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Hector Casanova, Kansas City Star/MCT

11 nations, divisible

  • Article by: COLIN WOODARD
  • Bloomberg News
  • November 12, 2012 - 11:45 PM

Last week's election demonstrated, once again, that America's most 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 recently published book. 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, and maps of religious regions and political geography.

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 Obama explicitly embraced the notion that we are all in the same boat, that the successful ought to make sacrifices for the common good. 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 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.

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.

In this clash of values, the other American nations fall on a spectrum between Yankee and Appalachian poles. The Yankee view is embraced on the Left Coast (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.

Mitt Romney 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 emphasized the need to curtail government intrusion and unlock the energy of individual ambition. Taxes on the wealthy and unspecified public programs were to be reduced and military spending increased. This was a pitch to the Appalachian ideal.

With this background in mind, the county-by-county results from Tuesday's election offer few surprises. Obama dominated Yankeedom, and the Yankee-founded tier of the Northeast, from upstate New York to the Upper Great Lakes states. He routed Romney in New Netherland and 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 Florida, plus 30 of the 45 Electoral College votes in the Far West. Here lie the remnants of the "red" coalition that has 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." The Quaker-founded Midlands 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.

The Midlands will remain a battleground in 2016 and beyond.

But now Obama and the Democrats have opened up a new front in what had long been a conservative 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.

The gentlemen who first ran the region believed in the common good, and thought themselves the natural arbiters of what that was. At the Revolution, the Tidewater was the most powerful U.S. region, but its influence has since dwindled.

In recent decades, Tidewater's political culture has been reshaped by the federal halos around Washington, D.C., and the naval base at Norfolk, Virginia, and the millions of outlanders who live within them. We saw the effect in 2008, when Obama won both Virginia and North Carolina. We saw it again last 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.

Looking at the country through a regional lens, Democrats have good reason to be optimistic. The population of the Spanish borderlands is growing. Tidewater is joining the "blue" coalition. Even the Far West is in play, with Colorado and Nevada supporting Obama two elections 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."

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