On a long drive back from Southern California to San Francisco after the holidays, I decided to pass the time listening to an audiobook titled "American Nations" by Colin Woodard. It had been recommended to me by a friend, so I could better understand why American values can vary so much state to state. And perhaps, provide a little bit of insight as to why Congress is so dysfunctional these days. As I listened to the book, "American Nations" explained to me how America is - in fact - not a melting pot, but a myriad of distinct geographic cultures that directly link back to the first settlers that established a particular region. There are 11 nations in all (see descriptions below), and I had no idea that I would be passing through three of them before I arrived back home in the Bay Area. And just in case you are wondering, two of the American Nations do not include the NorCal (organic, fair-trade goods and start-ups) versus SoCal (fish tacos and miniature dogs) cultural rivalry that Californians colloquially refer to.
California is a large state with three American Nations: Left Coast, Far West, and El Norte. Most of I-5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco is located through the heart of Central Valley and exists in the Far West, which is characterized by its resentment towards the government and dependence on industrialized manipulations of the land (dams and irrigation). As I drove past by the "Congress Created Dust Bowl" signs (among others) on I-5, I had evidence that I was indeed driving through the Far West. Water is a contentious issue in California - and no wonder! - we are really comprised of three nations. Although there are obvious value differences between north-south and urban-rural, much of the discussions that we have in California regarding how to prioritize water is dancing around larger and deeper issues that plague our nation.
This is not uncommon with most politicized issues in the US, especially when we consider how divided Congress has become over the past decade. What really is occurring is a power struggle between our American Nations to ensure that their respective cultures are not threatened. In the figure on the right, you can see which American Nations are most populous according to 2010 Census data. The two most populous nations are Greater Appalachia (home to mavericks and the Tea Party) and Yankeedom (home to academic elites and common-good social engineers). Both which exist on the opposite sides of the political spectrum.
This power divide is not a new phenomena, but one that has been brewing since the first colonies settled on our eastern seaboard. Although the American Civil War is the greatest display of the fight for our value differences, there has yet to be complete resolution. We are led to believe, early in our lives, that America is a melting pot and that we are one nation with shared values and beliefs. But that's not really true. Part of the issue is that we are continuing to reinforce these cultural divides, as we tend to self-select ourselves by living in the same American Nation we grew up in or moving to one that does not threaten our cultural values. It should be no surprise that as a Massachusetts native, home to Yankeedom, that I moved to the Left Coast and found it a relatively easy to assimilate. Left Coast was in originally settled by Yankees! Recognizing that these cultural differences exist in the USA is important step for coming to consensus in our political arena. The only way to move forward is to look back and know how you got to where you are in the first place.
Which American Nation are you from? I invite you to read through the descriptions of the American Nations, and feel free to comment your thoughts on them below.
THE 11 AMERICAN NATIONS
paraphrased from a description by Colin Woodard himself
Founded by the Puritans who settled on the shores of Plymouth, Massachusetts after escaping religious persecution in England. They value education, intellectual achievement, communal empowerment, and broad citizen participation in government. They are generally more comfortable with public-sector social projects, accepting outsiders, and government regulation as a way to secure the common good.
Located around New York City, New Netherland was established by Dutch newcomers. Similar to Amsterdam, a major trading hub during the 17th century, New Netherland shared values that celebrated global commercial culture and materialism. It became a center for trade, publishing, and immigration due to its tolerance for ethnic/religious diversity and for homosexuals/feminists/bohemians in the 20th century.
Founded by English Quakers in Pennsylvania and on the shores of Delaware Bay, but later dominated by German immigrants. The Midlands prioritized the middle class and, like Yankeedom, believed that society should benefit ordinary people. However, the Midlands are opposed to top-down rule and frowned upon government intervention.
Established in Delaware and North Carolina, Tidewater was started by decedents of southern England's gentry (next to nobility) who were keen on recreating the semi-feudal society they left behind. With indentured servants and slaves, Tidewater valued respect for authority and traditions. Equality and public participation in politics were not valued. Tidewater was powerful in America during the 18th century (George Washington was from Tidewater!), it is one of the few American Nations to decline in influence.
Located in the Appalachian Mountains (what was the far western borders of the American colonies during the early 18th century), Greater Appalachia was founded by a wave of settlers from war-torn Northern Ireland, Northern England, and Scottish Lowlands. Often coined as "hillbillies" and "red necks" (and known for the genesis of bluegrass music), Greater Appalachia is characterized by its warrior ethic (and Celtic musical influence) brought from the wars they left. They are highly individualistic and value personal sovereignty and liberty. This made them very wary of aristocratic Tidewater and social-engineering Yankees, and has resulted in them to form alliances based on who appears to be the greatest threat to their personal freedom.
As the name suggests, Deep South was established in the far south by English slave lords from Barbados. They viewed democracy as a privilege for a few and enslavement to the rest. Today, the Deep South continues to fight federal intervention on taxes and regulations (environmental, labor, and consumer) that target wealthy enterprises.
Opposed to what many of us have been taught in elementary school, the first foreign settlers to America were the Spanish - not the English on the eastern shores of America. Far from Spanish and Mexican rule, the Spanish settlers of El Norte formed their own culture within the oldest American nation in the 15th century. Spanning over the southern edge of the American Southwest, southern California, and into northern Mexico. Although hispanic language and culture distinguish themselves from the rest of the American Nations, they (norteños) are reputed for hard work, independence, self-sufficiency, and adaptability. In fact norteños across the American-Mexican border have more in common with each other than the countries they reside in, and have attempted to secede in the past.
THE LEFT COAST
Positioned between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade and Coastal range, the Left Coast was colonized by New Englanders and Appalachian midwesterners. The New Englanders (mainly merchants, missionaries, and woodsmen) arrived by sea and populated towns along the coast. The Appalachian midwesterners (mainly farmers, prospectors, and fur traders) arrived by wagon and populated the countryside. The Left coast is a hybrid of social engineering for the common good (Yankeedom-trait) and self-expression and exploration (Appalachian-trait).
THE FAR WEST
Located in the remote western states that span most of the Rocky Mountain periphery, the Far West's high elevation and dry climate was one of the last nations settled. Because of its hostile environment, settlers were highly depended on industrial resources to transport (railroads) goods and manipulate the land (dams, irrigation, mining equipment). Settlement to the Far West was pushed by distant corporations headquartered in large cities (NYC, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco) or the federal government for their benefit, and as a resulted in their Senators in the mid-20th century to build mis-trust and resentment amongst many Far Westerners against the federal government, but not the corporations that drive their dependence.
Located in New Orleans and southeastern Canada, New France took a very different approach from many of the other American Nations in their interactions with the aboriginal people by intermixing and cultivating egalitarian relations. Settled by French peasantry who had a long history of imperial oppression in northern France, New France was consensus driven and extremely liberal. New France has had its greatest influence in forming modern-day Canada, which embraces multiculturalism and negotiated consensus.
Occupying a vast expanse of land mostly in Canada and Greenland, this native American group only comprises less than 300,000 people today. Retaining most of the cultural traditions needed to survive in this hostile environment, the First Nations have gained sovereignty over Alaska, Nunavut, and Greenland. The First Nations are extremely communal (property rights are a foreign concept) and place a large emphasis in the role of women and the environment.