It’s obvious that Americans tend to have different political preferences based on geography. But why?

I was recently engaged in a deep discussion about the politics in the United States. Before you run for fear of getting swept into ridiculous political rhetoric, know that this discussion had nothing to do about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or any other politicians that are running for the office of President of the United States. Instead, this discussion was about the patterns of political preferences and beliefs in the United States.

The Main Camps of Modern American Politics: Conservative and Liberal

Before I dive into the discussion, you need to know that this is based on the assumption that there are only two camps in American politics: conservative and liberal. While this is becoming less true as we move on with the 21st century, it’s an important assumption since my discussion is about history.

The Division of American Politics: The Liberal North and the Conservative South

During my discussion this morning, someone made a comment about the Democrats not having a chance in the South since most of the region has historically voted for conservative politicians. I nodded, and accepted that this was true. However, as I started thinking about that fact more, I wondered why conservatives are concentrated in the South, and why liberals are based in the Northeast.

Eventually, I came to the realization that the politics of the two regions are tied to the cultures that came from their unique histories. To explain my reasoning, I’ll divide the regions’ experiences into these categories:

  • Geographic endowments
  • Settlement patterns
  • Taxation/ Fiscal Capacity

North vs. South: Geographical Differences

The Northeastern region of the United States has some fertile lands, but most of its soil is rocky. This rocky soil required farmers who lived in the North to rely on small family plots. These yeoman farms yielded small profits, so most of these Northern farmers harvested for subsistence. Since farming for profit was not an option for most Northerners, New England became a hub of advanced commerce, shipbuilding, and textiles.

On the other side of the resource spectrum, the South was rich in geographical endowments. With a surplus of arable land, businessmen in the American South were able to establish large plantations for the production of highly profitable cash crops. Because of the success of these large plantations, and their reliance on slave labor, only a few other industries developed in the American South.

These geographic features are related to the settlement of these regions.

Settlement Differences and Taxation

The North

Since it was neither profitable nor sustainable for the entire population of the North to live on small farms, many Northerners lived in cities. This was possible due to the development of factories and non-agriculture industries. As the North was urbanized, a civil society was created that would eventually need infrastructure and public goods for it to be maintained. Places where people accumulate naturally require support from the government to enforce contracts, build infrastructure, and provide basic public goods, so it is easy to understand why the North became so different from the South after urbanization.

Due to its need for public goods, the North was taxed more than the South. The North’s greater dependence on the government since early American history also explains why states in New England spend more on education and infrastructure than Southern states. This dependency on the government’s public goods may have created a Northern culture that was tolerant of government and taxation for the greater good. If this is true, it may now be easier to understand why many Northerners hold political views that favor stronger government and public spending.

The South

In the South, areas were settled far less than in the North. This was largely due to the fact that the South simply did not need the manpower that was required in the North’s labor-intensive textile and shipbuilding industries. Because of this, urbanization only occurred in a few special areas of the American South. With low urbanization and few industries, taxes in the South were low when compared to the North. I have several theories as to why this was the case, but I have narrowed the options to two.

  1. With few cities, Southerners did not need or want public goods. This resulted in low taxes and a low dependency on the government.
  2. Since the vast majority of the South’s wealth belonged to the owners of large plantations, Southerners could not afford public goods unless the landowners’ assets were expropriated. This also resulted in low taxes and a low dependency on the government.

I believe that both of these theories are correct, but I am not sure which is more dominant. These settlement patterns and taxation in the South created a culture that did not value government presence beyond a few basic services. Since most conservatives value limited government and low taxation, it is probable that the culture of the South carried on to create the Republican party of the 20th century.

TL;DR

The South’s fertile land prevented urbanization, and public goods and taxation were less common. This translated to modern conservative values. In the North, limited arable land and the rise of diverse industries caused urbanization. Public goods and taxation followed. This created a culture of acceptance of the government in the North. This culture carried over to modern-day liberalism.