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Where the two Americas collide

October 01, 2006|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Cairo, Ill. — THE GRAND historical narrative of the United States runs from East to West, but its primary cultural and political conflicts tend to be between North and South.

In the mind's eye of a Californian like me, the Midwest evokes images of Reagan Democrats and prairies and sits firmly in the North. But the southern portions of the states from Ohio to Missouri are actually cultural borderlands where two Americas mix and collide.

In Ohio, 29 southern counties lie within the Appalachian region. The lower third of Indiana is nicknamed Kentuckiana. The Ozarks sit at the bottom of Missouri, which was admitted to the Union as a slave state in 1821. But perhaps the least-known Midwestern borderland is in Illinois, the land of Abraham Lincoln, a Yankee-fied Southerner who became the iconic leader of the North. Locals call the bottom third of the state "Little Egypt." Ask a Chicagoan about Illinois and he's likely to tell you it's split in two: Chicagoland versus downstate, which means everything below Interstate 80. But ask someone in central Illinois, and they'll make a distinction between themselves and the southern parts of the state -- below Springfield or Decatur. The fault lines are economic, linguistic, religious, geological and even climatological. So, of course, they are also political.

"You won't win many votes in the center of the state by calling us southern Illinois," said Chris Koos, the mayor of the town of Normal, in central Illinois. That's because the geographic descriptors are far from neutral. Southern means poor, a heavier twang, Baptist, less fertile soil and a warmer climate.

Last week, I traveled the length of Illinois from Chicago to Cairo, this remarkable near-ghost town at the southernmost tip of the state, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. I think southern Illinois begins 160 miles north of here, in Effingham, where local residents have constructed a 20-story cross as "a reminder of God's love to millions of travelers."

It is around Effingham that the ancient glaciers that flattened most of Illinois into fertile prairie tapered off. To the south, the plain gives way to woodlands, hills and valleys. Orchards begin to replace cornfields. In Salem, 50 miles south, residents proudly claim to be southern Illinoisans. It was there that a waiter in a fried chicken joint wrote "Jesus died for you!" on the back of my check. Salem is the birthplace of William Jennings Bryan, the politician and lawyer best known for his crusade against Darwinism, which culminated in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.

The great majority of white pioneers who first settled Little Egypt were of Scotch-Irish or English descent and came from Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas or Virginia. They were plain folk who tended to distrust authority and were content to live traditional, rural lives. By contrast, modernizing Yankees from the Northeast and ambitious German immigrants founded towns in central and northern regions of the state in the 19th century. By 1870, Illinois was a heterogeneous society and a microcosm of the nation, including the central social tension of North and South. Even today, as chain stores and restaurants impose a generic corporate culture and mobility redraws the ethnic and cultural landscape, the underlying cultural division between the original white settlers persists.

During the Civil War there was considerable secessionist sentiment in Little Egypt. Today, conservative populism reigns here, and locals grouse about being looked down on by Chicago fat cats. Still sympathetic to the South, people joke about seceding from the state.

Lincoln is an apt symbol for Illinois. Born on the Kentucky frontier to Virginian parents, Honest Abe never lost his backwoods folksiness. But he turned his back on the South. He arrived in Illinois a country bumpkin and, in part because of the cultural influences and intellectual outlets around him, left a Northern politician. He rejected his Baptist religion, disapproved of violence and didn't smoke, drink or swear. Indeed, according to one recent biographer, Lincoln's "ambitious striving" had "something of the temper of New England Puritan, a 'Yankee' blend of self-discipline, character building and initiative."

Today, central Illinois still has its back against the South, while Little Egypt still leans toward the Mississippi Delta. For more than a generation, we Americans have talked about race as if it were the central conflict in U.S. society. But as I traveled Illinois in election season, I was reminded that the United States' fundamental social division is still between two competing brands of white American culture.

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