Do you fret that America’s national fabric is fraying? That Americans today are more hurtfully at odds than ever over basic questions of God and government and taxes and sex? Do you long for the placid unity of old, for the times when Americans were, when all was said and done, Americans? Well, you can forget that. Americans have never agreed on anything, and that’s not about to change. That’s the lesson of American Nations by Colin Woodard, a book that basically rips up the familiar 50-state, red-blue map of the United States and replaces it with a far stranger — and, he argues, truer – geography.
Americans’ fundamental differences go way back, Woodard explains; the original North American colonies were settled by people from completely distinct regions of Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands. They were middle-class Calvinists with a missionary zeal to improve the world through education and good government; Scots and Irish rednecks who hated authority in any form; aristocratic slave lords with no use for democracy; English Quakers; Spanish missionaries; northern French peasants. They had no time for each other and they founded very different regional cultures – the “American nations” of Woodard’s title, which don’t map exactly onto either the colonies or the early states – that are very much with us today and whose distinctive cultural DNA goes a long way toward explaining why we’re still at each others’ throats.
“America’s most essential and abiding divisions,” Woodard writes in his introduction, “are not between red and blue states, conservatives and liberals, the faithful and the secular. Rather, our divisions stem from this fact: the United States is a federation … of eleven regional nations, some of which truly do not see eye to eye with each other.” Rolling Stone recently caught up with Woodard by phone to talk about the where we came from, where we’re going, and why it is that Americans just can’t get along.
We usually talk in terms of states, or of regions like “the Northeast,” “the South,” “the Midwest,” and so on. What’s wrong with that way of looking at America?
Those categories ignore the true, historic, cultural fault lines across the landscape – the dividing lines we all know, at the back of our consciousness: Every Marylander knows that Maryland is three separate countries and they know exactly where the boundaries are between those entirely different cultures. Texans know that Austin is the capital, but that San Antonio and Houston and Dallas are the hubs of three very different Texases that don’t necessarily see eye to eye. And people from the coastal Pacific strip between the mountains and the sea, starting down south of San Francisco and working its way up to Seattle, Portland, Vancouver know that these places have more in common with each other than with the rest of their own states.
We can’t cover all eleven regions, but let’s talk about a few. Start with Yankeedom.
Yankeedom was founded on the shores of Massachusetts Bay by radical Calvinists seeking to remake earthly society in accord with God’s plan, but over time it spread to Midwestern frontier and even, by ship, to the Pacific coast. Yankees have always had a faith in government to improve the world and a drive to improve the world, with the community perfecting itself through individual self-denial – which, when you think about it, is a very un-American idea! Yankeedom has been at the center of many of America’s great moral crusades, from the fight to abolish slavery to Prohibition to the environmental movement. The religious zeal has gone down for various reasons over the years, but not the secular puritan zeal behind it and the drive to somehow improve the world through public institutions.
You write about how for 300 years Yankeedom and the Deep South have essentially been the two super powers battling for control over the federal government and the nation’s soul. How different was the Deep South to begin with?
No two regional cultures are more different. There are probably no two countries in Europe as different in terms of fundamental goals and values. The Deep South was founded a few generations after Yankeedom around Charleston and the lowlands of South Carolina by English slave lords from the island of Barbados. It was actually referred to as “Carolina in the West Indies,” as if it was a Caribbean slave island that just happened to be on the mainland. It was a slave state backed by a racial caste system. The system was extremely authoritarian and marked by staggering differences in wealth and privilege and rights. Its founders considered the slave state to be virtuous; they abhorred democracy and saw themselves as aristocrats and society as being created to serve their interests. They thought that regular people’s participation in politics should be limited or nonexistent.
You explain in the book that some cultures are on the wane and others on the rise. What’s an example of an up-and-coming region?
The great ascendant regional culture is El Norte, the Spanish borderlands. It combines the northern Mexican culture, which includes the northern tier of Mexican states as well as southern bits of California and Arizona, much of New Mexico, parts of Colorado and a great swath of south Texas. This is a case where not only do state boundaries not matter, national ones don’t matter either. Today it resembles Germany during the Cold War, where you had one common culture divided by a political boundary. While we Americans look at that region as being different; what’s not recognized so much is that within Mexico itself the northern part of Mexico is seen as a foreign land with very different values and cultural norms than the rest of Mexico. That region is growing enormously in population and feeling its strength. It’s the one that may change the calculations of political strategists approaching national elections, because its demographic influence on American elections is only going to grow, and at a time when every contest is incredibly tight.
You say in the book that these hundreds-of-years-old regional differences not only aren’t fading but are, if anything, growing stronger. That seems hard to believe, given how much the America has changed.
You might think the massive immigration of people from different parts of the world that had nothing to do with any of these cultures would have diluted the original cultures, and that everyone watching the same cable TV and people moving around within the United States would tend to homogenize the whole. But I would argue that the original inhabitants essentially lay down the sort of cultural DNA, creating the institutions and the framework that the people who arrive later adapt to. Immigrant groups have altered and enriched these cultures. But just as in Europe people emigrate to, say, France or Scotland, they’re encountering a very different cultural framework, and while they may enrich and enliven it, in the end their children and grandchildren end up assimilating. In my case I’ve got ancestors who were Irish miners from County Cork, and one family went to Montana and their descendants indeed became classic far Westerners. Another set, also miners from County Cork, ended up in Southern Quebec and their descendants ended up being classic residents of New France, going around in aboriginal snowshoes.