Another Take on the State of America

Samuel J. Abrams, writing at newgeography, alleges that “America’s Regional Variations Are Wildly Overstated“. According to Abrams,

[p]erhaps the most widely accepted and popular idea of regional differences comes from Colin Woodard who carves the country into 11 regional nations each with unique histories and distinct cultures that he believes has shaped the ideologies and politics at play today….

Woodard argues that regions project “[a] force that you feel that’s there, and those sort of assumptions and givens about politics, and culture, and different social relationships.” Yet the problem with Woodard’s argument is that while these histories and memoirs are fascinating, they are not necessarily representative of what drives politics and society among those living in various regions around the country. New data from the AEI survey on Community and Society makes it clear that recent accounts of America splintering does not hold up to empirical scrutiny and are appreciably overstated.

In what follows, you will see references to Woodward’s 11 “nations”, which look like this:

Abrams, drawing on the AEI survey of which he is a co-author, tries to how alike the “nations” are statistically; for example:

The Deep South … is widely viewed as a conservative bastion given its electoral history but the data tells [sic] a different story[:] 39% of those in the Deep South identify as somewhat, very, or extremely conservative while 23% are somewhat, very or extremely liberal. There are more residents in the region who identify or even lean to the right compared to the left but 37% of Southerners assert themselves as moderate or do not think about themselves ideologically at all. Thus the South is hardly a conservative monoculture – almost a quarter of the population is liberal. Similarly, in the progressive northeast region that is Yankeedom, only 31% of its residents state that they are liberal to some degree compared to 26% conservative but plurality is in the middle with 43%….

Religion presents a similar picture where 47% of Americans nationally hold that religious faith is central or very important to their lives and 10 of the 11 regions are within a handful points of the average except the Left Coast which drops to 26%….

The AEI survey asks about the number of close friends one has and 73% of Americans state that they have between 1 and 5 close friends today. Regional variation is minor here but what is notable is that Yankeedom with its urban history and density is actually the lowest at 68% while the Deep South and its sprawl has the highest rate of 81%.

Turning to communities specifically, the survey asks respondents about how well they know their neighbors. A majority, 54% of Americans, gave positive responses – very and fairly well. The Deep South, El Norte and Far West all came in at 49% – the low end – and at the high end was 61% for the Midlands and 58% for New England. The remaining regions were within a few points of the national average….

[T]he survey asked about helping out one’s neighbor by doing such things as watching each other’s children, helping with shopping, house sitting, picking up newspapers or packages, lending tools and other similar things. These are relatively small efforts and 38% of Americans help their neighbors a few times a month or more often. Once again, the regions hover around this average with the Far West, New Netherlands, and the Left Coast being right in the middle. Those in the Midlands and Yankeedom – New England – were at 41% and El Norte at 30% were the least helpful. As before, there are minor differences from the average but they are relatively small with no region being an outlier in terms of being far more or less engaged communally.

Actually, Abrams has admitted to some significant gaps:

The Deep South is 39 percent conservative; Yankeedom, only 26 percent.

The Left Coast is markedly less religious than the rest of the country.

Denizens of the Deep South have markedly more friends than do inhabitants of Yankeedom (a ratio of 81:68).

Residents of the Midlands and New England are much more neighborly than are residents of The Deep South, El Norte, and the Far West (ratios of 61:49 and 58:49).

Residents of The Midlands and Yankeedom are much more helpful to their neighbors than are residents of El Norte (ratio of 41:30).

It’s differences like those that distinguish the regions. Abrams’s effort to minimize the difference is akin to saying that humans and chimps are pretty much alike because 96 percent of human genes are the same as chimp genes.

Moreover, Abrams hasn’t a thing to say about trends. Based on the following trends, it’s hard not to conclude that regional differences are growing:

Call me a cock-eyed pessimist.