The Chronicle Review

The 11 Rival Regional Cultures of North America

June 25, 2012


Chronicle of Higher Education


Yankeedom: Founded on the shores of Massachusetts Bay by radical Calvinists as a new Zion, this region since the outset has emphasized perfecting earthly society through social engineering, individual self-denial for the common good, and the aggressive assimilation of outsiders. It has prized education, intellectual achievement, community (rather than individual) empowerment, and broad citizen participation in politics and government, the latter seen as the public's shield against the machinations of grasping aristocrats, corporations, and other tyrannies. Today it is closely allied with the Left Coast and New Netherland.

New Netherland: Established by the Dutch at a time when the Netherlands was the most sophisticated society in the western world, it has displayed its salient characteristics throughout its history: a global commercial trading culture—multi-ethnic, multireligious, materialistic—with a profound tolerance for diversity and an unflinching commitment to the freedom of inquiry and conscience. Like 17th-century Amsterdam, it emerged as a leading global center of publishing, trade, and finance, a magnet for immigrants, and a refuge for those persecuted by other regional cultures.

Midlands: America's great swing region was founded by English Quakers, who believed in humanity's inherent goodness and welcomed people of many nations and creeds to their utopian colonies on the shores of Delaware Bay. Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, the Midlands spawned the culture of the heartland, where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion has been moderate, even apathetic. An ethnic mosaic from the start—it had a German, rather than British majority, at the time of the Revolution—the region shares the Yankee belief that society should be organized to benefit ordinary people, but it rejects top-down government intervention.

Tidewater: Built by the younger sons of southern English gentry, it was meant to reproduce the semifeudal manorial society of the countryside they'd left behind, where economic, political, and social affairs were run by and for landed aristocrats. Tidewater has always been fundamentally conservative, with great value placed on respect for authority and tradition, and very little on equality or public participation in politics. The most powerful region in the 17th and 18th centuries, today it is in decline, having been boxed out of westward expansion by its boisterous Appalachian neighbors and, more recently, eaten away by the expanding Midlands.

Greater Appalachia: It was founded in the early 18th century by wave upon wave of rough, bellicose settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England, and the Scottish lowlands, whose culture included a warrior ethic and deep commitments to personal sovereignty and individual liberty. Intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers alike, Appalachia has shifted alliances on the basis of whoever appeared to be the greatest threat to its freedom; since Reconstruction it has been in alliance with the Deep South in an effort to undo the federal government's ability to overrule local preferences.

Deep South: Established by slave lords from Barbados as a West Indies-style slave society, this region has been a bastion of white supremacy, aristocratic privilege, and a version of classical Republicanism modeled on the slave states of the ancient world, where democracy was the privilege of the few and enslavement the natural lot of the many. Its slave and caste systems smashed by outside intervention, it continues to fight for rollbacks of federal power, cuts in taxes on capital and the wealthy, and weakened environmental, labor, and consumer-safety protections.

El Norte: Most Americans are aware that the Spanish-founded borderlands are a place apart, where Hispanic language, culture, and societal norms dominate; few realize that among Mexicans, norteños have a reputation for being more independent, self-sufficient, adaptable, and work-centered than their central and southern countrymen. Long a hotbed of democratic reform and revolutionary settlement, various parts of the region have tried to secede from Mexico to form independent buffer states. Today the region resembles Germany during the cold war: two peoples with a common culture separated from each other by a large wall.

Left Coast: Originally colonized by two groups: on the one hand, merchants, missionaries, and woodsmen from New England (who arrived by sea and dominated the towns), and on the other, farmers, prospectors, and fur traders from Greater Appalachia (who generally arrived by wagon and controlled the countryside.), the Left Coast is a hybrid of Yankee idealism, faith in good government and social reform, and the Appalachian commitment to individual self-expression and exploration. The staunchest ally of Yankeedom and greatest champion of environmentalism, it battles constantly against Far Western sections in the interior of its home states.

Far West: It's the one part of the continent where environmental factors have trumped ethnographic ones. High, dry, and remote, the Far West stopped the eastern regions in their tracks and, with minor exceptions, was colonized only via the deployment of vast industrial resources by distant corporations and the federal government. Exploited as an internal colony for the benefit of the seaboard regions, the Far West has oscillated between anticorporate populism and antigovernment conservatism.

Two other nations—Inuit-dominated First Nation, in the far North, and Quebec-centered New France—are located primarily in Canada, although they control parts of Alaska and Louisiana, respectively.