It’s tempting to think about the United States as a pretty monolithic country and culture. Certainly, if you listen to the views of Continental Europeans or people from the Middle East, it seems that’s how many around the world view us.
But the reality is far more complex. Speaking as someone who has lived in all four major regions of the U.S. — the Northeast, Midwest, South and West — I’ve experienced first-hand a variety of different regional “quirks.”
And now we have an interesting book that really delves into the phenomenon of America’s distinct regions. In his book American Nations, published in 2011 and now available in paperback, journalist and author Colin Woodard takes us on an interesting regional tour of the continent.
Woodard counts no fewer than eleven “nations within a nation.” And as he defines them, they’re actually spread throughout the United States, Canada and Northern Mexico.
What exactly are these “nations within a nation” and how did they come to be? They’re the result of early settlers, later migration patterns, and deep-seated cultural affinities that, while somewhat mitigated in recent years, are still surprisingly resilient even after 150 or 200 years.
The one “nation” on Woodard’s map that may characterize what many people think of as “America” is one he calls “Yankeedom.”
“Yankeedom nation” stretches from New England and Upstate New York to the Midwest, encompassing Northern Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
According to Woodard, this region’s character and social culture stem from the utopian communities founded by Puritans and the later immigrants from Scandinavia. In “Yankeedom nation,” intellectual achievement is valued along with an abiding belief in public institutions’ ability to improve and even perfect society.
Understanding these attributes makes it easier to see how the Grange Movement, Robert LaFollette’s Progressive Party and even RomneyCare came into being here rather than in some other part of the United States.
The polar opposite of Yankeedom may well be “Greater Appalachia nation,” a region on Woodard’s map that stretches from Southwestern Pennsylvania west and south to encompass nearly the entire states of West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee along with vast swatches of contiguous states.
Also referred to as “The Borderlands,” this “nation” also includes areas we don’t usually associate with Appalachia such as the Ozarks, Oklahoma, Central Texas and even a bit of Eastern New Mexico.
What ties this sprawling “nation” together? The eastern portions of the region were settled not by English planters, merchants or Puritans, but by Scots-Irish immigrants who brought with them a fighting spirit along with a sense of fierce independence and suspicion of central governments.
They and their descendents later migrated to the western regions, bringing their cultural predilections with them. Think of John McCain’s fighting spirit – whose ancestors settled in Mississippi from further east – and you have a flavor of the abiding characteristics of this region.
The great observer of American politics, Michael Barone, has written about Greater Appalachia nation’s antipathy to the social and governmental policies of the current administration in Washington, DC. He notes that even as President Obama has won the White House twice with relative ease, he’s actually fared worse with voters in the Borderlands region when compared to the unsuccessful efforts of John Kerry and Al Gore, losing every county in the states of West Virginia, Arkansas and Oklahoma and carrying precious few anywhere else.
Woodard’s book delves into a great deal of rich regional history in order to reveal to us how these and the other “nations” came to be. It’s a fascinating volume that will surely spark some of your own thoughts and perceptions of “America” – in whole and in part.
If you have some personal observations or experiences that illustrate the regional differences in the country, please share them in the comment section below. As for myself, I’m a person who was born in the “Tidewater nation” and who has relatives in the “Deep South nation.” When attending high school in the Twin Cities (smack in the heart of “Yankeedom nation”), I found it interesting how clueless my otherwise intelligent, knowledgeable and well-traveled schoolmates were about anything to do with the Deep South.
In particular, Mississippi and Alabama were always being mixed up in their minds.
And of the ~50 people who graduated from my high school class, consider these stats: While easily three-fourths of our grads chose to attend college or university out of state … nearly 90% of the class stayed in Woodard’s “Yankeedom nation.”
A coincidence? I think not.
[By the way, I was one of the ~10% who elected to attend college in another “nation,” a decision I never regretted.]