Cultural Nations

There’s no denying that the U.S. is responsible for some of the world’s most important cultural exports. America is the birthplace of blues and bluegrass, country and jazz, hip-hop and rock ‘n’ roll. We’ve often found ourselves wondering: how can one nation yield so many diverse artforms?

The answer is complicated, but it likely has something to do with America’s unique cultural lineage. Though we’re ostensibly “one nation,” the reality is that we’re actually more of a hodgepodge—a people of myriad ancestries, creeds, and cultural backgrounds, all of whom came to this country at different times and for different reasons.

Colin Woodard is the author of the 2011 book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. Articulate sat down with Woodard to ask him about some of the historical groups who settled the East Coast, and how their attitudes and experiences still shape the America we live in today.

Though we pledge to act as one cohesive nation, the reality of these United States is complicated, a fact many of us are well aware of, but which Colin Woodard has dedicated himself to understanding.

Colin Woodard: I grew up in a very small town, in the middle of nowhere, in rural Maine—up in the hills, several miles outside a town of 900. And I guess, when you grow up the countryside like that, you sort of assume that all other rural places out there in America are similar to where you're from, and that there's sort of a "rural versus, sort of, city people" kind of divide between power and haves and have-nots. And it was starting to travel in other parts of the country and small towns and realizing, "Oh my gosh, that's not true at all. All the things that I assumed were normal about the American countryside, are actually New England things." That's when I started realizing, "Oh, we have several Americas."

This discovery became the premise of Woodard's award-winning book, American Nations, in which he identifies 11 distinct regional cultures based on how each region was originally settled and governed, and by whom. They are: Yankeedom, New Netherland, The Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, Deep South, New France, El Norte, The Left Coast, The Far West, and First Nation. But none of these categories are prescriptive. Individuals, Woodard says, will always defy patterns.

Woodard: Even on the electoral map, in simple politics—you know, the reddest of red counties and the bluest of blue counties—there's still 20 or 30 percent of the electorate who's voting for the wrong side, right? That's a lot of people. That's even in the most extreme cases. So people have the whole range of beliefs. It's just, embedded around you, is this thing that is culture, these unexamined assumptions and ideas about things in the world that are very powerful, and shape the way people think about what's possible and what the constraints are. Why is an entire block of state legislatures voting against a particular set of legislation while a whole another block are voting for it, along with their Congressional representatives on the hill? All the dynamics of power...why are they rejecting this thing that seems so obviously good to us? That's where it starts being helpful.

And in the midst of decades of ferocious disagreement, it may be helpful to assess the origin stories of some of our most starkly diverse cultural nations—those lining the east coast. Let's begin where most of us are taught to start the American narrative: in New England, also known as Yankeedom.

Woodard: A person from Yankeedom would have an assumption that government is us. We have a town meeting, and in town meeting, and in many small towns in New England, even today, there's a town meeting where the assembled residents of the town are the legislature. They stand up and vote on the line items of the budget proposed by the selectmen themselves. So you have to make the pitch directly as a direct democracy.

The expectation of direct influence on government by the everyman can be observed in some of New England's great protagonists. For example, Hester Prynne, leading lady in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, faces charges of adultery in a very public manner. But not so far from Yankeedom, founding ideas about law and order were completely different. Appalachia was settled by the Scots-Irish, who came from the war-torn borderlands of the British Isles.

Woodard: And life was extremely unstable. And you had people who had grown up in an environment where the institutions were weak or nonexistent. When government showed up, it was usually in the form of some army trying to kill you and your family. Where most of the economy wasn't based on farming, but on herding. And all of your wealth is in something that people can easily steal from you. So you've gotta protect it yourselves. So there ended up being an enormous was a warrior culture. You had to be, to protect your own kith and kin. But it was also a culture where the freedom—the idea of what it means to be free—meant maximizing the freedom of the individual, that nothing good can come from government. Government is an occupying army, coming to exploit you from the distant metropols. And they went, often by choice, to the frontiers, because they were a frontiers people. The vision of the frontier, with the guy cutting down his own log cabin with the coonskin cap, that's Greater Appalachia.

But while it's tempting to view American history through this rugged individualist lens, the reality is often far less romantic. For example, the Deep South carries some of the country's most painful memories. It all began in Charleston, where British plantation owners brought their notoriously brutal slave operations from Barbados.

Woodard: And that expanded over the landscape. And it's bringing a classical republicanism, as in Ancient Greece and Rome, the slaves of antiquity, which had a small subset of people who had the privilege of practicing democracy, but that subjugation and slavery were the natural lot of the many. Indeed, under classic republican theory, they thought that you had to have a slave-holding society to maintain a republic. That, otherwise, it would be inherently unstable, as the masses tried to take over, and take the things from those who owned the property, and that that would be complex. Therefore, a slave society is a stable solution.

This is why, when the Civil War ended slavery for good, a combination of institutional and vigilante law tried so hard to maintain the status quo. And the consequences of Jim Crow can still be felt today.

You might find it comforting to know that none of our cultural squabbles are anything new. On the other hand, it may be jarring to find out that the US has been so profoundly divided from the start. Whatever the case, Woodard says that all of our cultural nations do share a common focus.

Woodard: How do you build a more free society? How do you create a liberal democracy, an idea where freedom can be of individuals, can be most universally maximized? That is not the agenda and the main propelling force of most nations in the world. Other places, it's about order, or it's about fairness, or it's about just simple security, 'cause we live on a plane between two empires. It's very different that freedom would be the operating term. So we were able to embrace that, while ignoring the fact that what was meant by freedom, when you defined it, that everyone had very different definitions.

To this day, we still have very different ideas about what freedom actually means. And given our diverse cultural backgrounds, this makes sense. But while it's unlikely that our biggest disagreements will be settled anytime soon, finding out a little more about the roots of those differences isn't a bad place to start.