The neglected regionalism of these United States

By Razib Khan | July 2, 2013 6:37 pm

Non-Hispanic White vote for John McCain 2008 according to National Exit Polls
Red = 100% for McCain
Blue = 100% for Obama

As we come up to the day celebrating American independence from the Britain there will be the standard revelries and reflections. Personally, I have no problem with that. A modicum of patriotism seems healthy in all, and if appropriately channeled a surfeit is often useful in the populace as a way to maintain civic engagement. That being said I did admit that in the positive and descriptive sense I am far more ambivalent about the consequences and rationale for the rebellion than I was as a child. I don’t accept that the American revolution was indisputably about Virginia gentry who wished to avoid financial ruin, New England fundamentalists yearning for oppression of Quebecois Catholics, or upcountry Scots-Irish chafing at the bit to explode into the western hinterlands, heretofore restrained by the Empire. But I believe that this narrative is as true as the story I was told as a child about an unjust and oppressive British monarchy battling the cause for the cause of freedom and liberty. When Patrick Henry declared ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’, it was not a universal declaration. It was implicitly a call to arms for the rights of white male property holders in the context of colonial Virginia. This is not a palatable message for elementary school age children, so such subtle but true details are neglected in the standard narrative.

Albion's SeedBut the point of this post is not to re-litigate the American revolution. Rather, looking at the comments below I think it is time to reemphasize that American history needs to be thought of in plural terms. There was no one American revolution, but American revolutions. Without acknowledging this reality a plausible representation of the past can not be constructed. Our comprehension is limited by the tendency to back project a relatively homogeneous and unitary contemporary cultural and political union back two centuries. But to understand the disparate revolutions one must understand the disparate Americas.

In 2013 when we talk about “many Americas” we often conceive of it in coarse racial or regional terms. There is a “black America” and a “white America.” There is the South and the North. With the emphasis on racial identity politics, and to a lesser extent class, in elite discourse the deeper strands of historical difference rooted in the foundations of the original American colonies have been hidden from us. These older filaments of identity are outlined in historical works such as David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in the America and Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America. A true typology of socio-cultural difference is essential toward understanding how and why the past unfolded as it did, but they are also illuminating in relation to patterns of the present.

For example, Colin Woodward’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America is a contemporary updating of the standard geographic typology. The map I generated above from exit poll data outlines broadly a major consequence of the past and present fissures of the American nationality: white Americans tend to vote very differently. In the Deep South to a good approximation to be white is to be a Republican, and vote for Republicans. In contrast, in Greater New England there is a slight tilt toward the Democratic party among white voters. When you aggregate white voters nationally there is a tendency for it to lean toward the Republican party, but this masks deep regionalism. In Vermont 31% of whites voted for John McCain in 2008. In Alabama that figure was 88%.

And so it has always been. In the 1856 election the Republicans contested for the presidency, and as you can see on the map to the left only the Yankee regions supported their candidate. The waxing and waning of political power of the various American parties over time has to a large extent been the function of shifting alliances between distinct “sections” of the American nation. In the period before the Civil War Greater New England was isolated by an alliance between the South and portions of the Lower North bound together by culture and economics. Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, might have notionally been Midwestern Northern states, but they were divided between “Yankee” and “Butternut” (from the Upper South) cultural zones. It was from the Butternut regions of these border states where much of the anti-war sentiment in the North was localized during the Civil War. In contrast New York City may not have been settled from the South, but its cosmopolitan mercantile elite had long had a tense relationship with the New Englanders who had begun to dominate much of upstate New York and had pushed into Long Island as well as elements of Manhattan society. On top of that the port of New York had a relatively close economic relationship with the South.

In other words, to understand the true texture of regional alliances and dynamics one must be cognizant of both deep historical contingencies rooted in cultural affinity, and, the exigencies of contemporary economic needs. It is difficult for me to believe that New England’s ultimately successful challenge of Southern political hegemony leading up to 1860 was not bound up in its economic dynamism, which began to tear apart the north-south connections which tied states such as Pennsylvania with the Upper South, and replaced them with east-west lines of transport and communication via rail, canal, and telegraphy. Similarly, the rise of the “Sunbelt” in the 20th century was contingent upon technological and medical revolutions which closed the quality of life chasm between North and South.

All this is not to deny a common American sense of nationhood which has evolved since the tenuous links of the days of the Articles of Confederation. But regionalism, which has both a physical and temporal aspect, is neglected at one’s peril in terms of understanding the political and social patterns of the American republic. There are two ways in which regionalism was often transcended. One was via class, as populists attempted to overcome ethnic and regional divisions against robber barons and bourbons alike. But another was race. The 1830s saw the rise of a Democratic hegemony in national politics, based in the South and its Butternut Diaspora, but with northern auxiliaries of immigrant white ethnics in large cities (German Catholics and the Irish) and the non-Yankee zones of settlement in Pennsylvania and New York. The Democratic party in this period was simultaneously both populist and racialist, expanding voting rights to all white males, but in some cases explicitly barring blacks in Northern states from the right to vote (as opposed to the implicit bar via property qualifications). The modern American cultural consensus which speaks of a white America and black America is in some ways a morally inverted resurrection of this concept, where whites are viewed as a homogeneous whole to a rough and ready approximation.

Credit: Matthew Hutchins

The problem with this view is that it is both wrong on a descriptive and moral sense. It is wrong descriptively because where black Americans have a dominant coherent national culture with ultimate roots in the South (though there have long been Northern black communities, these populations have been reshaped by the Great Migration out of the South), whites do not. To put it plainly, a privileged White Anglo-Saxon Protestant born in an upper middle class family in the northern shore suburbs of Boston is fundamentally different from a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant born in a working class family in rural West Virginia. And it is unjust because a uniformity and interchangeability of all white Americans neglects the reality that the privileged accrued to the former are not accrued to the latter. In the end what is true of whites is also true of non-whites. It seems blind to assume that a demographically expansive “Hispanic” population will remain as politically and socially homogeneous as black Americans, because of their original regional and cultural diversity (e.g., Texas Hispanics and California Latinos have long had distinct subcultures).

Of course don’t tell this to the standard press and pundit class, who remain wedded to cartoonish cultural and historical algebras.


Comments (12)

  1. I lived in New Mexico for several years. The social differences between different Hispanic groups was very apparent – at the top of the social ladder were the Old Spaniard Hispanics, fairly white people whose ancestors had been around the area since the 1600s and didn’t seem to mix much with native tribes around them. Far lower on the social scale were the more recent immigrants (overwhelmingly from Mexico itself), who had been around for one or two generations only.

  2. Also, a related link:

    Library of Congres exhibition on religious differences being one of the main tensions between New England and Britain. South had fewer qualms!

  3. SeekTruthFromFacts

    United Kingdom => Great Britain

    The term “United Kingdom” isn’t usually used for the pre-1800 state.

  4. Joe Q.

    This is an interesting post, especially for someone who is largely ignorant of American history except in its broadest outlines (i.e., me). I have “Albion’s Seed” on my very long reading list after one of Razib’s previous posts recommending it.

    I wonder if a similar analysis has been done for Canada. Patterns of immigration and assimilation have obviously been very different here relative to the USA — we started off smaller and grew much more slowly, and there were differences in the source countries, the timing of their arrival, and what happened afterward.

    So, for example, while Canada had immigration from German-speaking countries, the scale was nowhere near what the USA seems to have had (was there not talk at one point in the 19th century of making German an official language in the USA?) Our Western provinces were settled to a massive extent by Ukrainian immigration in the late 19th c. (their descendants include some household names — Alex Trebek, Randy Bachman, etc.) which AFAIK was not a factor in the USA. Eastern European Jews arrived in Canada in large numbers, but in the 1920s (vs. the 1870s-1880s in the USA) so the patterns of settlement and assimilation have been different. Similarly for the Italians and Portuguese.

    The most influential wave of immigration to Canada, of course, was the one that came from the USA in the late 18th century. It took me a while, as a kid, to make the connection between the United Empire Loyalists we heard so much about in history class and the “refugees” from the American Revolution (called “Tories” in the USA? The word now has a different connotation) Much of the cultural and economic growth of central and eastern Canada was seeded by the Loyalists.

    How all this plays out politically is something I would have to sit down and read about (hopefully).

  5. razibkhan

    i have that book (as long as the author’s other major work). will move it up my stack.

  6. Noah172

    It seems blind to assume that a demographically expansive “Hispanic” population will remain as politically and socially homogeneous as black Americans

    Socially, maybe (I don’t know), but political homogeneity not only seems possible, but likely. Current incentives and the ideological lineups of the two parties all point mestizos in the Democratic direction: affirmative action, poverty, rates of illegitimacy and abortion (both of which for Hispanics are headed toward the stratospheric heights of blacks, with a widening gap in each between Hispanics and whites), rainbow coalition anti-white identity politics, immigration (not all mestizos want open borders, but the ones who care the most about that will naturally incline leftward), and so on. That “natural conservative” claptrap about mestizos that neocons and Rovian Republicans spout has little basis in reality.

    • razibkhan

      noah, you sound kind of stupid. it’s well known that latinos just follow the non-hispanic white vote. that being said, bring some data, as i’m curious as to your surety. more precisely you’ll give some electoral data trend lines in your next comment to make it worth our time.

      • Noah172

        First, this past election bucked that trend: Romney did better with whites, and worse with Hispanics, than McCain (whites +4, Hispanics -4), something that had not happened to any previous Republican in a race lacking a significant third-party candidate since Hispanics started to be counted in exit polls (1972; Dole in 1996 also went up with whites and down with Hispanics, but there was the Perot factor — and, not coincidentally, welfare and immigration were hot topics that year).

        Second, the white-Hispanic gap in % voting Republican this past year, 32 points, tied with 1972 (the McGovern debacle, of course) as the largest ever recorded, despite the fact that Romney was hardly the worst-performing GOP nominee.

        Third, the one Hispanic group that had been largely Republican in the past, Cubans, has been trending sharply Democratic: the % of Florida Cubans (not all Hispanics, just Cubans) voting for the GOP Presidential nominee in the four elections 2000 to 2012 has gone 75, 71, 65, 50; note how the declines have gotten progressively steeper. (Also, a Cuban Democrat defeated a Cuban Republican for a Hispanic-majority south FL HoR district in 2012, a first if I am not mistaken.) I don’t have hard numbers on non-Florida Cubans, but New Jersey Cubans, IIRC the largest Cuban concentration outside Florida, have long been friendlier to Democrats than their southern coethnics, and are getting more so (as returns from NJ’s 8th, formerly 13th, HoR district, which is gerrymandered to take in most of North Jersey’s Cubans and other Hispanics, suggest).

        Fourth, Steve Sailer has written a lot about how Hispanics are “assimilating” (if that is the right word) to the social norms of underclass American blacks. As I noted before, illegitimate births and abortions among Hispanics are trending black (not only going up, that is, but showing a wider gap between white and Hispanic and a narrower gap between Hispanic and black); e.g., the pct-pt. gap in white-Hispanic illegitimate birth % went from 20 in 1990 to 24 in 2008, while the Hispanic-black gap narrowed from 30 to 20 in the same period. These trends do not bode well for the party of the white bourgeoisie and social conservatism. Ditto for Hispanic poverty and educational trends, which are only going to get worse if Congress approves another massive amnesty for low-IQ illegal aliens (for whom do you think they will vote?).

        • razibkhan

          despite the fact that Romney was hardly the worst-performing GOP nominee.

          that’s disingenuous. romney aligned himself with the restrictionists in the primary to outflank perry. it worked, but he couldn’t soften up in the general. same thing happened with bush and tax cuts in 2000 re: forbes. the hispanic vote isn’t part of some simmering trend, but totally explicable in proximate political calculus.

          the one Hispanic group that had been largely Republican in the past, Cubans, has been trending sharply Democratic

          so? you kept talking about mestizos in the previous comment, but you switch to cubans now? don’t play shell games with me, it’s wasting your time and mine. you should have not talked about mestizos and focused on the more general hispanic/latino category and the cubans would be germane (i think they are).

          e.g., the pct-pt. gap in white-Hispanic illegitimate birth % went from 20 in 1990 to 24 in 2008, while the Hispanic-black gap narrowed from 30 to 20 in the same period.

          yes, i know those stats. the absolute difference is somewhat bigger, but the proportional difference is smaller (i.e., the white % has increased by a greater factor than the latino, though that is partly a function of the much lower initial white rate).

          in any case, i know what you’re saying, and the argument isn’t impossible or even implausible on the face of it. just don’t use such strong language in the future. i don’t are about your assessment, just report the data and allow others to determine the weight.

          i suspect steve’s earlier assessments that hispanics will usually follow the white vote is going to hold. that’s because non-college educated whites are going in the same direction as blacks as well in terms of high out of wedlock birth rates, low male employment, etc.

  7. George Jones

    RE: The neglected African American Patriots on Independence Day

    As for my part in civic engagement, other than just reading some history books, its good to be among those who honor all Patriots today.

    This morning, I attended a July 4th reading of the Declaration of Independence on the steps of the National Archives building in Washington DC.

    Contrary to what some may think this narrative is not complete for what it omits. “It was implicitly a call to arms for the rights of white male property holders in the context of colonial Virginia.” A little recited part of our history concerns the African Americans who served in the Revolutionary War and their reasons for so doing. It was not all WASPs. I have no problem of thinking in plural terms on this phase in American history nor in terms of various groups of disparate Americans. It is estimated that 5,000 African American Patriots served as soldiers for the Continental army, while more than 20,000 fought for the British cause. Perhaps a good percentage of those 20,000 came involuntarily with “some” Southern aristocrats supportive of the British.

    In 2006, Henry Louis Gates Jr. was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution after tracing his lineage back to John Redman, a free African American who served in the Revolutionary War.

    Two of his fourth great-grandfathers on his mother’s side: Isaac Joe Bruce and John Redman had gained freedom by the beginning of the Revolutionary War. They lived in the vicinity of Williamsport, a tiny town in the Potomac Valley in the Allegheny Mountains, in what is now West Virginia.

    An interesting Governor’s race in 2013 will be the one in Virginia between a Centrist Democrat and a Romney like Ultra Conservative Republican supported by the billionaire Koch family.

    Besides 2013 in Virginia, this race has significance in the 2014 midterm elections as well as in the 2016 Presidential election. In a way, the Koch family can be perceived “perhaps as the British in 1776.” They were beat then and should be again. I doubt that many non WASPs in Virginia will be voting Republican this year.

  8. Joe: My paternal grandmother was the daughter of a Scots-Canadian from PEI and a Tory-descended Canadian from the Miramichi in NB, part of a minor back-migration to Maine in the late 19th century.

    “Albion’s Seed” is terrific. I was amazed at the *coherence* of the four regional cultures of the British Isles that he identifies with pulses of immigration — not only in the Atlantic seaboard colonies they settled, but in the distinct swaths of westward migration for generations afterward. To a great extent, that belt of blue in the 1856 election map reflects a real familial/cultural extension of New England.

    Fischer also gives lists of words and idioms peculiar to each group, rooted in the UK 1600-1750; when I read them, I recognized much of what I had grown up 1950-1975 noticing in Texans, Midwesterners and Minnesotans as American regional speech habits!

  9. New Englanders did not “push into” Long Island in the 19th century, they founded it in the 17th. Look up Lion Gardner, Christopher Youngs, Henry Whitney, and other early Long Islanders.


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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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