08/02/2012 03:48 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2012

Freedom or Liberty? A Democracy or a Republic?

We use liberty and freedom pretty much interchangeably today. Freedom, as a concept, is rooted in northern Europe, originating in Germany. Freedom is a birthright of all. Liberty is rooted in the Roman and Greek slave states. Liberty is granted to the few and denied to the many. It's the concepts that are important, not the labels. Call them what you will.

I confessed in an earlier article my frustration with explanations of contemporary American politics based on a single two-valued variable: left/right, red/blue, Republican/Democrat, conservative/liberal, which all seem to measure the same thing. Colin Woodard's American Nations captured my attention and gave me another productive way to think about the political landscape. He offers eleven regionally-based rival cultures or nations (map link). An eleven-valued variable! Now we're talking. A construct theory like this is useful to the extent that it helps us understand the phenomenon under study, but a stronger test is a theory's ability to predict. Woodard's explanation has been tested at the level of county voting records and passed.

Underlying Woodard's explanation is the well recognized "Doctrine of First Settlement." The founders of a new settlement establish a dominant culture and later arrivals are absorbed into the existing social construct. Obviously, some things fade over time, but each of these nations has its own set of behavioral norms and cultural values. Each nation believes its values are American values, and its most strident members believe other nations' values are un-American. Woodard's characterizations are more nuanced than I can do justice to here, so I'm going to limit my effort to pulling on the liberty/freedom thread of Woodard's rich fabric.

New Netherland began in southern Manhattan and spread to comprise today's Greater New York City. Its founders were Dutch when Amsterdam was the center of world trade. From inception, it was cosmopolitan, commercial, multilingual, multi-religious, and multicultural. It celebrates its diversity and cherishes freedom of conscience and inquiry. It often aligns on issues with Yankeedom.

Yankeedom began in Massachusetts, quickly encompassed New England, and grew west through the Great Lakes region. It was founded by an educated middle class that opposed landed aristocracy and inherited privilege. Yankees believed that government was an extension of the citizenry and a force for good. They favor activist government, and governance begins at the community level. Yankee's are communitarian, with individual responsibilities to the community, and community responsibilities to the individual. The culture held public education in highest regard. Public education assimilated and provided equal opportunity and upward mobility. Yankee's are expansionary, and their expansionary impulse helped establish another nation. The Left Coast was established by Yankees in the cities arriving by ship and by Appalachians in the countryside arriving overland. Yankeedom's founding Puritan religious zealotry and intolerance has faded, but it remains centered in the middle class favoring equal opportunity and upward mobility for all.

The Midlands began on Delaware Bay and Pennsylvania and grew to encircle Yankeedom and buffer Greater Appalachia from Yankeedom and New Netherland. It was established by English Quakers and German Mennonites. It favors the middle class and is suspicious of invasive government. It is more pragmatic than ideological, pacifist, and possessing a live-and-let-live tolerance of diversity. It does not share Yankeedom's expansionary views. Midlanders are prominent in swing states.

The Tidewater area was established by English aristocrats and their English indentured servants, who were later replaced by African slaves. The region brought us George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It favored the aristocratic class. Indentured servitude was a voluntary and temporary condition. One could later hope to acquire property and wealth. Blocked from growth by neighboring nations, it is succumbing to the Midlands.

Greater Appalachia began in the mountainous region of today's West Virginia and extends west and south through the Ozarks and includes large parts of Texas. It separates the Midlands from the Deep South and blocked the westward expansion of Tidewater. The region was settled by immigrants from the borderlands where English, Irish, and Scottish were in a condition of perpetual war. The nation is suspicious of government and social reformers, unlike Yankees and equally suspicious of aristocrats, unlike inhabits of the Deep South. Governance and freedom is the province of the sovereign individual. They are bellicose and individualist. Religious fundamentalism opposing scientifically acquired knowledge is concentrated in Greater Appalachia.

The Deep South was established by immigrants from the brutal slave state of Barbados who established a foothold in Charleston, South Carolina. It favored a stark cleavage between an aristocratic class over a permanent slave class. Equal protection under the law and public education leading to equal opportunity did not serve the interests of the aristocrats who oversaw and benefited from the slave economy. Liberty was for the aristocrat. Like Yankeedom, the Deep South was expansionary, but its westward expansion of slave-based capitalism was brought to an end by the Civil War. The region brought us Alexander Hamilton, a Barbados native, who favored a form of government with elements of monarchy.

The Far West was an inhospitable interior land labeled the Great American Desert on earlier maps. It didn't participate in the constitutional process. Rather than government and industry following settlers, the region was settled by corporate interests from big cities outside the region who then induced settlers often through deceptive advertising. The government's role was to provide resources to railroad, banking, and mining companies at low or no cost and with few or no strings attached. Government-provided resources included access to timber, grazing, and mineral-bearing federal lands, and financing for dams and irrigation systems. Liberties were extended to the corporate and moneyed aristocracy.

Our Constitution is a compromise between the nations of New Netherland, Yankeedom, Midlands, Tidewater, and the Deep South. Greater Appalachia played little role, and El Norte, the Far West, and the Left Coast did not participate. The Constitution guarantees us a republican form of government. Democracy is never mentioned.

Let's be honest. Liberty -- democracy for the few -- was the dominant concept from the beginning of the country. The full benefits of democracy were limited to white male property owners who attended the approved church, e.g., Calvinist or Anglican, but always Protestant. John Winthrop, the Puritan who delivered the "city on the hill" sermon in 1630 rejected "mere democracy" in favor of rule by a theocratic aristocracy. The Prussian philosopher and Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant argued for a republic claiming that majority-rule democracy was necessarily despotic. John Randolph favored Virginia's gentry to preserve social stability through government and said, "I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality." And John Jay said, "those who own the country ought to govern it." In addition to dividing power between the three branches of government, our republic allows, requires, a hierarchy that prevents democracy's tyranny of the majority where the majority (commoners) rides roughshod over the minority (aristocrats).

There are several artifacts in the Constitution that represent republican (liberty) thinking over democracy (freedom). The Electoral College prevents democratic election of the president. The House of Representatives (House of Commons) and the Senate (House of Lords) is another artifact. Representatives would be elected by popular, democratic vote, but senators would be elected by state legislators, who were elected by the rules of the individual states where liberties were granted to the few. The greater maturity of the Senate would cool the heated passions of the people's House. The Electoral College and the Senate are contributions from Tidewater. The Bill of Rights was a contribution of New Netherland and Tidewater.

There has been movement from republican to democratic government. The Constitution was amended to allow direct election of senators. The federal constitution's prohibition on religious tests for public office eventually trickled down to state constitutions. And the liberal impulse that flows from "freedom" has extended full rights to non-propertied, non-white, non-Protestant, and non-male citizens. Some states now allow the public to offer and vote on legislation directly rather than rely on state legislators.

The progressive movement to expand the benefits of liberal democracy to all has been led by Yankeedom, New Netherland, the Left Coast, and Midlandia, while the greatest resistance has been from old Tidewater and the Deep South. Greater Appalachia has a mixed record, although philosophically anchored in freedom, it would be enforced from bottom up rather than top down through government. It aligned with a Northern alliance against the Deep South over slavery in the Civil War, but it aligned with the Deep South against the Yankee-led Reconstruction where Yankee-taught public education was seen as invasive government social engineering.

Although there are many political factions with diverse agendas, there are a small number that elevate freedom and liberty as their primary organizing principle: individualist libertarian (Appalachia), corporate libertarian (Far West), and civil libertarian (Yankeedom, New Netherland, and Left Coast). All share a fear of concentrated coercive power that threatens freedom or liberty. Corporate libertarians favor moneyed and corporate liberties and oppose government regulation and taxation. The agenda includes the private sector takeover of many government functions. The best known libertarian think tanks, like CATO, are well funded by corporate interests. Individualist libertarians favor individual freedom and oppose most forms of coercive power whether governmental, corporate, or aristocratic. They are less inclined to organize for collective action than their corporate colleagues. Civil libertarians favor individual freedom and oppose all forms of unchecked coercive power, and they rely heavily on government solutions, specifically the Constitution's Bill of Rights and the federal courts. The ACLU is one well known instrument of civil libertarians.

Philosophically, civil and individualist libertarians seem to share a belief in freedom and one would expect them to frequently find common cause. Instead, civil libertarians are dismissed as liberals rather than accepted as libertarians. And corporate libertarians and individualist libertarians are more aligned in practice, the better-funded former apparently subsuming the less organized latter, and the latter apparently believing that benefit will trickle down from the former.

One view of the election season is as a contest between liberty and freedom, between a republic and a democracy, and between the nations of a Northern alliance and the Dixie bloc that predates the Constitution. Who is to be feared: government, corporations, the moneyed aristocracy, or the middle class majority? Whose interests should be served by government: corporations, the moneyed aristocracy, or the middle class majority? Is government just one of the coercive institutions to fear, or is it society's mechanism to check and balance other coercive institutions?