Up In Arms
The battle lines of today’s debate over gun control, stand-your-ground laws, and other violence-related issues were drawn centuries ago by America’s early settlers.
The incidence of violence, like so many salient issues in American life, varies by region. Beyond a vague awareness that supporters of violent retaliation and easy access to guns are concentrated in the states of the former Confederacy and, to a lesser extent, the western interior, most people cannot tell you much about regional differences on such matters. Our conventional way of defining regions—dividing the country along state boundaries into a Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, Southwest, and Northwest—masks the cultural lines along which attitudes toward violence fall. These lines don’t respect state boundaries. To understand violence or practically any other divisive issue, you need to understand historical settlement patterns and the lasting cultural fissures they established.
The original North American colonies were settled by people from distinct regions of the British Isles—and from France, the Netherlands, and Spain—each with its own religious, political, and ethnographic traits. For generations, these Euro-American cultures developed in isolation from one another, consolidating their cherished religious and political principles and fundamental values, and expanding across the eastern half of the continent in nearly exclusive settlement bands. Throughout the colonial period and the Early Republic, they saw themselves as competitors—for land, capital, and other settlers—and even as enemies, taking opposing sides in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War.
There’s never been an America, but rather several Americas—each a distinct nation. There are eleven nations today. Each looks at violence, as well as everything else, in its own way.
The borders of my eleven American nations are reflected in many different types of maps—including maps showing the distribution of linguistic dialects, the spread of cultural artifacts, the prevalence of different religious denominations, and the county-by-county breakdown of voting in virtually every hotly contested presidential race in our history. Our continent’s famed mobility has been reinforcing, not dissolving, regional differences, as people increasingly sort themselves into like-minded communities, a phenomenon analyzed by Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing in The Big Sort (2008). Even waves of immigrants did not fundamentally alter these nations, because the children and grandchildren of immigrants assimilated into whichever culture surrounded them.
Before I describe the nations, I should underscore that my observations refer to the dominant culture, not the individual inhabitants, of each region. In every town, city, and state you’ll likely find a full range of political opinions and social preferences. Even in the reddest of red counties and bluest of blue ones, twenty to forty percent of voters cast ballots for the “wrong” team. It isn’t that residents of one or another nation all think the same, but rather that they are all embedded within a cultural framework of deep-seated preferences and attitudes—each of which a person may like or hate, but has to deal with nonetheless. Because of slavery, the African American experience has been different from that of other settlers and immigrants, but it too has varied by nation, as black people confronted the dominant cultural and institutional norms of each.
The nations are constituted as follows:
Click on the article link to read a detailed explanation of each cultural region.
If you understand the United States as a patchwork of separate nations, each with its own origins and prevailing values, you would hardly expect attitudes toward violence to be uniformly Most scholarly research on violence has collected data at the state level, rather than the county level (where the boundaries of the eleven nations are delineated). Still, the trends are clear. The same handful of nations show up again and again at the top and the bottom of state-level figures on deadly violence, capital punishment, and promotion of gun ownership.
Mark’s Rant: What cultural nation do you side with? Mine is below the Mason-Dixon!