How “Occupy” Found a Home on the Range

As the Occupy Wall Street movement enters a new and uncertain phase, where is it likely to meet with the most success, and where will it be most likely to be given the cold shoulder?

In my new book, American Nations, I’ve argued that North America is really made up of eleven distinct regional cultures or nations, each with their own founding ideals, values, and intents, and in the current issue of the magazine, I’ve demonstrated that the Tea Party movement is doomed to failure in three of the most powerful of them, an assertion buttressed by last week’s election results. The Tea Party’s agenda — reduce federal power, taxes, social services, and environmental, labor, and voting protections -aligns perfectly with that of the Deep Southern oligarchy, flies in the face of the dominant cultural values of other parts of our sprawling, Balkanized federation.

Analyzing OWS has been more difficult. The movement is only a few months old. It hasn’t fielded candidates for the U.S. Senate or the presidency whose polling numbers can be tracked. There’s no “Occupy Wall Street” caucus in the halls of Congress whose voting patterns and geographic origins can be analyzed. When asked about OWS – and it happens often – I’ve hypothesized that the movement will confront strong regional variations in support and that those would likely be the mirror image of those experienced by the Tea Party.

Now there’s some early evidence to bring to bear on the question, and it indeed suggests stark regional differences in support for OWS and its very un-Tea Partying goals: confront inequality, bring Wall Street criminals to justice, and stop rigging the system for the benefit of the alleged plutocracy.

The Guardian newspaper has assembled a database of Occupy protests worldwide, with estimates of maximum crowd sizes drawn from media accounts. It documents hundreds of demonstrations in communities across North America, from Fairbanks to Miami and everywhere in between. Like the Tea Party, Occupy is everywhere. But filter the database for communities where demonstrations achieved a maximum reported size of at least 1000 people and the list narrows to just 32 towns and cities. These “big occupation” sites are clustered in four of my American nations – and rare or non-existent in others.

The largest concentration of major protests has been on the Left Coast, a region I’ve described thusly:

A Chile-shaped nation wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade and Coast mountain ranges and stretching from Monterey to Juneau, the Left Coast was originally colonized by two groups: merchants, missionaries, and woodsmen from New England; and farmers, prospectors, and fur traders from Greater Appalachia. Yankees expended considerable effort to make it “a New England on the Pacific,” but were only partially successful: the Left Coast is a hybrid of Yankee idealism, faith in good government and social reform, and the Appalachian commitment to individual self-expression and exploration. The staunchest ally of Yankeedom and greatest champion of environmentalism, it battles constantly against Far Western sections in the interior of its home states.

The region has eight cities that have seen major protests, from San Francisco and Oakland to Vancouver, the home of AdBusters, the magazine that issued the call that first got OWS rolling. The Left Coast’s two closest allies – the Dutch-settled Big Apple and the sprawling Greater New England region I call Yankeedom — account for six more. It is conspicuous that the two regions that have offered the least political support to the Tea Party – the Left Coast and New Netherland – are the intellectual and spiritual birthplaces of the Occupy movement.

By contrast, the region where the Tea Party has experienced the greatest support – the Deep South — has seen just one large Occupy protest, in the uncharacteristic city of Orlando. (This is not surprising given that the region—which embraced a republicanism modeled on the slave states of Classical Antiquity — has always been organized around the interests of “the 1 percent”.) The Deep South’s traditional ally, Tidewater, has seen none at all, while Greater Appalachia’s two large Occupy events occurred in the college towns of Austin and Raleigh.

Intriguingly, the Far West – a Deep Southern ally in recent decades – is home to a half dozen large Occupy locations, more than the far more populous Yankeedom. These include conservative cities like Edmonton and Phoenix, both of which have seen larger demonstrations than far larger Deep Southern cities like Houston or Atlanta. So too have the great “swing nation” of the Midlands, with large Occupy events in Omaha and St. Louis, as well as Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Toronto and the border city of Chicago. A thumbnail sketch of these two regions:

High, dry, and remote, the Far West was only colonized via the deployment of vast industrial resources: railroads, heavy mining equipment, ore smelters, dams, and irrigation systems. As a result, settlement was largely directed and controlled by large corporations headquartered in distant New York, Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco, or by the federal government itself, which controlled much of the land. Exploited as an internal colony for the benefit of the seaboard nations, 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. It encompasses much of California, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Alaska, Colorado and Canada’s Prairie Provinces, and all of Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Nevada.

The Midlands was founded by English Quakers, who believed in man’s inherent goodness and welcomed people of many nations and creeds to their utopian colonies on the shores of Delaware Bay. Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, the Midlands, America’s great swing region, 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. It shares the Yankee belief that society should be organized to benefit ordinary people, but it rejects top-down government intervention. From its cultural hearth in southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and northern Delaware and Maryland, Midland culture spread through central Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, northern Missouri, most of Iowa, southern Ontario, and the eastern halves of South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.

So a few thousand people demonstrated in a handful of cities; what did the millions of people who didn’t show up think of the Occupiers?

Earlier this month, Public Policy Polling asked residents of a few states if they supported the aims of the Occupy movement and whether they preferred it to the Tea Party. The results, while fragmentary, support the notion that Yankees and Far Westerners are generally sympathetic to OWS and Deep Southerners extremely hostile.

In two all-Yankee states that elected Tea Party-endorsed governors, OWS is more popular than the Tea Party. Mainers prefer the Occupiers 52-32, with 52 percent also saying the support their aims. Wisconsin prefers OWS 42-40, with 39 percent supporting its goals and 38 percent opposed. In the Far Western state of Nevada, Occupy also edges out the Tea Party for people’s hearts, 44-43.

By contrast, pollsters found that in the Deep Southern portion of North Carolina – roughly corresponding to area code 910 – opponents of OWS outnumber supporters by 45-29. The Tea Party’s goals were also narrowly rejected, 45-44, though respondents said they preferred the Partiers to OWS by a five point margin. (Tidewater and Appalachian portions of the state remain polarized.)

My extended forecast: there’s likely trouble ahead for the G.O.P. in the vast western interior of the country, and in those vital swing states partially inhabited by Midlanders.

Colin Woodard

Colin Woodard is State and National Affairs Writer at the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram and author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.