Are you “Driftless”?

By Razib Khan | November 25, 2012 11:22 pm

GeoCurrents on the political anomaly of the “Driftless” zone of the upper Mississippi (via GLPiggy). The anomaly has to do with the fact that this area is very white, very rural, and not in the orbit of a larger cosmopolitan urban area (e.g., “Greater Boston,” which extends into New Hampshire). The post goes into much greater detail, but concludes with a request for more information. This is the area where local knowledge might be helpful.

I went poking around old county level presidential election maps, and I can’t see the Driftless blue-zone being a shadow or ghost of any past pattern. But, I did stumble upon again the 1856 presidential election map by county…can there be a better illustration of the “Greater Yankeedom” (the red are Republican voting counties, the first year that the Republicans were a substantial national party):

Addendum: Obviously not the whole North was Yankee. So who were the others? The ancestors of what in the 20th century become “white ethnics,” disproportionately urban Catholics (in this case, mostly Irish and German) were already Democratic leaning by this period. There were also old groups, like the Hudson Valley Dutch, as well as the merchant class of New York City, which were long anti-Yankee in their politics and sentiments. Not only that, but New York City was economically integrated with the South’s cotton economy to a greater extent than other zones of the North. And in places like Pennsylvania there were deep reserves of populist Democrats. Finally, across the southern half of the Midwest states the settlers were actually often from the Upper South states. The “Butternuts.”


MORE ABOUT: Politics
  • Charles Nydorf

    Levi-Strauss who was fascinated both by cultural geography and contrasts between geological zones would have loved this!

  • ackbark

    We’re in luck, that’s where I live. Unfortunately I don’t get out much and often feel like a tourist just getting the mail.

    Towns are set primarily in short steep valleys or on the narrow ridges between them which can promote a great sense of togetherness within the communities, but not so steep as to make movement throughout the region difficult, as in the Appalachians. It’s probably an ideal environment for community organizing,

    Though it is mostly small towns in an agricultural landscape, it is not primarily agricultural, there is at least as much employment in light industry and there always has been. I’ve often wondered if this is what the Northeast was like in the late 19th century, just on the brink of the towns gentrifying the farmland.

    And everyone is related, of course, the Mississippi river down the middle is no barrier at all in this.

    That article may say the Anomaly dates back only about a dozen years, but the Driftless region’s idiosyncrasy is much older than that. I have the impression the German element contains more Swiss and Austrian than German elements elsewhere.

    I think the recent electoral results are part of the phenomena of self-coherent regions becoming more defined, the way, as I have read, accents are becoming more regionally distinct (and accents in the Driftless region can be highly distinct and often quite incomprehensible. One person will sound like he’s gargling, smoking and imitating James Cagney simultaneously, and the next, from a few miles north, will sound like a turkey having an unexpected prostate exam, with facial expressions to match. Where I live it will be either a German-Irish working class accent, or newscaster-speak. And in southwest Wisconsin they can throw in some remains of Welsh to really mess it up; ‘armageddon’ comes out like ‘ahmagkyethyin’, as if your personal doom were found wrapped in a clammy and putrid foreclosure and left everyone else with a great suffering).

    You can see the Driftless region in the David Lynch movie The Straight Story, though that guy obviously took care to map out the flattest route he could find.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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