The American Nations and the 2016 Election

I’ve been arguing for years that America’s most essential and abiding divisions are not between red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals, rural and urban, blacks and whites, the faithful and the secular. Rather, they stem from this fact: The United States is a federation composed of the whole or part of 11 regional cultures, whose origins, territory, and fundamental characteristics can be traced back to colonial settlement waves.

As readers of American Nations – and this magazine – know, these regional cultures respect neither state nor international boundaries, bleeding over the U.S. frontiers with Canada and Mexico as readily as they divide California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. As a result, the same fault lines appear on county-level maps of most closely contested presidential elections in our history, and in recent congressional debates over health care reform, financial industry regulation, and the debt ceiling. Recognizing the fault lines – and the cultural characteristics behind them – is essential to understanding and interpreting election results, as well as differences over everything from gun control to the misdistribution of rival pancake restaurants.

Despite the unusual match-up in this election – the Republican nominee ran not as a laissez faire conservative but as a European-style ethno-nationalist — the very same fault lines appeared again on November 9th, with each regional culture voting for the same party’s candidate as they had in 2008 and 2012, all but one of them by wide margins. I’ve put together a full analysis – with comparisons between the three elections and an interpretation as to how Trump (narrowly) succeeded where Mitt Romney and John McCain could not – over at the Portland Press Herald, where I’m a staff writer. But here are some of the highlights.

American nations todayTufts University/Colin Woodard

 

Trump won the “red coalition” nations, which have cultures that, in different ways, see freedom’s path lying almost exclusively with individual liberty and personal sovereignty. These are:

Greater Appalachia: founded in the early 18th century settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of northern Ireland, northern England, and the Scottish lowlands who transplanted a culture formed in a state of near constant danger and upheaval, characterized by a warrior ethic and a deep commitment to personal sovereignty and individual liberty.

Deep South: established by slave lords from Barbados as a West Indies-style slave society, this region has been a bastion of oligarchic privilege, and a version of classical Republicanism modeled on the slave states of the ancient world, where democracy was the privilege of the few and enslavement the natural lot of the many.

The Far West: the one part of the continent where environmental factors trumped ethnographic ones. High, dry, and remote, the Far West stopped the eastern nations in their tracks and, with minor exceptions, 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 distant corporations or by the federal government itself, which controlled much of the land, both of whom exploited as an internal colony for the benefit of the seaboard nations.

Hillary won the three traditional “blue coalition” nations, which out a greater emphasis on the common good and the need to sustain and protect a free community. These are:

Yankeedom:  Founded on the shores of Massachusetts Bay by radical Calvinists as a new Zion, since the outset it has put great emphasis on perfecting Earthly society through social engineering, individual self-denial for the common good, and the aggressive assimilation of outsiders. It has prized community (rather than individual) empowerment, and sees government as the public’s shield would-be tyrants.

New Netherland: Established by the Dutch at a time when the Netherlands was the most sophisticated society in the western world, it has displayed its salient characteristics throughout its history: a global commercial trading culture – multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and materialistic – with a profound tolerance for diversity and an unflinching commitment to the freedom of inquiry and conscience.

The Left Coast: originally colonized by two groups: merchants, missionaries, and woodsmen from New England (who arrived by sea and dominated the towns) and farmers, prospectors, and fur traders from the Appalachian Midwest (who generally arrived by wagon and controlled the countryside), it’s a hybrid culture combining Yankee utopianism with an Appalachian emphasis on individual self-expression and exploration.

By wide margins, Hillary also won two nations that, ideologically, should be swing nations:

El Norte: the oldest of the Euro-American nations, these were the far-flung borderlands of the Spanish American empire, so far from the seats of power in Mexico City and Madrid that they evolved their own characteristics. A hotbed of democratic reform and revolutionary sentiment in Mexican history, various parts of the region have tried to secede from Mexico to form independent buffer states between the two federations.

Tidewater: Built by the younger sons of southern English gentry, it was meant to reproduce the semi-feudal manorial society of the countryside they’d left behind, where economic, political, and social affairs were run by and for landed aristocrats. Tidewater has always been fundamentally conservative, with a high value placed on respect for authority and tradition, and very little on equality or public participation in politics. Today it is a nation in decline, having been boxed out of westward expansion and, more recently, eaten away by the expanding federal halos around D.C. and the world’s largest naval base at Hampton Roads.

But she won the traditional “kingmaker” swing nation by a hair – 0.4 percent – underperforming Barack Obama’s 2008 margins there by almost 11 points. This doomed her in Pennsylvania, for reasons described in the Press Herald piece.

The Midlands: America’s great swing region was founded by English Quakers, who believed in human’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 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 rejects top-down government intervention.

Results for 2016 election, by nationChristian MilNeil/Portland Press Herald

 

And, more decisively in the Electoral College, she lost vast swaths of rural Yankee counties that twice voted for Obama, from interior Maine to northern New York to the Upper Mississippi Valley where Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa come together. As a result, her margins in Yankeedom also fell by 11 in comparison with Obama in 2008 and, combined with poor turnout in key Yankee cities, narrowly delivered Wisconsin and Michigan to Trump.

Why did this happen? My interpretation – plus maps and data – can be found at the Press Herald.

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.