The Universal Notebook: Colin Woodard explains it all

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Colin Woodard is Maine’s top journalist. To be more accurate, he’s Maine’s leading freelance intellectual, not only reporting on current events for the Portland newspapers, but researching and writing whole books about the political geography of America in attempt to understand what is happening to our country.

His early books include “Republic of Pirates” (which was the inspiration for the NBC series “Crossbones”), “Lobster Coast” and “Ocean’s End.” As his vision has become more ambitious in scope, Woodard has published “American Nations,” which explains the country’s 11 regional identities based on shared histories, and now “American Character,” which explains the political paralysis in this country through that same regional lens.

But don’t take my word for it that Woodard is the best. This year he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism for “Mayday,” his six-part series on the impact of climate change on the Gulf of Maine. In 2014, The Washington Post named him one of the best state capitol reporters in America. And in 2012, he won a prestigious George Polk Award for his investigation of the for-profit online education industry and how it helped the LePage administration create Maine’s digital education policy.

Last week, Woodard was in Paris, Brussels, and Belgrade (Serbia, not Maine), speaking to the European Parliament about the upcoming U.S. elections. But even abroad he kept an eye on Maine, regularly posting links on Facebook to articles about Gov. Paul LePage’s daily antics.

Politically, Woodard strikes me as a pretty progressive guy, although he strives for old-fashioned non-partisan objectivity as a journalist. Woodard is married to Sarah Skillin Woodard, who works on behalf of Hillary Clinton in Maine, so I’m guessing I know where his loyalties lie, if he knows what’s good for him.

I was attracted to “American Nations” when it came out in 2011 because Woodard’s historical reconstruction of regional identities confirmed my own experience in a long-running feud with my cousins in Georgia.

I am from Yankeedom, an American “nation” defined, as Woodard reiterates in “American Character,” by “individual self-denial for the common good, investment in strong public institutions, and governmental projects to improve society.”

Though their mother and father are Portland, Maine Yankees, my cousins are denizens of the Deep South, a “nation” defined by a history of “apartheid and authoritarianism” that has left Dixie what Woodard calls “a hierarchical libertarian nation,” that seeks everywhere to limit the power of the federal government. It’s tea party territory.

As Woodard explains in “American Character,” the most fundamental division in American society is not North-South, black-white or Republican-Democrat. It is, in the words of the book’s subtitle, “the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good,” self-interest versus public interest, free versus fair. Those of us on the progressive end tend to place greater value on fairness and the public good, while those at the conservative end place greater value on individual freedom.

I know conservatives who don’t even believe there is such thing as the common good. On the other hand, I look at the Bill of Rights and see not an enumeration of individual liberties, but simply limitations on the power of the federal government to interfere with certain individual rights. I don’t get all upset about Obamacare because I see it as the common good, while conservatives go ballistic because they see it as an attack on their personal freedom.

The major takeaway from “American Character” is that “sustaining liberal democracy requires balancing those two essential aspects of human freedom: individual liberty and the freedom of the community.”

Woodard believes “the American Way” is “a free and fair competition between individual and the ideas, output and institutions they produce.” That marks him as a progressive, as most conservatives subscribe to a winner-take-all competition, fairness (gender equity, racial equality, economic justice) be damned. He advocates a fairness doctrine of reasonable government regulation he thinks would sell in nine of the 11 American nations, just not the Deep South or Greater Appalachia.

As to which party can lead us out of the individual liberty-common good stalemate that now afflicts our country, Woodard holds out scant hope that Republicans can do so.

“With the Tea Party takeover of great swaths of the party’s local- and state-level infrastructures,” he writes, “it’s hard to see the GOP being able to make the political sacrifices necessary to secure lasting power.”

Woodward’s analysis of what’s wrong in America is spot-on, but I’m not sure we can ask him for the solution. Still, if the answer is finding the proper balance between liberty and community, I’m thinking Hillary Clinton, the Middle Way, is looking pretty good these days.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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