November/December 2011 A Geography Lesson for the Tea Party

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.

By Colin Woodard

Photo: Sean Wilkinson, Sean Wilkinson Design

When 2011 began, the Tea Party movement had reason to think it had seized control of Maine. Their candidate, Paul LePage, the manager of a chain of scrappy surplus-and-salvage stores, had won the governor’s mansion on a promise to slash taxes, regulations, spending, and social services. Republicans had captured both houses of the state legislature for the first time in decades, to the surprise of the party’s leaders themselves. Tea Party sympathizers had taken over the GOP state convention, rewriting the party’s platform to demand the closure of the borders, the elimination of the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Department of Education, a prohibition on stimulus spending, a “return to the principles of Austrian Economics,” and a prohibition on “any participation in efforts to create a one world government.” A land developer had been put in charge of environmental protection, a Tea Party activist was made economic development chief, and corporate lobbyists served as the governor’s key advisers. A northern New England state’s rather liberal Democrats and notoriously moderate Republican establishment had been vanquished.

Or so they thought.

Less than a year later, it’s Maine’s Tea Party that’s on the wane. Prone to temper tantrums and the airing of groundless accusations, Governor LePage—who won office by less than two points in a five-way race, with just 38 percent of the vote—quickly alienated the state party chair and GOP legislative leadership. His populist credentials were damaged when it was revealed that much of his legislative agenda— including a widely condemned proposal to roll all state environmental laws back to weak federal baselines—had been literally cut and pasted from memos sent to his office by favored companies, industrial interests, or their lobbyists. His economic development commissioner was forced to step down after allegedly insulting several (previously friendly) audiences, while a court ruled that his environmental protection nominee violated conflict-of-interest provisions. He triggered international media coverage, a lawsuit, and large protests after removing a mural depicting the history of Maine’s labor movement from the Department of Labor because an anonymous constituent compared it to North Korean “brainwashing.” Eight of twenty GOP state senators blasted the governor’s bellicose behavior in an op-ed carried in the state’s newspapers, the largest of which declared in April that “the LePage era is over.” Power in the state’s diminutive capital, Augusta, now resides with the senate president, a Republican moderate who was Senator Olympia Snowe’s longtime chief of staff.

The Tea Party itself has been all but destroyed in Maine by its association with the debt ceiling hostage takers in Washington, according to Andrew Ian Dodge, founder of the organization Maine Tea Party Patriots and the state movement’s most high-profile activist. “There were people saying, ‘Yes, I think we should default,’ and there were the rest of us saying, ‘You’re insane,’ ” says Dodge, a dark-horse challenger to Snowe. “Now I’m emphasizing my Tea Party links even less because a lot of people think they are the crazy people who almost drove us off a cliff.”

Indeed, in much of the northern tier of the country, the Tea Party has seen a similar reversal of fortune. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker—who won by just 6 percent— has faced powerful resistance to his deregulatory, antiunion, antigovernment agenda, including the recall of two of his senatorial allies; his political future is uncertain. In Massachusetts, Tea Party-backed Senator Scott Brown has emerged as a moderate Yankee Republican along the lines of Snowe. In New Hampshire, Tea Party organizer Jack Kimball stepped down as state party chair this September after losing the confidence of the state’s leading Republicans. “This is the establishment Republicans versus the Tea Party that helped get them into office,’’ one angry Tea Party activist said of Kimball’s departure. “They rode us in, now they’re bringing us back to the barn.’’

When the Tea Party burst onto the national scene in the summer of 2010, it looked like a national movement. From Wasilla, Alaska, to Augusta, Maine, it dominated GOP rhetoric and produced candidates in virtually every level of government and section of the country. But over the past year, even as its grip on the national GOP has strengthened, its influence has melted away in large swaths of the northern half of the continent, its activists forced to confront the fact that their agenda and credo are anathema to the centuries- old social, political, and cultural traditions of these regions. The Tea Party agenda may hold sway over large parts of the South and interior West, and with the economy and the president in such a weakened state a Tea Party favorite like Rick Perry could conceivably win the White House. But the movement has no hope of truly dominating the country. Our underlying and deeply fractured political geography guarantees that it will never marshal congressional majorities; indeed, it almost guarantees that the movement will be marginalized, its power and influence on the wane and, over large swaths of the nation, all but extinguished.

We’re accustomed to thinking of American regionalism along Mason-Dixon lines: North against South, Yankee blue against Dixie gray or, these days, red. Of course, we all know it’s more complicated than that, and not just because the paradigm excludes the western half of the country. Even in the East, there are massive, obvious, and long-standing cultural fissures within states like Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, and Ohio. Nor are cultural boundaries reflected in the boundaries of more westerly states. Northern and downstate Illinois might as well be different planets. The coastal regions of Oregon and Washington seem to have more in common with each other and with the coasts of British Columbia and northern California than they do with the interiors of their own states. Austin may be the capital of Texas, but Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio are the hubs of three distinct Texases, while citizens of the two Missouris can’t even agree on how to pronounce their state’s name. The conventional, state-based regions we talk about—North, South, Midwest, Southwest, West—are inadequate, unhelpful, and ahistorical.

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.

New Netherland
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.

The Midlands
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.

Greater Appalachia
Founded in the early eighteenth century by wave upon wave of rough, bellicose settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of northern Ireland, northern England, and the Scottish lowlands, Appalachia has been lampooned by writers and screenwriters as the home of rednecks, hillbillies, crackers, and white trash. It transplanted a culture formed in a state of near-constant warfare and upheaval, characterized by a warrior ethic and a deep commitment to personal sovereignty and individual liberty. From 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, and Yankees along the way. Intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers alike, Appalachia has shifted alliances based on whoever appeared to be the greatest threat to its freedom; since Reconstruction and, especially, the upheavals of the 1960s, it has been in alliance with the Deep South in an effort to undo the federal government’s ability to overrule local preferences.

The Deep South
Established by English slave lords from Barbados as a West Indies-style slave society, this region has been a bastion of white supremacy, aristocratic privilege, and 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. It spread apartheid and authoritarianism across the southern lowlands, ultimately encompassing most of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana, plus western Tennessee and southeastern Arkansas, Texas, and North Carolina. Its slave and caste systems smashed by outside intervention, it continues to fight for rollbacks of federal power, taxes on capital and the wealthy, and environmental, labor, and consumer safety protections.

El Norte
The oldest of the Euro-American nations, El Norte dates back to the late sixteenth century, when the Spanish empire founded Monterrey, Saltillo, and other outposts in what are now the Mexican-American borderlands. Today this resurgent culture spreads from the current frontier for a hundred miles or more in both directions, taking in south and west Texas, southern California and the Imperial Valley, southern Arizona, most of New Mexico, parts of Colorado, and the six northernmost Mexican states. Most Americans are aware that the region is a place apart, where Hispanic language, culture, and societal norms dominate; few realize that among Mexicans, nortenos have a reputation for being more independent, self-sufficient, adaptable, and work centered than their central and southern countrymen. Long a hotbed of democratic reform and revolutionary settlement, various parts of the region have tried to secede from Mexico to form independent buffer states between the two federations. Today it resembles Germany during the Cold War: two peoples with a common culture separated from one another by a large wall.

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 was originally colonized by two groups: merchants, missionaries, and woodsmen from New England (who arrived by sea and dominated the towns); and farmers, prospectors, and fur traders from Greater Appalachia (who generally arrived by wagon and controlled the countryside). Yankees expended considerable effort to make it “a New England on the Pacific,” but were only partially successful: the Left Coast is a hybrid of Yankee idealism, faith in good government and social reform, and the Appalachian commitment to individual self-expression and exploration. The staunchest ally of Yankeedom and greatest champion of environmentalism, it battles constantly against Far Western sections in the interior of its home states.

The Far West
The other “second-generation” nation, this is the one part of the continent where environmental factors trumped ethnographic ones. High, dry, and remote, the Far West stopped the eastern nations in their tracks and, with minor exceptions, was only colonized via the deployment of vast industrial resources: railroads, heavy mining equipment, ore smelters, dams, and irrigation systems. As a result, settlement was largely directed and controlled by large corporations headquartered in distant New York, Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco, or by the federal government itself, which controlled much of the land. Exploited as an internal colony for the benefit of the seaboard nations, Far Western political leaders have focused public resentment on the federal government (on whose infrastructure spending they depend) while avoiding challenges to the region’s corporate masters, who retain near Gilded Age influence. 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 and Canada’s Prairie Provinces, and all of Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Nevada. Two other nations—the Inuit-dominated First Nation in the far north and Quebec-centered New France—are located primarily in Canada and are peripheral to this discussion. Their U.S. enclaves in northern and western Alaska and southern Louisiana respectively have scant electoral power, but they both have considerable sway in Canada and have come the closest to forming independent nation-states of their own (in Quebec and Greenland).

Nearly every internally divisive development in U.S. history in the past two centuries has pitted Yankeedom against the Deep South. Since neither of these regional “superpowers” has had a sufficient share of the population to dominate federal politics in this time period, they have sought to build and maintain alliances with other regional cultures. Some of these alliances have been remarkably durable, like those between Yankeedom and the Left Coast or between the Deep South and Tidewater, each of which has survived since before the Civil War. Others are younger and weaker, such as the axis between Greater Appalachia and the Deep South—cultures that took up arms against one another in both the American Revolution and the Civil War—or between the Deep South and the Far West, where resentment of corporate control may one day eclipse anger at the federal government.

During the Revolution, each of the regions fought to preserve their distinctive societies. New Netherlanders— dependent on commerce and unaccustomed to self-rule— generally remained loyal to the Crown. Yankee citizen minutemen and mounted Tidewater gentlemen enthusiastically took up arms to maintain local control and institutions, while Deep Southerners reluctantly did so in response to fears the British would free their slaves. Midlanders tried to remain neutral, supplying both British forces in Philadelphia and American forces wintering in Valley Forge. Appalachian people sided with whoever was against their oppressors on the coast, who’d denied them representation in colonial assemblies and the Continental Congress; they joined the rebellion in Pennsylvania (at one point occupying Philadelphia and overthrowing the Midland elite) and the British in the Carolinas and Georgia (against the Deep Southern oligarchs, triggering a bloody civil war there). Only in Virginia and Maryland—whose gentry had extended them reasonable representation—did they find common cause with coastal regions against the British.

In the run-up to the Civil War, Yankees were isolated in their willingness to go to war to stop Deep South-controlled states from seceding. Most observers expected the country to split into three or four confederations, as the other regions had no desire to remain with either party. New York City Mayor Fernando Wood proposed that the city and its Long Island suburbs should become an independent citystate modeled on those of the Hanseatic League, a plan endorsed by at least one congressman, many merchants and bankers, and three major newspapers. The Midlands, Tidewater, and Appalachia sought to create a Central Confederacy that would act as a buffer state between the rival superpowers, a plan championed by Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks. Had Deep Southerners not attacked Fort Sumter— a move that instantly made enemies of most neutral regions—they would almost certainly have peacefully seceded. Instead, they wound up with only one ally, Tidewater, who shared a commitment to slavery and a racial mythology that cast the conflict as a reprise of the Norman invasion and the English Civil War, with southerners the descendants of the aristocratic, civilized Normans, and the Yankees the offspring of the crude Anglo-Saxons. (The Yankee “Roundheads,” Tidewater’s leading journal, the , predicted in 1861, would “lose the last [battle] and then sink down to their normal position of relative inferiority,” freeing the Confederacy to create “a sort of Patrician Republic” ruled by people “superior to all other races on the continent.”) Appalachian people overwhelmingly sided with the Union, leading a successful secessionist movement to create (Unionist) West Virginia, and unsuccessful ones in eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama; a quartermillion men from Appalachian sections of the Confederacy volunteered for Union service, joining tens of thousands more from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Kentucky, and beyond.

Backed by the Midlands, the Left Coast, and the Far West, Yankeedom dominated the federation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though Reconstruction lost them the support of Appalachia. In the following decades, alliances shifted around based on the fear of Yankee-directed federal power, but over the past half century the regional blocs have remained stable. Yankeedom, New Netherland, and the Left Coast have faced off against the Deep South, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, and the Far West over civil rights, the Vietnam and Iraq wars, the environmental and gay rights movements, health care and financial reform, and the last three presidential elections.

The “northern” alliance has consistently favored 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. (Recall that prior to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, the Republicans were the party of Yankeedom.) The presidents they have produced—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 Dixieled nations even from within their own parties. With the southern takeover of the GOP, all three nations have become overwhelmingly Democratic in recent years.

The goal of the Deep Southern oligarchy has been consistent for four centuries: to control and maintain a oneparty state with a colonial-style economy based on largescale agriculture and the extraction of primary resources by a compliant, low-wage workforce with as few labor, workplace safety, health care, and environmental regulations as possible. Not until the 1960s was it compelled by African American uprisings and external intervention to abandon caste, sharecropper, and poll tax systems designed to keep the disadvantaged majority of their region’s population out of the political process. Since then, they have relied on fearmongering— over racial mixing, gun control, illegal immigrants, and the alleged evils of secularization—to maintain support. In office they’ve instead focused on cutting taxes for the rich, funneling massive subsidies to agribusiness and oil companies, rolling back labor and environmental programs, and creating “guest worker” programs and “right to work” laws to ensure a cheap, compliant labor supply. Tidewater, weakened to satellite status over the past 150 years, has fallen in line. But keeping Greater Appalachia and, now, the Far West in the coalition has been trickier, as both have strong populist and libertarian streaks that run counter to the interests of the modern-day southern aristocracy.

Which brings us to the Tea Party movement and the recent debt ceiling debacle.

The Tea Party movement is active across the country, but it has had only limited success in the three nations of the northern alliance. Of the sixty members of the House Tea Party caucus, only three hail from Yankeedom, and not one comes from the Left Coast or New Netherland. The three Yankees have had a tough go of it; in the seven races they have collectively won, only twice did one of them achieve a margin of victory of greater than 5 percent (Michele Bachmann in 2006 and 2010). One, Illinois freshman Joe Walsh, won his seat by just 291 votes and has since been gerrymandered into lame-duck status by local Democrats. Add to that the previously mentioned setbacks in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, and the movement’s prospects in Yankeedom appear bleak. From the Puritan migration of the 1630s to the debt ceiling debate, as noted above, Yankees have championed individual self-denial for the common good, investment in strong public institutions, and governmental projects to improve society; the Tea Party is unlikely to ever take deep root in such inhospitable soil.

By contrast, the Tea Party has encountered little resistance to its agenda in the four nations of the Dixie bloc, as it is a carbon copy of the Deep Southern program of the last two centuries: reduce taxes for the wealthy and services for everyone else, crush the labor unions, public education, and the regulatory system, and suppress voter turnout. The four nations account for fifty-one of the sixty members of the House Tea Party caucus—or 85 percent of them—with the Deep South alone accounting for twenty-two. Of the sixtysix House Republicans who refused to support the final compromise on the debt ceiling—roughly half of whom were not members of the Tea Party caucus—fifty-three hailed from the same cultural regions. Debt ceiling lunacy was a regional phenomenon. The Dixie-led bloc has produced many of the Tea Party’s most influential politicians, including Senators Jim DeMint (Deep South), Mike Lee (Far West), and Rand Paul (Appalachia), former Governor Sarah Palin (Far West), secessionist-minded Governor Rick Perry (Greater Appalachia), and FreedomWorks boss (and former house majority leader) Dick Armey (Deep South). Tea Party activists can be found most anywhere in the country, but only within this four-nation bloc have they had significant and sustained political success.

Our cultural balkanization ensures that the Tea Party movement—and radical political movements generally— will never achieve lasting success on the national stage: they simply won’t be able to build a lasting coalition. It’s also the reason U.S. elections have become such nail-biters, decided by the shifting allegiances of a relatively small number of voters from a small and recurring cohort of (mostly Midlander) battleground counties in a handful of swing states. It can also inform winning strategies to defeat the destructive and ultimately undemocratic Deep Southern program, whether it travels in Confederate gray, Dixiecrat suits, or leggings and tricorn hats.

There are two ways to hasten the Tea Party agenda’s demise. One is to draw one or more weakly aligned regions away from their coalition. The other is for progressives to cultivate a lasting partnership with El Norte or the Midlands, the two great “swing regions” on today’s political map. The smartest strategy would be to do both simultaneously, in each case focusing on the lowest-hanging fruit. If the Democratic Party is to be the vehicle to accomplish this, it will need to retune its message accordingly.

The Dixie bloc is far from solid. Of the Deep South’s partners, Greater Appalachia is the most reliable after Tidewater, sharing a dominant Protestant religious culture that focuses on individual salvation in the next world and discourages efforts to perfect the current one, condoning slavery in the nineteenth century, the racial caste system in the twentieth, and laissez-faire capitalism throughout. But this culture also prizes personal freedom and resents domination by outsiders, be they mining companies or federal regulators. Significantly, Appalachia has had a near monopoly on the production of “southern” populists (LBJ, Ross Perot, Sam Rayburn, Mike Huckabee) and progressives (Cordell Hull, Bill Clinton, Al Gore). Meanwhile, the Far West, once a bastion of progressive politics, has parallel strains of colonial grievance and libertarian individualism, and its most powerful religious force—Mormonism—has Yankee roots and is firmly committed to the notion of improving the present world (just as the early Puritans were). Neither culture supports “regulation” or “taxation” in the abstract, as these are seen as encumbrances on individual liberty. However, both are eager to strike back at forces—particularly outside forces—that seek to exploit them.

If progressives were to campaign in these regions on promises to bring rogue bankers, mortgage lenders, mining interests, health insurers, seed companies, and monopolistic food processors to heel, they would have far wider appeal; here, regulation can be sold as a matter of justice, the closing of tax loopholes a matter of fairness. Calls for new government programs are unlikely to win many hearts and minds in these two regions, but improving the efficiency and fairness of both the government and the marketplace can. The potential dividends will likely be modest in Greater Appalachia, but small gains at the margins in places like southcentral Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, or western Virginia might tip the balance of an entire state in a presidential or Senate race. In the Far West, the gains could be dramatic, potentially tipping many mountain states out of the Dixie camp. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, an outsider who spent nearly his entire adult life in Yankeedom (Obama) was able to defeat a Far Western native son who chose to run on the Dixie-bloc platform (John McCain) in Colorado and Nevada, and almost captured Montana as well. The Far West is ready to leave the Dixie coalition—and the Tea Party—if someone offers them a palatable alternative.

Simultaneously, the northern alliance stands to benefit from the increasing political power and consciousness of El Norte. Hispanics have reasserted political control of the borderlands after more than a century of imperial subjugation. The Dixie agenda has always been unpopular there, while the Tea Party in the aforementioned states has been a vehicle for white fears that they are losing “their” country to Hispanic Americans and Mexican and Latin American immigration. (“Immigration attitudes are an important predictor of Tea Party movement support in the West,” a recent study of polling data by two Sam Houston State University political scientists found, as were “economic issues related to minority relations.”) So long as northern-alliance political leaders continue to champion cultural inclusiveness—and the Dixie bloc does not—they can count on political and electoral support from this fast-growing region. The Hispanic population is expected to triple by 2050— accounting for most of the nation’s overall growth—and most of that will take place in El Norte. This will result in a commensurate decrease in Tea Party influence in the legislatures and congressional delegations of Texas, California, Arizona, and New Mexico. (Currently, the House Tea Party caucus has just two members from El Norte—both anti-immigration whites from Orange County.)

The people of the Midlands generally want their communities left alone to get on with their lives, but in the midst of a crisis they can be counted on to defend the federal union from authoritarianism, bigotry, or dismemberment. The region has been generally apathetic about the Tea Party movement, providing just two members of its House caucus. But were the Tea Party to actually implement its agenda—slashing Social Security, Medicare, and federal spending on public education—Midlanders would rally to their northern neighbors, just as they did after—and only after—Deep Southerners opened fire on Fort Sumter.

In short, the Tea Party and the Deep South may do the country serious harm, but they will not take it over. They may hobble the workings of Congress, inject flat-earth thinking into Senate debates, or even capture the presidency next year. But their policy program will never win the hearts and minds of a clear majority of Americans, and it carries the seeds of its own destruction. The political pendulum will indeed swing back. How far it goes—and how long it stays there—will depend on how many of America’s cultural regions the Deep South’s opponents can attract to their cause.

Colin Woodard is State and National Affairs Writer at the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram and author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.


  • Xenos on October 17, 2011 8:57 AM:

    Agree that the Democratic party must integrate the Nortenos firmly within it. Right now this seems to be happening by default, as a result of the nastiness of the Republicans on immigration and civil rights issues.

    Not in agreement with going after the Far West. If indeed Mormonism is and will continue to be the dominant cultural trend, the entrenched hierarchy of that religion will continue to work as much like a business as possible. Cultural revanchism will be the primary approach for at least the next generation.

    The key is Texas, and by extension, the rest of the Deep South. When demographics start to tip those states into the tossup category, the GOP and the Tea Party are doomed. As evidence of this, look at Alabama being willing to wreck its agricultural sector for the cause of maintaining white political supremacy.

  • MSHuiner on October 17, 2011 9:11 AM:

    I found this to be a very interesting piece. As a native of south Florida, I must say that I am fascinated by the fact that this was the one section of the entire country that was left off of the map! Does the author not believe that S.FL. has relevence to this discussion? Hard to believe after the election of 2000! Does the evidence from S. FL. contradict something about the author's thesis, and is thus set aside? Or, does the author find S.FL. to be such an amalgamated polyglot of folks originating from the other regions that it simply doesn't address the issues which are the focus of this article? This is not a criticism; I am truly curious about the author's thoughts on southern Florida.

    "In Florida, the farther north you go, the farther south you are!"--Unknown

  • Bernie Latham on October 17, 2011 11:26 AM:

    Your post was linked by Greg Sargent this morning. I just wanted to drop a note and thank you for an extraordinary piece of historical/geographical analysis.

  • Dude on October 17, 2011 12:30 PM:


    The author didn't make that map. Although due to the fact that half of Florida is left out completely, and the fact that the artist included Canada, the editors probably should have sent it back for an alteration or had it redrawn completely.

  • cld on October 17, 2011 12:39 PM:

    South Florida should be called WTF-ville.

    I note two regions called New France. My question is,

    is that region of Canada really as daft as New Orleans?

  • Dude on October 17, 2011 12:56 PM:

    Apparently I should finish reading the article before I comment.

  • joe cree on October 17, 2011 1:11 PM:

    you may have some insight when it comes to american politics, but the mere fact that you blend alberta and manitoba as a unit shows that you have no comprehension of canadian politcs. i really wish americans would refrain from demonstrating their vast ignorance of the world around them in their failed attempts to appear educated.

  • liberalGRIT on October 17, 2011 1:48 PM:

    Seriously, you have North Carolina ALL WRONG. North Carolina should be included with greater Appalachia -- during the period prior to the Civil War, NC was primarily a land of small family farmers, some indentured servants and slaves, but more often than not either small land owners or folks working someone else's land. Very suspicious of government and authority, much like Appalachia. In the Civil War, NC was one of the last of the nearby states to secede. During Reconstruction, the influx of Northern folks swelled, yet they did not leave at Reconstruction's end; throughout the first half of the twentieth century, NC adopted industry but remained a state of small groups that tended to resist change and authority. There were many significant civil rights violations and victories here, which does seem to group us with the deep south. However, the building influx of folks from elsewhere, particularly the mid-Atlantic and Northern regions of the country, has rebalanced the regional flavor to a more modernized version of Appalachia. I would argue that most of Virginia, these days, would not make sense in the Tidewater grouping either; NC and Virginia, as well as Maryland, share many characteristics.

  • Rick B on October 17, 2011 1:56 PM:

    I have found these cultural regions informative, since I grew up in south East Texas (deep South) but belong to a family which is Midwest and norteneo-anglo in culture. North of my deep South roots are the Appalachians (north part of East Texas) who always seemed very strange to me. Rep. Louie Gohmert is an example.

    But the split that seems to me the most important politically in Texas is the distinction between the rural (agricultural-dominated) and the urban populations. The rural white population has dominated Texas politically since the end of Reconstruction, but the total population of the big cities have very recently passed the rural population. Much of recent Texas politics has been the dominant rural politicians (with their wealthy backers) digging in and gerrymandering themselves into position even as the population leaves them behind. The takeover of the Texas Republican Party by the social conservatives in the late 80's and early 90's was part of this process.

    By your map above Texas has Deep South, Appalachian and Norteneo cultures which concurs with my over 60 years experience in this state. But the two big immigrations have been from Mexico and (more important) from Midwestern and eastern big cities. Unfortunately the latter group has been largely Republican and they moved to the suburbs. The big cities in Texas all voted for Obama in 2008, the rural areas voted social Republican and the suburbs are beginning to be tossups as they become more big city in culture.

    My conclusion is that your cultural analysis of the US is interesting, but it is long term politically and not especially predictive. I think that the real political battle in America will continue to be the rural-urban split with the urban voters tending to be less likely to vote but greater in population. This cultural description of America will apply more to the rural voters than to the urban ones, but the urban voters are going to ultimately (re)gain control of the federal government.

    The story here of the politics in Maine simply shows that even the northeastern rural voters are more urban in attitude and culture than they are rural in culture. That's probably true of the Midwest, also.

    Strictly my opinion, of course, and thanks for a very interesting discussion of America's historical cultures and their influences. As a native Texan I am always interested in the stories from the 49 colonies of Texas. ;-}

  • Paul Gottlieb on October 17, 2011 5:02 PM:

    I hate to be one of those academics who says "this has all been done before," but in essence it has. See the work of Daniel Elazar, described here: http://academic.regis.edu/jriley/421elazar.htm

    The key categories of political culture are "moral,"
    which actually means progressive (think abolitionists) as in Massachusetts and Minnesota. "Individualistic" is pro-business, as in New York, New Jersey, and Ohio. "Traditional" is the deep south. Everything else is a blend of these three. Elazar classified all 50 states.

    --from the heart of New Netherlands; I see a Dutch Reformed church every time I turn a corner in NJ

  • Bill Kurtz on October 17, 2011 5:05 PM:

    This is fascinating. For a book-length view of the same sort, but going far beyond politics, track down "Nine Nations of North America," a 1980s book by Joel Garreau. His book, by the way, answers MS Hulner's point- he groups South Florida with the Caribbean islands.

  • Left Coaster on October 17, 2011 5:28 PM:

    You mean North Cuba?

  • Varecia on October 17, 2011 6:08 PM:

    People should be careful to note that El Norte is not monolithic, and that those in the far northern part identify most with their ancestry from Spain, although the truth is that most people here derive from a mixture of ancestry, ranging from Spanish, to Mexican, to Native American and other European countries, such as France and Germany. Views about immigration vary with how strongly populations emphasize their Mexican ancestry over their European (Spanish) ancestry.

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    The federal government must take over the redistricting plan of Texas. The far right religious fanatics and tea bagging lunatics have taken over Texas government and are redistricting without regard to minority population. Their plan was to weaken minority vote in all districts, making Republicans strong through illegal gerrymandering. The state will never do what is right with Republicans in charge of both houses. We plead for the case that is in the courts now to remove the right of the state to redistrict since they have proved they are out to destroy the minority vote and the Democrats.We got four new Representatives due to increase of Latino population and the Republicans right wing nuts are trying to dilute the minority vote. This is wrong but typical of bible thumping religious fanatics and tea bagging lunatics.

  • D Lawrence on October 17, 2011 9:46 PM:

    I read a book along these lines a couple of decades ago: "The Nine Nations of North America" by Joel Garreau.

  • Jarret Ruminski on October 17, 2011 9:53 PM:

    This article and its entire premise is utter and complete crap. This is the kind of completely arbitrary, ethnocentric, geographic determinist approach to history that peaked in the early eighties and now refuses to die. This guy should not have a job.

  • CKGeist on October 18, 2011 2:34 AM:

    I find the article pretty interesting, although i do find that it draws alot from "Nine Nations" to me it is an updated and condensed version of that work. But I also find one of the earlier posters comments about NC and Tidewater especially true. For this being an update it has totally missed a major demographic change. I would posit that Tidewater and New Netherlands no longer exist separately and the coastal portion of Midland is also gone. I would call teh conglomeration of those :nations: bad word choice (i think he was trying to refer to nations in teh gypsy, native american, jewish(read tribal) sense) as "the beltway" which extends pretty mcuh from the Walt Whitman Bridge to Charleston and Hilton Head.

    As for the "rubbish" comment, I would say this person has not traveled or lived in many of these areas, because in many cases you can actualy see the differences in a matter of crossing a river (ST. Lous, Delaware, the Shulykill).

  • CL on October 18, 2011 5:10 AM:

    Does this article owe a debt to "Albion's Seed" by David Hackett Fisher?

  • Jo on October 18, 2011 8:02 AM:

    Getting back to the tea party: While a historical analysis of the settlement and political leanings of various regions of our country is interesting, I find its connection to the tea party to be marginal, at best. For what is the tea party? Is it a reaction to an overbearing, overspending, unconstitutional government? Or is it, as the mainstream "Jumping someone else's train" thought line goes, some conservative people wanting to slash programs, and disenfranchise the poor? I think that a majority of Americans throughout the country identify with the ideas behind the original tea party, while simultaneously rejecting what the tea party has been hijacked to be by the likes of Sarah Palin and others, including the mainstream press.

  • Andrea on October 18, 2011 8:06 AM:

    Having a copy of the book at my hand, I would urge some of you to actually read it, as it goes much more thoroughly into the dynamics of each region. The author feels the Tidewater region may eventually disappear and explains why there is overlap into Mexico and Canada. The map accurately represents Mr. Woodard's theories.

  • Marv Gomez on October 19, 2011 2:37 PM:

    South Florida is just too new of a settled region to apply to this study of historic regional traditions. There simply is no dominant regional tradition/collective ethic existing there yet.

  • glendenb on October 19, 2011 7:07 PM:

    The patterns make sense to me. If you look at the archipelago of excellent, small liberal arts colleges scattered across the midwest, you see the influence of the Yankee values. In the Far West you have vast empty spaces punctuated by urban hubs (Denver, SLC, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Boise); you have colonial economies based on extraction of mineral wealth and tourism, but minimal production. The natural alliance between the Left Coast and Yankeedom makes sense. Having lived in Tidewater and visited Greater Appalachia there are distinct cultures there, having spent time in the Deep South there is another cultural pattern, the cities and towns feel different (Atlanta, sprawling, disorganized, unplanned, is Deep South versus Asheville NC which is only three hours drive away but a world away culturally). Sante Fe and Albuquerque are culturally distinct from Phoenix - New Mexico's politics are different than AZ or UT.

    I was reminded strongly of the analysis of David Hacket Fischer in Albion's Seed, as as another commenter.

    The question I'm still sorting out - is the connection to the teabaggers correct?

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  • Surazeus Simon Seamount on October 24, 2011 10:37 AM:

    Most of my ancestors came from the Puritan immigration in 1630, with some from the Tidewater and Appalachian groups, so this article helps give me better perspective on my assumptions, and how I may broaden my perspective.

  • LT COL ORSON SWINDLE, RETIRED on October 28, 2011 10:10 AM:

    I'm torn. On one hand, some of what you wrote is accurate and interesting. On the other hand, some of what you wrote is ignorant yankee provincialism.

    Long story short, you know very little about America below the Mason-Dixon Line, particularly NC, SC, GA, and FL, and need to do further research before writing any more about it.

  • Mark Crowley on October 31, 2011 2:42 AM:

    You statement the entire North you list if dominated by Inuit is highly oversimplified and your statement about Greenland when makes no sense at all. Greenland isn't part of Canada at all, you probably mean Nunavut, but frankly this makes me doubt your entire analysis. Also, tying Southern Ontario in with the puritan American midwest when it was run directly by Britian for a century after US independence is very odd. There are some puritan enclaves in Southern Ontario but you cannot include the core of Upper Canada (Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto/York) within that broad brushstroke. As for New France, I would hope you are aware that the French population that was resettled to New Orleans is largely distinct from Quebec itself, they came from the Acadian population in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. They were evicted from their land by the British.

    It's a nice idea to come up with a map like this, and perhaps this is a good, rough first draft, but it's definitely not accurate as it is.

  • Bob Dehler on November 03, 2011 8:48 PM:

    I think your analysis is correct.
    When I read ALBIONS SEED many observations I made while in the Navy and college came together with what I knew of history and politics.
    Your further elucidation orf cultural/ historical differences helps explain much of what we are seeing, and what we may see in the future.
    Bob Dehler
    Scarborough, Maine

  • Steve Kettmann on November 06, 2011 7:42 AM:

  • Just a suggestion on November 11, 2011 3:58 AM:

    Perhaps all the Democrats can move to half the states, and the Republicans to the other. Then both can adopt their system of government, and see which one lasts. Just for an experiment. To think, you won't have to vote anymore!

  • Colin Woodard on November 11, 2011 1:53 PM:

    Thanks to all of you for your comments and your interest in the thesis. I'd point everyone to my book, American Nations, to fully appreciate the thesis, its implications, and the degree to which I do or do not understand a given part of the continent and its history.

    First of all, there seems to be some confusion about where my "national" boundaries really lie. There's a detailed county-by-county map in the book, which should clear things up. (The cover art image -- posted with this article -- takes some artistic license.)

    @Mark Crowley: I don't lump all of Manitoba in with Alberta and Sask. In fact, most of the population of Manitoba is located in the Midlands section in its southeast corner. Nor did I ever say Greenland was in Canada. (I've been there and know well where it is.) It's part of both First Nation and North America. Also New France is not just [the French-settled part of] Quebec, but also comprises the portions of Acadia where the British cleansing campaign was not successful. Acadia and Quebec share a founding ethos handed down by Champlain.

    Tidewater is explicitly identified in the book as a nation in decline, as several posters have observed. New Netherland certainly is not. Also, North Carolina is not all categorized as being in Tidewater -- most of it is in Greater Appalachia. (If you think eastern NC communities like Edenton, Bath, New Bern, and Elizabeth City aren't in Tidewater, you've clearly never visited; for more on this region's history, please consider a look at my previous book, The Republic of Pirates.)

    Several of you asked about South Florida. As the book makes clear, I had to draw a line somewhere, and my criteria was to only include regional cultures whose respective cores lay in what is now the U.S. and Canada. This excluded South Florida (part of a Spanish Caribbean "nation" probably based in the old imperial port of Havana), Hawaii (still part of Greater Polynesia, despite Yankee missionary activity in the 19th century), Newfoundland (either a lost Anglo-Irish colony or perhaps a nation of its own), and central and southern Mexico.

    The book's introduction also acknowledges Joel Garreau's Nine Nations of North America, the works of David Hackett Fischer, and Kevin Phillips' "Emerging Republican Majority" (which I'm surprised none of you raised. In the end notes you'll find not only Elazar, but Wilbur Zelinsky, Henry Glassie, Paul Kleppner, Raymond Gastil, and dozens of other academics whose work helped inform the aforementioned works and, indeed, my own.

  • RVA_Exile on November 13, 2011 5:20 PM:

    Interesting theory, but similar to some commenters, I am tempted to poke a lot of holes in it.

    The borders of Tidewater are only ok - they should go at least west to Roanoke and the Shenendoah Valley, and I would trade more of Maryland for less of North Carolina. I am curious to see in what respects you consider it a nation "in decline." Perhaps as its own distinct region as it gets folded into the greater Northeast Corridor Megalopolis, but this region is not present in your analysis. You fail to mention that Tidewater is both the political (Washington) and military (Hampton Roads) capital of the US; economically, demographically and politically it hardly seems in decline. Given the strong government influence, you will be hard-pressed to find an active tea party in Tidewater. Even with Virginia's 8-3 Republican delegation to the House, there is not a single member of the Tea Party caucus. In national electoral politics, Tidewater seems to be moving away from the Deep South as Greater Appalachia is joining the Deep South.

  • Templar on November 14, 2011 1:57 PM:

    I think David Hackett Fischer did it first and did it best with he "Albion's Seed" about the 4 major British folkways that settled the United States. Over time, large groups of non-British immigrants have gradually adopted the cultural traditions of one of those 4 British folkgroups.

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  • Eric on December 24, 2011 9:32 PM:

    Interesting summary. I will get the book to see more. One observation I would add is that Appalachia culture extends north into southwest New York state.

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