Are the sometimes stark societal divisions in America rooted in the reality that, although the United States is one country, it is actually compromised of 11 nations with distinctly different cultures with their own values and viewpoints?
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That’s the argument made by journalist Colin Woodard in his book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America. Woodard says deeply held and divergent opinions on everything from abortion to gun control have deep historical roots. Woodard believes modern-day opinions in each of these nations were actually formed hundreds of years ago by the people who originally settled these regions.
For example, Woodard believes the southern part of the United States was shaped by the battle over slavery and today still resists any perceived efforts to increase federal powers.
“There’s never been one American culture but rather several Americas,” said Woodard. “The country was settled, not as a single enterprise, but by entirely separate groups of people founding separate colonial clusters with very different ideals and goals.”
Woodard says the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the founders of these regions aren’t assimilating to an American culture, but to one of these regional cultures, which leads the overall ethos and characteristics of these nations to persist over time.
Here’s how Woodard describes each nation:
Encompassing the entire northeast north of New York City as well as parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, Yankeedom was founded by radical Calvinists who put great emphasis on education, local political control, and the pursuit of the greater good of the community. Yankees have great faith in the potential of government to improve people’s lives.
It wasn’t there for long, but the seventeenth-century Dutch colony of New Netherland had a lasting impact on New York City and northern New Jersey. Woodard describes this global commercial trading society as multi-ethnic, multi-religious, speculative, materialistic, mercantile, and free trading, a “raucous, not entirely democratic city-state where no ethnic or religious group has ever truly been in charge”.
Woodard says the Midlands — comprised of parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska — are possibly the “most American” of the nations, having been settled by English Quakers who welcomed people of many nations and creeds to their utopian colonies. “Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, the Midlands spawned the culture of Middle America and the Heartland, where ethic and ideological purity has never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion has been moderate, even apathetic.”
This area — encompassing parts of Virginia, Maryland, southern Delaware and northeastern North Carolina — was the most powerful region during the colonial period and the early days of the new republic. Fundamentally conservative, Tidewater places a high value on authority and tradition and little respect for equality or public participation in politics. Woodard says these attitudes are not surprising since this nation was founded by the younger sons of English gentry who aimed to “reproduce the semifeudal manorial society of the English countryside, where economic, political, and social affairs were run by and for landed aristocrats.”
The people of this nation — including parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Indiana, Illinois, and Texas — are often stereotyped as rednecks, hillbillies and “white trash”. Greater Appalachia was settled by “rough, bellicose settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England and the Scottish lowlands”, according to Woodard. Coming from a culture that fostered a warrior ethic and prized individual liberty, these “American Borderlanders despised Yankee teachers, Tidewater lords and Deep Southern aristocrats.” Large segments of the U.S. military have come from this combative culture, including Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett and Douglas MacArthur.
The Deep South
Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina make up this nation, which was established by Barbados slave lords as a slave society similar to one in the West Indies, a system “so cruel and despotic that it shocked even its seventeenth century English contemporaries”. The Deep South has historically been a stronghold of white supremacy, aristocratic privilege and a classic Republicanism where “democracy was a privilege of the few and enslavement the natural lot of many”.
Centered around New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Canadian province of Quebec, this nation is down-to-earth, egalitarian and consensus-driven. New French culture blends northern French peasantry “with the tradition and values of the aboriginal people they encountered in northeastern North America”. Pollsters have found the New French to be the most liberal people in the country.
Parts of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California are in El Norte, which is composed of the borderlands of the Spanish-American empire. Woodard says El Norte — which spreads from the U.S.-Mexico border from 100 miles or more in either direction — is a place apart from the rest of the United States, where Hispanic language, culture and societal norms dominate. In El Norte, being independent, self-sufficient, adaptable and hard-working is valued above everything else.
The Left Coast
This nation extends from Monterey, California, to Juneau, Alaska and includes four progressive big cities: San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. Originally colonized by merchants, missionaries and woodsmen from New England, as well as farmers, prospectors and fur traders from Greater Appalachia, the Left Coast has retained a strong sense of “New England intellectualism and idealism, even as it embraced a culture of individual fulfillment”. Today, the Left Coast combines the Yankee faith in good government and social reform with a commitment to individual self-exploration and discovery, according to Woodard.
The Far West
The high, dry and remote nature of the environment trumped ethnicity in the Far West, where harsh conditions meant most of the colonization was directed by large distant corporations in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, or the federal government because the railroads, heavy mining equipment, dams and irrigation systems were needed to colonize this vast region. Often exploited for the benefit of the nations on either seaboard, Woodard says this nation tends to revile the federal government for interfering with its affairs while still expecting generous federal payouts. Far West states include Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Washington, Oregon, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Nebraska, Kansas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California.
This nation’s indigenous people still occupy this area and still retain the “cultural practices and knowledge that allow them to survive in the region” on their own terms. These are Native Americans who enjoy tribal sovereignty but most of this group is in Northern Canada.
Two nations, Yankeedom and the Deep South, which are polar opposites, have historically had outsized influence on the country as a whole and tend to be the “superpower” nations.
As people move around, one might assume the country would become more homogenous, but Woodard says the opposite occurs, with Americans becoming more polarized as they move to regions they identify with.
“That means, in essence, that we are self-sorting,” he said. “That when somebody has an opportunity to move…people tend to be moving to places where they feel more at home, where they are surrounded by like-minded individuals. That ends up with a self-sorting effect that ends up reinforcing the differences between these regional cultures.”
Woodard expects the characteristics of these cultures to remain fundamentally constant over the next century, a key reason he aspires to make more Americans aware of their forgotten past.
“We in North America, we’re a pretty amnesiatic people,” Woodard said. “A lot of these forces of our deeper history are affecting us in all sorts of ways and are handicapping our country’s political debates but, unlike other people in other parts of the world, we just don’t realize that because we tend not to know our history very well and be aware of these things.”
Woodward hopes a deeper understanding of the reasons behind strong geographic fissures in this country will help lay the foundation for a more meaningful political and social conversation in the United States.