The Hidden Tribes and the American Nations

Underlying value sets and moral foundations are distributed differently across U.S. regional cultures and in the Tidewater they represent an astounding historical change

In recent decades, the political world has slowly come to the realization that humans do not make political decisions the way it once assumed they did, through a rational analysis of the information at hand to determine what political choice is in their best interest. Instead, as pollster Richard Wirthlin advised Ronald Reagan on the eve of his 1980 presidential bid, people’s political motivations are primarily emotional – pathos, not logos — and those emotions are based on underlying values, an observation Reagan used to great effect in converting millions of “Reagan Democrats” to his camp. In the 2000s, academic psychologists Drew Westen and Jonathan Haidt each developed models elaborating how these values-based decisions and political identities function, the former using brain scans and neuroscience, the latter social and moral intuition frameworks. The bottom line for all three of these analysts was that for most people, values drive political decisions and those decisions are made primarily via instinctive emotional associations which are rationalized after the fact. This observation – which probably came as no surprise to anyone working in the advertising industry — has huge implications for politics.

Source: More in Common/YouGov; Graphic by John Liberty/Motivf

Because of this, I’ve been a longtime fan of the civic research organization More in Common’s Hidden Tribes model, which segments the U.S. population based not on traditional metrics like gender, race, class, or income but on their core underlying beliefs. In 2017 they  surveyed  8000 Americans asking about their moral values, parenting styles, ideas about personal responsibility, identity, threats, and trust. They then sorted them into seven “tribes” : Progressive Activists, Traditional Liberals, Passive Liberals, Politically Disengaged, Moderates, Traditional Conservatives, Devoted Conservatives. You can read about each of these at More in Common, but the bottom line is that there are two wings – Progressive Activists (8% of Americans) on one end, Traditional and Devoted Conservatives (a combined 25%) on the other – that have strong ideologies and spurn compromise, especially with one another. Everyone else – nearly two-thirds of the country – makes up, for differing reasons, what More in Common calls “the Exhausted Majority,” who are more ideologically flexible, open to compromise, and frustrated that politics has become a Manichean struggle. As the group’s co-founder, Tim Dixon, put it to a reporter: “Once we have the seven segments, their views on issues are highly correlated.”

As a scholar of North American regionalism, however, I’ve long fantasized about being able to see if and how the Hidden Tribes are maldistributed across the United States’ dominant regional cultures as identified in my book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. To precisely measure the composition of “tribes” for each nation would require a large-scale national survey specifically designed for that purpose. While I hope to offer that level of precision in the future, now, thanks to More in Common and their polling partners YouGov, I have some provisional answers.

The graph near the top of this article shows how the Tribes are distributed in each regional culture based on the location of approximately 7800 of the 8000 respondents in the surveys. (The others either didn’t have location data or were from New France, First Nation or Greater Polynesia, which didn’t have enough respondents to confidently plot the tribes; the sample sizes for the remaining “nations” are enumerated in the table below.) Those familiar with the American Nations model – which is based on centuries old colonization patterns and attendant First Settler effects – will not be surprised by the results.

Source: More in Common/YouGov; Table by John Liberty/Motivf

First, the relative size of the “wings” vary considerably between outlying regions. Proportionally, there are three times as many Progressive Activists in Left Coast (12%) than there are in the Deep South (4%), which is tied with Far West for being the major nation with the largest conservative wing (at 29% of the population) and the largest far-right Devoted Conservative contingent (at 8%). In the Midlands, historically the great swing-region of American politics, the distribution of the Hidden Tribes is almost identical to that of the U.S. as a whole.

The most conservative nations — Deep South, Greater Appalachia, and Spanish Caribbean — are also the ones with the largest proportion of the Politically Disengaged, a group that is considerably poorer, less educated, and more intolerant than the average American and almost invisible in local politics and community life. The nations with the largest share of Passive Liberals – a cohort of would-be Democratic voters who less frequently participate in the political process – are the historically most communitarian ones: Yankeedom, New Netherland, and Left Coast (all at 17%). Moderates – politically engaged centrists – are most consequential in El Norte where, at 18% of the population, they are the largest single Tribe after the Politically Disengaged; they are the least present in Left Coast where, at 12%, they are no more numerous than Progressive Activists.

When it comes to protecting democracy – a central focus of Nationhood Lab – the threat is currently led by Devoted Conservatives, which is where the hardcore MAGA crowd is found. More in Common describes members of this tribe thusly: “deeply engaged with politics and hold strident, uncompromising views [and] feel that America is embattled, and they perceive themselves as the last defenders of traditional values that are under threat.” This description overlaps with what the leading scholar of violent contemporary U.S. political movements, the University of Chicago political scientist Bob Pape, found most motivates the approximately 8% of Americans who falsely assert the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and that force is justified to restore him to power: “belief in the ‘Great Replacement’ — that Whites are losing rights to demographically more powerful minorities.”  This “tribe” is substantially larger in the Deep South (at 8%) and Greater Appalachia (7%) than in Yankeedom, New Netherland, Left Coast, El Norte or Tidewater – “blue” regions all – where they comprise about 5% of the population. These patterns mirror what Cornell’s Doug Kriner and I found in regionally parsing a 2022 poll of Americans attitudes about threats to democracy.

This exercise further emphasizes just how rapidly the Tidewater is changing. American Nations, published in 2011, described it as a regional culture that was decomposing on account of having been prevented from expanding westward in the mid 18th century (by the presence of Greater Appalachia) and then, in the 20th century, by the presence of an expansive federal government around the District of Columbia and Hampton Roads/Norfolk, site of the world’s largest naval base. By far the most powerful region in the Early Republic, the conservative, aristocratic leaders of the Tidewater sought to replicate the neo-feudal manorial society of the English countryside from which they had descended, and ultimately turned to chattel slavery to fill in the role of the serfs. It was home to the Confederate capital, but its power was already eclipsed by the Deep South by the 1860s and by the 1960s its influence was beginning to push back from Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax County in the D.C. suburbs, a story brilliantly told by former NPR reporter Tom Gjelten in A Nation of Nations. That shift has accelerated, especially in the past 20 years, with Virginia – despite its large Greater Appalachian section — becoming a blue state. Tidewater sections of Maryland were Biden country in 2020, as were most of the population centers of the Eastern Shore, southern Delaware, and Tidewater North Carolina. (Overall he beat Trump in Tidewater by a staggering 19 points.)

Indeed, the Hidden Tribes data shows the Tidewater now has the second most liberal population in the country after Left Coast. It has a higher proportion of Progressive Activists (11%) and Traditional Liberals (14%) than either New Netherland or Yankeedom. It also has the smallest share of Politically Disengaged in the country at just 20% of the populace, almost a third less than in the Deep South or Spanish Caribbean. The Dedicated Conservative bloc is just 5%, same as in the longtime “blue” regions, and, there are no more Traditional Conservatives than there are in Left Coast (both 19%). This is a truly astounding shift in historical terms – from the capital of an ethnonationalist, white supremacist regime to a liberal stronghold — and one that seems to be accelerating with time. And it doesn’t seem like the region is being absorbed by the Midlands to its north – compare the mix of the tribes, for instance — but rather creating something new from the ashes of a vanquished racial slave-and-caste system.

Thanks to More in Common for allowing us to access their data and to their partners, YouGov, for crunching the numbers.

Colin Woodard is the director of Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.