The significance of regionalism in U.S. politics

Updated 8/5/2017

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Two things I came to realize from reading Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America are how much the various regional cultures have changed over time, but how they still have preserved their separate identities.

One of the most interesting parts of his book is his account of how the various regions were changed by the cultural revolution of the 1960s, but in different ways.

The four Southern regions (Tidewater, Deep South, Greater Appalachia, New France) gave up their resistance to legal equality for African-Americans.  The white political establishment in, for example, North Carolina opposes a reform movement of African-Americans and their white allies, but this is done through normal political maneuvering, not murder and terrorism.   This is a revolutionary change.

Spanish-speaking people in the Southwest (El Norte) and French-speaking people in Quebec (New France) changed from being politically passive and oriented toward tradition to being politically active and oriented toward the future.   I think these changes were set in motion by the new thinking of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.

The “youth revolution” in attitudes toward drug use, military service and sexual morality—”acid, amnesty and abortion”—was limited to the Pacific Coast (the Left Coast), the Northeast (Yankeedom and New Netherland), Woodard wrote.

This, too, was a revolutionary change.   A hundred years ago, you could get arrested as a pornographer in Boston for distributing information on birth control.  Now Boston is a stronghold of Planned Parenthood.

Woodard overlooked another transformative 1960s movement—the new conservative movement represented by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.   The Far West was once the scene of violent labor strikes with battles between armed workers and company police.   Now there are confrontations  between armed private militias and the federal government.

What could we Americans do to turn down regional conflict?  We were united during the Second World War.   We were united for a brief time after the 9/11 attacks.   But starting wars to promote national unity almost always fails, and is a sign of an empire in decline.

David Hackett Fischer, in Albion’s Seed, said Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal had support from all regions because it gave people material benefits without interfering with regional cultures.   The problem with that was that some regional customs, such as lynchings in the South, should have been interfered with.

Politic conflicts in the current era are the opposite.   We Americans quarrel over regulation of behavior on the individual level—abortion, cigarette smoking, drug use, gay marriage, gun ownership, mandatory recycling, public prayer.   We meanwhile give powerful corporations and government agencies free rein.   It would be better if we had less of the former and more of the latter.

We Americans need to understand that our most serious problems—perpetual quagmire war, the increasing concentration of wealth, declining public services—are caused by the influence of powerful elite groups with no particular regional or even national identity who exercise power without winning elections.

We Americans need full employment, good wages and education, medical care and retirement security for all and an end to our current wars.   A political movement committed and able to achieve these goals would win support from all regions.

Of course you’d have to frame the argument differently in different regions.   In Woodard’s Yankeedom, you’d explain that current U.S. military interventions serve no humanitarian purpose, but produce only death, destruction and a huge refugee crisis.   In Greater Appalachia, you’d say it is wrong to shed American blood  except in defense of American lives or American soil.

In Yankeedom, you’d have to counter the argument that the ultra-rich should run the country because they’re smarter and better-qualified.  In Greater Appalachia, you’d have to counter the argument that they’re harder-working and more enterprising.  But there’s no American region where the majority of the people think that war, oligarchy and repression are good things in themselves.


The Real U.S. Map, a Country of Regions, Part 1 by Colin Woodard

The Real U.S. Map, a Country of Regions, Part 2, by Colin Woodard

The Real U.S. Map, a Country of Regions, Part 3, by Colin Woodard.

The Real U.S. Map, a Country of Regions, Part 4, by Colin Woodard.

The Real U.S. Map, a Country of Regions, Part 5, by Colin Woodard.

U.S. Regional Clashes Behind Obama vs. Romney by Colin Woodard.

How Colin Woodard’s ‘American Nations’ explains the 2016 presidential election by Colin Woodard.



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