As the coronavirus surges across the southern United States, Americans are once again seeing the profound effects of centuries-old regional differences in attitudes toward individual liberty, the common good, and the possibility or even desirability of competent, technocratic governance.

Those differences – and the abdication of federal leadership by President Trump – have turned the United States into ground zero for the pandemic, a country Canada, the European Union and other countries are now trying to quarantine themselves away from.

Distinct regional cultures make up the United States, cultures originating in the differences between the different Euro-American colonial projects on the eastern and southwestern rims of what is now the United States and the mutually exclusive swaths of the country their descendants first colonized. The cultures – described in my 2011 book, “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” – don’t respect state or even international boundaries, and their enduring effect on history, social attitudes, elections, and public health can only be seen at the county level.

A detailed analysis of the regional variations in new case trends, using a county-level COVID-19 data set painstakingly assembled, updated and shared with the public by The New York Times, maps precisely to what “American Nations” would predict.

The fundamental philosophical divide between these regional cultures is over the question of how best to organize American society.

Three large and important ones have cultures that see freedom’s path lying almost exclusively with individual liberty and personal sovereignty. Greater Appalachia was founded by settlers from war-ravaged borderlands in the British Isles. They brought their warrior ethic and deep commitment to personal sovereignty into the United States. The Deep South was established by oligarchic slave lords from the West Indies, and championed a form of classical republicanism wherein “democracy” was a privilege for the few and servitude or slavery the lot of the many. Finally, in the Far West, environmental factors meant settlers were dependent on and directed by the federal government and major corporations – powerful institutions that often exploited them; the ethos is libertarian-inflected.

By contrast, there are four “nations” that place a greater emphasis on the common good and the need to sustain and protect a free community. Yankeedom, which constitutes much of the upper Midwest and New England, was settled by religious congregations that prize community and support self-denial on behalf of the common good. New Netherland, the modern-day New York metropolitan area, has a dedication to free expression and multiculturalism that stems from the 18th-century Dutch commitment to globalization. On the Left Coast, New Englanders and Appalachian settlers combined to create a culture with both Yankee utopianism and Appalachian individualism. The Midlands was first founded by English Quakers who believed in humans’ inherent goodness and welcomed people of many nations in the early Colonial period; it spawned the culture of Middle America, which is communitarian, even as it is skeptical of top-down government intervention. (First Nation, confined in the United States to sparsely populated parts of northern and western Alaska, is the most communitarian of all.)

That leaves three in-between regional cultures: El Norte, the far-flung borderlands of the Spanish-American empire, and Tidewater, founded by the younger sons of the southern English gentry trying to replicate the semi-feudal society of the English countryside, but now transforming into something more Midlands-like due to the massive presence of the federal government in D.C. and the Hampton Roads areas.

From the outset, the geography of the coronavirus response followed these patterns to a disturbing degree, with people and leaders in communitarian regions generally taking a robust response to slowing the spread of the virus and leaders in individualistic ones often flouting science and safety, leading their constituents to make few changes to their movements and, presumably, routines.

At the end of March, cellphone tracking data showed the changes in travel in each U.S. county for the week of March 23 as compared to Feb. 28, before the coronavirus outbreak began. Yankeedom, the Midlands, New Netherland and the Left Coast showed dramatic decreases in movement – 70 to 100 percent in most counties, whether urban or rural, rich or poor. Across much of Greater Appalachia, the Deep South and the Far West, by contrast, travel was reduced by only 15 to 50 percent.

Similarly, the initial response by state governors varied by regional culture more than by the partisan affiliation. Republican governors in Vermont, New Hampshire Massachusetts and Ohio took early and firm action to reduce the spread of the disease, while their counterparts in the Deep South left decision-making at the local level (Georgia) or declined to close or mandate changes in practices in businesses (Mississippi) or simply allowed spring breakers to party on the beaches (Florida). “I don’t like government telling private business what they can and cannot do,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said March 31, even as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker was doing just that.

In the initial phase, the pandemic struck first and hardest in high-density places with intimate transportation and trade links to China and Europe, where the coronavirus first got out of hand. New York City, Boston and Seattle emerged as hot spots, while much of the South, Southwest and Midwest remained calm.

But this disparity has reversed itself in tragic and preventable ways as the more communitarian regions got the virus under control through social distancing, mandated closures, and a high level of compliance with public health recommendations to wear masks, maintain 6 feet of distance from one another and avoid risky activities like hanging out in crowded bars. Regions with an emphasis on individual liberty reopened early, typically had leaders who downplayed the threat, and saw far less public compliance with scientific recommendations.

Using The New York Times’ database, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram sorted all new daily cases of the disease from the start of the pandemic to June 30 by the 11 regional cultures identified in “American Nations,” then plotted them with a seven-day sliding curve.

The gulf between the regions is stark and alarming.

The three nations most committed to individual liberty – which leads some people to refuse to wear masks to protect others – saw their case counts explode in the last two weeks of June, as did El Norte.

In the Deep South, the seven-day rolling average of new cases went from 4,276 a day to a shocking 10,271 in that two-week period, up from around 1,800 a day for much of May.

Greater Appalachia – the most populous of the 11 nations – went from 4,071 a day to 7,267 in the same period, up from around 2,600 a day in Mid-May.

The Far West’s case rate doubled from 1,936 to 3,823 a day.

El Norte’s curve has also been shocking, more than doubling from 4,113 to 8,405 cases a day.

By contrast, three of the four communitarian nations – all of them more densely populated than those mentioned above – have experienced only modest growth in the pace of new cases over the past two weeks, and remain at levels far below that of their peak in April and early May.

Yankeedom – home to Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and other major cities – went from 2,456 cases daily to 2,656 in the same period, an increase of less than 8 percent and far below the peak of 7,918 on April 29.

The Midlands – including Philadelphia, Baltimore, and St. Louis – went from 2,066 a day to 2,563, a 19 percent increase, and down from 5,073 on May 6.

New Netherland – that’s Greater New York City – had flat numbers – 796 and 818 a day – less than a tenth of its peak level of 11,910 on April 9.

The only exception to the pattern was the Left Coast, which saw a doubling from 504 cases a day to 1094. (The U.S. portion of the Left Coast has about 18 million, about the same as New Netherland, but less than the Far West (28 million) and the other nations mentioned above, which range from 31 million to 57 million inhabitants.)

There are, of course, no real borders between the “American Nations,” and under the Constitution, states don’t really have the ability to seal themselves off from one another, the way Canadian provinces like New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were able to do to stop the disease in its tracks. Airlines are flying, and several major carriers have announced they intend to fill every seat they can. It’s easy to envision this explosion of cases in the Deep South and Greater Appalachia spreading to New Netherland and Yankeedom, probably starting with major transportation hubs and then to smaller places like Maine.

While other parts of the world return to normal, we’re all likely to be living with the human and economic toll of the pandemic until someone comes up with a vaccine. Absent federal leadership, we’ve shown ourselves too divided to save ourselves.

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