I just finished reading “American Nations” by Colin Woordard, about the history and dynamics of regional conflicts in the US. It goes a long way toward explaining the debates on infrastructure needs vs low-tax ideology, and many other fiscal and social issues. (It was indirectly linked in one of the recent comments; I can’t find the link now but the topic is related to ST3 and the statewide case for it.) The reason I’m writing this is Woodard makes a strong case that this polarization goes back 400 years so it’s not likely to be resolved in the next 100. My first reaction was, this is depressing. My second reaction was, what are we going to do about it?
Woodard says that the US is divided not into north and south, but into ten different regional “nations” influenced by their earliest settlers. (The eleventh exists only in Canada, and it’s not Quebec but Nunavut.) Others have written similarly — notably Joel Garreau and James Webb — but only Woodard has fully traced the historical context: why they differ and how they originated. “The South” is four nations: Deep South, Tidewater (Virginia), Greater Appalachia, and New France (New Orleans). “The blue states” are four nations: Yankeedom, New Netherland (New York), the Midlands, and The Left Coast (western Washington south to Monterey, California, and north to Juneau, Alaska). The other two nations are nonaligned: The Far West (the Inland Empire and Rockies), and El Norte (southwest). Each of these nations has a unique set of values, which sometimes overlap other nations but sometimes oppose them. This causes alliances to change depending on what the current critical issues are. All presidential and congressional elections in the past hundred years have come down to these factors. Four of the nations are based on settlers from different parts of England: the Puritans (Yankeedom), country aristocrats (Tidewater), Barbados aristocrats (Deep South), and the Scots-Irish (Greater Appalachia).
The starkest difference is the opposing views of Yankeedom and the Deep South. Both are expansionary ideologies: one to enlighten the country with education, equality, and public works; the other to maintain their aristocratic hierarchy and transferring wealth to the rich. Tidewater slavery started with indentured servants both black and white; it was the Deep South that imported an “industrial” slave system from Barbados and was racist at its core; and it was New Netherland which spearheaded the slave trade. New Netherland was the most diverse and tolerant and urban — which Woodward says is why New York City is so big and diverse — but paradoxically it sometime supported slavery and the south when it was good for business, all the way up to the late 20th century. Greater Appalachia fought for the Union but is currently allied with the south. The Left Coast where we live is primarily Yankee-influenced but with additional environmentalism and individualism. The Far West was not really established until WWII: three nations tried to settle it but failed due to its arid climate. Its main influences are large industries (railroads, mining) and federal largesse (military bases, infrastructure, public lands). It’s currently allied with the south because it supports low taxes, low regulation, and continued federal subsidies (paradox alert). El Norte is still undecided; it hasn’t committed to any of the alliances yet.
Washington State is split between the Left Coast mindset and the Far West mindset. This reflects the legislature’s votes on Metro funding, as the “Statewide” article above shows. Eastern Washington wants low taxes and high subsidies, while pretending it’s the one subsidizing the west. Seattle wants a complete transit network and is willing to pay the necessary taxes for it. Pugetopolis is mostly on board with this (as long as it doesn’t involve $40+ car tabs). The rest of western Washington is sympathetic to some of the Far West positions.
So what do we do? Woodard makes a depressing case that these mindsets are not going to change this century. At the state level I don’t think we can do much: the anti-transit legislators have a narrow majority and safe districts, and the Pugetopolis leaders have already sent united messages to Olympia asking for transit-tax authority. So it mainly depends on changing one or two legislators, convinving a few others, or getting Mayor Murray to show us his “state coalition building” skills. At the federal level it makes me wonder if we should let the south secede after all. Woodard’s last chapters make a case that either splitting or autonomous regions may be inevitable, because it’s impossible to have low taxes/regulation/infrastructure and high taxes/regulation/infrastructure in the same place simultaneously. So the only solution may be autonomous regions with different laws and no cross-subsidies. That doesn’t necessarily mean ten regions: it may be two or three or four. And if the Far West becomes one of them, then western and eastern Washington may part ways.