessimists, perhaps because their ancestors lost a great war. They are rooted, not just to the land but to one particular piece of it, in a way Westerners aren't. Even their religion is different, more respectful of church authorities. Bush's Methodism is fiercely independent; it draws more inspiration from the Pope than from his own church's bishops. And Bush is Reagan-like in his fondness for taking big chances, rolling the dice.

John Kerry, meanwhile, is a classic Easterner. Kerry may not have shaped the Senate during the past twenty years; he does not appear to have had much influence there. But the Senate has shaped him. His outlook on governance is quintessentially legislative -- and quintessentially legal. Legislators, like lawyers (Kerry is both), believe that if you get the process right, if the right people are consulted along the way and the right arguments are made at the right times, good decisions will follow. Executives know better. Sometimes more process only gums up the works. Consultation helps only if those who are consulted give wise advice. The bottom line matters more than what steps one takes to get there. Perhaps Kerry's critique of Bush's approach to terrorism didn't sell because it boiled down to two inconsistent claims about process: Don't consult allies in Afghanistan; that's outsourcing. Consult everyone in the world -- well, everyone in the United Nations -- about Iraq. On the campaign trail, Kerry often said that he "might" have gone to war in Iraq, but that if he had, "I'd have done it right." Meaning, he would have gotten the right process.

There is a very different critique that one could make of Bush's presidency: The process has been fine, but too many bottom lines are wrong. Maybe going to war in Iraq was too risky a venture. (Al Gore was right about one thing: George W. Bush really does like "risky schemes.") Today, Bush's massive tax cuts coupled with equally massive spending increases -- and we haven't even begun to fix entitlement programs, which will cost a bundle -- look like a losing bet. The problem with Bush is not that he prays, not that he takes chances or shoots from the hip, not that he doesn't listen to Jacques Chirac or Gerhard Schroeder. It's that he often makes bad decisions. An executive critique rather than a legislative one might have won the election.

We'll never know. For my part, I'm torn, as I suspect many Americans are: Eastern and Western blood flows through a lot of the same veins. I don't like risk; huge deficits terrify me. I'm a lawyer by training and so tend to value process too highly. But when I look at the broad sweep of American history, I see a country that, time and again, ignored process and took gambles that paid off big. Westerner Abraham Lincoln -- in his America, Illinois was definitely the West -- fought and won a long, hard war that freed millions and saved mankind's last, best hope. Westerners Truman, Eisenhower, and Reagan fought and won another long, hard war, and millions more taste freedom because of it -- and they did it without incinerating half the planet. The sheer size of those achievements boggles the mind. Maybe, just maybe, two decades from now the Near East will be filled with Muslim democracies; young men and women (women!) will fight their battles with ballots rather than bombs. If so, that too will be a mind-boggling achievement, the happy bequest of a Westerner who once ran a baseball team, and loved to swing for the fences.

William J. Stuntz is a Professor at Harvard Law School.


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