How America’s Earliest Colonists Dictate Today’s Coronavirus Response

Disparities in the reaction to COVID-19 mirror centuries-old cultural and ideological fissures.

President Trump has failed to lead America during the COVID-19 crisis. As a result, it has been up to state and local leaders to fight the virus. The month of March became a macabre laboratory of federalism, illustrating how some places took the pandemic quite seriously—and how others did not.

Some local leaders took the threat seriously early on, moving first to limit public gatherings, then to close schools, then restrict restaurants, close non-essential business and, ultimately, issue shelter-in-place orders. Others chose to follow our criminally irresponsible president in underplaying the virus, encouraging people to carry on as usual, from going out to bars and restaurants to partying on the beaches. The epidemiological implications are obvious, and the unbearable human price will be paid this month.

What is less immediately obvious is why some leaders and constituents acted fast while others lagged behind. At the state level one can track when a governor took steps to lockdown their state to slow the spread of the virus in the hope of preventing the hospitals from collapsing. (This has been analyzed in a study by a group of researchers at the University of Washington.) At the county level, one can see the measurable effect this did or didn’t have among constituents, thanks to cell phone tracking data which allowed the firm Cuebiq to measure how much people slowed their movements (feeding this article in the New York Times.) The geographic maps do not conform neatly to any of America’s most commonly discussed fault lines.

As other commentators have noted, restrictions were not strictly partisan. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, was the first out of the blocks in starting to shutdown his state. His G.O.P. counterparts in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maryland also took the threat seriously, implementing restaurant restrictions and non-essential business closures early on, the UW study shows, while Democratic governors in Kansas and Montana did not.

Others pointed out that, on a county-level, people living in rural areas reduced their movements less than those in urbanized ones. But they failed to explain why rural people in New England, Upstate New York and the Upper Great Lakes States stayed put while those in Kentucky and Idaho—which were also under statewide lockdown orders—did not. Or why rural people in the easternmost counties of New Mexico ignored lockdown advice while those in the rest of the state generally followed them. Or why residents of southernmost Florida stopped in their tracks while those elsewhere—urban or rural, coastal or interior, richer or poorer—did not.

But the pattern is remarkably consistent with centuries old fissures that stem from the earliest days of America’s colonization. Different settlers created communities with divergent ideas about the role of government and the balance between individual liberty and the common good. These divides have stuck around for hundreds of years, resulting in radically different policy responses to the pandemic, further jeopardizing the survival of our Balkanized federation.

I first revealed these differences in my 2011 book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. 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 on several previous occasions in the Monthly.)

American Nations Map

The fundamental philosophical divide between these regional cultures is over the question of how best to organize American society. There are four “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 area, has a dedication to free expression and multiculturalism that stems from the eighteenth-century Dutch commitment to globalization. On the Left Coast, New Englanders and Appalachian settlers combined to create a culture with both Yankee utopianism and Appalachian individualism. The Midlands was first founded by English Quakers who believed in human’s inherent goodness and welcomed people of many nations; it spawned the culture of Middle America, which is communitarian, even as it is skeptical of top-down government intervention. (First Nation, confined in the U.S. to very sparsely populated parts of northern and western Alaska, is the most communitarian of all.)

By contrast, three large and important nations 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, and championed a form of classical republicanism wherein “democracy” was a privilege for the few and servitude or slavery the lot of the many. Finally, in the Far West (much of today’s interior West), environmental factors meant settlers were dependent on and directed by the federal government and major corporations—powerful institutions that often exploited them. As a result, they developed a libertarian ethos.

That leaves three in-between regional cultures: El Norte, the far-flung borderlands of the Spanish American empire, and Tidewater, founded by the younger sons of the southern English gentry trying to replicate the semi-feudal society of the English countryside. Tidewater is now transforming into something more like the Midlands due to the massive presence of the federal government in D.C. and the Hampton Roads areas.

The geography of the coronavirus response last month follows these patterns to a disturbing degree. Leaders and people in communitarian regions are generally taking robust measures to slow the spread of the virus. Leaders and people in individualistic ones are often flaunting science and safety, leading their constituents to make few changes to their movements and, presumably, routines.

Consider the above map from the Times, which shows the percent change in travel in each county for the week of March 23 as compared to February 28, before the coronavirus outbreak began. Yankeedom, the Midlands, New Netherland, and the Left Coast show dramatic decreases in movement – 70 to 100 percent in most counties, whether urban or rural, rich, or poor.

Across much of Greater Appalachia, the Deep South and the Far West, by contrast, travel fell by only 15 to 50 percent. This was true even in much of Kentucky, the interior counties of Washington and Oregon, where Democratic governors had imposed a statewide shelter-in-place order. It was also true in the Appalachian parts of Virginia, where people continued to move even as those in much of the Tidewater screeched to a halt.

El Norte and Tidewater showed a more muddled picture, while the enclaves of two regional cultures centered outside the United States—New France (the Cajun country of Louisiana) and Spanish Caribbean (south Florida) took the virus far more seriously than the Deep Southern sections around them.

Not surprisingly, most of the states where governors imposed stay-at-home orders by March 27 are located in or dominated by one or a combination of the communitarian nations. This includes states whose governors are Republicans: Ohio, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts.

Most of the laggard governors lead states dominated by individualistic nations. In the Deep South and Greater Appalachia you find Florida’s Ron DeSantis, who allowed spring breakers to party on the beaches. There’s Brian Kemp of Georgia who left matters in the hands of local officials for much of the month and then, on April 2, claimed to have just learned the virus can be transmitted by asymptomatic individuals. You have Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who on April 7 denied mayors the power to impose local lockdowns. And then there’s Mississippi’s Tate Reeves, who resisted action because “I don’t like government telling private business what they can and cannot do.” On March 31, Reeves cast aspersions on “those who believe that government ought to take over and run everything.”

Thankfully most states are now taking the pandemic seriously, but the lost month will have unnecessarily tragic implications in very regions of the country that have, to date, been most enthusiastic about President Trump. And everywhere, regardless of region or party affiliation, it will be the elderly, the poor, and the uninsured who will die in the largest numbers.

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Colin Woodard

Colin Woodard is the author of six books, including American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, American Character: The Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good, and Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood, forthcoming in June from Viking Press.