Home / Dave Brockington / A Nation of Regions

A Nation of Regions


An article at the Washington Monthly by Colin Woodard distills his new book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, down to two to three dozen paragraphs.  He outlines the historical conditions that created enduring, distinct, and in some cases conflicting political cultures for these regions.  Furthermore, these distinctions are reflected “in linguists’ dialect maps, cultural anthropologist’s maps of the spread of material culture, cultural geographer’s maps of religious regions, and the famous blue county/red county maps of nearly every hotly contested presidential election of the past two centuries.”  Based on this foundation, he proceeds to offer an explanation for the varying regional appeal of the Tea Party, and it’s ultimate doom:

“In short, the Tea Party and the Deep South may do the country serious harm, but they will not take it over. They may hobble the workings of Congress, inject flat-earth thinking into Senate debates, or even capture the presidency next year. But their policy program will never win the hearts and minds of a clear majority of Americans, and it carries the seeds of its own destruction.”

Woodard moves on to offer a suggestion or two as to how progressives can use this keen insight to secure a governing majority at some point in the future.  There’s some to like here — the regional analysis, while not as sophisticated or empirically supported as an academic work in political geography would produce, resonates prima facie.  (Note, I’ve not read the book itself; it’s possible that it’s chock-a-block with sophisticated empirical support for the thesis).  Also, the no-brainer suggestion for progressives is to go after “El Norte” and the Latino vote is something I think most of us can agree on.

However, I have a couple critiques of varying efficacy for the central thesis.  First, it is temporally deterministic in that it presumes a region’s political culture is established by the behaviors and attitudes of the first immigrants to that region, and then is immutable.  This might be true for some regions to varying degrees, but historically the political culture of a region is dynamic, subject to both internal and external patterns of immigration.  Second, and this is more of an epistemological critique that most readers here likely will not agree with, is the use of the C word.  Culture.  As in the political / ideological motivations, attitudes, behaviors, and decisions of those within these regions are determined by those original immigrants to these regions.

A consideration of my home region, The Left Coast (I was born in San Jose, grew up in Seattle), calls this into question.  I’d suggest that the political culture of this region has changed considerably in the past half century: as recently as the 1960 Presidential election, Richard Nixon received all the electoral votes on the west coast.

What this piece has done for me however is to consider empirically testing the core thesis — that a handful of ideological positions vary predictably with these regions — using individual level data.  Or, alternatively, simply skimming the political geography literature to see if something similar has already been done (which is quite likely).

h/t Jeff Frane.

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