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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

American Nations offers key lessons about our regional cultures and history

Updated: May 21

Welcome to SWOT Sunday!

One of our key weaknesses is that "progressives are not...clear about what we want in terms of a role for government, a just economy or rights for individuals and groups.”  We’re not clear about our values, what we stand for, among ourselves.  Potential supporters are confused, too.


This is, first and foremost, a failure of strategic planning.  It is also a communications issue.  If we could understand more about why people hold the values they do, we could communicate our values much more effectively to them.  That’s our topic today.


American Nations: a different way to understand values


Going back at least to the 1970’s, the right wing has created a picture of what they stand for that resonates with their base. One of their strategists back then, Kevin Phillips, knew about something that progressives need to learn, and that I just recently became aware of.  It’s outlined in a 2011 book called American Nations, by historian Colin Woodard. The book is a lively and essential read.


These “nations” are geographic areas of our country [only partly related to our state borders] that each have a distinct culture. As Woodard puts it, “These cultures were founded as the nations were settled [going back to the 1500’s and 1600’s in some cases], and have remained largely intact.  You can see their lines in struggles from before the Revolution, in our country’s founding documents, in the Civil War and every cultural conflict since.  These 11 nations have been hiding in plain sight throughout our history…


“[For example] The Yankee-settled portion of Ohio is evident on the county maps of the 2000 and 2004 elections: a strip of blue across the top of a largely red state.”


As Woodard puts it, “Each nation has its own notion of what being American should mean.”


Compare and Contrast


I won’t go into all the nations here, but compare and contrast just two of them, based on Woodard’s analysis.  These cultures are very different.  When you see that, you can see how it would be effective to tailor communications about values differently for each.  It would be incredibly helpful to a long-term strategy of Democratic/Progressive dominance to study this in depth and use it. This is especially true because of how different cultures can exist within the same state, and each culture can have elements to which both the right and the left can appeal.


We’ll discuss Yankeedom and Appalachia as examples.  Yankeedom has fought with the Deep South since before we were a country, for the soul of America and for control of the Federal government.  Both these nations formed coalitions with others on their side of the battle.  Appalachia is a notable “swing” nation.



 Yankeedom (Yankees)


I was born in Yankeedom, and its worldview is deeply nestled in my soul, though I’ve spent many years in other places.  It’s not something I ever heard about from parents or school, but I absorbed it somehow from the world around me.  I assume that’s how it is for most people.




Yankeedom was born in the 1630’s when the Puritans arrived in New England.  It covers much of the Northeast (though not NYC, which has a distinctive culture of its own), south to a strip of northern Pennsylvania.  As settlers from this area moved westward, the Yankeedom culture expanded to the northern Midwest, including Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.




Yankeedom was first settled by stable, educated families.  It always had a middle-class ethos and respect for intellectual achievement (see Boston).  The strict Puritan religion was a big part of its early days.  As Woodard reports, Deep Southerners were known to call the Yankees “witch burners.” They're known to be on a bit of a moral high horse. A quintessential Yankee politician would be Bernie Sanders.


Yankees believe in education, local political control, and pursuit of the “greater good” of the community, even if it requires individual self-denial. Yankees have faith in government to improve people’s lives, and to be a bulwark against grasping aristocrats, corporations, and outside powers. 



Appalachia (Borderlanders)


Appalachia was founded later, in the early 1700’s. Woodard calls its people “Borderlanders.”  


It was settled by waves of “rough, bellicose settlers” from northern Ireland, northern England, and Scotland. They were clannish people, derided by elites as arising from the “bogs and fens,” and for being “rednecks, hillbillies, and white trash.”   They escaped near constant war and upheaval in Europe before coming to these shores.



Greater Appalachia sits between Yankeedom/Midlands and the Deep South, covering a swath of the central US from western PA out to central/west TX.  It includes central/southern OH, IN, and IL, WV, TN and KY, and the northern edge of the Deep South.




Appalachia has always been the weak link in the coalition led by the Deep South.  But Dixie has appealed to them with racism and religion.  Appalachians tend to take “God’s will” over modern science.


Appalachians have a warrior ethic and believe strongly in individual liberty.  They prize egalitarianism and hate aristocracy.


They have produced a lot of the nation’s military, from Andrew Jackson to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. They gave us bluegrass music. There are few Blacks there historically, and they tend not to think of themselves in ethnic terms. When asked what they are, they almost always say “American.”


Appalachia fought for the Union in the Civil War (so the Lost Cause story doesn’t have a lot of resonance here).  The Deep South had counted on them for their side, but when the Confederacy attacked the Union first, that didn’t sit well with Appalachia.  The region also resisted the freeing of the slaves, though, especially in the lower-lying areas where slaveholding was more common.  It was said that sometimes they didn’t know who they hated more, the Blacks or the slave lords.


Appalachia has produced populists like Lyndon Johnson and Ross Perot, as well as Dixie’s best known progressives, like Bill Clinton and Al Gore.    


Framing Issues By Nation


When I glance over this summary, a value that sticks out to me that they both hold:  hatred of grasping aristocrats. 


Let’s say we were pushing a campaign for a wealth tax. 


In Yankeedom, we could emphasize how only government has the power to rein the billionaires in, what government could do to improve people’s lives with the extra money, and how individuals like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and their enablers in Congress must sacrifice for the common good.


In Appalachia, we could emphasize how hateful aristocrats like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are, aided and abetted by millionaires and billionaires in Congress.  Regular people have to rise up and fight them, just like we’ve fought autocrats in other countries, because in America we don’t believe in kings, we believe in leaders who work for the common people.



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