The American Nations and the 50 States

Which regional culture controls each of the Fifty States and to what degree? We parsed 2020 census data to reveal present day state-level power dynamics

Here at Nationhood Lab we parse important phenomena in American life where regional differences matter using the historically-based regional cultures enumerated in my American Nations model. These regions don't follow state lines, they follow from rival colonization streams that diced many states -- like Ohio, Illinois, Texas, Oregon and California -- into multiple, discordant sections. For this reason we seek county- rather than a state-level data in our work, be it on elections, gun deaths, or life expectancy. Often, however, that data just isn't available and we're left to try to discern what might be going on from statewide numbers. But how does one evaluate how much power a given region has in a divided state?

To solve for this we calculated the population of every section of each U.S. State as per the 2020 census. The map above and the table below show what we found, highlighting the proportion of the population of each state that belongs to each of their component regional sections. Some of what we found surprised even me, like that the Left Coast is the least populous of California's three regions and that Arizona's El Norte section is almost nine times more populous than its Far Western half. Others were clarifying, like seeing the comparative difference in the relative power of the three sectional tiers of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Hawaii is, of course, 100 percent in Greater Polynesia, so we didn't map it separately, but the breakdown of Alaska's three sections is here:

The map at the top -- produced by our colleague John Liberty at the cultural geospatial consulting firm Motivf -- also color codes each state by its level of "domination" by its largest regional culture. Including Hawaii there are 15 states that belong entirely within a single regional culture. Another 20 states are overwhelmingly dominated by a single region that comprises more than 70% of the population; in these places, the dominant culture rarely has to compromise or negotiate with the others to set statewide policies, though there may be sectional variations in local policy and in legislative and Congressional delegations.

Nine states are weakly controlled by a single section where between 50 and 69% of the state's people live, necessitating frequent cross-regional negotiation to get things accomplished. The remaining six -- Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina, Texas, and the Dakotas -- are truly divided, with no American Nations culture comprising a majority. Obviously, in each of these cases the mix makes a difference. In today's political environment there isn't a wide gulf between the dominant policy preferences in Deep South and Greater Appalachia -- which together have a supermajority in Texas -- but there is a yawning one between North Carolina's Tidewater and Greater Appalachian sections, which makes for an incredibly volatile political environment there.

Bear in mind these are the power proportions as of 2020 based on population. In the past these ratios were quite different. In the 17th century Maryland would have been dominated by Tidewater and on the eve of the Civil War New York's Yankee upstate was likely more populous than downstate New Netherland. At statehood, California's El Norte section was probably the smallest, not the largest, of its three sections. These changing power dynamics may in themselves be revelatory in regards to political history at both the state and national levels and so, yes, we're already at work on extending this exercise further back in time.

Thanks, once again, to John Liberty and the Motivf team for the interactive graphics, and to our capable Pell Center intern, Bilal Omar Omari, for helping analyze the data.

— Colin Woodard is the director of Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.