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November 10, 2011 10:30 AM The 2011 Elections, the Tea Party, and the American Nations

By Colin Woodard

The elections on Tuesday have been widely interpreted as bad news for the GOP and critical to understanding the next election and the future of Congress. And that’s certainly true but there’s a deeper analysis to be done. The results actually tell a great deal about the cultural patterns of the United States. What we saw this week wasn’t some passing electoral squall but rather was an expression of the centuries-old forces of regional political climate patterns, enduring and powerful forces that have shaped our continent’s civic life since the colonial era and continue to do so today.

In the current issue of the magazine, I argue that the United States really comprises eleven distinct regional cultures or nations, each with their own founding ideals, values, and intents, and that the Tea Party movement is doomed to failure in three of the most powerful of them. (For more on this thesis, don’t hesitate to read my new book.)

As I wrote in the issue, the United States is composed of multiple regions. They include:

Yankeedom, which has put great emphasis on perfecting earthly society through social engineering, individual self-denial for the common good, and the aggressive assimilation of outsiders.
The Midlands, which 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.
The Deep South 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. 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.
Appalachia, in contrast, 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. 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 Tea Party agenda - reduce federal power, taxes, social services, and environmental, labor, and voting protections - may perfectly match that of the Deep Southern oligarchy, but it’s a tough sell in the sprawling nation of Yankeedom (a.k.a. Greater New England) where the freedom and wellbeing of the community have taken precedence over individual interests since the days of the early Puritans. These regions cut across state boundaries—the north of Ohio, for instance, was settled by Yankees, its middle by Midlander Quakers and Germans, and its hilly south by Appalachian Scots-Irish.

This week’s elections bolstered this argument, with Tea Party-backed initiatives having been reversed by chastening margins by Yankee voters in Maine and the Yankee-settled Western Reserve of Ohio. Mainers overturned a new law that would have ended same-day voter registration (despite the fact that its Republican backers could find no evidence of voter fraud) 60-40, chastening Tea Party-backed Gov. Paul LePage. In Ohio, all ten Yankee counties voted to overturn a new law that denied collective bargaining rights to public sector workers, in a measure that went down 61-39 statewide.

But the really interesting development in the Nov. 8 vote was that the people of Greater Appalachia appear fed up with Tea Party excesses as well, at least in so far as they infringe on workers’ labor rights or the ability of citizens to elect U.S. Senators. Thirty-nine of Ohio’s 41 Appalachian counties voted for the repeal, with a margin of 60-40, compared to 64-36 in both Yankee and Midlander Ohio.

In Kentucky - all of which lies in Appalachia - voters sided with Democratic incumbent Steve Beshear 55-35 over self-declared Tea Partier David Williams, who wanted to repeal the 17th amendment and make the selection of U.S. Senators the purview of state legislators, not voters. That Williams had defeated a more radical Tea Partier, Phil Moffett, in the GOP primary added salt to the Kentucky movements’ wounds. Democrats swept the other statewide offices as well, including the Secretary of State position sought after by another Tea Partier, Bill Johnson, who garnered less than 40 percent of the vote.

That’s not to say Appalachia has ceased to be socially conservative. On Tuesday, Mississippi voters defeated a measure that would have amended the state constitution to define “personhood” as beginning at conception by a wide margin. Conspicuous in their dissent were the state’s seven Appalachian counties: every one voted for the measure by double-digit margins, most of them by more than 20 points.

But if a large majority of voters in the Midlands and Greater Appalachia have begun to doubt the wisdom of the Tea Party’s Deep Southern platform, 2012 could be very rough going for the candidates who’ve embraced its agenda.

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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.

Comments

  • HokieAnnie on November 11, 2011 10:55 AM:

    I after spotting this blog post, I read the article. I think you are lacking in nuance as some of the article comments indicate i.e. New France versus Acadia(Atlantic Canada), Albert/British Columbia versus Prarie Canada. However to me the most important development you overlooked was the Mid-Atlantic. You blithely lump Baltimore and DC into Tidewater but these days "carpetbaggers" from the Northeast, mostly from the area you call New Amsterdam have permanently changed the character of Maryland, Virginia and to a certain extent North Carolina in the Tri-cities area.

    A look at election maps for Northern VA and Urban/Suburban MD show a permanent realignment to a voting pattern closest to your New Amsterdam with perhaps a touch of Midlands from those who came from there. No way no how way this group revert back to alignment with the South. What is left of your tidewater region that is not suburbanized into the "Mid-Atlantic" will be swallowed into your deep south group. Already places like Annapolis, MD and Norfolk,VA are voting more like "blue" areas.

  • Colin Woodard on November 11, 2011 1:16 PM:

    Hokie - I think you need to read my material a lot more closely, and it would help to look at the book. Neither Baltimore nor DC are "blithely lumped into Tidewater" -- in fact, Baltimore is categorized in the Midlands, DC as an federal anomaly. New France includes Acadian portions of New Brunswick. Tidewater's relative decline in the face of demographic pressures from the Midland is actually highlighted in the book.

    In short: aim before you shoot.

  • Ted Frier on November 11, 2011 8:41 PM:

    I am looking forward to reading Mr. Woodard's book because it seems to add a deeper perspective to two convictions I've come to rather reluctantly lately, namely: First, that what separates liberals and conservatives is that liberals want to live in a country while conservatives are content with the tribe; and Second, that the real target of right wing Republican attacks is not Big Government per se, but the American nation-state itself.

    The plutocrat wing of the GOP does not want a strong nation that might tax its profits and limit its freedom of action through regulation. And the populist wing of the GOP does not want a nation that interfers with its ambition to create homogeneous communities organized around race, religion and other tribal attributes.

    I found it very telling in this regard that Francis Fukayama would chose this particular moment in our history to write about he Origons of the Political Order in order to remind us how hard it is to create a nation built around universal principles like rule of law instead of kinship ties of blood.

  • Bill Martin on November 15, 2011 12:59 AM:

    Colin has made a valuable contribution to American political science.