As the United States celebrated its 241st birthday this week, its citizens would be forgiven for worrying that the union might not make it to its 250th.
Divided into increasingly hostile red and blue zones (places where one party and its ideas have been completely vanquished), humiliated by half-serious calls for its most populous states to secede, and governed by one of the most divisive and authoritarian figures in its history, this federation of ours is fraying, with enormous risks for ourselves and our world.
A Brief History of the Divided States of America
This is not the first time we’ve faced such a crisis. A hundred and fifty years ago, we couldn’t even celebrate the Fourth of July together, as hundreds of thousands of lowland whites in the defeated Confederacy turned their backs on the Stars and Stripes. For a half-century before that, they had celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence but extracted entirely different lessons than their counterparts in the Yankee North. Yankees venerated the second paragraph of the Declaration, with its proclamation of the equality of men, their inalienable rights, and government’s duty to secure them. Lowland Southerners preferred to pay homage to the first and last paragraphs: an assertion of the rights to rebel against a tyrannical empire that had denied local leaders the sacred liberty of self-government.
Indeed, from its very beginning, the United States has been torn between competing visions of what the American experiment was all about, with the northernmost tier of the country emphasizing collective action to build a stronger, better, and more just union, and the southernmost tier fighting for self-government, the liberties of local rulers, and the sanctity of local tradition. The other regions — and there were well more than two — found themselves caught in between these sometimes literally warring parties.
Fast-forward 150 years, and our country remains divided along the same geographic fault lines. Capital punishment is a regional phenomenon, with 95 percent of the nearly 2,000 executions since the practice resumed in 1976 occurring in southern regions and the interior west, and just one in the northeastern tier first colonized by New Englanders and their descendants, even though those states comprise a quarter of the U.S. population. Similarly — and before the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges interceded — the states that banned gay marriage were concentrated in Appalachia and the Deep South, while the states that spearheaded its legalization were concentrated in New England, with Massachusetts leading the way back in 2003. Obamacare passed Congress in 2010 because of overwhelming support in New England and the Yankee-colonized districts of the Upper Great Lakes and Pacific coastal plains, despite bipartisan rejection across the former Confederacy, where every state save Arkansas and Louisiana has also declined to expand Medicaid. We’re even fighting over Confederate flags and monuments again and, with them, the meaning of the Deep South–led rebellion of the 1860s.
Indeed, plot a wide range of phenomena at county-level resolution — presidential voting results, indices of health, income inequality, education, social mobility, dialects, and religiosity — and you’ll see a recognizable pattern. It isn’t, and never has been, as simple as North versus South, red states versus blue, urban versus rural, or cosmopolitan coasts set against a more purely “American” interior. Rather, our most abiding geographic fissures can be traced back to the contrasting ideals of the distinct European colonial cultures that first took root on the eastern and southern rims of what is now the United States, and then spread across much of the continent in mutually exclusive settlement bands, laying down the institutions, symbols and cultural norms later arrivals would encounter and, by and large, assimilate into. In many respects, these divisions have been growing stronger, not weaker, over time, hobbling our sense of common purpose and the efforts of Congress to do something as routine as pass a budget.
The settlers of each of the original Colonial clusters came from various regions of the British Isles, or from France, the Netherlands, or Spain, and had distinct religious, political, and ethnographic characteristics. Some championed individualism and individual liberty, others utopian reform and the building of a just community. Some thought themselves guided by divine purpose, others by the freedom of conscience and inquiry. Some embraced an explicit Anglo-Protestant identity, others ethnic and religious pluralism. Some valued equality and broad democratic participation, others deference to an aristocratic order modeled on the slave states of classical antiquity. Their original ideals and intents are still reflected in the regions they cultivated, frustrating efforts to build a national consensus not only on how to best tax or spend, regulate firearms, enforce majority social or religious norms, or provide medical care, but also on more essential questions, like the meaning of such key words in the American lexicon as “freedom” or “liberty.”
Forget state boundaries. Often arbitrarily chosen, they slash through cohesive cultures, leaving massive political fault lines in states like California and Oregon, Texas and Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. There’s a reason Maryland’s congressional delegation was sharply divided on geographic grounds when contemplating the Deep South’s secession in 1861, why the electorate in the central and northern coastal strip of California broke with the rest of the state over same-sex marriage in 2008’s Proposition 8. The New England–influenced portions of Oregon and Washington are evident on county maps of the 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016 elections — a strip of blue cutting down the left side of otherwise red states — just as they were in 1916, only with the colors reversed. The Scots-Irish who settled the uplands of Virginia have voted in contradistinction to the Tidewater lowlands in most every matter, from joining the confederacy to recent and current gubernatorial races and the wisdom of making Donald Trump president.
The 11 Nations of North America
I described the foundation, evolution, and impact of these entities in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. In summary, they are:
Yankeedom: Founded on the shores of Massachusetts Bay by radical Calvinists and toted as a new Zion, Yankeedom has always put great emphasis on perfecting Earthly society through social engineering, individual sacrifice for the common good, and the aggressive assimilation of outsiders. It prizes community (rather than individual) empowerment, broad civic participation, and government action to protect the community against would-be tyrants. From its New England core, it has spread with its settlers across upper New York; the northern strips of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Iowa; parts of the eastern Dakotas; and on up into the upper Great Lakes states and Canada’s Maritime Provinces. You’ll find a remarkable concentration of venerable colleges and universities in this band, just one of the many legacies of its settlement history.
New Netherland: Established by the Dutch at a time when the Netherlands was the most sophisticated society in the Western world, this region has displayed the salient characteristics of 17th-century Amsterdam throughout its history: a global commercial trading culture — multiethnic, multireligious, and materialistic — with a profound tolerance for diversity and an unflinching commitment to the freedom of inquiry and conscience. Today it comprises greater New York City, including northern New Jersey, western Long Island, and the lower Hudson Valley. It’s a 21st-century city-state and North America’s most powerful and globalized city.
The Midlands: America’s great swing region was founded by English Quakers, who believed in human’s inherent goodness and welcomed people of many nations and creeds to their utopian colonies on the shores of Delaware Bay. Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, the Midlands spawned the culture of Middle America and the Heartland, where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion has been moderate, even apathetic. From its cultural hearth in southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and northern Delaware and Maryland, Midland culture spread through central Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois; northern Missouri; most of Iowa; southern Ontario; and the eastern halves of South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.
Tidewater: Built by the younger sons of southern English gentry, Tidewater was meant to reproduce the semi-feudal manorial society of the countryside they’d left behind, where economic, political, and social affairs were run by and for landed aristocrats. The region — which comprises the Chesapeake country of Virginia and Maryland, the lower two counties of Delaware, and much of eastern North Carolina—has always been fundamentally conservative, with a high value placed on respect for authority and tradition and very little on equality or public participation in politics. This culture is vanishing from the stage, largely due to the expanding federal halos around D.C. and Norfolk.
Greater Appalachia: Founded in the early 18th century by waves of settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of northern Ireland, northern England, and the Scottish lowlands, this region has a deep commitment to personal sovereignty and individual liberty and an intense suspicion of external authority, be it the lowland aristocracy or Reconstruction-era Yankee social engineers. From its hearth in south-central Pennsylvania, it spread down the Appalachian Mountains and out into the southern tiers of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois; the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks; the eastern two-thirds of Oklahoma; and on down to the Hill Country of Texas, clashing with Indians, Mexicans, planters, and Yankees along the way. This is the culture J.D. Vance and former Senator Jim Webb wrote about, and the part of the country that says they’re “American” when census takers ask their ethnic ancestry.
Deep South: Established by slave lords from Barbados as a West Indies–style slave society, this region has been a bastion of oligarchic privilege—a version of classical Republicanism modeled on the slave states of the ancient world, where democracy was the privilege of the few and enslavement the natural lot of the many. Its slave and racial caste systems smashed by outside intervention, the Deep South continues to fight for rollbacks of federal power, taxes on capital and the wealthy, and environmental, labor, and consumer safety protections. From its original beachhead around Charleston, South Carolina, it spread apartheid across the southern lowlands, ultimately encompassing much of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana, plus western Tennessee and southeastern portions of Arkansas, Texas, and North Carolina. This is the only part of the country that has managed to keep Confederate symbols on the flags of the states they control.
El Norte: The far-flung borderlands of the Spanish American empire were so distant from the seats of power in Mexico City and Madrid that they evolved their own characteristics and a reputation for being more independent, self-sufficient, adaptable, and work-centered than their central and southern countrymen. With a long history of tensions with both the United States and Mexico City, the region has sought to become an independent buffer state between the two federations. Today, this resurgent culture spreads from the current frontier for a hundred miles or more in both directions, taking in South Texas, Southern California and the Imperial Valley, southern Arizona, most of New Mexico, parts of Colorado, and the six northernmost Mexican states.
The Left Coast: A Chile-shaped nation wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade and Coast mountain ranges and stretching from Monterey to Juneau, the Left Coast is the unlikely result of two early colonization streams: merchants, missionaries, and woodsmen from New England (who arrived by sea), and farmers, prospectors, and fur traders from the Appalachian Midwest (who came by wagon). Yankee missionaries expended considerable effort to make it “a New England on the Pacific,” but were only partially successful: the Left Coast is a hybrid culture that combines Yankee utopianism with an Appalachian emphasis on individual self-expression and exploration. It’s a very successful combination: This thin strip of the world is home to most of the companies that dominate early 21st-century life: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Facebook, just to name a few.
The Far West: This is the one part of the continent where environmental factors trumped ethnographic ones. High, dry, and remote, it stopped the Eastern cultures in their tracks and — with the Mormon exception — was only colonized via the deployment of vast industrial-scale resources: railroads, ore smelters, dams, and irrigation systems. As a result, settlement was largely directed and controlled by far-off corporations or the federal government, both of which exploited it as an internal colony, to the lasting resentment of its people. It encompasses nearly all of the interior West of the 100th meridian, from the northern boundary of El Norte to the middle reaches of Canada, including much of California, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Alaska, Colorado, Canada’s Prairie Provinces, and all of Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Nevada. No surprise this is where the militants who took over a national wildlife refuge in early 2016 came from, acted, and were found “not guilty” by local jurors.
Two other regional cultures, where the legacy of New France and the continent’s First Nations hold sway, have just small enclaves in the United States — northern and eastern Alaska and the Cajun country of Louisiana, respectively — but have enormous influence in Canada, a federation not unlike our own, but with an entirely different mix of regional cultures.
Beyond Blue and Red
One would think our continent’s famed mobility — and the transportation and communications technology that facilitates it — would dissolve differences between these regional cultures. Paradoxically, it appears to be reinforcing it. As journalist Bill Bishop and sociologist Robert Cushing revealed in The Big Sort, for decades now, Americans who are relocating choose to move to communities where people share their values and worldview. As a result, the proportion of voters living in counties that consistently give landslide wins report — more than a 20 percent margin of victory — to one party increased from 26.8 percent in 1976 to 48.3 percent in 2004. The volume of people is significant and has benefited the GOP, with a net 13 million people moving from Democratic to Republican landslide counties between 1990 and 2006 alone. In doing so, they’re often moving between regional cultures as well and increasing the differences between them. Indeed, three years ago, Nate Silver and Harry Enten used data from the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey to demonstrate that people moving from a liberal area to a conservative one and vice versa tend to have political attitudes that resemble those in their destination, not their old home. “If anything, movers generally have more extreme political views than natives,” the two wrote on FiveThirtyEight. “Thus, the process of intra-country migration could be contributing to political polarization rather than making states more purple.”
Which brings up an important point: Trying to understand American political history by focusing on parties is a fool’s errand. After all, for the first century of its existence, the Republican Party was almost explicitly the party of Yankeedom, the region where it was born, while the states controlled by the Deep South and Tidewater were Democratic one-party systems so devoted to the maintenance of a racial caste system that they succeeded in excluding most of their regions’ African-American population from the benefits of the New Deal. Starting in 1964 — and prompted by Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act — the parties began swapping constituencies, a process fully completed only recently. The blue places have become red and the red blue, but by and large they’re still voting against one another. Parties come and go — where are the Federalists and the Whigs today? — or turn their ideals upside down, but the tectonic plates of our political geography are eternal.
In recent decades, national politics has increasingly coalesced around two diametrically opposed regional coalitions. On the “blue” side stand Yankeedom, New Netherland, and the Left Coast. This “Northern” alliance has been the champion of collective action for the common good, the maintenance of a strong central government, federal checks on corporate power, and the conservation of natural resources, regardless of which party was dominant in the region at any given time. The presidents they have produced — Teddy and Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and Barack Obama — have all sought to better society through government programs, expanded civil rights protections, and environmental safeguards. All faced opposition from the Dixie-led regions, even from within their own parties. These northern regions have become overwhelmingly Democratic in recent years. Republicans once dominated New England but are now an endangered species there. Even after the 2016 presidential election, Democrats hold 11 of the region’s 12 Senate seats (including two independents who caucus with them), nine of 12 legislative chambers, and all but one of both its Electoral College electors and its representatives to the House.
In the “red” coalition are the Deep South, Greater Appalachia, and the Far West, three regions that have always emphasized individual liberty, small government, constraints on federal power, and a laissez-faire approach to social and economic policy. This core bloc has a population somewhat larger than the blue one — 125 million to 92 million — but is less stable owing to differing ideals regarding equality and egalitarianism. In Greater Appalachia, there is considerable emphasis on individual pride and dignity and hostility to authority and inherited status; in the great meritocratic struggle for survival, the region’s ideology goes, each person should have their fair shake, a position shared in the Far West. The Deep Southern oligarchy, by contrast, traditionally held that a social Darwinian struggle took place generations ago, and they were the rightful winners and thus deserve to maximize their liberty, a position that until the 1860s included the freedom to enslave others.
Slavery is gone, but Deep Southern political leaders have continued to focus on cutting taxes for the rich, maintaining subsidies to agribusiness and oil companies, fighting robust labor and environmental laws, and the expansion of social programs, which isn’t always in sync with the Far West, especially. The coalition has produced only one Republican president in living memory — George W. Bush — but accounts for the vast majority of the Tea Party caucus in the House, which generally promotes the Deep Southern agenda. At its peak in 2011, 51 of the Tea Party’s 60 members came from the three-region bloc, compared to three from the regions of the “Northern alliance.” It also gave Donald Trump almost all of its Electoral College votes, though much of the Far West saw sharp shifts away from him in comparison with previous Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
These regional divides can even trump the powerful political differences between rural and urban communities. Conventional wisdom holds that rural, white, less-than-affluent voters vote Republican, and yet in both 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama won every such county in northern New England save one, and most of those in Wisconsin, northeast Iowa, and the North Country of New York. Eighteen of the 92 urban core counties in the United States — defined as containing the central city of a metro area with at least a quarter-million people — voted Republican in the three presidential elections between 2000 and 2010; 15 of those are located within the three regions of the “red coalition,” and none were within the blue one.
Here’s the critical problem for American governance: Neither of these coalitions by themselves have the electoral power to control the essential levers of federal power—majorities in the Electoral College, the House, and a filibuster-proof Senate majority. These coalitions agree on very little — which is why compromise has become so difficult — and neither of their respective programs are fully appealing enough to swing regions to forge a broader and lasting coalition. Elections are nail-biters, decided by the shifting allegiances of a relatively small number of voters from a small and recurring collection of battleground counties, most of them in the Midlands.
If history is any guide, we will overcome our political deadlock only when one of the political parties manages to change its message enough to capture the support of one or more of the swing nations or to strip away a weak partner in the opposing coalition, creating a federal supermajority.
For the “red” bloc, the obvious play is for El Norte, where President George W. Bush saw opportunities for conservatives in an entrepreneurial, religious, family-oriented culture; that effort has fallen victim to hostility toward immigrants in parts of the Republican base. This has given rapidly growing El Norte to the “blue” coalition almost by default. Meanwhile, Tidewater — not long ago a reliable partner of the Deep South — has been rapidly transforming into a Midlands-style swing nation as the expanding federal halos around Washington, D.C., and Hampton Roads, Virginia (home to the world’s largest naval base), have finally overwhelmed its cultural fabric.
For the “blue” coalition, the Far West is also potentially up for grabs, given its cultural commitment to civil liberties and a history of resistance to corporate — not just federal — masters. In both 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama was able to defeat conservative Republican rivals in Far West states Colorado and Nevada, and in 2008 nearly captured Montana as well. In the 2016 Democratic primaries, a self-declared social democrat, Bernie Sanders, dominated the region against Hillary Clinton, the more economically conservative of the two. In the first 15 years of the 21st century, Democrats also won governor’s races in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Arizona, as well as Senate seats in Montana, Nevada, Colorado, both Dakotas, and Nebraska. Democrats have come to dominate the state legislatures of Nevada and Colorado and have regularly held one chamber in Montana. A platform promising to keep markets competitive and the playing field level would play well here regardless of who was pitching it, even as it shored up support in the Midlands.
Time is no longer on America’s side, however. The sinews that have held our federation together — a broadly shared commitment to liberal democracy and the rule of law—are snapping, and an overt authoritarian sits in the Oval Office, despite failing to win the endorsement of a majority of American voters. At least one of the parties — and at this writing, it’s likely the Democrats — needs to embrace a fairness platform, rally an expanded regional coalition, and save the republic. I’ll be discussing this and other implications of our balkanized cultural geography further here on Medium in the coming months, and I hope you’ll read on. Everything is at stake.