In 2008, with the U.S. divided between red states and blue states, then-candidate Barack Obama called for unity over division, a common shout-out among politicians and others determined to preserve America’s under-siege, allegedly shared values. Yet such calls ignore the fact that there are no shared “American values.” We’ve always been divided. And not truly along state lines.
America’s most essential and abiding divisions stem from the fact that the U.S. is a federation composed of the whole or parts of 11 disparate regional cultures -- each exhibiting conflicting agendas and the characteristics of nationhood -- and which respect neither state nor international boundaries, bleeding over the borders of Canada and Mexico as readily as they divide California, Texas, Illinois or Pennsylvania. The differences between them shaped the scope and nature of the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution and, most tragically, the Civil War. Since 1960, the fault lines between these nations have been growing wider, fueling culture wars, constitutional struggles and those ever-present pleas for unity.
The settlers of each of the original colonial clusters came from various regions of the British islands, or from France, the Netherlands or Spain, and had distinct religious, political and ethnographic characteristics. These cultures developed in remarkable isolation from one another, cultivating distinct and often contradictory values, practices, dialects and ideals. Some championed individualism, others utopian reform. Some were guided by divine purpose, others by conscience and inquiry. Some embraced an Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity, others ethnic and religious pluralism. Some valued equality and democratic participation, others deferred to aristocratic order. All continue to champion some version of their original ideals in the present day, frustrating attempts to build a national consensus.
Forget the state boundaries. Arbitrarily chosen, they often slash through cohesive cultures, creating massive cultural fissures in states like Maryland, Oregon and New York. Equally burdensome are the regional designations with which we try to analyze national politics -- the Northeast, West, Midwest and South. They’re illusions masking the real forces driving the affairs of our sprawling continent: the 11 regional cultures of North America.
These 11 nations -- Yankeedom, Tidewater, New Netherland, New France, Deep South, Greater Appalachia, the Midlands, First Nation, the Far West, the Left Coast, El Norte -- have been hiding in plain sight throughout our history. You see them outlined on linguists’ dialect maps, cultural anthropologists’ maps of material culture regions, cultural geographers’ maps of religious regions, campaign strategists’ maps of political geography and historians’ maps of the patterns of settlement across the continent. I’m not the first person to have recognized the importance of these regional cultures. In 1969, Kevin Phillips, then a Republican campaign strategist, identified the distinct boundaries and values of several of these nations and used them to accurately prophesize the Reagan Revolution in his “Emerging Republican Majority,” a political cult classic.
Divisions Within States
The force of their identities is felt particularly in questions of culture and national politics: California is split into three nations, and the divide is visible on a map of which counties voted for or against same-sex marriage in 2008. The Yankee-settled portion of Ohio is evident on the county maps of the 2004 and 2008 elections, a strip of blue across a largely red state. According to the Census Bureau, Greater Appalachia’s citizens inhabit virtually the only counties in the country where a majority answered merely “American” when asked to name their ancestry. In 2008, Gallup asked more than 350,000 Americans if religion was an important part of their daily lives. The top 10 states to answer affirmatively were all controlled by Deep Southerners or those in Greater Appalachia. Eight of the bottom 10 were states dominated by Yankees.
Our continent’s famed mobility -- and the transportation and communications technology that foster it -- has been reinforcing, not dissolving, the differences between the nations. As journalist Bill Bishop and sociologist Robert Cushing demonstrated in “The Big Sort,” since 1976, Americans have been relocating to communities where people share their values and worldviews. As a result, the proportion of voters living in counties that give landslide support (defined as more than a 20 percent margin of victory) to one party or another increased from 26.8 percent in 1976 to 48.3 percent in 2004. The flows of people are significant, with a net 13 million people moving from Democratic to Republican landslide counties between 1990 and 2006 alone. These moves have reinforced regional cultures.
What this all amounts to is this: As Americans sort themselves into like-minded communities, they’re also sorting themselves, more than ever, into like-minded nations, cultural fiefdoms where the forces of contention between nations are more easily rallied, rendering the compromise and consensus necessary to move the wheels of the federal government increasingly difficult to achieve.
So what are these nations, and what parts of the continent does each control?
Yankeedom was founded on Massachusetts Bay by radical Calvinists as a religious utopia in the New England wilderness. From the outset, there was emphasis on education, local political control and the pursuit of the greater good, even if it required individual self-denial. Yankees have the greatest faith in government’s ability to improve lives. For more than four centuries, Yankees have sought to build a more perfect society here on earth through social engineering, extensive citizen involvement in the political process and the aggressive assimilation of foreigners.
Settled by stable, educated families, Yankeedom has always had a middle-class ethos and considerable respect for intellectual achievement. Its religious zeal has waned over time, but not its underlying “secular Puritanism” or drive to improve the world.
From its New England core, Yankee culture spread with its settlers across upper New York state, the northern strips of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa; parts of the eastern Dakotas; and on up to Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Canadian Maritimes. It has been locked in perpetual combat with the Deep South for control of the federal government since the moment such a thing existed.
The 17th-century Dutch colony of New Netherland had a lasting impact by laying down the cultural DNA for New Amsterdam (now Greater New York City) that was, from the start, a global commercial trading society. Multiethnic, multireligious, speculative, materialistic, mercantile and free-trading, the future metropolis was a raucous, not entirely democratic city-state where no one ethnic or religious group has ever been truly in charge. It nurtured two innovations considered subversive: a profound tolerance of diversity and an unflinching commitment to freedom. Forced upon other nations at the Constitutional Convention, these ideals have been passed on to us as the Bill of Rights.
New Netherland has retained its fundamental values and societal model, having long reigned as the leading world center of Western commerce, finance and publishing. But its territory has shrunk over the centuries. Today, the five boroughs of New York City, the lower Hudson Valley, northern New Jersey, western Long Island and southwestern Connecticut comprise New Netherland. The most densely inhabited part of North America, its population -- 19 million at this writing -- is greater than that of many European nations, and its influence over this continent’s media, publishing, fashion, intellectual and economic life is hard to overstate.
Arguably the most “American” of the nations, the Midlands was founded by English Quakers on the shores of Delaware Bay. Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, the Midlands spawned the culture of Middle America and the Heartland, where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion has been moderate, even apathetic. Long an ethnic mosaic, with people of German descent -- not Anglo-Saxons -- making up the largest group since the 1600s, the Midlands includes those who, like Yankees, believe society should be organized to benefit ordinary people, but they are skeptical of top-down government intervention, as many of their ancestors fled from European tyrannies. The Midlands is home to a dialect long considered “standard American,” a bellwether for national political attitudes and the key swing vote in every national debate from the abolition of slavery to the 2008 presidential contest.
From its cultural hearth in southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and northern Delaware and Maryland, Midland culture spread through much of the heartland: central Ohio, Indiana and Illinois; northern Missouri; most of Iowa; and the less-arid eastern halves of South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. It shares the key border cities of Chicago (with Yankeedom) and St. Louis (with Greater Appalachia, a nation to be discussed in a later installment). It also has an important extension in southern Ontario, where many Midlanders emigrated after the American Revolution, forming the central core of English-speaking Canada. Although less concerned with its national identity, the Midlands is, nonetheless, an enormously influential moderating force in continental politics, as it agrees with only part of its neighbors’ strident agendas.
(Colin Woodard, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, is the author of “The Lobster Coast,” “The Republic of Pirates” and “Ocean’s End.” This is the first in a five-part series excerpted from his new book, “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America,” published Sept. 29 by Viking. The opinions expressed are his own. Read Parts 2, 3,
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