In 2008, with the U.S. divided between red states and blue states, then-candidate Barack Obama called for unity over division, a common shout-out among politicians and others determined to preserve America’s under- siege, allegedly shared values. Yet such calls ignore the fact that there are no shared “American values.” We’ve always been divided. And not truly along state lines.

America’s most essential and abiding divisions stem from the fact that the U.S. is a federation composed of the whole or parts of 11 disparate regional cultures — each exhibiting conflicting agendas and the characteristics of nationhood — and which respect neither state nor international boundaries, bleeding over the borders of Canada and Mexico as readily as they divide California, Texas, Illinois or Pennsylvania. The differences between them shaped the scope and nature of the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution and, most tragically, the Civil War. Since 1960, the fault lines between these nations have been growing wider, fueling culture wars, constitutional struggles and those ever- present pleas for unity.

These “nations” have been with us all along.

The settlers of each of the original colonial clusters came from various regions of the British islands, or from France, the Netherlands or Spain, and had distinct religious, political and ethnographic characteristics. These cultures developed in remarkable isolation from one another, cultivating distinct and often contradictory values, practices, dialects and ideals. Some championed individualism, others utopian reform. Some were guided by divine purpose, others by conscience and inquiry. Some embraced an Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity, others ethnic and religious pluralism. Some valued equality and democratic participation, others deferred to aristocratic order. All continue to champion some version of their original ideals in the present day, frustrating attempts to build a national consensus.

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