Mapping the many different Americas that make up the United States

America Letter: the cultural fissures in this vast country go far deeper than the red/blue divide

People in the most populated areas of the east and west coasts of the United States are more likely to call a fizzy drink a “soda”, whereas people in the north call it a “pop”. In the south it is known as “coke”, coincidentally in the area stretching west from Atlanta, the headquarters of Coca-Cola. Photograph: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

People in the most populated areas of the east and west coasts of the United States are more likely to call a fizzy drink a “soda”, whereas people in the north call it a “pop”. In the south it is known as “coke”, coincidentally in the area stretching west from Atlanta, the headquarters of Coca-Cola. Photograph: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Sat, Nov 16, 2013, 01:00

America does “infomaps” and interactive charts better than most. They come in all colours, are based on all types of research and show all types of useful information to be scanned for hours by eager consumers of data. Social media such as Twitter have helped to propagate the creation of such maps.

“Homicides in the District”, the Washington Post’s long- established interactive map tracking homicides in the US capital, would scare off any prospective renter/buyer from the east and southeast of the city, and parts of the north, where the dark shadings show heavy concentrations of murders. A macabre feature allows browsers to zoom in to identify victims, the reason for the killing and whether the case has been solved.

The Post published a map earlier this month showing the locations of gunshots heard in the District of Columbia. It is based on a police gunfire surveillance network called ShotSpotter, which captured the sounds and locations of 39,000 gunfire incidents over the past eight years using acoustic sensors on rooftops.

At a national level, the most frequently used map is published at election time, when the 50 states are shaded red or blue depending on the political persuasion of the majority of their voters.


Series of maps
A series of maps was published on the Business Insider website in June showing how Americans speak English differently across the country.

People in the most populated areas of the east and west coasts are more likely to call a fizzy drink a “soda”, whereas people in the north call it a “pop”. In the south it is known as “coke”, coincidentally in the area stretching west from Atlanta, the headquarters of Coca-Cola.

This week, a map was published showing a much more complex political structures beyond the usual Republican versus Democrat/red versus blue divisions.

Colin Woodward, a reporter at the Portland Press Herald and author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, showed in his study that the United States was not so united. His map comprised a disparate patchwork quilt of 11 nation states.

He based his research on linguistic dialects, voting trends, opinion polls and demographic trends from when the first settlers landed in eastern shores and moved west, pitching up homes as they migrated.

Woodward, writing in the autumn issue of Tufts University’s alumni magazine, found that the cultural fissures between regions could be used to understand much about the political affiliations of the people living in each area and their outlook on everything from civic issues to the role of government. “There’s never been an America, but rather several Americas – each a distinct nation,” he writes in Tufts magazine.

“Our continent’s famed mobility has been reinforcing, not dissolving, regional differences, as people increasingly sort themselves into like- minded communities.”

One of the most densely populated areas of the country is “Yankeedom”, home to the brainiacs of America, the territory to the northeast and industrial midwest founded by Puritans where education, the common good and intellectual growth stem from the Protestant ethics of its founders.

“New Netherland” captures the sophistication and tolerance of the Dutch settlers that made the New York area prosperous as a global commercial magnet for immigrants.

Residents of the “Deep South” fight increased federal power, taxes on wealth, and environmental, labour and consumer regulations in the spirit of how the region’s English slave-lord founders from the Caribbean established power based on the classical model of the slave states, “where democracy was the privilege of the few and enslavement the natural lot of many”, writes Woodward.


Shifting allegiances
“Greater Appalachia”, extending from West Virginia down to Texas, was founded by Ulster- Scotch settlers from conflict- riven borderlands of Northern Ireland and the Scottish low- lands. Conservative in outlook, they shift allegiances nationally depending on the biggest threat to their individual freedom.

In the south, “El Norte” covers the borderlands of the Spanish-American empire – “a hotbed of democratic reform and revolutionary settlement”, where the people are “exceptionally independent”.

The “Left Coast” culture in California combines Yankee utopianism and Appalachian self-exploration – “traits recognisable in its cultural production, from the Summer of Love to the iPad”.

The other regions are “the Midlands” (the most American region – politically moderate, rejects top-down government); “the Far West” (resentful of their dependent status, angry at government); “New France” around New Orleans (egalitarian, tolerant); “First Nation” (can withstand hostile conditions), and “Tidewater” around the Chesapeake (respects authority and tradition over equality and public participation in politics, though this is being diluted by encroaching Yankee influence).

Woodward’s compelling mapping of cultures across America’s nation states helps navigate a greater understanding of what drives people in this vast, eclectic country.