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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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