I first came into contact with the many different socio-economic ideologies that inhabit the United States while visiting family out of town. I entered the world in West Virginia, a world all its own, and I have spent the last seventeen years in Virginia, the deep fried south. However, my Dad was born and raised in northeast Ohio, home to dozens of rusting mills and factories.
He comes from a very outspoken and opinionated clan. While visiting his sister’s family one day, the conversation naturally turned to politics. I doubt I had turned 22 years old yet. As I saw more of the world and became more educated, my views would change, but at that point my ideology still held the very red tinge of the culture I had grown up in. I simply could not understand how my aunt and uncle and their daughter could hold to such a naive and inefficient blue ideology. The red party held the only logical solution. Certainly anyone who grew up in America with these same common experiences would see it my way.
But there is more than one America. Four or five years later, I stumbled upon Joel Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America. In the 1970s while working for the Washington Post, Garreau began to notice how different news stories and angles got more or less attention in various parts of the country. He hypothesizes that North America comprises nine distinct cultural nations, peoples working together for a common purpose in the face of their own nuanced problems. These different nations possess different values and solutions for America’s future. They want policy tailored to their specific traditions and needs.
Garreau had stumbled upon one of the most basic tenants of human civilization. The first lesson Ms Gibson taught us in AP US History was that geography matters. From the start of American history, New England differed from the Mid-Atlantic differed from the South because they had access to different resources. Even now, Oregon has an abundance of water. Arizona has a deficit. They will develop starkly different cultures as a result.
The light bulb went on as I thought to those conversations with my Ohio kin. We both wanted to see the United States succeed, but we approached the problem from completely different cultural vernaculars. Northeast Ohio lies in the “The Foundry,” an industrial powerhouse built by the collective effort of urban peoples. Much of Virginia lies in “Dixie,” a nation where God and family come first and heavy consequences apply if you fail to respect either. The economic liberalism of their culture collided with the social conservatism of mine.
The light went on again as I watched the election results last week. I doubt I am the first person to make the connection, but with the exception of one nation, every state voted in a bloc with their cultural kind. Even more interesting, the so-called “Swing States” almost always fell along fault lines between opposed nations. The country voted as eight distinct nations (Garreau lists “Quebec” as one of the nine and places it completely in Canada) instead of one united people. Looking back at the last five elections, we have not seen a vast sway from left to right to left. Rather, we see two entrenched sides fighting over precious borders.
The Blue Nations
Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut (32 electoral votes)
The oldest and most stable of the nations, New England lacks the resources and industry of the rest of the country and must rely on the other nations for economic aid. New England also boasts of their “civilization” and more universities per person than any other part of the country. Increasing levels of education have a strong positive correlation with social liberalism. New England is the poor, elder professor of the United States.
Five of the six states have voted blue in each of the last five presidential elections. New Hampshire, the lone black sheep, has a wicked Libertarian streak (state motto: Live Free or Die) that pushed them red for one election. The Libertarian Party has even suggested moving large numbers of their party members there to push the state fully into their camp. They hope that electing one congressman or senator will break that glass ceiling that has so far kept them out of federal politics.
Washington, Oregon, northern California (46.5 electoral votes)
Starting in San Francisco and following the coast north, Ecotopia mirrors New England on the other coast. They often reach the same conclusions but come at them from different angles. Ecotopia features an abundance of water and natural resources, more than enough to share. They believe strongly in seeing these pristine settings saved for the common good. The nation also features some of the brightest minds and most cutting edge technology in the world. Apple, Google, and Microsoft all call Ecotopia home.
Ecotopia has gone completely blue in each of the last five elections.
Centered around the numerous island nations of the Caribbean, the Islands do not control any one whole state. However, as we will find out later, they have an enormous impact on the political future of the country at large. The Islands feature an overwhelmingly hispanic population, a voting demographic that votes blue in very large numbers.
New Mexico, Arizona, southern California (43.5 electoral votes)
Perhaps no nation is more symbolic of the Reagan -Bush -W presidencies and the state of the nation during the last thirty years. No nation more readily demonstrates the country’s changing demographic and the challenges of our future. Mex-America stretches from Houston to Phoenix to Los Angeles. Over the last fifty years, those three cities exploded outward with no regard for city planning, fueled by the money and excesses of big oil. They grew beyond the natural limits of the environment. Los Angeles cannot sustain its massive population without importing large amounts of water and electricity. They elected and championed the heroes of economic conservatism.
Yet those same Orange County types cannot keep California from going blue every four years and New Mexico, the only state wholly controlled by the nation, has gone blue four of the last five times. Why? Mex-America has a large and growing hispanic population, a minority larger than the African-American minority and quickly gaining on the white majority. Minorities tend to vote blue in large numbers, as the party more readily encourages their civil rights.
The reds have directly clashed with the blues in Arizona with ugly results. While the state has gone red for four of the last five presidents, laws singling out the hispanic minority have drawn disdain from other parts of the country. New Mexico demonstrates an interesting compromise between the opposing philosophies. They twice elected Gary Johnson for governor, a socially liberal Republican who recently finished a race as the Libertarian presidential candidate.
New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio (140 electoral votes)
The Foundry is home to the “rust belt,” the old industrial powerhouse of the United States. Large cities like Chicago and Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo, dot the map, home to thousands of mills and factories. Between the urban giants lie hundreds of small, gridded towns and thousands of family farms. The workers of the Foundry believe that they can do anything, they can move mountains, they can win wars, if they only stand side-by-side and work together. Every man is expected to give 100% and he will get his reward. Once upon a time, things worked just as they imagined, but the American economy has ripened and many of those mills now lie dormant. As they once helped the country grow, they now expect the country’s help in return. Detroit moved the country forward. They want us to return the favor.
With the exception of Ohio, every state in the Foundry has voted blue in each of the last five elections. Still, some conservatives have hoped against proof that the social conservatism in the rural and suburban areas of states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin would help turn them red.
The Red Nations
Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, east Texas (126 electoral votes)
No nation holds more closely to its traditions, family ties, and faith than Dixie. It creates a beautiful bond among families and small towns, unity and support that go back generations. Unfortunately it also creates a distrust of outsiders, people who don’t understand the rules crafted over generations. Look at the map below. You could easily assume that the large swath of red constitutes Dixie. It’s not far off. Those counties list the Baptist Church as their leading denomination. I can recall a discussion I had in a graduate sociology class. We native Virginians explained to a young man from Michigan how each of us had our “Baptist” story. As the cultural center of the nation, everyone who lives in Dixie either comes into direct confrontation with the church or gets sucked into the fellowship for a period of a couple years to a lifetime. As evangelical churches, the Baptists and the Mormons, another strong red voting bloc, both believe in spreading their faith to other people and nations. This makes them the most likely to carry their strong conservative social message into the voting booth.
With the exception of the Clinton elections – a native son who stole half of Dixie for blue – every state in this nation has voted red over the last thirty years. Dixie has become the base of the conservative movement, dictating policy and choosing leaders.
“The Empty Quarter”
Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Alaska (25 electoral votes)
The Empty Quarter remains plentiful in natural resources. Minerals and pristine landscapes abound. Yet the nation also possesses a very small population. As the descendants of pioneers they maintain a fierce independence. They just want the state to leave them alone, a hope that feels tenuous at best with their relative lack of political power. They fear the Empty Quarter stands to become the last American colony if economic liberals maintain power.
Five of the six states have voted red in the last five elections. Nevada stands as the exception. A moderate to conservative social stance gets pushed far to the left in the state of Las Vegas. Nevadans have voted for a blue president in three of the last five elections.
Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma (50 electoral votes)
The Bread Basket is home to the greatest agricultural giant the world has ever seen. The small family farms of the Foundry yield to great expanses of wheat and corn west of the Mississippi. Many of the other nations mistake these farmers for simple and ignorant, but they couldn’t be farther from the truth. While they may live uncomplicated lives, the people of the Breadbasket have taken full advantage of the many land grant universities. They keep a keen eye on national and international affairs as a storm in a distant land may affect the price of their herds or their crops.
In reality, the Breadbasket is the great measuring stick for the country as a whole. They have the fierce independent streak of the pioneer, yet they rely on the federal government for crop subsidies. They have a demographic that is overwhelmingly white – a typically more conservative base – yet Iowa surprised many by becoming one of the early adopters of same-sex marriage. This middle-America nation often decides whether a movement has any staying power. A liberal fad can come and go in New York and Portland, but it will become a country-wide fact if it plays in Des Moines and Kansas City. It makes perfect sense that both major parties begin their selection for presidential nominees by asking the opinion of the Iowa voter.
With such a moderate outlook, it makes sense that the Breadbasket doesn’t reach complete political consensus. Most of these states have gone completely red. However, Minnesota and Iowa are just as strongly blue. I could see how Minneapolis/St Paul, one of the largest urban centers in the region could push Minnesota the other way, but I can’t explain Iowa.
Border States, Swing States, and other Anomalies
Hawaii (3 electoral votes)
Hawaii doesn’t impact the nine nations, because it doesn’t lie in North America. Rather it looks towards Asia as much as it does the west coast of the United States. With a large asian minority population, a more collectivist culture, and a lack of natural resources, it makes perfect sense that the state votes reliably blue in every election.
Indiana (11 electoral votes)
While it may look wholly like a part of The Foundry on a map, Indianapolis sits at the intersection of three nations. Dixie reaches its northernmost tip and the Breadbasket its easternmost tip at the “Crossroads of America.” Those two red nations have skewed the state their direction in four of the last five presidential campaigns.
West Virginia (5 electoral votes)
Garreau listed the state hidden deep in the Appalachians as an anomaly in Nine Nations. Socially, West Virginia looks to Dixie and its evangelical faith and family clans. Economically, the state resembles the Foundry with chemical plants, steel mills, and strong unions. It seems the tiebreaker lately has come from the left’s alliance with those environmentally opposed to coal, the life blood of the state. West Virginia has gone red four of the last five elections.
Virginia and Washington, DC (16 electoral votes)
Here is where it gets really interesting. After decades of going red, Virginia went blue for the first time in decades in 2008. What happened? Suburban sprawl. Much of Virginia remains firmly entrenched in Dixie, but Washington has expanded far beyond its borders. Washington belongs to no nation. It is a world all its own, but as a solely urban entity, the District always votes blue. The city requires a multitude of educated and socially minded individuals to conduct the business of government. They surely want to see the government grow for the sake of job security. They settle down, raise families, and pass their peculiar values onto the next generation. It has become common knowledge in the Commonwealth now that the south stops at Fredericksburg. That dense population in the DC suburbs has turned a reliably red state into a 50/50 proposition.
Colorado (9 electoral votes)
This state makes Indiana look quaint. The eastern third of the state falls in with the Breadbasket. Much of the western two thirds is part of the Empty Quarter. Yet the Hispanic influence of Mex-America reaches its northernmost point as it creeps into southern Colorado. Add to this the large population center of Denver and the college towns of Boulder and Fort Collins with their decidedly more socially liberal attitudes and you have the makings of a true battleground state. Like Virginia, Colorado has gone three times red and two times blue in the last five campaigns.
Florida (29 electoral votes)
Florida is the mother of all border wars. In 2000, the vote came so close it necessitated a recount and put the entire presidential election process at a standstill. We did not rely on the state to decide the election in 2012, but Florida still found itself the last state to declare a winner. What provokes such a southern state to have such closely contested elections? Florida has the only population of The Islands in the United States. Miami looks more to Cuba and Venezuela for cultural cues than it does Atlanta. South Americans winter in the sun-drenched city on the coast. While Jacksonville, Tallahassee and the panhandle remain a fixed part of Dixie, the hispanic population has slowly crept north over the last few decades. Orlando in the center of the state boasts a growing hispanic population. Florida has become a showdown between Dixie social conservatives and social liberals of the Islands. Former Governor Jeb Bush resembles the new Florida. He is a Republican married to a Mexican woman.
The challenges facing the country will change, our leaders will change, and even our parties will change. Yet, I believe these nations will maintain their own distinct cultures. The most successful political movements will continue to find ways to appeal to as many of these nations as possible as they consolidate their voting bloc.