Drive down my midtown Omaha street and you will see competing symbols in a culture war. In one yard stands a “Defend Marriage” sign. Across the street sits a car bearing the yellow equal sign for gay rights.
You might think the opposing views on Webster Street are just another example of our political polarization — of people taking radically different positions on issues and digging in.
But according to Colin Woodard's take on where Omaha sits, this is a symbol of the city's ability to straddle two political worlds. The Maine writer, whose redrawn map of the United States is attracting attention, sees Omaha as being part of a broader swing region stretching from Kearney to Philadelphia.
Think of us as a geographic and philosophical buffer between the Yankee and Dixie extremes.
He calls us by a familiar name: “The Midlands.”
He ascribes to us these somewhat familiar characteristics: big on the middle class, not so big on ideological purity; want our government organized enough to help ordinary citizens, not so top-down organized we're told what to do.
We are pluralistic. Collectively, we are capable of holding two opposing thoughts, as we do on Webster Street, without going to war over them. When it comes to presidential politics, we are in high demand.
We owe our world view to our roots, says Woodard, and here the English Quakers who settled Pennsylvania and the German farmers who fled feudal land arrangements before the American Revolution get a lot of credit.
The Quakers' belief “in the inner light of man,” he says, makes us more accepting of people who think differently. The Germans' skepticism about the role of government intervention makes us resistant to top-down structure.
If you want to test this theory, look at how we do things in Omaha. We are a Republican mayor and a Democratic-majority City Council. We are concealed-carry permits and legal protections for gays and transgender people. We are a 2nd Congressional District that went blue for Obama in 2008 but still elects Republican Lee Terry cycle after cycle.
We are also the reason Lee Terry has to eke out his wins with, I'm guessing, an ulcer or two. This makes us share more in common with places as far-flung as the City of Brotherly Love than our reliably Republican neighbors to the west, such as North Platte.
Woodard, a reporter for the Portland Press Herald and author of four books, took his pencil and drew a fat line down the middle of the Cornhusker State, splitting east from west.
He blew up the rest of the U.S. map, for that matter, grouping areas according to their linguistic, cultural and political habits.
What results is a far more nuanced portrait of America than you ever get from the talking heads. So forget what you think you know about red America and blue America.
Erase state boundary lines.
Picture instead 11 distinct “nations” with names like Yankeedom, Tidewater and El Norte.
Woodard's book on this subject, called “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America,” came out in 2011.
He drew from that for a recent article published in the Tufts University alumni magazine to explain why America has such high rates of violence compared with other industrialized nations. He looks at assault, the death penalty and mass shootings through the lens of our various worldviews. He explains why gun control might go nowhere given the vast differences between the two most polarized nations: Yankeedom and the Deep South.
Yet he holds hope for how gun control — or any issue on which we're deadlocked — could go somewhere if we understood each other and our differences better and if either entrenched side could make its case for the middle.
The thesis of his work centers on the idea of a “dominant culture” formed hundreds of years ago by the first settlers. This culture has basically stuck, Woodard says, and in some ways is growing more entrenched as people move to places that reinforce their politics.
The culture shapes attitudes about everything from guns to gays and, to a degree, prescribes voting behavior.
Woodard's notion of nations isn't entirely new; other scholars have mapped our national fissures along cultural and historical lines. Some of it boils down to “Duck Dynasty” versus “Mad Men.” America is one big mess of different places and ideas, and state boundary lines don't neatly define that.
Journalist Dante Chinni, who wrote a book called “Our Patchwork Nation,” has produced an even more detailed national self-portrait, defining U.S. counties into 15 different subtypes.
It helps explain why, as my colleague Matthew Hansen wrote recently, conservative eastern Coloradans want to secede from a state they view as increasingly liberal.
It helps explain why, when I lived in Louisiana, natives described that boot as if it were two shoes: North Louisiana, also known as East Texas, and South Louisiana, also known as Cajun Country. The accent, the churches, the food and the people were that different.
Woodard is quick to say that an area's dominant culture doesn't stamp out minority voices. You can have a large minority of blue voters in the reddest of red states and red voters in the bluest of blue states. But the culture that dominates, like it or not, does shape the debate.
I ran this by two local political scientists who, true to form as pluralistic Midlanders, offered differing reactions.
Paul Landow, who teaches urban politics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said the United States is not 11 nations, it's two: urban and rural. He rejected the notion that our roots played such a dominant role.
But Kevin Smith of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln said settlers' values, instituted through churches, schools and government, can leave a lasting imprint.
“When I lived in Wisconsin, I thought of myself as a moderate Republican,” Smith said. “When I moved to Nebraska, I was a wild-eyed, left-leaning Democrat.”
His own politics hadn't changed. Just the dominant culture.
Under the Woodard paradigm, this makes sense. Wisconsin belongs to the left-leaning Yankeedom, which is more comfortable with government regulation and social projects. Nebraska is divided between the Midlands, with its wariness about government, and the Far West, where government may not be trusted at all.
When it comes to our individual views, you can drive down any street in America and find people on opposite poles.
The difference in Omaha, it seems, is that we accept that, work with that and come out somewhere in the Great American Middle.