How Culture and Geography Divided the United States

The cultural heritage of America’s settlers and the nation’s diverse geography shaped its political divides.

Map from the cover of Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2011)
Map from the cover of Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2011)

The United States is often described as a “nation of immigrants” but into the twentieth century, those immigrants were almost exclusively European and often Protestant. Historically, America has not been a melting pot as much as a New Europe.

In his 1989 study Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Hackett Fischer identified the four principal English migration flows that still influence cultural divisions in America today.

Puritans first moved from East Anglia to Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century and established what Colin Woodard, a journalist, described in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2011) as “Yankeedom” — the states of New England as well as those parts of the Midwest with Protestant populations of Dutch and German origins. This region traditionally puts great emphasis on “perfecting earthly society through social engineering, individual self-denial for the common good and the aggressive assimilation of outsiders.” As such, it is home to practically all of America’s most prestigious schools. It was the birthplace of progressivism and supported President Woodrow Wilson’s moral case for entering World War I as well as his proposals for rebuilding the world for democracy and self-determination thereafter. Today, it largely supports the Democratic Party.

Southern English Cavaliers, dismayed by King Charles I’s defeat at the hands of Parliament in the English Civil War, moved to the warmer area of Tidewater where they sought to reproduce the semifeudal manorial society of the countryside they had left behind. They largely succeeded, according to Woodard, “turning the lowlands of Virginia, Maryland, southern Delaware and northeastern North Carolina into a country gentleman’s paradise, with indentured servants and, later, slaves taking the role of the peasantry.”

The Cavaliers’ aristocratic attitudes extended into the Deep South where they teamed up with former English slave lords from Barbados and the West Indies to resist the Northerners’ expanding industrial power and their moral crusades. During the Civil War, they fought to defend slavery together. During the Progressive Era, they tried to stave of gender and racial equality, although these racist and deeply religious areas could sympathize with eugenics and temperance. It were Yankeedom Republicans who resisted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s expansion of the federal government during the Great Depression of the 1930s as well as the nation’s entry into World War II. But when the Democrats, who had previously been the party of the South, moved decidedly to the left during the 1960s and 1970s, Richard Nixon and later Ronald Reagan pulled the white conservatives in Tidewater and the Deep South into the Republican Party. The black slave descendants in these states, who used to support liberal Republicans, now vote Democratic.

The Quakers are Fischer’s third migration wave. They moved mainly from the industrial English Midlands to the Middle Atlantic states where they influenced Yankeedom’s economic culture. When they moved inland, their optimism and believe in man’s inherent goodness came to define a culture of apple pie and baseball — the stereotypical American can-do mentality with a healthy skepticism of Yankee do-gooders and their schemes for social improvement.

Finally, Presbyterian and other Protestant dissenters from Northumbria and later Ulster moved into Appalachia, a region “intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers alike” and one that influenced the West’s rancher culture.

Characterized by a warrior ethic and a deep commitment to personal sovereignty, Appalachia, writes Woodard, “has been lampooned by writers and screenwriters as the home of rednecks, hillbillies, crackers and white trash.” It has spread down the Appalachian Mountains into the southern tiers of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois toward Texas and Arizona, “clashing with Indians, Mexicans and Yankees along the way” and allying against whichever region appeared to pose the greatest threat to its freedoms. Since Reconstruction and especially the social upheavals of the 1960s, it has sided with Tidewater and the Deep South against the federal government’s perceived overreach.

The culture of the western half of the United States, which was mostly settled by Americans rather than Europeans, has much in common with Appalachia’s. It, too, is skeptical of big government and big companies alike but even if the conquest of this frontier demanded a rugged individual determination that was long idealized in “Wild West” fiction, it could not have happened without the deployment of vast industrial resources: dams, heavy mining equipment, irrigation systems and railroads. Settlement, therefore, was largely controlled and directed by corporations and federal agencies headquartered in Yankeedom and Washington DC.

“Exploited as an internal colony for the benefit of the seaboard nations,” Woodard argues that “Far Western political leaders have focused public resentment on the federal government (on whose infrastructure spending they depend) while avoiding challenges to the region’s corporate masters, who retain near Gilded Age influence.” Growing Hispanic and middle-class populations in the region further muddle its political allegiances. They tend to sympathize with the Democrats’ social liberalism while rural and religious areas, including the some 2.4 million Mormons in Idaho and Utah, share Republicans’ resistance to central government intrusion.

Yankees expended considerable effort to make California, Oregon and Washington a “New England on the Pacific” but were only partially successful. The coastal regions might have even greater faith in good government and social reform than New England does and are certainly among the most left wing in the country. But they are far from puritan and share some of Appalachia’s and the Far West’s individualism.

The Democrats’ hold on the Pacific coast and Yankeedom regions seems solid. They also have districts specked across the Deep South where blacks vote for them. But because the majority population in these states is conservative and white, only a handful of Democratic congressmen hails from the region and they will be the last to vote for a Democrat in a presidential election.

Colorado’s and Nevada’s increasingly liberal social attitudes make them attractive but they wield only fifteen electoral votes between them in a presidential election. For the Democrats, the bigger prize is expanding into the Mexican border region. New Mexico already votes for them. The growing Hispanic populations of Arizona and Texas could ultimately tip the balance in these “New Southern” states in their favor.

Republicans’ most immediate challenge is keeping the Tidewater states on board. Affluent areas there are starting to lean Democratic. The native Cavaliers’ priorities — keeping federal taxes low and the labor unions at bay — are the same as the Deep South’s but not middle America’s.

The radicalization of the conservative movement through the Tea Party cuts both ways. Its deeply Appalachian attitudes resonate in the Far West and even could in the “Rust Belt” states of the Midwest which are becoming more Appalachian in their outlook. But the Quakers and their descendants in the American heartland, who have the least attachment to historical ethnicities and believe in the American Dream, reject the Tea Party’s intransigence. They are used to compromising and getting along so why can’t everyone else?

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