The United States is not one nation, but a federation of nations with their own unique histories and cultures. These nations spill over traditional national boundaries encompassing most of North America, and explain most of the political conflicts that now consume U.S. politics. And the divisions are intensifying.
This is the proposition of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. (Penguin, 2011) Author Colin Woodard brings to bear a combination of historical and statistical analysis down to county levels to map those nations. Resonant with earlier work such as Joel Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America, Woodard’s analysis is far more refined. As a lifetime student of regionalist literature, I would say Woodard has accomplished the most skillful mapping of the continent’s real cultural regions to date.
The outcomes in U.S. political life are clear – the division of red and blue states, deadlock at the federal level, government shutdowns, the split between urban and rural voters. Issue after issue, from abortion to gay marriage, takes on a distinct geography. That extends in a big way to climate change and the differing responses by the 11 nations. Having experienced those politics directly, I will in this series focus on the implications of Woodard’s mapping for climate policy in the U.S.
First, the nations. Woodward broke the continent down by county lines, which seem increasingly to be the most cogent defining lines in American political life. This is a point brought out as well by Bill Bishop in The Big Sort, good companion reading to American Nations. Here's the map. Click on for larger view.
Yankeedom – Culturally shaped by its Puritan forbears, this region stretching from New England to the Great Lakes, is characterized by an emphasis on education, the common good, and the positive powers of government to guide society. Ideas of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism derive from Yankeedom, which is driven to reform all the rest of the nations. Predictably they see the Yankees as busybodies who can’t mind their own business.
New Netherland – The New York metropolitan area, still echoing its original Dutch culture of tolerance of diversity and freedom of inquiry, as well as freewheeling mercantilism.
Midlands – An oddly shaped strip beginning with the Quaker origin point around Philadelphia, snaking out across the Midwest and encircling Yankeedom to encompass Ontario, the Midlands is characterized by pluralism, an emphasis on middle class values, and a non-ideological politics skeptical of government.
Tidewater – Founded in Virginia by the Cavaliers seeking to re-create English manor life, Tidewater has an aristocratic heritage. Its area is limited to the Atlantic coast, and is slowly retreating before the Midlands, as can be seen in places such as Northern Virginia
Greater Appalachia – Spanning the center of the US from the Appalachian Mountains through the border states to Texas, this nation was formed by Scotch-Irish from the borderlands of the northern British Isles. Near constant warfare fostered a warrior ethic and an emphasis on individual liberty, with a resistance to government and elites public and private. This is the home ground of Christian fundamentalism, as well as a disproportionate share of those in military service.
Deep South – Founded by immigrants from the notably vicious slaveocracy of Barbados around Charleston, South Carolina, this nation extends through much of North Carolina and out to East Texas. With a more virulent brand of slavery than Tidewater, the Deep South led the Civil War secession movement. Today the region continues as a low-wage area under the rule of economic elites.
New France – The French settlers of Quebec spawned the continent’s most liberal and egalitarian culture. The Acadians deported from the Canadian maritime provinces centuries ago provide New France with a salient in Southern Louisiana.
El Norte – Actually the oldest of the nations dating back to the 1500s, El Norte is an Anglo-Mexican hybrid taking in the U.S. Southwest and Northern Mexico from the Gulf to Pacific coasts, including Los Angeles, and north through New Mexico and Southern Colorado. The region is now majority Latino.
Far West – The dry lands from the Great Plains to the Sierras and Cascades, the Far West is characterized by environmental limitations that barred much small-scale agricultural settlement. Instead development has been driven by large natural resource and railroad corporations. The resource colony history still heavily influences politics in the region.
Left Coast – The maritime Pacific strip from Northern California through British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, the Left Coast was shaped by Yankee traders who founded the cities and the Greater Applachians who settled the countryside. That has given the culture a unique combination of Yankee public spirit and individual self-realization. I am a child of the Midlands but have lived most of my life on the Left Coast. Woodard’s analysis tells me why.
First Nation – The northern portion of the continent, the largest nation in territory and the smallest in population, the indigenous still rule here and maintain traditional cultures. They are also pointing toward a more ecological future.
To those who object that the original cultures of most of these “nations” have long been overrun by immigrants, Woodard offers the doctrine of first effective settlement. The original settlers form the prevailing culture, which is adopted by subsequent immigrants.
In the next installment I will correlate the 11 nations to the geography of climate politics in the U.S. and Canada. I’ll give you my download on federal climate politics as well, and how the nations have arrayed against one another.