Sunday, November 11, 2012

Too Many Maps

I came across this map last week:

Originally from a White House educational website, it was shared around Facebook by liberals with some pointed text asking people if the map's regions reminded anyone of anything. This map of Obama and Romney votes by state is what they were referring to:

There are definitely a large number of correlations between slave states/Romney votes and free states/Obama votes. But what's interesting is the parts that don't correlate -- Colorado; New Mexico; Florida; Virginia, for goodness sake; and (in the 2008 election) North Carolina. Maryland, too, but Maryland left the South in the Civil War. And let's not forget to point out that Indiana now correlates in the opposite direction.

Looking at a county-by-county version of the election map from Mark Newman at the University of Michigan begins to shed some light on those differences:

Look at all the blue clusters inside former slave states that have turned from red to blue, and even in the states that still turn out as red. Clustered around college towns and cities, they've been adding Democratic-leaning voters in recent years. Often, these cities are exactly the kinds that Richard Florida talks about as the engines of the creative economy of the future. (My favorite blue islands on this map, though, are the Indian reservations in states like the Dakotas, Arizona, and New Mexico. As Louise Erdrich wrote last week, reservations may have supplied the margin needed by Democrats like Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota.)

Even more interesting than the geographically accurate county map is this population-adjusted county map from Mark Newman:

Here you can see how little red there is in terms of population in the West, particularly, and see how the Midwestern blue pockets that seemed lost in a sea of red balloon up and become more substantial. Texas, you'll note, is becoming much more blue than it looks on the geographically accurate county map; it's predicted that with the growth of Latino voters, Texas will soon be purple if not blue. (50,000 Latinos turn 18 every year, and a lot of them are in Texas.)

All this makes me think of Colin Woodard's excellent book American Nations. I read it last summer and the length of time it's taken me to write about it is in reverse proportion to how great I thought it was. I first heard about it in an Alternet article analyzing how the values of the deep South have come to dominate American politics. (A scary bit of writing, that.)

As Woodard's subtitle puts it, North America has eleven rival regional cultures, and these are largely what's driving the electoral map. His argument is that the cultures of each nation were established centuries ago, usually at or soon after the first European settlement (or invasion, depending on your point of view, since one of the Woodard's nations is Canada's First Nation area). The first settlers, based on their ancestral cultures in Europe, established the tone in their approach to civil society and its institutions, its attitude toward taxation, education, and even what constitutes liberty (or freedom -- even these words have different historical resonances). These areas then spread their populations westward, resulting in outbreaks of New England Yankeedom in Minnesota or Midlands Philadelphia in Kansas.

Woodard splits the main part of the South into three nations:
  • Tidewater -- eastern Virginia and North Carolina (plus parts of Delaware and Maryland)
  • Deep South -- South Carolina to northern Florida, running west into Texas
  • Greater Appalachia -- the mountainous western portions of Virginia and North Carolina, running west through Oklahoma and northern Texas

I've never thought much about the differences among Southerners, so this was probably the most revelatory part of the book for me. Tidewater was settled by younger sons of British gentry who started plantations and owned slaves. They believed they were better than everyone else, a natural elite, but they also believed in a classical republicanism (as in ancient Greece, where the elites got to participate in a democracy).

The Deep South, on the other hand, was settled later, starting in South Carolina by younger sons of Barbados slave-holders (who had themselves been younger sons of British gentry). On top of their belief in their natural aristocracy, they brought from Barbados the most brutal slave-holding culture the world has known in recent centuries.

Appalachia was settled later than these two coastal areas, and became home to Irish and Scottish immigrants who were tired of being pushed around by the British. They had lived for centuries in a state of constant warfare and wanted to get away from authority. The coastal aristocracies were all too happy to have them settle the mountainous areas that bordered Indian country, happy to have them as an armed shield. The Scots and Irish were not interested in holding slaves, and in fact mostly fought with the North in the Civil War (which is what created West Virginia; eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama also tried to secede).

The Left Coast -- the farthest west parts of Washington, Oregon, and California -- were settled by Yankees and Midlanders, while the huge, less-populated area of the Far West is made up of people from all over, but whose unique relationship to their wide-open land, with its corporate control by railroads and mining operations, not to mention huge swaths of government-owned land, makes them contrarian to almost everything.

El Norte is an important nation in Woodard's book as well, and its effects were clearly in evidence in the 2012 election. Made up of the parts of the U.S. that were under Spanish or Mexican rule into the 19th century, it's growing into parts of the Far West and the western end of Greater Appalachia, and hence the growing purplish tone in Texas.

There's a lot more to say about American Nations, which makes me think I should write another post about it with some quotes. It appears I have left out any details about the northeast, for instance. But perhaps you'll have a chance to read it for yourself before then. I recommend it.

Update: Colin Woodard just wrote his own analysis of the election results and the 11 nations for Bloomberg News, reprinted in the Star Tribune.

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