When it comes to government and politics, Americans often think of the 50 states as perhaps the most important signifiers of their identities and allegiances.
But, despite the ties that Californians, New Yorkers, Mainers and others hold with the states where they live, work and vote, their regional identities -- as Deep Southerners, Yankees, Far Westerners and so on -- often reveal more about who they are, and sometimes trump any shared sense of U.S. statehood.
As I’ve argued in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, the U.S. can be most productively understood and analyzed as a collection of 11 nations, spilling over borders with Canada and Mexico, rather than as 50 states. These nations include Yankeedom, New Netherland, the Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia and the Deep South (all discussed in Parts 1 and 2), along with First Nation, the Far West and the Left Coast (in upcoming segments), and those discussed today, El Norte and New France -- two of the nations most likely to achieve some form of internationally sanctioned national identity in the 21st century.
From the beginning of their existence, the 11 nations have been struggling with one another for advantage and influence, with the biggest prize being control of the federal government. Since 1877, the primary driving force in American politics hasn’t been class struggle or tension between agrarian and commercial interests, or even between partisan ideologies. Ultimately, the key political struggles have been clashes of values and interests between two coalitions of the ethno-regional nations, one headed by the Deep South and the other by Yankeedom.
Since the end of Reconstruction, no one nation has had any hope of independently dominating the other 10. Instead, each has formed alliances with like-minded regions. The most durable and lasting coalition has been the one forged between Yankeedom and the Left Coast in the 1840s, one that’s been influential in both the culture wars and foreign policy. With its crusading utopian agenda, Yankeedom has usually favored the creation of a frugal, competent government, supported by a robust tax base, ably managing the citizens’ shared assets.
The Left Coast has nearly identical views, although, in the 20th century, it has added environmental quality to the shared agenda. And it has tempered Yankeedom’s messianic certainties by showing that the world can be easily and frequently reinvented. The Left Coast’s technological experiments range from Monterey-style housing in the mid-19th century to the iPod in the early 21st.
From 1877 to 1897, these two nations, assisted by their Civil War allies in the Midlands and their colonial minions in the Far West, dominated the federal government. Their congressional representatives pushed through policies designed to enrich and empower their societies while weakening those in the Deep South and Tidewater.
Yankeedom and the Left Coast have remained close allies. Yet they are not the nations most likely to become independent entities in the next century. This distinction belongs to three of the oldest of the 11 nations. We’ll discuss two of them here, and the third -- First Nation -- in a later installment of this series.
Thanks to the influence of the great 19th century Yankee historians, we traditionally think of U.S. history as European settlement of the continent, progressing from the beachheads of Massachusetts and Virginia to the shores of the Pacific. But the story of the Euro-American nations truly began way before the Pilgrims, when European colonial forces arrived in our hemisphere in the late 15th century, borne by Spain’s soldiers and missionaries.
Because it was then the world’s superpower, Spain had a head start on its 16th-century rivals, and in 1493 was granted ownership of almost the entire Western Hemisphere (16 million square miles) by Pope Alexander VI. By the time the first Englishmen stepped off the boat at Jamestown, Spanish explorers had trekked through what would be Kansas, beheld the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, and surveyed the Grand Canyon. They had established colonies on the shores of what are now Georgia and Virginia and, in Florida, founded the city of St. Augustine.
Indeed, the oldest European subculture in the U.S. is in the arid hills of northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado -- a region, El Norte, where people of Spanish heritage have been living since 1595. They remain fiercely protective of their Spanish heritage, taking umbrage at being lumped in with Mexican-Americans who appeared in the region only in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their leaders’ passion for genealogy rivals that of Mayflower descendants. Subsequently, the Spanish Empire set up additional colonial settlements across its northern frontier from south Texas to the central California coast.
Today, this rapidly growing nation spreads from the U.S.- Mexico border for a hundred miles or more in both directions, encompassing south and west Texas, southern California and the Imperial Valley, southern Arizona, most of New Mexico and parts of Colorado, as well as the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora and Baja California. Overwhelmingly Hispanic, it has long been a hybrid of Anglo and Spanish America, with an economy oriented toward the U.S.
The people of Mexico’s northern border states are seen, by other Mexicans, as overly Americanized. Nortenos (northerners) have a well-earned reputation for being more independent, self-sufficient and adaptable than Mexicans from the hierarchical society of Mexico’s more densely populated core. Long a hotbed of Democratic reform and revolutionary sentiment, the northern Mexican states have more in common with the Hispanic borderlands of the southwestern U.S. -- historically, culturally, economically and gastronomically -- than with the rest of Mexico.
Split by an increasingly militarized border, El Norte, in some ways, resembles Germany during the Cold War: Two populations with a common culture are separated by a large wall. Despite the wishes of their political leaders in Washington and Mexico City, many residents of El Norte would prefer to form a third national state of their own. Charles Truxillo, a professor of Chicano studies at the University of New Mexico, has predicted that such a sovereign state, a “La Republica del Norte,” will be a reality by the end of the 21st century.
Whether or not this comes to pass, El Norte will be an increasingly influential force within the U.S. The Pew Research Center predicts that, by 2050, 29 percent of the U.S. population will self-identify as Hispanic -- more than double the 2005 figure. And much of that growth will take place in El Norte.
The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes has predicted that, so long as tolerance prevails, the borderlands will become an amalgamated, interdependent culture rather soon. “I have always said it is a scar, not a border,” he has said. “But we don’t want the scar to bleed again. We want the scar to heal.”
Another independence-inclined nation is New France, which can trace its origins to the fall of 1604 -- 16 years before the Mayflower’s voyage. Today, New France is the most overtly nationalistic of the 11 nations, and already has a nation-state-in-waiting: the province of Quebec.
New French culture blends the folkways of ancien regime northern French peasantry with the traditions and values of the aboriginal people whom the French explorers and colonists encountered in northeastern North America. Down-to-earth, egalitarian and consensus-driven, the New French are far and away the most liberal people on the continent, recent polls have shown. Long oppressed by their British overlords, the New French have, since the mid-20th century, imparted many of their attitudes on the Canadian federation.
Today, New France includes the lower third of Quebec, northern and northeastern New Brunswick and the Acadian (or “Cajun”) enclaves of southern Louisiana. (New Orleans is a border city, mixing New French and Deep Southern elements.) Securing an independent state will require, first, negotiating a partition of Quebec with the inhabitants of First Nation.
Next, in Part 4, the Left Coast, the Far West and First Nation.
(Colin Woodard, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, is the author of “The Lobster Coast,” “The Republic of Pirates” and “Ocean’s End.” This is the third in a five-part series excerpted from his new book, “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America,” published Sept. 29 by Viking. The opinions expressed are his own. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 4 and Part 5.)
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