America Is Really Two Nations, And One Of Them Just Won
We’ve never been a melting pot, and we’re more divided now than ever.
Racism exists. Economic hardship exists. But I’m trying to fathom how America elected a bigoted, nationalist authoritarian to the most powerful office in the world, even after he flouted our most deeply-held national values: equal rights, religious freedom, a free press, respect for our mothers and daughters, fair pay and fair taxation.
But are these our “national” values? Are we even one nation?
It has felt during this campaign that there are two Americas: the one Donald Trump and his supporters live in and the one the “rest of us” occupy, where there are, you know, rules.
People relocate to places that feel compatible. In so doing, we’re not becoming a melting pot. We’re becoming more divided.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “nation” as “a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language.” That’s different from the definition of “state:” “a nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one government.” America is a state. And author and political reporter Colin Woodard argues that America isn’t really one nation at all.
In his book “American Nations,” Woodard illustrates how different parts of North America were settled by 11 different groups of people, each with a “common descent, history and culture.”
One, he names “New France,” the French who settled in Canada, intermarried with Native Americans, and emigrated to the bayou country of Louisiana and Texas. Or “El Norte,” the Northern Mexicans who established encomienda farms throughout California and the American Southwest.
The descendants of these nations carry on their heritages today. Woodard cites a theory by geographer Wilbur Zelinsky called the “First Effective Settlement.” It states that the first group to create a viable, self-sustaining society in an area leave behind their indelible cultural blueprint. Even if new people move to that place from far away, they will shed their old ways of life and adapt to the values of their new culture.
Analysis of “red state” and “blue state” voting isn’t telling us the whole story. Neither are regional cliches like “Midwest” or “Northeast.”
For example, Woodard’s “New Netherland” was founded as a socially liberal, egalitarian trading port by Dutch traders, in what’s now New York City. Despite successive waves of immigrants, the Big Apple retained those values over centuries and still bears the ethos of that free port today.
You might expect that modern transportation would dilute those 11 nations or make them more different, but Woodard says the opposite. People relocate to places that feel compatible. In so doing, we’re not becoming a melting pot. We’re becoming more divided.
Woodard made a map of the nations, which cross state and even national borders. His map is superimposed on a political map of US counties:
When Woodard analyzed historical voting patterns at the county level, he saw that people didn’t vote according to their state?—?but the values of the nation they were in. He says analysis of “red state” and “blue state” voting isn’t telling us the whole story. Neither are regional cliches like “Midwest” or “Northeast.”
There are two nations that have the greatest implications for this year’s fraught election, and Woodard says they’ve been at war since the birth of America.
The “Yankees” who settled in New England were radical Calvinist refugees who brought with them a Protestant work ethic, reverence for education, acceptance of immigrants and strong belief in representative government’s ability to “build a perfect society.” “Yankeedom” spread to upstate New York, Northern Pennsylvania and the Midwest. Yankees farmed the countryside but also created industry in the cities, establishing educational and religious infrastructure wherever they went.
After Trump triumphed in the primaries, many Republican politicians rallied to his side. That can be put down to politics as usual. What’s a thousand times more terrifying is how a popular majority of Americans supported him on this platform.
Scotch-Irish landowners settled in the subtropical “Deep South”?—?initially Georgia, Alabama and southeastern North Carolina?—?where the big business was agriculture. Southerners built plantations and imported African slaves to toil in the fields. Deep Southerners had little interest in centralized government, running plantations as private fiefdoms in an authoritarian system similar to a feudal aristocracy.
Other nations were established. The second sons of English landowners settled the “Tidewater” region of the mid-Atlantic. Like the Deep Southerners, they set up plantations which were worked by slaves, upheld respect for authority and were wary of democracy.
Germanic Quaker “Midlanders” settled in New Jersey and central Pennsylvania, eventually occupying a loop around “Yankeedom,” with which they shared values like hard work and a social welfare. They were, however, less radically religious and skeptical of undue government influence. Woodard points out they’ve been “swing voters” from the outset.
Poorer Scotch-Irish farmers found passages through the barrier of the Appalachian mountains, settling a wide swathe between the Deep South and the Midlands?—?“Greater Appalachia.” Like their Southern neighbors, these hardscrabble farmers were fiercely independent and distrusted governments.
The 13 colonies banded together to throw off the yoke of the British. But not long after independence, the Deep South and Yankeedom found themselves in fierce competition for both monetary and political influence. Slavery didn’t sit well with the utopian Yankees, who also saw in abolition an opportunity to wrench economic power from the South. This conflict was waged in Congress, but when politics failed, it continued by other means?—?the Civil War. New Netherland and the Midlanders sided with Yankees. Tidewater and Appalachia chose the losing side.
After the war, the Souths lay in ruins and had lost its economic engine of slavery. In the Reconstruction, the federal government rebuilt Southern infrastructure. It also established radical governments, run by Yankee “carpetbaggers” and backed by federal troops, which allowed blacks to participate in government. This led to a backlash. During the “Redemption” of the 1870s, the Ku Klux Klan assassinated radicals and lynched and terrorized blacks. Southern resistance and federal apathy eventually brought a return to the old ways. Free blacks were once again subjugated as sharecroppers to fuel the Southern economy, and brought to heel under the segregation of Jim Crow laws.
The next great clash between North and South took political form. Southern blacks rose up against Jim Crow in the 1950s in the Civil Rights movement, aided by Northern lawyers and federal troops. The 60s brought a nationwide wave of social liberalism, championed by New Netherlanders, Yankees, and the “Left Coast”?—?the liberal cities of California and the Pacific Northwest, which had been founded by Yankee transplants a century before. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 empowered the federal government to dismantle archaic Southern laws. For the first time since Reconstruction, millions of blacks could vote and many were elected to office in the South.
Southern politicians responded with numerous initiatives to limit black participation in politics, which were struck down by the Supreme Court. Woodard notes that ever since, the Deep South and its allies have worked to “roll back” many of the 60s reforms. And yet Barack Obama, a Chicago Yankee, still served two terms as America’s first black president.
And that brings us to Election night 2016.
Trump’s promised to help white, working-class Americans who lost jobs to the North American Free Trade Agreement, or who feel they haven’t benefited in the economic “recovery” from the 2008 financial crisis. It’s understandable that folks would vote for that.
But Trump also launched his campaign with a racist screed against Mexicans, followed by attacks on Muslims, Syrian refugees, women and the disabled, and alarmist portrayals of black communities that offend black people. Folks voted for that, too.
When Trump promises his Deep South and Appalachian power base to “make America great again” alongside his racist, sexist, xenophobic rhetoric, we have to wonder which of these pasts he’s referring to. After Trump triumphed in the primaries, many Republican politicians rallied to his side. That can be put down to politics as usual. What’s a thousand times more terrifying is how nearly half of American voters supported him on this platform.
On Election night, Slate political correspondent Jamelle Bouie summed up the fears of all of those who didn’t vote for Trump:
“I think the extent to which Donald Trump has won, running a campaign of racism and bigotry, turning out millions of white Americans for that campaign, suggests we are living through a kind of second Redemption, a push-back against the advance of African-Americans, of Hispanics, of women, of Muslim Americans.”
As of Election day, there is a new “nation” in America, and it looks like Trump was the only candidate who even knew it existed. As we might expect, comparing voting patterns to Woodard’s map, that nation comprises the Deep South and Appalachia. But it also includes the Midlands, which no one but Michael Moore expected: He called the election for Trump based on support from Midlanders who are furious over losing their manufacturing jobs to NAFTA, and furious enough to give a racist, sexist, xenophobic nationalist the power to realize his clearly-stated authoritarian ambitions.
Trump appealed to white voters more than any Republican candidate in the past four elections, according to USA Today investigative reporter Brad Heath:
Whitest U.S. counties are voting for Trump by an astonishing and unprecedented margin.
Standing against that nation are Yankeedom (minus New Hampshire), her allies on the Left Coast and El Norte, and the residents of cities in many other states?—?who on Tuesday realized to their horror that they are dots of blue in a sea of red. It’s unclear what will happen next.