The 11 Nations of the United States. by Colin Woodward

Posted on Saturday, 12th May 2012 @ 09:02 PM by Text Size A | A | A

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In 2008, with the U.S. divided
between red states and blue states, then-candidate Barack Obama
called for unity over division, a common shout-out among
politicians and others determined to preserve America’s under-
siege, allegedly shared values. Yet such calls ignore the fact
that there are no shared “American values.” We’ve always been
divided. And not truly along state lines.

America’s most essential and abiding divisions stem from
the fact that the U.S. is a federation composed of the whole or
parts of 11 disparate regional cultures — each exhibiting
conflicting agendas and the characteristics of nationhood — and
which respect neither state nor international boundaries,
bleeding over the borders of Canada and Mexico as readily as
they divide California, Texas, Illinois or Pennsylvania. The
differences between them shaped the scope and nature of the
American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, the
Constitution and, most tragically, the Civil War. Since 1960,
the fault lines between these nations have been growing wider,
fueling culture wars, constitutional struggles and those ever-
present pleas for unity.

These “nations” have been with us all along.

Cultural Clusters

The settlers of each of the original colonial clusters came
from various regions of the British islands, or from France, the
Netherlands or Spain, and had distinct religious, political and
ethnographic characteristics. These cultures developed in
remarkable isolation from one another, cultivating distinct and
often contradictory values, practices, dialects and ideals. Some
championed individualism, others utopian reform. Some were
guided by divine purpose, others by conscience and inquiry. Some
embraced an Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity, others ethnic and
religious pluralism. Some valued equality and democratic
participation, others deferred to aristocratic order. All
continue to champion some version of their original ideals in
the present day, frustrating attempts to build a national

Forget the state boundaries. Arbitrarily chosen, they often
slash through cohesive cultures, creating massive cultural
fissures in states like Maryland, Oregon and New York. Equally
burdensome are the regional designations with which we try to
analyze national politics — the Northeast, West, Midwest and
South. They’re illusions masking the real forces driving the
affairs of our sprawling continent: the 11 regional cultures of
North America.

These 11 nations — Yankeedom,
Tidewater, New Netherland,
New France, Deep South, Greater Appalachia, the Midlands, First
Nation, the Far West, the Left Coast, El Norte — have been
hiding in plain sight throughout our history. You see them
outlined on linguists’ dialect maps, cultural anthropologists’
maps of material culture regions, cultural geographers’ maps of
religious regions, campaign strategists’ maps of political
geography and historians’ maps of the patterns of settlement
across the continent. I’m not the first person to have
recognized the importance of these regional cultures. In 1969,
Kevin Phillips, then a Republican campaign strategist, identified the
distinct boundaries and values of several of these nations and
used them to accurately prophesize the Reagan Revolution in his
“Emerging Republican Majority,” a political cult classic.

Divisions Within States

The force of their identities is felt particularly in
questions of culture and national politics: California is split
into three nations, and the divide is visible on a map of which
counties voted for or against same-sex marriage in 2008. The
Yankee-settled portion of Ohio is evident on the county maps of
the 2004 and 2008 elections, a strip of blue across a largely
red state. According to the Census Bureau, Greater Appalachia’s
citizens inhabit virtually the only counties in the country
where a majority answered merely “American” when asked to name
their ancestry. In 2008, Gallup asked more than 350,000
Americans if religion was an important part of their daily
lives. The top 10 states to answer affirmatively were all
controlled by Deep Southerners or those in Greater Appalachia. Eight
of the bottom 10 were states dominated by Yankees.

Our continent’s famed mobility — and the transportation
and communications technology that foster it — has been
reinforcing, not dissolving, the differences between the
nations. As journalist Bill Bishop and sociologist Robert Cushing
demonstrated in “The Big Sort,” since 1976, Americans have been
relocating to communities where people share their values and
worldviews. As a result, the proportion of voters living in
counties that give landslide support (defined as more than a 20
percent margin of victory) to one party or another increased
from 26.8 percent in 1976 to 48.3 percent in 2004. The flows of
people are significant, with a net 13 million people moving from
Democratic to Republican landslide counties between 1990 and
2006 alone. These moves have reinforced regional cultures.

What this all amounts to is this: As Americans sort
themselves into like-minded communities, they’re also sorting
themselves, more than ever, into like-minded nations, cultural
fiefdoms where the forces of contention between nations are more
easily rallied, rendering the compromise and consensus necessary
to move the wheels of the federal government increasingly
difficult to achieve.

So what are these nations, and what parts of the continent
does each control?


Yankeedom was founded on Massachusetts Bay by radical
Calvinists as a religious utopia in the New England wilderness.
From the outset, there was emphasis on education, local
political control and the pursuit of the greater good, even if
it required individual self-denial. Yankees have the greatest
faith in government’s ability to improve lives. For more than
four centuries, Yankees have sought to build a more perfect
society here on earth through social engineering, extensive
citizen involvement in the political process and the aggressive
assimilation of foreigners.

Settled by stable, educated families, Yankeedom has always
had a middle-class ethos and considerable respect for
intellectual achievement. Its religious zeal has waned over
time, but not its underlying “secular Puritanism” or drive to
improve the world.

From its New England core, Yankee culture spread with its
settlers across upper New York state, the northern strips of
Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa; parts of the
eastern Dakotas; and on up to Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and
the Canadian Maritimes. It has been locked in perpetual combat
with the Deep South for control of the federal government since
the moment such a thing existed.

New Netherland

The 17th-century Dutch colony of New Netherland had a
lasting impact by laying down the cultural DNA for New Amsterdam
(now Greater New York City) that was, from the start, a global
commercial trading society. Multiethnic, multireligious,
speculative, materialistic, mercantile and free-trading, the
future metropolis was a raucous, not entirely democratic city-
state where no one ethnic or religious group has ever been truly
in charge. It nurtured two innovations considered subversive: a
profound tolerance of diversity and an unflinching commitment to
freedom. Forced upon other nations at the Constitutional
Convention, these ideals have been passed on to us as the Bill
of Rights.

New Netherland has retained its fundamental values and
societal model, having long reigned as the leading world center
of Western commerce, finance and publishing. But its territory
has shrunk over the centuries. Today, the five boroughs of New
York City, the lower Hudson Valley, northern New Jersey, western
Long Island and southwestern Connecticut comprise New
Netherland. The most densely inhabited part of North America,
its population — 19 million at this writing — is greater than
that of many European nations, and its influence over this
continent’s media, publishing, fashion, intellectual and
economic life is hard to overstate.

The Midlands

Arguably the most “American” of the nations, the Midlands
was founded by English Quakers on the shores of Delaware Bay.
Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, the Midlands
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. Long an
ethnic mosaic, with people of German descent — not Anglo-Saxons
— making up the largest group since the 1600s, the Midlands
includes those who, like Yankees, believe society should be
organized to benefit ordinary people, but they are skeptical of
top-down government intervention, as many of their ancestors
fled from European tyrannies. The Midlands is home to a dialect
long considered “standard American,” a bellwether for national
political attitudes and the key swing vote in every national
debate from the abolition of slavery to the 2008 presidential

From its cultural hearth in southeastern Pennsylvania,
southern New Jersey, and northern Delaware and Maryland, Midland
culture spread through much of the heartland: central Ohio,
Indiana and Illinois; northern Missouri; most of Iowa; and the
less-arid eastern halves of South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.
It shares the key border cities of Chicago (with Yankeedom) and
St. Louis (with Greater Appalachia, a nation to be discussed in
a later installment). It also has an important extension in
southern Ontario, where many Midlanders emigrated after the
American Revolution, forming the central core of English-
speaking Canada. Although less concerned with its national
identity, the Midlands is, nonetheless, an enormously
influential moderating force in continental politics, as it
agrees with only part of its neighbors’ strident agendas.

Tomorrow: Tidewater, Greater Appalachia and the Deep South.

(Colin Woodard, a correspondent for the Christian Science
Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, is the author of
“The Lobster Coast,” “The Republic of Pirates” and “Ocean’s
End.” This is the first in a five-part series excerpted from his
new book, “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival
Regional Cultures of North America,” published Sept. 29 by
Viking. Read Parts 2 and 3.)

To contact the writer of this article:
Colin Woodard at colin@colinwoodard

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