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An Ethnographic Theory Of The GOP Primaries

Just as the Republican primaries were getting underway, I reviewed for the Washington Post Colin Woodard’s new book “American Nations,” which argues that our red-blue-purple regional divisions are deeply rooted in the country’s ethnographic settlement patterns. In a compelling mash-up of the contemporary political geography of authors like Joel Garreau and Dante Chinni with the ethnography and history of David Hackett Fischer ("Albion’s Seed"), Woodard divides North America into eleven distinct “nations” – Yankeedom, stretching from New England across the Upper Midwest, the Borderlanders of Greater Appalachia, and so on.

I’m a sucker for political geography and so have been mulling over Woodard’s map while covering the primaries, because if one wanted to, one could fit the results into an ethnographic analysis. Rick Santorum, winner of the Iowa caucuses, hails from what Woodard identifies as the “Midlands” – the “nation” that began in Philadelphia and runs west into the heart of the heart of the country, including most of Iowa (he gives the northeastern corner of the state to Yankeedom.) As Woodard sees it, the Midlands were dominated by the first German settlers, were less civic minded but more socially tolerant than Yankeedom, and today represent as close to the true America as one can find – they are the swing voters. Granted, “tolerant” is not exactly the first word that comes to mind in describing Santorum, but he has been making a Midlander case for himself, arguing that he hails from the Rust Belt/Midwestern swath of the country that Republicans need to do well in to win in November.

Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is a quintessential Yankee and won New Hampshire. Wait, you say, a Yankee? Isn’t he from Massachusetts by way of Utah and Michigan? Yes, but as Woodard emphasizes in the book and in more detail here, the early Mormons were true Yankees before their move westward, and the progressive/civic strain that remains in the Mormon realm (light rail in Salt Lake City?) is arguably a Yankee legacy. As for Michigan, it is part of Yankeedom, land settled by New Englanders headed west.

Finally, Newt Gingrich and South Carolina, the heart of Woodard’s Deep South. This one is a bit trickier – Gingrich represented Georgia for 20 years in Congress, but is no native Southerner, rather a Pennsylvania-born Army brat who moved around as a kid. But you could make the case that Gingrich has earned honorary status in Deep South nation – he certainly has learned the native tongue, at least when it comes to dressing down Juan Williams over Barack Obama’s “food stamp president” qualifications.

It’s fun to think about, but I’m also wary of embracing it in full. As much as traveling the trail reminds one of our many regional variations, it also reminds one of the ways in which we are being knitted together at another level. Arriving in Greenville, S.C., I was flipping through the AM dial trying to find a local political talk-show, when I instead stumbled on Sean Hannity and his guest, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, talking about Walker’s upcoming recall fight with the “big government unions.” Yes, they call their soda different names in New Hampshire and South Carolina. But we’re all part of Fox News Nation.