Even as the movement’s grip tightens on the GOP, its influence is melting away across vast swaths of America, thanks to centuries-old regional traditions that few of us understand.
The real, historically based regional map of our continent respects neither state nor international boundaries, but it has profoundly influenced our history since the days of Jamestown and Plymouth, and continues to dictate the terms of political debate today. I spent years exploring the founding, expansion, and influence of these regional entities— stateless nations, really—while writing my new book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. It demonstrates that our country has never been united, either in purpose, principles, or political behavior. We’ve never been a nation-state in the European sense; we’re a federation of nations, more akin to the European Union than the Republic of France, and this confounds both collective efforts to find common ground and radical campaigns to force one component nation’s values on the others. Once you recognize the real map (see above), you’ll see its shadow everywhere: in linguists’ dialect maps, cultural anthropologist’s maps of the spread of material culture, cultural geographer’s maps of religious regions, and the famous blue county/red county maps of nearly every hotly contested presidential election of the past two centuries. Understanding America’s true component “nations” is essential to comprehending the Tea Party movement, just as it clarifies the events of the American Revolution or the U.S. Civil War.
Our regional divides stem from the fact that the original clusters of North American colonies were settled by people from distinct regions of the British Islands—and from France, the Netherlands, and Spain—each with their own religious, political, and ethnographic characteristics. For generations, these discrete Euro-American cultures developed in remarkable isolation from one another, consolidating their own cherished principles and fundamental values, and expanding across the eastern half of the continent in nearly exclusive settlement bans. Some championed individualism, others utopian social reform. Some believed themselves guided by divine purpose, others championed freedom of conscience and inquiry. Some embraced an Anglo-Protestant identity, others ethnic and religious pluralism. Some valued equality and democratic participation, others deference to a traditional aristocratic order modeled on the slave states of classical antiquity. Throughout the colonial period and the Early Republic, they saw themselves as competitors— for land, settlers, and capital—and even as enemies, taking opposing sides in the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812. Nearly all of these regional cultures would consider leaving the Union in the eighty-year period after Yorktown, and two went to war to do so in the 1860s. Immigration enriched these nations—or, more accurately, the nations that were attractive to immigrants—but it did not fundamentally alter the characteristics of these “dominant” cultures; the children and grandchildren of immigrants didn’t assimilate into an American culture, instead tending to assimilate to the norms of the regional culture in which they found themselves. There’s never been an America, but rather several Americas, and there are eleven today.
Founded on the shores of Massachusetts Bay by radical Calvinists as a new Zion, since the outset Yankeedom has put great emphasis on perfecting earthly society through social engineering, individual self-denial for the common good, and the aggressive assimilation of outsiders. It has prized education, intellectual achievement, community (rather than individual) empowerment, and broad citizen participation in politics and government, the latter seen as the public’s shield against the machinations of grasping aristocrats, corporations, and other tyrannies. From its New England core, it has spread with its settlers across upper New York State, 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.
Established by the Dutch at a time when the Netherlands was the most sophisticated society in the Western world, New Netherland has displayed its salient characteristics 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. Like seventeenth-century Amsterdam, it emerged as a leading global center of publishing, trade, and finance, a magnet for immigrants, and a refuge for those persecuted by other regional cultures, from Sephardim in the seventeenth century to gays, feminists, and bohemians in the early twentieth. Not particularly democratic or concerned with great moral questions—it sided with the South on slavery prior to the attack on Fort Sumter—it nonetheless has found itself in alliance with Yankeedom in defense of a shared commitment to public-sector institutions and a rejection of evangelical prescriptions for individual behavior.
America’s great swing region was founded by English Quakers, who believed in man’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. An ethnic mosaic from the start—it had a German rather than British majority at the time of the Revolution—it shares the Yankee belief that society should be organized to benefit ordinary people, but it rejects top-down government intervention. 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, sharing the border cities of Chicago (with Yankeedom) and St. Louis (with Greater Appalachia).
Settled in many cases by the younger sons of southern English gentry, Tidewater was meant to reproduce the semifeudal manorial society of the countryside they’d left behind, where economic, political, and social affairs were run by and for landed aristocrats. These self-identified “Cavaliers” largely succeeded in their aims, turning the lowlands of Virginia, Maryland, southern Delaware, and northeastern North Carolina into a country gentleman’s paradise, with indentured servants and, later, slaves taking the role of the peasantry. Tidewater 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. The most powerful nation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, today it is a nation in decline, having been boxed out of westward expansion by its boisterous Appalachian neighbors and, more recently, eaten away by the expanding Midlands.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.