This post is a commentary on Colin Woodard’s book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.
Woodard argues that the United States is not a single national culture but a collection of national cultures, each with its own geographic base. The core insight for this analytical approach comes from “Wilbur Zelinsky of Pennsylvania State University [who] formulated [a] theory in 1973, which he called the Doctrine of First Effective Settlement. ‘Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable, self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been,’ Zelinsky wrote. ‘Thus, in terms of lasting impact, the activities of a few hundred, or even a few score, initial colonizers can mean much more for the cultural geography of a place than the contributions of tens of thousands of new immigrants a few generations later.’”
I’m suspicious of theories that smack of cultural immutability and cultural determinism, but Woodard’s account is more sophisticated than that. His is a story of the power of founders in a new institutional setting, who lay out the foundational norms for a society that lacks any cultural history of its own or which expelled the preexisting cultural group (in the U.S. case, Native Americans). So part of the story is about the acculturation of newcomers into an existing worldview. But another part is the highly selective nature of immigration, since new arrivals often seek out places to settle that are culturally compatible. They may target a particular destination because its cultural characteristics, creating a pipeline of like-minded immigrants; or they choose to move on to another territory if the first port of entry is not to their taste. Once established, these cultures often expanded westward as the country developed, extending the size and geographical scope of each nation.
Why does he insist on calling them nations? At first this bothered me a bit, but then I realized he was using the term “nation” in Benedict Anderson’s sense as “imagined communities.” Tidewater and Yankeedom are not nation states; they are cultural components of the American state. But they do act as nations for their citizens. Each of these nations is a community of shared values and worldviews that binds people together who have never met and often live far away. The magic of the nation is that it creates a community of common sense and purpose that extends well beyond the reach of normal social interaction. If you’re Yankee to the core, you can land in a strange town in Yankeedom and feel at home. These are my people. I belong here.
He argues that these national groupings continue to have a significant impact of the cultural geography of the US, shaping people’s values, styles of social organization, views of religion and government, and ultimately how they vote. The kicker is the alignment between the spatial distribution of these cultures and the current voting patterns. He lays out this argument succinctly in a 2018 op-ed he wrote for the New York Times. I recommend reading it.
The whole analysis is neatly summarized in the two maps he deployed in that op-ed, which I have reproduced below.
The Map of America’s 11 Nations
This first map shows the geographic boundaries of the various cultural groupings in the U.S. It all started on the east coast with the founding cultural binary that shaped the formation of the country in the late 18th century — New England Yankees and Tidewater planters. He argues that they are direct descendants of the two factions in the English civil war of the mid 17th century, with the Yankees as the Calvinist Roundheads, who (especially after being routed by the restoration in England) sought to establish a new theocratic society in the northeast founded on strong government, and the Anglican Cavaliers, who sought to reproduce the decentralized English aristocratic ideal on Virginia plantations. In between was the Dutch entrepot of New York, focused on commerce and multiculturalism (think “Hamilton”), and the Quaker colony in Pennsylvania, founded on equality and suspicion of government. The US constitution was an effort to balance all of these cultural priorities within a single federal system.
Then came two other groups that didn’t fit well into any of these four cultural enclaves. The immigrants to the Deep South originated in the slave societies of British West Indies, bringing with them a rigid caste structure and a particularly harsh version of chattel slavery. Immigrants to Greater Appalachia came from the Scots-Irish clan cultures in Northern Ireland and the Scottish borderlands, with a strong commitment to individual liberty, resentment of government, and a taste for violence.
Tidewater and Yankeedom dominated the presidency and federal government for the country’s first 40 years. But in 1828 the US elected its first president from rapidly expanding Appalachia, Andrew Jackson. And by then the massive westward expansion of the Deep South, along with the extraordinary wealth and power that accrued from its cotton-producing slave economy, created the dynamics leading to the Civil War. This pitted the four nations of the northeast against Tidewater and Deep South, with Appalachia split between the two, resentful of both Yankee piety and Southern condescension. The multiracial and multicultural nations of French New Orleans and the Mexican southwest (El Norte) were hostile to the Deep South and resented its efforts to expand its dominion westward.
The other two major cultural groupings emerged in the mid 19th century. The thin strip along the west coast consisted of Yankees in the cities and Appalachians in the back country, combining the utopianism of the former with the radical individualism of the latter. The Far West is the one grouping that is based not on cultural geography but physical geography. A vast arid area unsuited to farming, it became the domain of the only two entities powerful enough to control it — large corporations (railroad and mining), which exploited it, and the federal government, which owned most of the land and provided armed protection from Indians.
So let’s jump ahead and look at the consequences of this cultural landscape for our current political divisions. Examine the electoral map for the 2016 presidential race, which shows the vote in Woodard’s 11 nations.
The 2016 Electoral Map
Usually you see voting maps with results by state. Here instead we see voting results by county, which allows for a more fine-tuned analysis. Woodard assigns each county to one of the 11 “nations” and then shows the red or blue vote margin for each cultural grouping.
It’s striking to see how well the nations match the vote. The strongest vote for Clinton came from the Left Coast, El Norte, and New Netherland, with substantial support from Yankeedom, Tidewater, and Spanish Caribbean. Midlands was only marginally supportive of the Democrat. Meanwhile the Deep South and Far West were modestly pro-Trump (about as much as Yankeedom was pro-Clinton), but the true kicker was Appalachia, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump (along with New France in southern Louisiana).
Appalachia forms the heart of Trump’s electoral base of support. It’s an area that resents intellectual, cultural, and political elites; that turns away from mainstream religious denominations in favor of evangelical sects; and that lags behing behind in the 21st century information economy. As a result, this is the heartland of populism. It’s no wonder that the portrait on the wall in Trump’s Oval portrays Andrew Jackson.
Now one more map, this time showing were in the country people have been social distancing and where they haven’t, as measure by how much they were traveling away from home (using cell phone data). It comes from a piece Woodard recently published in Washington Monthly.