Page Two articles are from our reader community.

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.

6 Replies to “American Nations”

  1. I read American Nations a couple years ago and my thoughts then sound like yours now.

    Things to note. It has been brilliant of the Obama campaign and national Democrats to target El Norte. (Particularly New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado).

    Also are you proposing national subarea equity?

    I think that is a poor idea that would lead to bad outcomes for poor people in federally subsidized states. They shouldn’t be punished for living where they are.

  2. “El Norte” is definitely in the “blue state” column for now, thanks mostly to relentless Hispanic-bashing and immigrant-bashing by the Republic Party. (Not due to ideology.) Unfortunately the locations of the state borders mean that the only state that is really controlled by this group of people is New Mexico.

    The Deep South is nonuniform, and there’s an obvious omission here, because the Deep South was settled by aristocrats who want to rule over others… but of course there are also all those people who they were ruling over, who have VERY different views. In short, the black population of the Deep South is its own nation.

    The mountain west (“far west”) ideology is not internally consistent (as you noticed) and is going to have to change because of that — it’s not clear what it will change to.

    The same is true of the Appalachian ideology — but in that case, what’s happening is that the kids are just abandoning it, moving to other states and becoming part of a different “nation” as they grow up.

    The other ideologies associated with the various “nations” are consistent enough to persist.

    Tidewater Virginia is becoming “blue” as well, for reasons which I’m not entirely clear on. As “red” becomes an unacceptable alternative to everyone except the aristocratic slaver types of the Deep South, we’re going to see a new political alignment form (once the “red menace” is gone, people won’t stay blue). I’m not sure what the new alignment of the subcultures of the US will be.

  3. Replying to both Peyton and Nathaniel.

    Subareq equity? I hadn’t thought of that but I guess it is. Yes, it’s bad for poor people in low-tax states, but at the same time, the current policy is dragging down the rest of the states. Our bridges are falling apart, the transit network is so minimal people are forced to drive, education isn’t up to snuff, how long can we let it go like this? We should have an infrastructure and education at least the level of Europe’s, and the rest of the world is amazed that we don’t and we throw away the opportunities to build it. At some point the poor in the low-tax states need to start voting or move to another region or they’re on their own. I realize part of the problem is voter suppression, and that if a party has to resort to that to stay in power, that indicates it’s weak, but still it’s just going on and on.

    Re Appalachia, Woodard says the reason it’s alliedwith the south now is that it found the federal intervention in the 1880s and 1950s as too heavy-handed; they doesn’t like a moralizing teacher telling them what to do. I’m hopeful about Appalachia, that it could split from the south again, and that could be a turning point. If they’re not willing to join the blue states, then maybe they can ally with the Far West because they’re both individualistic. I don’t know about young people leaving the area; is it really evaporating? That could be another factor. But people are leaving small towns everywhere, so it’s not just Appapachia, and in fact that’s a similarity with the Far West.

    Virginia is turning blue because of the military-industrial complex: greater DC has grown enormously and many Virginians work directly or indirectly for the federal government. Larger cities also tend to get bluer generally. I think northern Virginia would have to go with the blue states, both because this is several years in the future and it would want to by then, and also for national security. You can’t have a potentially hostile state five miles from the White House and on the DC Metro. The question then would be southern Virginia. Would it go along too or would it become South Virginia?

    1. The population trends in West Virginia are *terrible*. Yes, the population is just evaporating. There are fewer and fewer people and they skew older and older. Of course the rural areas are depopulating (as they are everywhere), but even the cities aren’t doing well. This is particularly noticable in West Virginia. It doesn’t show up as obviously in Kentucky because the Ohio River cities (which are not Appalachian) are doing quite well. Tennessee has a similar dynamic, where Memphis is doing quite well, Nashville OK, and Knoxville/Chattanoga rather poorly. The Appalachian parts of Pennsylvania and Alabama are also losing population.

      Perhaps the trouble is that Appalachian culture defined itself as rural culture; they don’t have a coherent way of being city people without losing their cultural self-definition. So as the rural areas empty out, the cultural identity goes away along with it. The other cultural groups can all accomodate cities.

      1. One quibble is I believe Nashville is currently doing much better than Memphis.

        Where you see a large urban area spill into the Appalachian counties such as DC, Charlotte, or Atlanta you don’t see the same population trends. Otherwise it does seem to be the case that Appalachia is on the decline.

    2. I don’t think any realistic break-up of the US is in the cards any time soon. There has been fierce inter-regional squabbling in the post Civil War era far worse than what we are witnessing now.

      No matter how you divide the US into and individual states into political regions there is no question we are witnessing some shifts. I’d paint the divide as primarily urban vs. rural with the suburbs somewhere in the middle. The shifts have to do with areas having similar views on issues and voting similarly based on their density.

Comments are closed.