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Revisiting Joel Garreau's prescient 'Nine Nations of North America'

“Arising from the facts of physical geography and the regional settlement of different peoples and types of society on the Atlantic coast, there was a sectionalism from the beginning.”

– “Frontier Historian” Frederick Jackson Turner on regional differences in American history.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of a landmark article by Washington Post Editor Joel Garreau titled “The Nine Nations of North America.” America has been divided by regions or “sections” as long she has been a country: In 1776, there were clear differences between the cities of the Eastern Seaboard and the “western frontier,” which was then a few miles west of Philadelphia.

One division – between North and South – required the Civil War to settle it. Traditionally, American society had been divided into four main regions: the Northeast, the Midwest, the South and adjacent “Border” states, plus the West. Garreau explained that in his work for the Post, he “noticed the old regional categories didn’t seem to be working anymore.” He theorized that North America (including parts of Canada and Mexico) was really divided into nine subregions or “Nations” that crossed state and even national lines, and had a distinctive lifestyle and economy.

Three decades after his first thesis, Garreau expressed amazement over “how little the boundaries have changed and how much chatter this idea is getting recently.” Here, we’ll take a look back to see what Garreau got right and wrong.

Garreau’s theory drew much attention, being excerpted in many magazines and newspapers. In 1981, he expanded his article into a 390-page book.

His “Nine Nations” were as follows:

• Quebec: This Canadian province is clearly unique due to its massive French-speaking population. Quebec obviously doesn’t vote in American elections, but it has retained its distinctiveness with periodic calls for secession from Canada.

• New England: Garreau’s New England is almost the same as the traditional state lines except he excludes the wealthy Connecticut suburbs of New York and includes much of English-speaking Eastern Canada. Its capital is obviously Boston. He correctly notes that due to the high cost of living and the highest taxes in the nation, New England is the poorest region. Garreau also noted the beginnings of the high-tech industry in Boston and the “back-to-nature” movement that caused rural New England to be dubbed the “Granola Belt.” He argued that the decline of industry (textiles, etc.) had already struck and New England’s economy would stabilize – which has largely occurred.

• The Foundry: Garreau described the industrial states along the Great Lakes plus Toronto and the cities of West Virginia as “the nation of declining and gritty cities … Newark, Trenton, Camden, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Wheeling, Detroit, Akron, Toledo, Gary, Cleveland … These names mean one thing: heavy work with heavy machines, wrestling iron and coal to manufacture things.” Garreau wrote that the Foundry, whose capital is Detroit (headquarters of the struggling auto industry), was the one nation that was failing in the 1970s and its agonies have definitely continued. With roughly half of the 270 electoral votes needed to elect a president, the Foundry remains America’s most important swing area.

• Dixie: The nation includes most Southern and Border states (like Kentucky and Oklahoma), plus rural East Texas and Dallas – but not Greater Miami and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Going back to even before the Civil War, the South has been America’s most distinctive region. Garreau acknowledged the rise of the “New South” of metropolitan growth and racial harmony with Atlanta as its capital. He worried that Dixie would attempt to steal the Foundry’s industry and end up with its problems. In fact, as Ferrel Guillory of the Raleigh News & Observer noted, New South cities like Atlanta and Charlotte “skipped the Industrial Revolution” and moved on to other businesses like banking and real estate development. Dixie’s boom has continued over the last four decades: Florida passed New York in population, Georgia may soon catch Ohio, and North Carolina has now passed Michigan.

• The Islands: Centered in Miami and including the Florida Keys and Caribbean islands, this may be our most fascinating nation, America’s Casablanca. Garreau observed: “Bahamian casinos, offshore banks, enough heavy weapons to launch an invasion of Cuba, the fanaticism to break into the Watergate or murder a Chilean ambassador, the CIA’s intrigue exchange, dope – all these link up in Miami.” Powered by refugees from Castro’s Cuba, Miami became America’s first Latin-majority Eastern big city in the late 1970s and the informal capital of Latin America. Beyond the exotic, the politically active Cuban community has also had a major role in recent history as its votes delivered Florida for George W. Bush in 2000 – and gave him his majority in the Electoral College.

• The Bread Basket: Also known as the “Farm Belt” and “Great Plains,” this nation runs from just west of Chicago to the eastern plains of Colorado, plus parts of Texas and Oklahoma and Canada’s “Midwest.” Its capital is Kansas City and it produced the richest farmland in history. Garreau called this the most stable “nation” – the demand for food is pretty constant – and also the final arbiter of American social issues: “It is in the Bread Basket where social change meets its most important tests. If new ideas or styles prevail here, they become fully American.” (President Nixon had a point when he asked, “Will it play in Peoria?”) While the population of small towns in the Farm Belt may be slowly declining, American agriculture remains as productive as ever and small-town, “small-c” conservatism still reigns in this nation. The Farm Belt was the backbone of the Republican Party at its founding in the 1850s and the same as it ever was.

• The Empty Quarter: This nation includes most of the Rocky Mountain states plus the “inland” sections of Washington, Oregon and California (including the famous Great Central Valley) and most of Alaska and the Canadian Rockies. Garreau was quite prescient when he wrote in 1979 that the Empty Quarter is “being chewed up and spit out in order to light our lamps and power our air conditioners.” But its residents seemed to have wanted it this way: These areas have powered the energy revolution (fracking) that has made America the world’s leading producer of oil and natural gas in the last few years. The Empty Quarter is now filling up: In terms of percentages, it is the fastest growing area in America. As a “frontier” – gun ownership is a given here – that favors growth over the environment, this nation gives heavy support to conservatives.

• Ecotopia: Also known as the Pacific Northwest and the “Left Coast,” the “Ecotopia Nation” runs north from around Santa Barbara through Silicon Valley in San Jose and its capital San Francisco to Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and Juneau, Alaska. This nation, Garreau wrote, has “an almost mystical relationship to the surrounding lush countryside.” Accordingly, it is the headquarters of the environmental movement. However, Ecotopia is also living proof that conservation can coexist with rapid economic growth. Due to the high-tech boom that started in the late 1970s here, San Jose, Seattle and San Francisco have seen dramatic increases in wealth – and political power. Ecotopia, along with Hollywood, is a required fundraising stop for liberal candidates.

• Mex-America: Starting in its capital of Los Angeles and following Interstate 10 through Phoenix, Tucson, New Mexico (the most Hispanic state), El Paso (the most Hispanic big city), San Antonio and ending in Houston, this nation has gained more people since 1970 – more than 30 million – than any other region. As appropriate for a place that was once part of Mexico, this is the most heavily Hispanic region of America. Garreau wrote 40 years ago that, “With Mexico’s population growth exceeding that of Bangladesh, and the border with the United States unsealable, the metamorphosis of Mex-America will clearly continue.” That certainly occurred: Hispanics were about a quarter of the I-10 Corridor’s population in 1980, are a plurality today and headed toward a majority in a few years. The “Hispanicized” I-10 Corridor will play a major role in electing 21st century presidents. But aye, there’s the rub: the backlash against the porous southern border powered Donald Trump’s rise (“Build that Wall!”)

Garreau also realized that some places were “Aberrations” or exceptions. They include Manhattan and its richest suburbs (the seat of international finance and communications); Washington, D.C., and its closest suburbs (the seat of the federal government); and Hawaii (islands thousands of miles off the American mainland with a solid majority of Asian/Pacific Islanders).

So, with 40 years’ perspective, how well does Garreau’s analysis of his nine distinct “nations” hold up?

The biggest flaw in the book is that however persuasive Garreau is, the Electoral College still chooses our presidents through the old-fashioned state boundaries – as both Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 learned the hard way. But Garreau had a point even there: In both of those electoral “misfires,” the Republican candidate carries more regions or “nations” – as well as more states.

Aside from a few quibbles about where certain cities belong, the boundaries of his “nations” are largely correct. (Garreau admits that the oil-soaked parts of Texas and Oklahoma belong in the Empty Quarter). St. Louis is an older industrial city that belongs in the Foundry and Las Vegas (now almost half Hispanic) should be included in Mex-America. He did miss the rise of the urban “New South,” which votes Democratic while the “Old South” rural counties have turned heavily Republican. But nobody’s perfect.

The economic trends Garreau spotted in the late 1970s (the boom in the energy sector and high tech in the Pacific Northwest, the stability of agriculture, the struggles of the heavy-industry “Foundry,” the growth of Dixie, Mex-America and the Islands, the relative poverty of New England), have mostly continued. Except for the New South, his political predictions for each region have been spot-on. (Of course, “Quebec” remains more important to Canadian than American politics).

Perhaps without knowing it, Garreau anticipated the divisions between “Red” Republican and “Blue” Democratic areas. Of Garreau’s remaining eight “nations,” Democrats rule in New England, Ecotopia and Mex-America, while Republicans dominate Dixie, the Bread Basket, the Islands and the Empty Quarter. The Foundry, as has often been the case, holds the key to the presidency. President Trump’s one-point victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – all classic “Foundry” states – keyed his upset win.

All in all, Garreau produced a masterwork of socioeconomic analysis and political projections. The “nations” he identified will have great influence on American culture and politics for many decades.

Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant from California and the author of the forthcoming “21st Century America.”

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