The Midterms Highlighted America’s Dangerous Regional Divides

The United States looks more and more like a set of different nations divided by geography.

While most commentators have emphasized the urban-rural divide in explaining the results of last week’s elections, the 2018 midterms exhibited the same regional patterning we’ve long seen in presidential contests and represented a hardening of regional divides. For readers of American Nations, these rifts will look familiar. As was the case in 2016, America’s political divisions fall along historical geographic boundaries. 

For those unfamiliar with the American Nations paradigm, the book shows that our country is an unstable alliance of eleven regional cultures, most of them the legacy of rival colonial projects and respective early colonization patterns. These have shaped our history, our constitutional structure, and, of course, electoral politics—past and present (I have written about its political implications previously in the Monthly). In the early twenty-first century, American politics features a “red coalition” of three nations, each of which have cultures that see freedom’s path lying almost exclusively with individual liberty and personal sovereignty. Greater Appalachia was founded by settlers from war-ravaged borderlands in the British Isles. They brought their warrior ethic and deep commitment to personal sovereignty into the United States. The Deep South was established by oligarchic slave lords from the West Indies. Finally, in the Far West, environmental factors meant settlers were dependent on and directed by the federal government and major corporations—powerful institutions that often exploited them. 

But the U.S. also has “blue coalition” nations, which place a greater emphasis on the common good and the need to sustain and protect a free community. Yankeedom, which constitutes much of the upper Midwest and New England, was settled by religious congregations that prize community and support self-denial on behalf of the common good. New Netherland, the modern-day New York metropolitan area, has a dedication to free expression and multiculturalism that stems from the eighteenth-century Dutch commitment to globalization. Finally, in the Left Coast, New Englanders and Appalachian settlers combined to create a culture with both Yankee utopianism and Appalachian individualism.

Over the past two decades, two would-be swing nations have joined the “blue” camp. El Norte, the far-flung borderlands of the Spanish American empire, has shifted left because Republican ethnonationalism abhors the region’s cultural persistence. Tidewater, the product of younger sons of the southern English gentry, became safely Democratic because in-migration, geographic constraints, and (especially) the presence of the federal government are causing the region’s more conservative inherited culture to dissolve.

Their defection leaves just one true “swing nation” left on the maps: The Midlands. Founded by English Quakers who believed in human’s inherent goodness and welcomed people of many nations, the Midlands spawned the culture of Middle America, where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion has been moderate. It shares the Yankee belief that society should be organized to benefit ordinary people, but rejects top-down government intervention.

I argued after the 2016 contest that Donald Trump owed his narrow Electoral College victory to his ability to make gains in the Midlands and rural Yankeedom via very un-Republican communitarian promises he made on the campaign trail: government would rebuild infrastructure, revive US manufacturing, protect entitlements, and replace ObamaCare with something providing better coverage at a lower cost. I predicted his failure to keep any of those promises would cause these “Trump Democrats” in places like the Upper Mississippi Valley, upstate New York, and rural Maine to revoke their support of him. His failure to condemn white supremacists, anti-Semites, and xenophobes would further consolidate opposition to him in New Netherland, El Norte, and Tidewater.

Last week, this is precisely what happened.An overview of the results of the 2018 US House elections.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2018 midterms map

At this writing, the Democrats appear to have flipped at least thirty-four House seats, and nearly half of them (sixteen) are districts in Yankeedom, the Midlands or straddling the two. This includes expansive (read: not urban) places like Iowa’s first and third districts, Yankee New York’s twenty second, and, almost assuredly once Ranked Choice Voting is completed, Maine’s second, which voted for Obama twice before giving Trump one of the Pine Tree State’s Electoral College votes. Of the remaining pick-ups, twelve were in either El Norte, New Netherland, the Left Coast, or Tidewater. Just two were in the Far West and only three were in the Deep South. In Greater Appalachia, Democrats netted just one.

In statewide contests, Democrats faced heartbreak in close races across Greater Appalachia and in the Deep South, including the Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas Senate contests. They successfully picked up one senate seat in the Far West state of Nevada and another in Arizona, which straddles the Far West and El Norte. That there may have been an effort to steal the Senate and governor contests in Georgia and Florida via voter suppression or ballot undercounting only reaffirms a shameful Deep Southern tradition. By contrast, the party’s gubernatorial pickups were in states controlled by Yankeedom and/or the Midlands (Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas) and El Norte (New Mexico), plus one in the Far West (Nevada), a region I’ve argued is primed for partisan realignment.

Where did Democrats flip state legislative chambers? In Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Minnesota – all Yankeedom; New York, Yankeedom and New Netherland; as well and in the Far West’s Colorado. Now the map of which party controls state legislatures almost perfectly fits the American Nations fissures. The 30 state houses Republicans fully control include every single state that is dominated by the Deep South and Greater Appalachia, plus most of those in the Far West. Sixteen of the 18 state houses Democrats dominate are in Yankeedom (including every chamber in New England), the Midlands, New Netherland, the Left Coast and El Norte; the remaining two (Nevada and Colorado) are in the Far West. Today, only Minnesota has a divided state house.

At multiple levels of government, the partisan and American Nations maps have become more closely aligned than ever, largely because the parties are more ideologically oriented than ever. The only real exception to partisan sorting involves genuinely moderate Republicans of the old Rockefeller variety. These endangered creatures – virtually extinct in Congress – easily won reelection to the governor’s mansions in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maryland.

These are encouraging signs for Democrats in 2020. They all point to decisive net Electoral College gains compared to 2016. But they are yet another ominous sign for the survival of our awkward federation, a place where regional divides have become frighteningly acute.

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.