The difference between U.S.: In which country do regions matter more?

By: Johanu Botha and Noah Caldwell

In this series Johanu Botha, a Canadian studying public policy, and Noah Caldwell, a student of American history, will try to demystify the Canadian-American relationship through debating politics, culture, history and anything else that comes to mind. 

NC: American political culture has evolved in extremely disparate ways depending on region, and settlement across the country. How’s Canada on uniformity versus regionalized politics?

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JB: Ah, we might have reached our first point of contestation! A good ‘ol intra-continental brouhaha over which country is more this, or more that. Here’s my claim: the True North Strong ‘n Free is more regionalized, more a product of political cultures fracturing along geographic lines, than our Yank neighbours to the south have been ever since their little internal tiff a century and a half ago.

Yes, political ideologies differ wildly across the US. The deep ‘red’ or ‘blue’ pockets respectively designate fiercely Democrat or Republican states that would rather join Cuba than vote for the other party. But these differences are differences of degree, of the practical channels through which the nation’s goals should be achieved. They denote varying ideologies, different points on the same right-left spectrum, but they are not markers of fundamentally different political cultures.

Folks from, say, Mississippi (and large parts of the American south) foster a belief that non-state actors are the forces of positive change in society; the state should legislate so that things progress fairly, but otherwise it should sit down and shut up. In this way, individuals will have the greatest freedom of choice, and enjoy the best of human flourishing. Now folks from, say, Massachusetts (or large parts of New England or the Northwest) foster a belief that the state plays an instrumental role in promoting positive change in society; the state should be sensitive to those who do not start on an equal footing with the rest, who are systematically marginalized by the structures that be, and then should — through programs, subsidies, etc. — help them out. In this way, individuals will have the greatest freedom of choice, and enjoy the best of human flourishing. The political culture is thoroughly liberal, where the individual reigns supreme.

A New Englander may haughtily scoff at a Bible Belter’s politics, pointing out the perceived backwardness of their views on social issues and their maladjusted semi-religious fervour around the anthem, the flag, etc., while a Bible Belter in turn may dismiss the New Englander’s perceived ‘lack of moral girth’ around social issues, and their willingness to let government play a role in the economy. These tensions reflect different perspectives, but ones that play out on the same spectrum: you got two teams with different approaches to the game, but they’re both playin’ baseball. Every now and then you get what y’all call ‘swing states’ that make it confusing for everyone because they can’t decide on their approach, but they too, play the same game.

Now in Canada, it simply ain’t so. Here we have fundamentally different political cultures that play out across regions. These cultures do not neatly disagree on clear points on the same spectrum because they can’t: their very modes of being are different. They can’t simply disagree because they don’t even communicate on the same plane. Their underlying conceptions of the political world are different. The crucial role the individual plays throughout American politics, whether you’re a Vermonter or a Texan, does not flow as uniformly north of the border.

The best example of this is the healthy stream of social democracy that flows through some of Canada’s regions. Now we gotta be clear: social democracy is not simply the state playing a strong role to increase individual freedom of choice. That’s egalitarian liberalism. That’s the average Democrat voter in the states. Social democracy de-prioritizes the individual at the ontological level, at the very base where political meaning-making begins. Politics itself is, in this stream of thought, a collective endeavor, one in which a minority or an individual can justifiably enjoy less choice — hold fewer rights — if it empowers the broader group.

There are historical reasons for why Canada’s make-up includes social democracy. Our non-revolutionary British loyalists came with a healthy dose of ‘toryism,’ which is a philosophical disposition rooted in the same sort of prioritization of the community as displayed by socialists. This ‘tory touch’ butted up against the individualist-American-style-liberalism taking root in young English Canada, but it held its own enough to allow chasms of difference in this country’s political cultures, versus the US, which rooted itself in a universal, anti-monarchy, liberalism.

How does this all play out in Canada’s regions? At this point, I dunno. Tracing the ‘tory touch’ to specific spots is tricky, but different regions do display the above described difference. Saskatchewan was able to spark a communitarian party — the grown-up-version of which currently sits as opposition in the House of Commons — right next to classically liberal Alberta. Manitoba has created a mini-dynasty out of the provincial version of this party, allowing for a level of distrust of business not seen in British Columbia or the Atlantic provinces, or certainly anywhere in the US.

Quebec has its own social democratic flair that is constantly at odds with much of Canada’s strong American-style liberal trend. This can be seen through its $7 dollar-a-day universal daycare, or its relative comfort in downplaying individual civil liberties for the sake of collective equality (only in Quebec do you see things like cab drivers not allowed to display religious symbols in their cars, or young Sikh soccer players not being allowed to play with their turbans on).

This greater diversity of political culture is coupled with a version of federalism that often creates divided loyalties. The fact that the Canadian provinces act as ‘mini-countries’ that regulate and legislate in policy areas only the feds enjoy in the US makes for a salient provincial identity that can transcend the national one. Recent surveys — jointly run by political scientists across the country — that track provincial voting behavior have shown that self-identification with many provinces is just as high, if not higher, than self-identification with Canada as a whole. Now I know you have Americans who strongly identify with their state, but how many of them would feel ‘more,’ say, New Hampsherite than they would American?

Alright, sir- I’ve windbagged it up enough. Your turn.

NC: Great balls of fire! We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Let’s get right into it. In my home state there is a minuscule but vocal minority pushing for the establishment of a Second Vermont Republic, invoking the fourteen years in which the state was an independent nation from 1777-91. In Texas over 100,000 people have signed a petition to secede from the nation, in a pithy attempt to amplify calls of dissatisfaction with last November’s vote.

These types of movements are always a bit misguided, given the benefits of inclusion in America’s (debt-ridden but recovering) economy. Nonetheless, they are 21st century illustrations of bitter, entrenched preconceptions that many regions hold about many other regions. As you write, political differences in the States vary by degree, not kind; this is hard to argue against. But it is this humble writer’s belief that a) difference in degree within the same spectrum, if large enough (which it currently is), produces regional fracturing and political partisanship as potent as difference in kind, and b) regionalism in the U.S. cannot be explained by politics alone, since it was formed also by varying patterns of internal migration, economic opportunity, and social cohesion.

In 1854 Henry David Thoreau wrote the following:

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Putting aside Thoreau’s distaste for technological advancements (“Pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.”), the quote vocalizes a common, paradoxical American sentiment: we are zealously, jingoistically attached to the idea of an American one-ness, yet are smugly convinced of our superiority over other parts of that “one.” The confusion can be found in a smattering of contradictory adages imprinted on our psyche from an early age. “E Pluribus Unum!” (“Out of many, one” on our currency) doesn’t quite match with “One nation, under God, indivisible” (from the pledge of allegiance). We are “Rugged Individuals,” but also homogenized by a “Melting Pot.” The kicker is that we’re content with the confusion. A Harris Poll in the mid-2000s showed that while 89% of us believe the country is divided on cultural lines, 94% are still proud to be American.

Apologies, but I must amend your assertion about the role of the individual in America. Yes, ontologically our politics prioritizes personal liberty—but political and cultural activity (and regionalism, consequentially) unfolds far from that point of belief-conception. For example, the Populist movement of the 1880s and ‘90s saw agricultural collectivism become the norm for struggling farmers. Cooperatives were formed, placing regional interests above those of the individual. Communal grain storage was set up to maintain high prices. Political organization followed, altering the exclusively pro-business climate near the end of the century, and allowing the Progressive party of Theodore Roosevelt to emerge. Where did this communal agrarianism unfold? In the Heartland, Dixie, Midwest, the Bible Belt, or whichever euphemism you’d like to use for the region we most commonly associate with “individualism.”

All this is to say that the degree to which we prioritize the individual, the state, and the country as a whole isn’t formulaic or static, regardless of region. Taking a peek at the history of intra-country settlement in the U.S. can illustrate this (I bet you had no idea I would use a historical methodology huh? Completely out of nowhere.).

There are two sets of opposing regional identities that came out of the expansion of America in the 19th century. The first, which is talked about less often than the other, is an East-West divide. As settlers moved west, they lost the last vestiges of Old World eastern sensibility (a certain propriety laced with traces of elitism, still buttressed by continental enlightenment philosophy). Of course, this eastern sensibility had created the Bill of Rights liberty-based political culture. But it was drastically different from the Pull-Yourself-Up-By-The-Bootstraps individualism spawned by western migration. The latter was formed by uncertain settlement of virgin land under the Homestead Act, a priority on agricultural economies, and was eternalized by the frontier mythology of, say, Daniel Boone. (For literary types out there, read “Angle of Repose” by Wallace Stegner to get a sense of the chasm created by supplanting an eastern elitist life with that of a western settler.) This regional divide was echoed by late historian and critic Tony Judt, who posited New York as a city looking outward, toward Europe, not inward: “It is not the great American city—that will always be Chicago.”

The other regional narrative coming out of American expansion—that of the North and South—is more commonly understood. The high school textbook version pits a cash-crop economy at odds with a northern industrial economy, leading to a social and militaristic conflict over slavery abolishment. At a simpler level, the conflict was born from two different understandings about the rights of states to decide their own policy on slaves, and the rights of individuals to own them. Thus, in one singular brouhaha the most potent ideological split was coupled with a regional divide that endures 150 years later.

You—or the readers, for that matter—may have qualms with an historical justification that culminates a century and a half before the present. Needless to say, the 20th century saw the elimination of many regional identities and the creation of many others. The East-West dichotomy explained above is more a fascination of frontier historians than a daily reality for anyone. Migration out of the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt changed voter demographics in both areas, leaving the latter more conservative and the former more angrily-liberal.

But the heavy regionalism formed by North-South misunderstandings of the role of government persists. It is less of a state-by-state or province-by-province geographic split, and more of a regional, several-state clumping. And as for my claim that degree of difference can be as disastrously divisive as difference in kind, I’ll point to the following: 1) In reaction to “liberal bias in scientific research,” or something equally wonky, the swatch from Texas east to Alabama has undertaken a movement to overhaul school curriculae to teach creationism equally with evolution; 2) with the exception of Iowa and Minnesota, the thirteen states in which same-sex marriage is legal are all on the two coasts.

Both of these examples deal in their own way with the tug of war between personal liberty and government infringement. But the most salient—and most scary—takeaway is that the content of our children’s schools and the basis for understanding the simple concept of marriage (and love, thereby) are both currently dependent on where you live.

At long last, I’ll come to a close. If you’re a windbag, I’m a windbag. What shall we discuss next?


Noah Caldwell, a native Vermonter, studied history at McGill and politics in Edinburgh. He now lives in Colorado and studies the complex dynamics between waiting tables and launching a new media journalism career.

Johanu Botha is a student of public policy and political philosophy. His hobbies include the mandolin and intermittent bouts of existential angst. You can reach him at