Regular readers of the Monthly may recall my piece two years ago, “A Geography Lesson for The Tea Party”, which argued that movement was doomed in much of the country and would become isolated in the South and interior West, the only parts of the country where its agenda would find fertile soil.

And so it has come to pass.

A tiny faction in the U.S. House – numbering less than a tenth of its membership – has driven the Republican Party and the nation over a small cliff (the government shutdown) and is headed for the edge of a far larger one (a federal default.) Polls show these actions by the “shutdown caucus” have already done serious damage to the G.O.P and Tea Party brands, even as most of its members remain popular in their own districts.

Where are those districts? In the South and the interior West.

The map in question, via
The Atlantic recently cross referenced the roster of House members the Senate Conservative Fund identified as their allies with the 80 signatories of an August letter demanding that Boehner use the threat of a shutdown to defund the Affordable Care Act. The result was a list of 32 tea party hardliners who arguably represent the core of the shutdown caucus.

Twenty-six – over 80 percent of the group – were elected from the centuries-old cultural regions I call the Deep South, Greater Appalachia, and Far West – regions which together account for just a third of the U.S. population. Those same nations also brought us Rand Paul (Appalachia), Ted Cruz, Jim DeMint, and Tom DeLay (all Deep South) and most other leading lights of the tea party.

There are tea party supporters everywhere, but only in these three cultural regions have they managed to achieve real and lasting political success. This is because their platform – to slash taxes, labor protections, environmental regulations, social programs, and the reach and authority of the federal government — is in accord with the centuries-old cultural ethos of each of these regions, and anathema to those elsewhere.

Several commentators have drawn parallels between the actions of the “shutdown caucus” and those of 19th century Confederate nullifiers and secessionists, Dixie minorities who were willing to burn the federal government down to get their way. In regards to the Deep South, they’re onto something.

This is a region founded by West Indies slave plantation owners, men who cherished and fought for a form of classical Republicanism modeled on Ancient Greece and Rome, where a privileged minority enjoyed liberty and democracy, and slavery was the natural lot of the many. The agenda of the Deep Southern oligarchy has been consistent for more than three centuries: to control and maintain a one party state with a colonial-style economy staffed by a compliant, low-wage workforce with as few labor, workplace safety, health care, and environmental regulations as possible. Its slave and racial caste systems have been smashed by outside intervention, but its representatives in Washington have continued to fight to reduce federal power, taxes on the rich, and rolling back labor and environmental protection, and social service programs. Not coincidently, these are also the central goals of the tea party caucus.

Greater Appalachia – home to nearly half of the shutdown hardliners – was founded by a very different group of people: settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of northern England, lowland Scotland and (especially) Northern Ireland. In this culture, “freedom” is about maximizing the autonomy of the individual and freeing each person from outside encumbrances. There was little love here for the aforementioned Deep Southern oligarchs – indeed, the region sided with the Union in the Civil War for this very reason. But since Reconstruction, the federal government has appeared the greatest threat, imposing communitarian-minded innovations like income taxes, the Civil Rights Act, cap and trade and, of course, ObamaCare.

A similarly libertarian political culture took root in the Far West – which includes the high plains and Rocky Mountains, but not the Spanish-settled borderlands and Pacific coastal plain – a region dependent on and resentful of the federal government, which owns much of the land. Here the Tea Party stands a chance.

Vast regions of our country have a far more communitarian political heritage, however. Take Yankeedom, a region first colonized by the New England Puritans and their descendants, which encompasses New England, Upstate New York, Ohio’s Western Reserve, and the Upper Great Lakes states. Since the 1630s, Yankee culture has emphasized individual self-denial for the common good, investment in strong public institutions, and governmental projects to improve society. Not surprisingly, the tea party has fared poorly here. The shutdown caucus has just two members from this region of 53 million. Its leader, Michelle Bachman last year won reelection by just one percent of the vote in the most Republican district in Minnesota. The other, Justin Amash, is in serious hot water back in his Michigan district, where local business leaders want to mount a primary challenge from the center.

The caucus doesn’t have a single member from the (Yankee-influenced) Left Coast, and just one from the Dutch-founded region around the Big Apple: Scott Garrett of New Jersey who, like his Yankee colleagues, now has a lot of unhappy constituents. Together, these three communitarian-minded nations account for a third of the U.S. population, but only six percent of Tea Party caucus. After the next election cycle, there may not be any at all.

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Colin Woodard is the author of six books, including Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood. He is the director of the Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.