America's disparate cultures respect no boundaries and continue to shape politics.

November 11, 2012

Regional divisions date back centuries

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Late Tuesday night, the television screens carried a familiar image: America, its northeastern quadrant and western shore a sea of blue, much of the rest a mass of red.

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Colin Woodard, “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” (Viking Press, 2011) © Colin Woodard

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COLIN WOODARD is the Press Herald’s State and National Affairs Writer and the author of “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.”

It's essentially the same map -- give or take two or three states -- that greeted viewers during election week in 2000, 2004 and 2008, one reflecting divisions dating back centuries. The Democratic presidential nominee -- whether an African-American from Hawaii and Chicago or a white Southern Baptist from Tennessee -- dominated much of the old Union, the Republican nominee most of the states of the old Confederacy, often by wide margins.

While these state-level maps suggest our political differences may have a regional basis, they actually conceal the depth of the sectional divide because they fail to capture the true cultural fault lines that have shaped and defined American politics since long before the United States came into existence.

The United States is composed of the whole or parts of 11 disparate regional cultures, most dating back three and four centuries, and all of them exhibiting conflicting agendas and the characteristics of nationhood. They've shaped our history, marking the battle lines of the Glorious Revolution of 1689, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and, most catastrophically, the U.S. Civil War. You don't see them reflected on state-level maps because these regional cultures don't respect state boundaries -- or even international ones -- and bleed over the Canadian and Mexican frontiers as readily as they divide California, Texas, Ohio or Pennsylvania.

Look at county-level maps of almost any closely contested presidential race in our history, and the presence of these regional cultures is far clearer. Again and again, the swaths of the country colonized by the early Puritans and their descendants tend to vote as one, and against the party in favor in the sections first colonized by the Barbados slave lords who founded Charleston, or the Scots-Irish frontiersmen who swept down the Appalachian highlands and on into the Hill Country of Texas, Oklahoma and the southern tiers of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri.

The people of the slender Pacific coastal plain from San Francisco to Juneau, Alaska -- a region you might call the Left Coast -- have backed the same horse as the Yankees in virtually every contest since their states joined the Union, and in opposition to the candidate favored by the majority of people in the interiors of their own states. Yankees have also found allies in the sections of the Southwest that were effectively colonized by Spain in the 16th to 19th centuries.

Most of the other regional cultures have found themselves somewhere in between the two, some of them finding common cause with one coalition for several decades before defecting to the other. In the early 20th century, the interior West was once a reliable ally of Yankeedom, but by century's end its leaders were allied with those in the Deep South.

The Dutch-settled area around New York City had the opposite pattern; today the region is as reliably blue as Massachussetts. The Quaker-founded Midlands -- always a multiethnic, multicultural mosaic -- have for centuries been skeptical of both coalitions' agendas, and often has served as the kingmaker in federal elections.

This year's presidential contest was no exception, but it did confirm the shifting of relative power -- and one longstanding alliance -- that will likely create new challenges to Republicans on the national stage.

The regional fault lines could be seen throughout this year's Republican primary contest, which pitted Yankee-bred Mitt Romney against an Appalachian native son (Rick Santorum) and a man whose entire adult life has been spent in the Deep South (Newt Gingrich).

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