In my book, American Nations, I argue that we’re not one country, but several, and have been since the colonial era. We may be bound up in a generally successful federation, but our greatest internal crises – the Civil War, the corrosive effects of Jim Crow, the recent threat of federal default – have been due to inter-regional conflict. Recognizing the true regional geography of our country, you’ll continue to hear me argue, is essential to understanding our history, identity, and national pathologies.
Two years ago in the Washington Monthly, I argued that the Tea Party was doomed to national irrelevance because its agenda is anathema to the deep underlying cultural values of a vast swath of our federation. Earlier this month here at Ten Miles Square, I showed how this had come to pass, with the Tea Party fast becoming isolated in the regions I’ve described as the Deep South, Greater Appalachia, and the Far West. (See this map: )
But the paradigm is helpful not just for understanding voting behavior, but positions on important economic, social, and moral questions as well. A case in point:
In the new issue of Tufts Magazine – out this week – I offer this cover story on the remarkable regional variations in American violence and attitudes toward violence in both its public and private forms. By almost any metric – assault and murder, gun control voting, capital punishment – the same pattern shows up. On one hand, a set of regional cultures with indices of and attitudes toward violence that are similar to those of Canada or Western Europe, on the other, regional cultures with rates of violence many times higher, and policies to match.
Consider assault death rates and capital punishment policies:
Kieran Healy, a Duke University sociologist, broke down the per capita, age-adjusted deadly assault rate for 2010. In the northeastern states—almost entirely dominated by Yankeedom, New Netherland, and the Midlands—just over 4 people per 100,000 died in assaults. By contrast, southern states—largely monopolized by Deep South, Tidewater, and Greater Appalachia—had a rate of more than 7 per 100,000. The three deadliest states—Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, where the rate of killings topped 10 per 100,000—were all in Deep South territory. Meanwhile, the three safest states—New Hampshire, Maine, and Minnesota, with rates of about 2 killings per 100,000—were all part of Yankeedom.
Not surprisingly, black Americans have it worse than whites. Countrywide, according to Healy, blacks die from assaults at the bewildering rate of about 20 per 100,000, while the rate for whites is less than 6. But does that mean racial differences might be skewing the homicide data for nations with larger African-American populations? Apparently not. A classic 1993 study by the social psychologist Richard Nisbett, of the University of Michigan, found that homicide rates in small predominantly white cities were three times higher in the South than in New England. Nisbett and a colleague, Andrew Reaves, went on to show that southern rural counties had white homicide rates more than four times those of counties in New England, Middle Atlantic, and Midwestern states.
The pattern for capital punishment laws is equally stark. The states dominated by Deep South, Greater Appalachia, Tidewater, and the Far West have had a virtual monopoly on capital punishment. They account for more than ninety-five percent of the 1,343 executions in the United States since 1976. In the same period, the twelve states definitively controlled by Yankeedom and New Netherland—states that account for almost a quarter of the U.S. population—have executed just one person.
So why would violence – state-sponsored or otherwise – be so much more prevalent in some regional cultures than in others?
It all goes back to who settled those regions and where they came from. Nisbett, the social psychologist, noted that regions initially “settled by sober Puritans, Quakers, and Dutch farmer-artisans”—that is, Yankeedom, the Midlands, and New Netherland—were organized around a yeoman agricultural economy that rewarded “quiet, cooperative citizenship, with each individual being capable of uniting for the common good.” The South—and by this he meant the nations I call Tidewater and Deep South—was settled by “swashbuckling Cavaliers of noble or landed gentry status, who took their values . . . from the knightly, medieval standards of manly honor and virtue.”
Continuing to treat the South as a single entity, Nisbett argued that the violent streak in the culture the Cavaliers established was intensified by the “major subsequent wave of immigration . . . from the borderlands of Scotland and Ireland.” These immigrants, who populated what I call Greater Appalachia, came from “an economy based on herding,” which, as anthropologists have shown, predisposes people to belligerent stances because the animals on which their wealth depends are so vulnerable to theft. Drawing on the work of the historian David Hackett Fisher, Nisbett maintained that “southern” violence stems partly from a “culture-of-honor tradition,” in which males are raised to create reputations for ferocity—as a deterrent to rustling—rather than relying on official legal intervention.
Understanding these regional differences in violence and their deep historical and cultural roots makes it easier to understand why this country has had so much trouble finding national consensus on issues like gun control, gun rights, and capital punishment. On the other hand, the paradigm isn’t as helpful in parsing this. But everything has its limits.