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Over the past few weeks, Americans have heard from President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and President-elect Donald Trump, each of whom have called for the “nation” to unite as one people.
Though this type of speech is popular and generally garners a great deal of praise from onlookers, the reality is this – there really isn’t any such thing as an American nation and there never has been.
Throughout North America’s history, there have always been competing tribes jockeying and even warring for control and influence over the continent – this went on before the arrival of European settlers and only escalated in the years following their influx.
In fact, the average American’s basic understanding of the word “nation” is fundamentally flawed.
In the United States, “nation” and a country’s government are often mistakenly used interchangeably – and the results of this error often lead to a total misunderstanding of geopolitical affairs.
“A state is a sovereign political entity like the United Kingdom or New Zealand, eligible for membership in the United Nations and inclusion on the maps produced by Rand McNally or the National Geographic Society. A nation is a group of people who share – or believe they share – a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts, and symbols,” writes Colin Woodard in his top selling book, “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America”.
Woodard states that some nations are presently stateless – the Kurdish, Palestinian, or Quebecois nations, for instance. Other nations, however, control and dominate their own nation-state, which they typically name for themselves, as in France, Germany, Japan, or Turkey.
Conversely, there are plenty of states – some of them federated – that aren’t dominated by a single nation, these include Canada and the United States.
Woodard argues that North America’s eleven nations are all stateless and are often the very roots of our “national” differences.
“There’s never been an America, but rather several Americas—each a distinct nation. There are eleven nations today. Each looks [at everything] in its own way,” says Woodard.
Using several data points (including maps showing the distribution of linguistic dialects, the spread of cultural artifacts, the prevalence of different religious denominations, and the county-by-county breakdown of voting in virtually every hotly contested presidential race in our history), Woodard has devised a national map, highlighting the boundaries of each of America’s eleven nations.
Interestingly, as America is growing increasingly mobile, rather than dissolving these nations, the imaginary boundaries are actually being reinforced as it is now easier than ever for individuals to move to a nation-area that shares their core values.
“I should underscore that my observations refer to the dominant culture, not the individual inhabitants, of each region. In every town, city, and state you’ll likely find a full range of political opinions and social preferences. Even in the reddest of red counties and bluest of blue ones, twenty to forty percent of voters cast ballots for the ‘wrong’ team. It isn’t that residents of one or another nation all think the same, but rather that they are all embedded within a cultural framework of deep-seated preferences and attitudes—each of which a person may like or hate, but has to deal with nonetheless,” stated the award winning journalist.
Woodard describes the eleven nations presently in existence inside the United States below:
Spanning from eastern North Dakota to Maine, Yankeedom was founded on the shores of Massachusetts Bay by radical Calvinists as a new Zion,
Since its outset, the nation has placed a great emphasis on perfecting earthly civilization through social engineering, denial of self for the common good, and assimilation of outsiders. The home to our nation’s oldest institutions of higher learning, Yankeedom has has prized education, intellectual achievement, communal empowerment, and broad citizen participation in politics and government, the latter seen as the public’s shield against the machinations of grasping aristocrats and other would-be tyrants.
Dating back to its Puritan roots, the people of Yankeedom have been more comfortable with government regulation and public-sector social projects than many of the other nations, who regard the Yankee utopian streak with trepidation.
Taking up the smallest landmass of all the nations, New Netherland, was established by the Dutch at a time when the Netherlands was the most sophisticated society in the Western world.
The people of this nation have always been enjoyed a global commercial culture—which in turn has made them materialistic and given them a profound tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity.
Like seventeenth-century Amsterdam, it emerged as a center of publishing, trade, and finance, a magnet for immigrants, and a refuge for those persecuted by other regional cultures, from Sephardim in the seventeenth century to gays, feminists, and bohemians in the early twentieth. Unconcerned with great moral questions, it nonetheless has found itself in alliance with Yankeedom to defend public institutions and rejects evangelical prescriptions for individual behavior.
Woodard describes the Midlands as “America’s great swing region.”
This nation was founded by English Quakers, who believed in humans’ inherent goodness and welcomed people of many nations and creeds to their utopian society in Pennsylvania.
Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, the Midlands spawned the culture of Middle America and the Heartland, where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion has been moderate. An ethnic mosaic from the start—it had a German, rather than British, majority at the time of the Revolution—it shares the Yankee belief that society should be organized to benefit ordinary people, though it rejects top-down government intervention.
Built by the younger sons of southern English gentry in Virginia’s Chesapeake country and neighboring sections of Delaware, Maryland and North Carolina, Tidewater was meant to reproduce the semi-feudal society of the countryside they’d left behind.
Standing in for the peasantry were indentured servants and, later, slaves.
Tidewater places a high value on respect for authority and tradition, and very little on equality or public participation in politics. It was the most powerful of the American nations in the eighteenth century, but today it is in sharp decline, partly because it was cut off from westward expansion by its boisterous Appalachian neighbors and, more recently because it has been eaten away by the expanding federal halos around D.C. and Norfolk.
Founded in the early eighteenth century by wave upon wave of settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England, and the Scottish lowlands, Appalachia has been lampooned by writers and screenwriters as the home of hillbillies and rednecks.
It transplanted a culture formed in a state of near-constant danger and upheaval, characterized by a warrior ethic and a commitment to personal sovereignty and individual liberty. Intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers alike, Greater Appalachia has shifted alliances depending on who appeared to be the greatest threat to their freedom – this was perfectly illustrated during the American Civil War, when this area was split – based upon its proximity to the side it deemed to be the greatest threat to its freedom.
Since Reconstruction, and especially since the upheavals of the 1960s, it has joined with Deep South to counter federal overrides of local preference.
Established by English slave lords from Barbados, Deep South was meant as a West Indies–style slave society. This nation offered a version of classical Republicanism modeled on the slave states of the ancient world, where democracy was the privilege of the few and enslavement the natural lot of the many. With its caste systems smashed by outside intervention, it continues to fight against expanded federal powers, taxes on capital and the wealthy, and environmental, labor, and consumer regulations.
The oldest of the American nations, El Norte consists of the borderlands of the Spanish American empire, which were so far from the seats of power in Mexico City and Madrid that they evolved their own characteristics. Most Americans are aware of El Norte as a place apart, where Hispanic language, culture, and societal norms dominate.
But few realize that among Mexicans, norteños have a reputation for being exceptionally independent, self-sufficient, adaptable, and focused on work. Long a hotbed of democratic reform and revolutionary settlement, the region encompasses parts of Mexico that have tried to secede in order to form independent buffer states between their mother country and the United States.
THE LEFT COAST
A Chile-shaped nation wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade and Coast mountains, the Left Coast was originally colonized by two groups: New Englanders (merchants, missionaries, and woodsmen who arrived by sea and dominated the towns) and Appalachian midwesterners (farmers, prospectors, and fur traders who generally arrived by wagon and controlled the countryside). Yankee missionaries tried to make it a “New England on the Pacific,” but were only partially successful. Left Coast culture is a hybrid of Yankee utopianism and Appalachian self-expression and exploration—traits recognizable in its cultural production, from the Summer of Love to the iPad. The staunchest ally of Yankeedom, it clashes with Far Western sections in the interior of its home states.
THE FAR WEST
The other “second-generation” nation, the Far West occupies the one part of the continent shaped more by environmental factors than ethnographic ones. High, dry, and remote, the Far West stopped migrating easterners in their tracks, and most of it could be made habitable only with the deployment of vast industrial resources: railroads, heavy mining equipment, ore smelters, dams, and irrigation systems.
As a result, settlement was largely directed by corporations headquartered in distant New York, Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco, or by the federal government, which controlled much of the land. The Far West’s people are often resentful of their dependent status, feeling that they have been exploited as an internal colony for the benefit of the seaboard nations. Their senators led the fight against trusts in the mid-twentieth century. Of late, Far Westerners have focused their anger on the federal government, rather than their corporate masters.
Occupying the New Orleans area and southeastern Canada, New France blends the folkways of ancient régime northern French peasantry with the traditions and values of the aboriginal people they encountered in northeastern North America. After a long history of imperial oppression, its people have emerged as down-to-earth, egalitarian, and consensus driven, among the most liberal on the continent, with unusually tolerant attitudes toward gays and people of all races and a ready acceptance of government involvement in the economy. The New French influence is manifest in Canada, where multiculturalism and negotiated consensus are treasured.
Colin Woodard’s book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America is available on Amazon.com and has a 4.5 star rating.
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