Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
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Shades of the past
The voting blocs that propelled Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency in the 2016 election are often described in regional terms: urban versus rural, north versus south, Rust Belts, Sun Belt, Corn Belt. But the geographic fissures spewing up the political present may go much deeper.
In an op-ed for the New York Times this week, and in his 2011 book American Nations, the journalist and author Colin Woodard identifies and maps 11 “rival” regions of the United States. These regions trace back to the European colonial projects that originally settled the land, Woodard argues, and their distinct, founding cultural values continue to inform our political reality today.
Take the Dutch-founded “New Netherland,” with its emphasis on tolerance and materialism—that’s where modern-day New York City lies. Or take the slave lords of English Barbados who settled the “Deep South” as a West Indies-style slave society, Woodard writes in the Times, in which “democracy was for a privileged few.” Politicians there continue to push back on taxes for the wealthy and federal protections on the environment and labor.
In Woodard’s terms, Donald Trump’s upset victory in 2016 was helped by flipping many rural counties in the “Yankeedom” and “Left Coast” regions. He may have done this in part by playing on centuries-old communitarian impulses in both regions, with his campaign promises of replacing the Affordable Care Act, reviving manufacturing, and passing a $1 trillion infrastructure plan.
“Those were the most communitarian promises of any Republican candidate since Nixon or Eisenhower,” Woodard told me in a phone interview this week. Whether the same counties will vote red again in 2018 is a toss-up; Trump has broken many of those community-minded pledges as he throttles through his term.
To create the map, Woodard adopted the cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinksy’s conceit that whoever sets up a successful society will have an outsize cultural influence on its future. To outline the regions precisely at the county level, he looked back into town genealogies, church logs, slave ownership rates, endemic architectural and design styles, and numerous other archival resources to decide how communities knitted together in the past.
Clearly, geography is just one demographic factor that plays into a person’s politics—race, gender, and class are three more critical vectors. But there does appear to be a strong fidelity between old settlement patterns and contemporary regional politics. Looking at this map, Woodard said, “it continues to amaze me how long the hangover of cultural assumptions is.”
More political mapping by the New York Times: Results for the 2016 presidential election, mapped at the precinct level. And here’s an excellent Twitter thread by an L.A. Times mapmaker criticizing that project: “They lied by not factoring in density.”
Do the streets in your city run on a grid, loyal to the cardinal directions? Or do they spiral and curve in all directions? Geoff Boeing, a postdoc in urban planning at the University of California, Berkeley, has developed a tool that visualizes in circular charts the percentage of streets that run along each section of a compass in any given city. That ratio is what Boeing considers to be a city’s underlying “logic.”
“One of my main goals is to empower other people without a Ph.D in city planning or a strong background in computer science to explore their own cities and discover their own patterns and relationships,” Boeing told CityLab’s David Montgomery.
Crack your local code here.
More on “New Amsterdam”: A spite-filled history of how Manhattan got its grid. ♦ Is the U.S. leaning left or right? Depends on which map you prefer. ♦ Gerrymandering risks suppressing U.S. voters, but you know what really does? Threats to the 2020 census. ♦ Thanks to climate change: maps of the wildfires burning California from end to end. ♦ Layer by layer: 30 years of mountaintop removal, mapped. ♦ Talk about fraught cultural geography: People are discussing renaming Austin, Texas. ♦ Match me with onion rings: A new Google Maps restaurant feature is a bit like Tinder.