America’s Regional Variations Are Wildly Overstated


The idea of America’s regional fracture has become a widely accepted assumption among the media and academic set. Recent book releases that focus on American divisions such as histories of the south-western El Norte region to the so-called “local, insulated, exceptional, isolationist and provincial “heart land”, as well as books going deeply into the south’s unique history, are regularly on the best-seller tables of bookstores around the country.

Perhaps the most widely accepted and popular idea of regional differences comes from Colin Woodard who carves the country into 11 regional nations each with unique histories and distinct cultures that he believes has shaped the ideologies and politics at play today.

From the German-dominated, open-minded Midlands region which was originally anchored by Quaker-founded Philadelphia and extends well into the midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska to El Norte along the Latino-oriented southern border and southern California. His book follows the earlier, somewhat more entertaining Nine Nations of North America by Joel Garreau.

Woodard argues that regions project “[a] force that you feel that's there, and those sort of assumptions and givens about politics, and culture, and different social relationships.” Yet the problem with Woodard’s argument is that while these histories and memoirs are fascinating, they are not necessarily representative of what drives politics and society among those living in various regions around the country. New data from the AEI survey on Community and Society makes it clear that recent accounts of America splintering does not hold up to empirical scrutiny and are appreciably overstated.

Using Woodard’s 11 regions as a starting point, let’s look at the question of political ideology. The Deep South, for instance, is widely viewed as a conservative bastion given its electoral history but the data tells a different story. 39% of those in the Deep South identify as somewhat, very, or extremely conservative while 23% are somewhat, very or extremely liberal. There are more residents in the region who identify or even lean to the right compared to the left but 37% of Southerners assert themselves as moderate or do not think about themselves ideologically at all. Thus the South is hardly a conservative monoculture – almost a quarter of the population is liberal. Similarly, in the progressive northeast region that is Yankeedom, only 31% of its residents state that they are liberal to some degree compared to 26% conservative but plurality is in the middle with 43%.

Simply put, neither region is an ideological landslide – 60% of more - for conservatives or liberals. In fact, not one of the 11 regions is dominated by a liberal or conservative majority; self-described moderates control the balance of power in all regions.

Differences in political engagement are also unremarkable. The AEI survey probes a range of 7 broadly defined political activities from social media use and support for candidates and causes as well as donating money to campaigns attending a political rally, protest, speech or campaign event.

The data once again show minimal variation among the 11 regions. Those in New France, a small consensus based region surrounding New Orleans, and the Left Coast are the most participatory while the least engaged are those in El Norte. That being said, Americans everywhere are not particularly politically engaged.

Turning to culture and values, regional differences are minor as well. Looking at what constitutes the American Dream, there is practically no variation in responses. 81% of Americans on average respond positively to this question believing that they had achieved or were on their way to achieving the Dream and the regional variations are minor. Those in Yankeedom and the Deep South are on the bottom at 78% while those in New Netherlands are at the top at 85% - minor differences at best.

Another unremarkable difference is trust in the federal government. Narratives abound about trust falling generally and there is universal distrust of the federal government in all regions; just 18% of Americans believe that the federal government will do what is right often or most the time and regional variation is minimal.

Religion presents a similar picture where 47% of Americans nationally hold that religious faith is central or very important to their lives and 10 of the 11 regions are within a handful points of the average except the Left Coast which drops to 26%.

Finally, Woodard argues that social relationships vary regionally and this seemingly makes sense if one considers the varied iconic regional histories such as a socially-close midwestern town with its main street or a religiously-informed New England town square and green or community in the isolated and open prairies of the west.

The problem is that such observations do not hold up to empirical realities. Looking at the data today, social relations do not vary much by region. The AEI survey asks about the number of close friends one has and 73% of Americans state that they have between 1 and 5 close friends today. Regional variation is minor here but what is notable is that Yankeedom with its urban history and density is actually the lowest at 68% while the Deep South and its sprawl has the highest rate of 81%.

Turning to communities specifically, the survey asks respondents about how well they know their neighbors. A majority, 54% of Americans, gave positive responses – very and fairly well. The Deep South, El Norte and Far West all came in at 49% - the low end – and at the high end was 61% for the Midlands and 58% for New England. The remaining regions were within a few points of the national average.

Taking the topic of neighbors further, the survey asked about how well people in one’s neighborhood get along with each other and 82% nationally responded positively at very of fairly well. All eleven regions are within a few points; New England and New Netherlands clock in at 85% with the Left Coast and Far West at 78%. The least social here was the deep South at 76%. This hardly suggests a gaping social divergence.

Moreover, the survey asked about helping out one’s neighbor by doing such things as watching each other’s children, helping with shopping, house sitting, picking up newspapers or packages, lending tools and other similar things. These are relatively small efforts and 38% of Americans help their neighbors a few times a month or more often. Once again, the regions hover around this average with the Far West, New Netherlands, and the Left Coast being right in the middle. Those in the Midlands and Yankeedom – New England – were at 41% and El Norte at 30% were the least helpful. As before, there are minor differences from the average but they are relatively small with no region being an outlier in terms of being far more or less engaged communally.

Even with these data, it is undeniable that regional differences exist in terms of spatial organization of living patterns and cultural markers such as distinct food ways and founding ideals.

The zeitgeist present at a place’s inception, for example, clearly has some impact on its cultural development and values. Some areas, like Dutch-founded New Amsterdam for instance, are more materialistic, which could be seen as reflective of the Netherlander culture that shaped the area. Thus, while only 16% of Americans state that wealth accumulation is essential for the American Dream, 36% of those in New Netherlands.

Another example involves the general attitudes toward others and asking Americans to answer whether or not people try to be helpful most of the time or are they are mostly just looking out for themselves. Yankeedom, the Left Coast, and the Midlands – regions which were founded on the ideas of welcoming from New England towns to Quaker community to progressive Pacific towns – are the most likely regions to think others are just trying to be helpful. In contrast, physical geography and a history of rugged individualism has dominated El Norte and the Far Western areas of the nation. People in those regions present stronger beliefs that others are self-centered and not particularly helpful.

Despite these provincial differences, the overarching trends in the contemporary survey data make it clear that neighborhood socialization patterns, ideological inclinations, and attitudes toward religion and the American Dream vary minimally across regional lines. Spend time in Switzerland, Spain, Italy, or even Great Britain and regional differences and histories are extraordinarily pronounced, impossible to ignore, and often celebrated. Drive through Switzerland and flags, language, and geography immediately change when a canton is traversed. Cross from one region to the next in the United States and many may not even notice a thing sans a small road sign; there is remarkably consistency in both the built landscape, food, shopping choices and culture.

In short, the American nation is large and facets of its regions are appreciably different when you travel from one to another. But, despite a polarized political system and a deep dissatisfaction for the state of the nation, American values, political preferences, ideological orientations, and social relationships remain remarkably similar from the plains to the coasts despite a plethora of narratives suggesting otherwise. The American experiment is still flourishing more than many believe. The many cherished features and values that still bind our nation together remain intact and should be both better appreciated and duly celebrated.

Samuel J Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. His work can be found in Inside Higher Ed, Real Clear Policy, the New York Times, and the Spectator where he writes about higher education, social capital and civic engagement, and Presidential leadership.

Photo credit: Ian Britton, via Flickr, using CC License.

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Regional differences

I disagree with Mr. Abrams' criticism of Colin Woodard's book. I've posted my own (not entirely favorable) criticism of Woodard's work here.

Mr. Abrams suggests that there should be a difference in ideological alignment between the different groups. E.g., Yankees should be more conservative while Quakers might be more liberal. He points out that empirically there is no such difference between the two. Therefore the relevance of the classification is less than meets the eye.

Yes, but no. He is correct that conservatives and liberals are found in both groups, but the words mean something different to Yankees and Quakers. Yankee conservatives, on the one hand, are keen to fight for Democracy and Freedom around the world. The best and the brightest were Yankees who championed the war in Vietnam. The Bush wars in Iraq were efforts to keep the world safe for democracy. "Nation building" is a uniquely Yankee concept.

Quaker conservatives tend to be isolationists. The general idea is we should have the biggest, baddest, meanest military in the whole wide universe--but we should never use it. "Peace through Strength" is how Nixon (a literal Quaker) put it. Ronald Reagan thought the same way, while quixotically trying to abolish nuclear weapons. Our current president--"fire and fury" bluster notwithstanding--is revealing himself to be a total pacifist. He, I should note, is of German ancestry, attended college at (Catholic) Fordham University and the University of Pennsylvania, and like the other two Prezzes, never served in the military.

Contrast this with Yankee-inspired leaders like Kennedy and the Bushes, who in their nation-building efforts started wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

George Will is a Yankee pundit; Pat Buchanan is a Quaker. They're both conservative, but Mr. Abrams will have us think they're the same. They're not.

Yankee-inspired Leftists thrive on college campuses (with few exceptions Yankee-run institutions). They're revolutionaries who want to abolish oppression, racism, sexism, homophobia, lookism, etc. Nobody can accuse these folks of not being ambitious! It's all City On A Hill stuff.

Compare with Quaker Leftists, who are literal pacifists--the kind of folks who pour red paint on ICBMs. Think the Berrigan Bros, the Catholic Worker Movement, the Riverside Church, or Medea Benjamin's CodePink.

I agree with Mr. Abrams that there's been a lot of mixing and merging over the past few decades, esp. since WWII. But I don't think one can dismiss the relevance "Albion's Seed." The strands are very much visible today.

The comparison with Switzerland is irrelevant.

Daniel Jelski