In 2100, will the political map of North America look the same as it does today? Will the continent still be divided into three enormous federations (the U.S., Mexico, Canada)?
Or will it have morphed into something else? A Balkanized set of nation-states along the lines of 20th-century Europe? A loose E.U.-style confederation stretching from Monterrey, Mexico, to the Canadian Arctic? A unitary state run according to biblical law as interpreted by the spiritual heirs of Jerry Falwell? A postmodern utopian network of semi-sovereign self-contained agricultural villages freed by technological innovations from the need to maintain larger governments at all?
No one who’s being both thoughtful and honest has any idea. But a meaningful assessment of the future depends on an accurate appraisal of the past and present. We must acknowledge that -- despite both the myth of a united America and politicians’ cries for states’ rights -- this country’s most meaningful fissures have little to do with our 50 state demarcations or other official political boundaries.
Instead, the U.S. can best be examined as a federation composed of 11 regional nations shaped by immigration patterns, original shared values and the gradual drifting together of people with similar values and complementary commercial interests. Previous discussions in this series have covered eight of the 11 nations (Yankeedom, New Netherland, the Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, the Deep South, El Norte and New France). This installment will focus on the other three: the Left Coast, the Far West and First Nation.
From the American Revolution and the Civil War to the tumultuous 1960s and the blue-state, red-state maps of recent presidential elections, intra-national differences among the 11 nations have been important. The nations divided themselves into two hostile, feuding blocs -- the Deep South, Tidewater and much of Greater Appalachia versus Yankeedom, New Netherland, the Midlands and the Left Coast. Their cultural battles simmered for a century after Appomattox and, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, broke into open conflict.
At this point, each coalition underwent an internal civil war: In the Dixie bloc, blacks rose up against segregation and the caste system. At the same time, the northern alliance faced a cultural uprising led by the youth. Both revolts started as homegrown phenomena, but soon drew interventionists from the outside.
In the civil rights movement, assistance from the Northern nations proved decisive, as federal troops forced whites in Tidewater, Appalachia and especially the Deep South to dismantle their racial caste system. And in the ‘60s cultural revolution, Dixie-based political leaders opposed young revolutionaries from the Left Coast, New Netherland and Yankeedom whose agenda was diametrically opposed to everything the Deep South and Tidewater stood for.
Weakened by revolution at home, Dixie-bloc leaders were unable to stop the youth movement in the short term, but they have since spearheaded efforts to roll back much of what the rebellion accomplished. Resentments stemming from these twin uprisings widened the divide between the nations, poisoning efforts to find common ground in 20th-century America.
The “culture wars” of the 1990s and 2000s were, in essence, a resumption of the ‘60s-era struggle, with a majority in the four Northern nations generally supporting social change and an overwhelming majority in the Dixie bloc defending the traditional order. (Opinions in El Norte and the Far West varied, based on the issue at hand.) Northern-alliance campaigns for civil liberties, sexual freedom, women’s rights, gay rights and environmental protection all became divisive sectional issues, just as Dixie’s promotion of creationism, school prayer, abstinence-only sex education, abortion bans and states’ rights did.
The Northern alliance vs. Dixie bloc chasm today remains the greatest chasm among the 11 nations and, as the fallout from worldwide economic trouble hit the U.S. in the rest of this decade, the tensions between nations can only become more intense, and might lead to an increasingly divided future.
Crucial to this future are three of the nations, one that is already influential and two others in transition.
The Left Coast
A Chile-shaped nation pinned between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade and Coast mountain ranges, the Left Coast extends north from Monterey, California, to Juneau, Alaska, and includes four decidedly progressive metropolises: San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. A wet region of staggering natural beauty, this region was colonized by two groups: New England merchants, missionaries and woodsmen arrived by sea and gained control of the coastal towns, and farmers, prospectors and fur traders from Greater Appalachia arrived by wagon and dominated the countryside.
Originally slated to become a “New England on the Pacific” -- and the target of a dedicated Yankee missionary effort -- the Left Coast retained a strong strain of New England intellectualism and idealism even as it embraced a culture of individual fulfillment.
Today, it combines Yankee faith in good government and social reform with a commitment to individual self-exploration and discovery, a fecund combination. The Left Coast has been the birthplace of the modern environmental movement and the global information revolution. It is home to Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple, Twitter and Silicon Valley. And it has been a co-founder (along with New Netherland) of the gay rights movement, the peace movement and the 1960s cultural revolution.
Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 sci-fi novel, “Ecotopia,” imagined the U.S. portion of the region as having broken off into a separate, environmentally stable nation at odds with the rest of the continent. A modern secessionist movement seeks to create the sovereign state of Cascadia by adding in British Columbia and southern Alaska as well, forming a “bioregional cooperative commonwealth.” Yankeedom’s closest ally, the Left Coast battles constantly against the libertarian-corporate agenda of its neighbor, the Far West.
The Far West
Climate and geography have shaped all the 11 nations to some extent, but the Far West is the only one where environmental factors have truly trumped ethnic ones. High, dry and remote, the interior West presented conditions so severe that they effectively destroyed would-be settlers who tried to apply the farming and lifestyle techniques they had used in Greater Appalachia, the Midlands and other nations. With minor exceptions, this vast region couldn’t be effectively colonized without the deployment of vast industrial resources: railroads, heavy mining equipment, ore smelters, dams and irrigation systems.
As a result, the colonization of much of the region was facilitated and directed by large corporations based in distant New York, Boston, Chicago or San Francisco, or by the federal government itself, which controlled much of the land.
Even if they didn’t work for one of the colonizing companies, settlers were dependent on the railroads for transportation to and from far-off markets and manufacturing centers. Seaboard nations treated the region as an internal colony, exploiting it for their benefit. And the region remains in a state of semi-dependency, despite significant industrialization during the World War II and the Cold War.
Its political class tends to revile the government for interfering in its affairs -- a stance that often aligns it with the Deep South -- while demanding that it continue to receive federal largesse. Yet the Far West rarely challenges its corporate masters, who retain near-Gilded Age levels of influence over the region.
Today, this nation encompasses all of the interior U.S. west of the 100th meridian, from the northern boundary of El Norte up to the southern frontier of First Nation. It includes northern Arizona; the interiors of California, Washington and Oregon; much of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alaska; portions of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories; the arid western halves of the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas; and all or nearly all of Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Utah and Nevada.
Like the Far West, First Nation encompasses a vast area with a hostile climate: the boreal forests, tundra and glaciers of the far north. The difference, however, is that the indigenous inhabitants are still in the area -- most of them having never given up their land by treaty -- and still retain cultural practices and knowledge that allow them to survive in the region.
American Indians have recently begun reclaiming their sovereignty. In Alaska and Nunavut, they have won considerable autonomy. And in Greenland, the indigenous people now have a self-governing nation-state, which stands on the threshold of full independence from Denmark. First Nation’s people now have a chance to put native North America back on the map culturally, politically and environmentally.
First Nation is rapidly taking control of large portions of what once were the northern fringes of the Far West, including much of Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Labrador; the entirety of Nunavut and Greenland; the northern tier of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta; much of northwestern British Columbia; and the northern two-thirds of Quebec.
Tomorrow: the turbulent future.
(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 fourth 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 3 and Part 5.)
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