According to the “American Nations Today” map, everyone who lives in St. Louis and St. Louis and St. Charles counties is part of the nation of The Midlands. Everyone who lives north of St. Charles County, as well as everyone in Jefferson and Franklin counties and points south and west, is part of the nation of Greater Appalachia.
The majority of those The Midlands shares historic cultural attitudes with folks as far east as the Maryland shore, as far west as central Kansas, as far south as the tip of the Texas Panhandle and as far north as southern Ontario. This means that St. Louis’ vitamin water-chugging Francis Slay and Toronto’s crack-smoking Rob Ford are both mayors of cities with the shared cultures of The Midlands. Which is strange.
Those of us in Greater Appalachia share historic cultural values with large parts of Arkansas, Oklahoma and north-central Texas, not to mention points east and south like southern Illinois and Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, northern Mississippi and Alabama and all the way up to West Virginia. Guns, baby, guns.
And then there’s the El Norte, which includes Mexico; the Far West, not including the Left Coast; Yankeedom; the Deep South and so forth and so on until all of North America is divided into 11 gerrymandered nations.
The geographically challenged may think this is so much wasted paper and bandwidth. They are not wrong. But it’s catnip to map freaks and political junkies. I’m guilty of both.
Two years ago, Colin Woodard, a newspaper reporter in Portland, Maine, Yankeedom, wrote a book called “American Nations: A History of the the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.” Being a newspaperman, and thus a shrewd recycler of previously published material, he wrote an article for the Fall 2013 edition of the Tufts University (Boston, Mass., Yankeedom) alumni magazine. Said article last week went semi-viral (mildly contagious) on the internets.
There have been many attempts to redraw America along interest-group lines. Perhaps the most successful was Kevin Phillips’ “The Emerging Republican Majority,” which first created the notion of “The Sun Belt” and became the bible of Richard Nixon’s successful presidential bid in 1968.
In 2008, an Austin American-Statesman reporter named Bill Bishop collaborated with a University of Texas professor named Robert Cushing for “The Big Sort.” The premise was that Americans had sorted themselves into geographic clusters of people who think alike, vote alike, watch news alike and despise alike. And the more alike a people are, the more they denigrate outsiders. Result: deep polarization.
In 2010 there was “Our Patchwork Nation,” which began as a joint project of the Christian Science Monitor and PBS. Authors Dante Chinni and James Gimpel divided the nation’s 3,141 counties into 12 “community types” based on “common experiences and shared realities.” By their reckoning, St. Louis is an “industrial metropolis,” St. Louis County is a “monied ‘burb” and St. Charles County a “boom town.”
If you’re the sort of person who fancies that he makes up his own mind, this sort of cultural determinism can be disconcerting. To be told, “You are where you live” or “You are who you hang out with” suggests we’re not bold, independent thinkers.
Of course, most of us aren’t. We want to be loved. We want to be part of a community of like-minded souls. We put on our black jeans and pork-pie hats and get a tattoo so we can fit in with the other non-conformists at the coffee house.
That’s why this “11 Nations” thing is sort of comforting. It says we are who we are because that’s what our ancestors were. Those of us in “The Midlands” owe our identity to the Pennsylvania Quakers (Woodard’s argument goes) who “believed in humans’ inherent goodness and welcomed people of many nations and creeds to their utopian colonies.”
These moderate folks spread into the Midwest, tolerating folks of different ethnicities and ideologies, believing that “society should be organized to benefit ordinary people.”
Yessiree, that’s us. Unless you moved here from somewhere else. Or unless by “us” you mean folks in Jefferson and Franklin counties or those in southern Missouri and Illinois. They are descended from the 200,000 Scots-Irish who fled northern Ireland (after previously fleeing Scotland) and scattered themselves through the hills.
“Appalachia,” Woodard writes, “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.”
All of this reminds me of astrology. There’s just enough vague truth in it to be appealing. My horoscope for today says I “might be focused on completing an important task that has financial ramifications.”
Absolutely correct! I am focused on finishing this column so I can get paid.
Further, the horoscope says, “Tonight: Off to the gym to work out.”