Disaggregating the Polity: Colin Woodard

He wrote a book called American Nations, which I just read for the first time. He offers a model of America as having a culture that can be thought of as eleven different nations, each dominant in particular geographic regions. It seems to me that it is a book that someone should have pressed me to read before. I will be recommending it often in the future, I am sure.

Woodard sees a centuries-long struggle for power between the nation he calls Yankeedom (New England) and the two nations that he calls Tidewater and Deep South. His antipathy toward the latter shows through, especially in the final chapters of the book.

More recently, he has some essays that I am checking out. In this essay, he claims that the urban-rural divide is simplistic and wrong, and that his 11-nations model works better.

In five of the regional cultures that together comprise about 51 percent of the U.S. population, rural and urban counties always voted for the same presidential candidate, be it the “blue wave” election of 2008, the Trumpist storm of 2016, or the more ambiguous contest in between. In Greater Appalachia, the Deep South, Far West, and New France, rural and urban voters in aggregate supported Republican candidates in all three elections, whether they lived in the mountain hollers, wealthy suburbs, or big urban centers. In El Norte, both types of counties always voted Democratic, be they composed principally of empty desert or booming cityscapes.

…The stark urban-rural divide in the country is to be found almost exclusively in the Midlands, where it has a disproportionate effect on the Electoral College, as that region straddles several historic swing states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, and Missouri among them.

I am curious to delve into his 11-nations model and to consider each nation in economic terms. Are there likely differences in what they import and export? Differences in wealth? etc. Here is a first pass, using nine of his nations (omitting New France, which is mostly in Canada, and First Nation, which is locations with a lot of Native Americans). The table offers my impressions of the leading industries in the various regions.

Nation (Woodard’s name) Typical Cities Major industries
Yankeedom Boston, Madison Higher education, high tech, health care
New Netherland New York City, Greenwich Ct. Financial services, entertainment, international trade
Midlands Philadelphia, Peoria Agriculture, manufacturing
Tidewater McLean, Newport News Federal government, military
Greater Appalachia Wheeling, Muskogee Extractive (mining, forestry, etc.)
Deep South Charleston, Mobile Agriculture, manufacturing
El Norte El Paso, Tijuana Extractive, retirement services
Left Coast San Francisco, Portland, Ore. High tech, international trade
Far West Bozeman, Rapid City Extractive, tourism

I am wildly guessing about the industries for El Norte. I think he wants to limit it to the southwestern U.S. (plus northern Mexico), and he wants to exclude southern Florida.

I am not sure where Los Angeles fits in his scheme. It must be an amalgam of some sort. Some of New Netherland, with its ethnic diversity, ambition, and glamour. Some of El Norte, with its Hispanic population. Perhaps an element that is Far West, where there is dependence on government investment combined with resentment of government.

Any other criticisms or suggested modifications to my industry guesses are welcome.

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15 Responses to Disaggregating the Polity: Colin Woodard

  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    For what it’s worth, Joel Garreau did something similar with The Nine Nations of North America (1981!). I wasn’t real impressed but it’s an easy read.

  2. Taylor Jaworski says:

    David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed is related and focuses on a subset of these regional cultures.

  3. Asdf says:

    There is also albions seed. It has to be updated for new immigrants as well.

    Trump is the story of Ellis islanders (Italians and Irish in the NE won him the primary) and the flipping of the Scott’s Irish from bill Clinton dems to trumpists.

    In a sense some American nations are being replaced with hispanics and they know it. However, dems can’t get them to move to swing states fast enough.

  4. Was also going to recommend albion’s seed, but two others already beat me to it. :)

  5. Joey Donutd says:

    Missing from your list and probably as difficult to categorize as Los Angeles:


    • mike shupp says:

      The thing about Los Angeles, I can recall that in the 1970’s and 1980’s it was a huge aerospace center, with North American Rockwell, Lockheed Aircraft, Northrop, McDonnell Douglas, Hughes Aircraft, TRW and a batch of smaller fry doing business in the metropolitan area and several military installations. That’s just about all gone today — Northrop’s more into ship building than aircraft, Lockheed moved to Colorado, Rockwell and McD-DAC got bought up by Boeing and shut down, TRW closed, Hughes bought up by Raytheon …. about the only glimmer of what once was in SpaceX.

      Also, auto parts used to be a fairly big thing in the area. So LA was a center for manufacturing and military and shipping a quarter century ago, and these days …. there’s still Hollywood.

      I’d guess the cities on your list have gone through similar transformations.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        LA is still a center for shipping, though it’s mostly containers. The Port of Long Beach is an amazing machine.

      • Thomas Boyle says:

        Northrop spun off its shipbuilding in 2011, and in any case the ships were (and are still) built on the Gulf Coast and East Coast. However, General Dynamics and BAE Systems have shipbuilding operations in San Diego.

  6. Charles W. Abbott says:

    _Albion’s seed_ is a real doorstopper, and a serious book.

    Joel Garreau’s book was exciting to me when I read it as an 18 or 19 year old. It’s not deep, but it is intriguing.

    In terms of geography, I’m a big fan of John C. Hudson’s _Across this land_ published by Johns Hopkins, which is a readable work and shows his clarity and erudition. There is a good insight on every page.

    Also I like Bogue’s book of county level data. It’s ancient, but worth looking at. Much is outdated. It has very little sociological data, but a wealth of employment and Standard Industrialization Classification data, etc–outdated but a decent snapshot from about 1961.

    Bogue’s book seems to have a lot of “regionalization” done, perhaps, by multivariate procedures such as “Group” or Cluster, to illustrate how variegated many of the states are (should you try to look at State level data).

    Looks like here’s a link to a review of it.


  7. Charles W. Abbott says:

    Before I forget, Saul Bernard Cohen’s textbook on _Geopolitics_ has a good discussion on the differences between “Maritime” and “Continental” regions and cultures in the U.S. It’s a global survey, so the chapter on the US is not too long. “Maritime” goes a lot farther into the depth of the USA than you might think.

    I’m thinking of this edition, and don’t know the newer one.


    = – = – = – =

    Obviously, there are problems in associating places with people. People have a genetic endowment, social norms, and are socialized to a large extent in households. They can move around–as Southerners moved north, or as Yankees repeatedly moved west from New England.

    In Hudson’s _Across this land_ there is a nice description of what he calls “Yankeeland in the Middle West.”

  8. Charles W. Abbott says:

    Elazar’s work on political culture.

    Daniel Elazar.


    = – = – = – = – = – =

    about 30 years ago, hard-bitten scholars like James Q. Wilson and Ed Banfield were impressed by the Chicago machine. They noted that in contrast, after La Guardia, New York City politics was taken over by unseasoned and often incompetent wild eyed reformers catering to noisy special interest groups, often based on identity politics. And Chicago (back in the day) could actually budget, while NYC lost all budgetary restraint.

    The link to this assertion escapes me.

  9. Lord says:

    If you insist on focusing on the presidency. It isn’t nearly so monolithic if you focus on the House, and that is where the urban rural division comes in.

  10. Dan Jelski says:

    I’m in the process of reading Mr. Woodard’s book myself (American Nations: A History…).

    1) He clearly puts Los Angeles as part of El Norte. Despite the Left Coast enclave west of I-405, I think that’s mostly correct.

    2) I’m wondering how he classifies Black people? Are they part of the nations they came from (Tidewater, Deep South), or are they a 12th nation overlay (similar to an area code overlay)? Admittedly, I haven’t finished the book yet–maybe he answers that question.

    3) Joe Donutd lists a bunch of cities that he thinks would flummox Mr. Woodard. I don’t think so–Nashville, for example, is clearly part of Appalachia. Atlanta and Orlando are in the Deep South. Miami is not part of a North American nation at all, but should instead be grouped with the Caribbean, presumably with Havana and San Juan.

    3) That said, I think both of the above questions bring up the issue of recent immigration, i.e., since 1900. Did Blacks who moved to Detroit become Yankees, or did Detroit become a Deep South city? Likewise, are the yuppies who moved to Atlanta southerners, or instead transplanted Yankees. I’ve got no idea, but as I said, I haven’t finished the book yet.

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