A news junkie who follows the American political media could be forgiven for thinking that the American people are divided by race and gender, and perhaps religion, but not by regional culture. And yet the evidence says otherwise. Latinos in Texas vote differently than Latinos in California. Scholars have established that members of the same religions — Protestants, Catholics and Jews — tend to be more socially conservative in the South than in other parts of the country. Regional political culture is a powerful independent force, not a mere reflection of the numbers of particular demographic groups in particular territories.
As many scholars have observed, immigrant groups tend to assimilate, not to a generic American culture, but to particular regional cultures. Michael Dukakis and Ralph Nader are, respectively, cultural Yankees of Greek and Arab descent. Bobby Jindal is a Southerner of Indian ancestry. Where you grow up is often as important, if not more important, than where your family came from.
But cultural regions are absent from most media discussions of politics, other than the most cursory references to Southern conservatism and West Coast liberalism. At their worst, when they cannot ignore regional political culture, media pundits try to explain it in terms of the categories they prefer, like race and gender. For example, during the 2008 race, some commentators explained regional support for Hillary Clinton simply in terms of white racism. It was clear, however, that differences in regional culture had more explanatory power. Obama’s aloof and professorial manner fitted poorly with the populist political culture of Scots-Irish Appalachia, but resonated with, or at least did not repel, the low-key, introverted culture of the heavily Germanic-American northern Plains states.
Why not invite scholars like these who actually understand America’s regional cultures onto TV news studio sets? As part of election night coverage, wouldn’t it be useful for journalists to interview political historians and political scientists to put election returns into their historical regional contest? Wouldn’t that be an improvement over turning for commentary to partisan flacks sitting on stools in the studio and reciting pre-packaged talking points?