Washington, Oregon and California have banded together to coordinate policies for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, as have states in the Northeast. Meanwhile, several states in the South and the Mountain West have gone rogue, relaxing social distancing rules and allowing massage parlors, barbershops, bowling alleys and beaches to open up for business.
It is easy to interpret these contrasting approaches merely as red states and blues states running off in predictably opposite directions. However, the way regions of the country have responded differently to the current national health crisis may be evidence of enduring cultural values that go far deeper — as far back as the first colonies in North America and even to the English Civil War.
In his 2011 book, “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America,” journalist and historian Colin Woodard notes that the United States is not just one big, homogenous cultural lump. Similarly, journalist Joel Garreau wrote in “The Nine Nations of North America,” the continent could easily be divided into nine distinct countries, including a cohesive coastal society running from San Francisco up through Seattle to Vancouver and beyond. Garreau called that elongated land Ecotopia. Woodard identifies the same area as the Left Coast, but he takes his premise beyond Garreau’s observations into recurring patterns of history.
Woodard’s central premise is that the founding cultures that colonized North America have not vanished in the American melting pot. By his reckoning, the diverse philosophies and ways of organizing society that guided European settlers as they established communities in the New World still drive powerful undercurrents in our fractured federation.
In our time, we are experiencing one bitter political clash after another — about the right to bear arms versus the right to safety in public spaces; about tightening borders versus welcoming immigrants; about protecting property and wealth versus extending health care and a living wage to all; and, yes, about employing the coercive powers of government to save lives in the middle of a pandemic versus risking those lives so that businesses can stay open and individuals can roam free. If Woodard’s premise is right, those searing debates and many more are merely the latest manifestations of a long historical dynamic. The way we confront today’s societal choices — right down to who we choose for president in November — depends on which collection of American nations prevail over the rest.
The oldest of Woodard’s “nations” is El Norte, the borderlands of northern Mexico and the United States, where descendants of Spanish conquerors and indigenous people are now a resurgent political force from California to Texas.
New Amsterdam’s obsession with commerce and openness to people of all ethnicities and religions in the 1600s is still the hallmark of New York City, an urban nation Woodard calls New Netherland.
The often belligerent, individualistic, independent spirit that lowland Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants brought from the violent borderlands of the British Isles to the 18th-century American frontier remains potent in Greater Appalachia, a region that runs from West Virginia along either side of the Ohio River and down into northern Texas — a cantankerous spirit that shows up at any gathering of NRA members or Tea Party patriots.
In the nation Woodard calls the Midlands, the live-and-let-live attitude of William Penn’s 17th-century colony has been sustained in political swing states from Pennsylvania into the Midwest heartland.
The once-influential nation of Tidewater, composed of Maryland, Delaware and the eastern halves of North Carolina and Virginia, was founded by royalist Cavaliers who took the side of the king in the English Civil War. Today, the region’s long political alliance with the rest of South has faded; Tidewater has joined the Obama coalition.
Most enduring through the course of American history has been the rivalry between two very different nations: the Deep South and Yankeedom.
The Deep South came into being when wealthy English slave owners relocated from the Caribbean to Charleston, South Carolina. They were an aristocratic elite who believed in their God-given right to rule and prosper on the backs of enslaved Africans and poorer whites. Over decades, their slave society spread through the Gulf Coast states into Texas. Even when crushed by Yankee armies in the Civil War, their racist, hierarchical system was reconstituted and prevailed well into the 20th century.
Does the callousness of the old slave masters reverberate in the actions of the current governor of Georgia? His rush to reopen businesses disregards the threat to disadvantaged black communities where the coronavirus is particularly lethal.
Yankeedom arose from Puritan New England. Having overthrown a king in their homeland and governed through Parliament until the Cavaliers forcibly restored the English monarchy, the Puritans were on a mission to create a more righteous society in virgin territory. Over time, their intolerant religious beliefs fell away. What remained was a conviction that society could be made better by the earnest efforts of well-educated, free-and-equal citizens working together for the common good.
During the American Revolution, Yankees allied with the slaveholding leaders of Tidewater, but thereafter, as the Deep South agitated to extend slavery to new states in the West, abolition-minded New Englanders were themselves tempted to secede from the union.
Yankee culture expanded into the upper Midwest and eventually sailed into the San Francisco Bay, the Willamette River Valley and Puget Sound. Though far from being a majority on the West Coast, Yankees were cultural and political leaders who encouraged education, entrepreneurship and devotion to civic duty. Even the old Puritan dream of creating a more perfect world echoed in the Left Coast’s latter-day utopian dreams, from the hippies of Haight-Ashbury to Earth Day environmentalism.
Politically, the Left Coast has long allied with the Yankees of the Northeast and the Upper Midwest. Well into the 1970s, Washington’s Republican Party leadership was in sync with the GOP progressives of Massachusetts and New York. However, once the state’s Republicans began to realign with a national GOP increasingly dominated by the Deep South, they began to lose elections. It has now been 40 years since a Republican was elected governor in Washington.
It has also been a long time since a Democrat has found favor on the east side of the Cascades. In 1994, voters ousted two Democrats representing the region in Congress — Speaker of the House Tom Foley and a young freshman named Jay Inslee. Woodard describes Eastern Washington as part of another nation, the Far West, a vast area long exploited by eastern industrial interests where an abiding resentment of the federal government is dominant. Is it any surprise then that, in Left Coast Seattle, business leaders have rallied in good Yankee fashion to support hospitals and Gov. Inslee’s social distancing measures while, over the mountains in the “Far West” counties of Benton and Franklin, officials have tried to defy Inslee’s stay-at-home orders?
When we wonder why Americans seem so disunited, even in the midst of a pandemic that threatens us all, the answer may be simple: We are one country composed of several nations that have seldom seen things eye to eye.