Forget The 50 States; The U.S. Is Really 11 Nations, Author Says Author Colin Woodard says it's better to think of the U.S. as 11 distinct nations instead of 50 states. He speaks with Tell Me More about how those nations came about, and why they play a role in everything from gun control to tax policy.

Forget The 50 States; The U.S. Is Really 11 Nations, Author Says

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, two authors explain why it's so important to encourage American authors to write about Africa for kids. That's in a few minutes.

First, though, we want to get a new perspective on America. Author and journalist Colin Woodard says this country has never been united states or even one nation. He thinks the country's really made up of 11 separate nations. Woodard has studied voting behaviors and opinions on things like tax and gun control, and he's traced them all the way back to the days of the first settlers. The migration of Americans from state to state, he says, has strengthened regional differences as people sort themselves into like-minded communities. We'll let Colin Woodard explain these 11 American nations himself. Colin, welcome to the program.

COLIN WOODARD: Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: People can check out on the map where they live and kind of figure out if they're in Appalachia or Yankeedom, but you're not talking out everybody who lives in Massachusetts thinking and voting the same way, right?

WOODARD: Oh, of course not, and I'm glad you brought that up. This isn't about individual behavior, it's about the characteristics of the dominant cultures of these various regions. And you can, as an individual, like or hate the sort of surrounding assumptions where you live, but that force that you feel that's there and those sort of assumptions and givens about politics and culture and different social relationships, that's the forces of dominant culture that go back to the early colonial period and the differences between the various colonial clusters and their founders.

HEADLEE: So let's take, for example, you know, we heard quite a bit about people saying the representatives who voted in favor of shutting down the government recently, for example, that they all came from areas in the country, or many of them came from areas in the country that also supported secession in the 19th century. You also point that out as well. And you say that's backed up by the fact that many of those areas were settled by West Indies slave plantation owners. Explain exactly how that connects.

WOODARD: The Deep South, one of the areas from which many of the Tea Party Caucus are drawn and the Tea Party has been most successful on the national stage, was founded originally by English slave planters from Barbados. I mean, in contradistinction to the Puritans of New England or the Dutch, who founded what's now the Big Apple or even the sort of gentry of the Tidewater, in the 1660s, Charleston was founded by Barbadian English slave planters who were intentionally and explicitly re-creating a West Indies-style slave plantation society. In fact, it was originally called Carolina in the West Indies. And they brought with them a form of classical republicanism that they adhered to that was modeled on the slave states of antiquity - Ancient Greece and Rome.

HEADLEE: Like Ancient Greece and Rome, yeah.

WOODARD: Right, where a small set of people and oligarchy had the privilege of democracy, and that slavery was considered the natural born lot of the many. And that, of course, carried through as an explicit governing philosophy right into the 1860s.

HEADLEE: And what's really interesting is that then you move up north to what you call greater Appalachia, and this includes places like West Virginia, right? And that was settled by people from England and Scotland and especially Northern Ireland, and they couldn't be more against the ruling oligarchy if they tried.

WOODARD: That's one of the interesting paradoxes. It's also strong with Tea Party support because this region, as you point out, was settled by people coming from the war-ravaged borderlands of northern England and Lowland Scotland and Ulster. And this is a culture that had formed in a situation where the ravages of war were constantly being brought upon you and government was ineffective and unable to protect you. So the culture had developed, you know, this warrior ethic and this great emphasis on freedom - being freedom of the individual, personal sovereignty, lack of having constraints on individual behavior - is what has put it in with having many members of the Tea Party elected in the Tea Party caucus...


WOODARD: ...When you look at current politics.

HEADLEE: Which couldn't be more different than what you call Yankeedom, which was settled a lot by Puritans, who are absolutely OK with there being a ruling order. What about the places, like, maybe say, the West Coast - places that used to be former Spanish settlements?

WOODARD: Yeah, in the sort of southwest of the country, and including the northern provinces of Mexico, you have a culture that's the heritage of New Spain, but a particular one in the north of New Spain and in the north of Mexico. They were so far from Madrid and from Mexico City, with the transportation technologies of the age, it formed its own special frontier culture that was very different than the system in central Mexico and very different from the U.S., and sought to be a third state or nation-state in between.

There were repeated secession movements in the Mexican period - the Republic of the Rio Grande and even the Republic of Texas, right. The Austin and his Anglo supporters were backed by the entire Spanish-speaking elite of Texas when they formed the Republic of Texas. These were all efforts to create a sort of third nation-state in between, separate from both Mexico and the U.S. And, of course, it didn't work out that way.

HEADLEE: This all sounds - to many people I bet - like ancient history in it of itself, you know, hundreds of years ago. How do we know that this still holds true today? If you moved to another state for work or to go to school, how do you end up living in greater Appalachia with that particular political culture as opposed to Yankeedom?

WOODARD: Well, I think if you move around, you'll immediately notice the profound differences and cultural assumptions as you move from nation to nation. The question is, wouldn't the mass migration and movement of people have eroded the effect of these cultures?


WOODARD: Well, first of all, the observable evidence says it absolutely hasn't. In fact, the differences are growing in political polarization and other things. But part of the reason is that people are moving - a large portion of them are choosing where they want to move, moving to places where they feel they are among like-minded people. If you superimpose my nations map over that, you'll see that this is also resulting, to a large extent, in people sorting by nation. They're not conscious that they're doing that, but that is self-selection as we move around is actually reinforcing these national characteristics and differences.

HEADLEE: In fact, probably the most depressing part of your research - 'cause it's all fascinating - is that this means we don't really have a prayer on something like gun control, something that is so highly charged and so much a part of a hundreds-year-old tradition.

WOODARD: Yes, this and many other issues. And we're of course seeing it these days, to a great extent, on almost anything that Washington has asked to discuss. What has happened throughout our history is there's been sort of a battle of coalition building for the past 200 years. It usually involves a coalition led by Yankeedom and one led by the Deep South, and it's a shifting coalition. But neither of those groupings - the current red state, blue state groupings we talk about - have a lock on federal power. You need the presidency, a filibuster-proof Senate majority and a majority in Congress. None of them have the population and the electoral strength to do that, which is why we keep seeing the control of our national politics flipping back and forth on a knife's edge between the two coalitions.

What would have to happen on gun control or any of these other major issues is one or the other of the current party formations would have to change their message in such a way to build a larger regional coalition that would isolate the other party. And to do that for either grouping would require a change in strategy, thinking and messaging.

HEADLEE: Well, again, you can check the map at our website, Colin's map, and see where you live. Colin Woodard is the author of "American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America." He was kind enough to join us via Skype from Portland, Maine. Colin, thank you so much.

WOODARD: Thanks, it's been a pleasure.

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