Last week’s election demonstrated, once again, that America’s most essential and abiding divisions are not between red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals, or even the faithful and the secular. They’re cultural, the result of differences that can be traced all the way back to the rival colonial projects established on our continent three and four centuries ago.
Our political divisions are rooted in 11 disparate regional cultures, as I explained in a book that was excerpted on Bloomberg View last year. These regions -- separate nations, really, including 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, and maps of religious regions, political geography and historical patterns of settlement.
The fault lines could be seen throughout this year’s presidential contest. Although both nominees happened to hail from Yankeedom, they presented competing interpretations of the American dream rooted in regional philosophies.
President Barack Obama explicitly embraced the notion that we are all in the same boat, that we will succeed or fail as a community, that the successful ought to make sacrifices for the common good. On the stump and in his victory speech, he presented these as American ideals, and they are in the sense that they are the central founding principles of Yankeedom, the section of the country colonized by the early Puritans and their descendants. The Puritans believed they were God’s chosen people and, as such, would be rewarded or punished collectively. They came to this continent to create a religious utopia, a “light on the hill,” a godly community to serve as an example for the world. Ever since, Yankees have had faith in their ability to engineer a more perfect society through public institutions. Their culture, more than any other, has prized the common good above individual aspiration, often celebrating self-denial as a virtue.
Many other, equally American cultures look upon this philosophy with skepticism, even revulsion, and none more so than the people of Greater Appalachia. This nation was founded in the early 18th century by wave upon wave of rough, bellicose settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England and the Scottish lowlands, whose culture included a warrior ethic and deep commitments to individual liberty. Here “freedom” is broadly understood to mean having the fewest possible encumbrances on individual action. If Yankee ideology seeks to make a community free of tyrants, Appalachia’s sticks up for each person’s freedom to become a tyrant.
In this clash of values, the other American nations fall on a spectrum between the Yankee and Appalachian poles. The Yankee point of view is generally embraced on the Left Coast (which was partially founded by Yankee missionaries), and is begrudgingly accepted within New Netherland, the densely populated, Dutch-founded region around New York City, a competitive, commercial trading society that long ago accepted that it can function only with a considerable amount of shared enterprise.
The Appalachian view is subscribed to in the Deep South (a stratified, oligarchical society founded by English slave owners from Barbados) and the Far West (whose 19th-century colonists had, almost by necessity, a libertarian streak). Two other significant nations -- the Midlands and El Norte -- are more ambivalent and have often served as kingmakers in deciding national contests over the issue.
Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential challenger, is a Yankee from Michigan and Massachusetts, who nevertheless chose to run on a platform emphasizing individual liberty, and to select as his running mate a devotee of Ayn Rand. Romney’s stump speeches emphasized the need to curtail government intrusion and unlock the energy of individual ambition. Taxes on the wealthy and unspecified public services and programs were to be reduced and military spending increased. This was a pitch to the Appalachian ideal, and an effort to rally the individualistic regional cultures around his banner. (One reason this was sometimes a tough sell was that Romney himself is actually a Yankee who, as governor of Massachusetts, had spearheaded government-mandated health-care reforms, and also an adherent of a Yankee-founded religion -- Mormonism -- which shares the utopian and communitarian impulses of the early Puritans.)
With this background in mind, the county-by-county results from Tuesday’s election offer few surprises. Obama dominated Yankeedom, sweeping 58 of 63 New England counties, and dominating the Yankee-founded tier of the Northeast, from upstate New York and the Western Reserve of Ohio to northern Illinois and the Upper Great Lakes states. He routed Romney in New Netherland and won 39 of 53 counties on the Left Coast. Add the overwhelming support of the regions first colonized by Spain (where voters were unimpressed with Romney’s immigration policies) and you have the “blue” coalition that has supported the Democratic candidate for six presidential elections running.
Romney won most of the votes in Appalachia, including the southern tiers of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri, the western swath of Virginia and North Carolina, and central and northeast Texas. He took all the states dominated by the Deep South save perhaps Florida, plus 30 of the 45 Electoral College votes in states controlled by the Far West. Here lie the remnants of the “red” coalition that has reliably supported Republicans for six straight elections.
As neither of these coalitions constitutes an Electoral College majority, recent presidential contests have been won or lost in the two big “swing regions.” Until 2008, the winning strategy was to win over hearts and minds in the Quaker-founded Midlands, a region that has always been a multiethnic, multireligious mosaic, skeptical of both government social engineering and winner-take-all economics. Win even a slim majority in the Midlands, and Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri might be yours, and with them the Electoral College.
In 2008, Obama narrowly won this region. Despite the state of the economy, it looks as if he may have done so again, though largely because of Romney’s opposition to bailing out the automotive industry. The Midlands will remain a battleground -- and an Electoral College firewall against extremism -- in 2016 and beyond.
But now Obama and the Democrats have opened up a new front in what had long been a conservative, individualistic bastion. For more than three centuries, the Tidewater has been reliably conservative, a region founded by the younger sons of English gentry and intended to replicate the genteel aristocratic world of the English countryside. (Take “Downton Abbey,” substitute Thomas Jefferson for Lord Grantham and slaves for the house servants and you get the general idea.) The gentlemen who first ran the region -- encompassing the Chesapeake country, lower Delaware and much of eastern North Carolina -- believed in the common good, and thought themselves the natural arbiters of what that was. At the time of the Revolution, the Tidewater was the most powerful U.S. region, but its influence in national affairs has since dwindled, largely because its westward expansion was blocked by mountain ranges and the Appalachian people who occupied them.
In recent decades, Tidewater’s political culture has been eroded and reshaped by the federal halos around Washington, D.C., and the naval base at Norfolk, Virginia, and the millions of outlanders who live and work within them. We saw the effect in 2008, when Obama won both Virginia and North Carolina. We saw it again this week, when Obama’s overwhelming strength in the Tidewater again won him Old Dominion. He lost North Carolina only because of his weakness in that state’s (larger) Appalachian sections, and was competitive even in the old plantation counties of southern Maryland and Delaware. We saw this effect in other races as well, including Virginia’s Senate contest, in which Democrat Tim Kaine’s strong support in the populous Tidewater was enough to overwhelm George Allen’s 2- and 3-to-1 margins in most of the state’s Appalachian counties.
Looking at the country through a regional lens, Democrats have good reason to be optimistic that they will keep control of the White House and Senate in coming years. The population of the Spanish borderlands is growing. Tidewater is joining the “blue” coalition, putting an end to the notion of a “solid south.” Even the Far West -- always a weak partner in the “red” coalition on account of its socially libertarian outlook -- is in play, with Colorado and Nevada supporting Obama two years in a row. Republicans ignore these developments -- and the true regional map -- at their peril.
(Colin Woodard is the author of “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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