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Splitting an Affinity

In some places, residents identify with their state, while in others there isn't that bond. Does it matter?


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

Why is it that some states manage to keep up powerful bonds of civic identity and loyalty, and others seem to evoke scarcely any at all?

I'm pretty sure that if I had grown up in, say, Tennessee or Oregon, I would still be carrying that badge of identity around with me, all these years later. Asked where I came from, I'd instinctively produce the name of my home state. But I'm not from Tennessee. I'm from Illinois. And in all of my adult life, I don't think I've ever responded to a question about my roots by describing myself as an Illinoisan. I'd feel a little strange just saying it. I tell people I'm from Chicago.

I realize that's partly because Chicago is a very large place, and everyone's heard of it. If I were from a small town, I might give a different answer. But there's more to it than that. I'd put it this way: Tennessee and Oregon are identity states. Illinois is a non-identity state. You can't prove that; somehow you sense that it's the case.

Dividing up the country this way can make for an amusing parlor game on a slow winter evening. But it has a political significance that goes beyond just playing games. Identity states may be burdened by complex regional and cultural divisions, but their residents tend to stick together in the face of any challenge from the outside, even a purely symbolic one. Alabama has been arguing for the past 100 years over whether it ought to have a flag that reminds people of the Confederate stars and bars. People care about that. If they took the Illinois state flag down from the capitol in Springfield tomorrow, I'm not sure anybody would notice.

One has to wonder how identity states got to be that way, and what allows them to maintain that distinction. It's a surprisingly difficult question to get a handle on.

The simplest theory is that it's mostly a matter of size: Small states have deep-seated cultural roots that are hard to sustain in a larger jurisdiction. New Hampshire residents shouting "Live Free or Die"; Montanans waxing on about "Big Sky Country" -- maybe they're just expressing the solidarity that comes from having a small population and not wanting to be pushed around by bigger neighbors.

But if size were the critical factor, Texas wouldn't be the bastion of ornery identity that it has always been. And Rhode Island and Delaware would present clearer images to themselves and to the rest of the country than would appear to be the case. So it's not just size.

Region is a better explanation. I would argue that all the states from the Rockies to the Pacific are identity states, bearing a clear self-image based on geography, comparatively recent settlement and relations with the federal government that set them apart from all the entities further east. I've made this point to some very smart Westerners and been told that I'm absolutely wrong about California -- that loyalties there are entirely a matter of region, and that Northern Californians and Southern Californians might as well come from different planets, or at least wish they could.

But I don't think so. North and South may be a powerful dividing line within the state's borders, but my experience has been that Californians who move east quickly shift their perspective -- no matter where in the state they come from -- and tend to look upon themselves as exiles from a gigantic quasi-foreign entity that nobody east of the Mississippi will ever truly understand.

The Southern states present what may seem a simpler case. Virtually every state that was part of the Confederacy in the 1860s made it to the late 20th century as a haven of identity, with special customs, grudges and sensitivities that partly involve Southern regional identification but also reflect elemental state pride. Ohio State versus Michigan is ultimately just a football game; Georgia versus South Carolina is a much more intense rivalry that means something all year long.

There's plenty of room for disagreement about individual cases. What seems to me clearest about state identities is the places that don't really have them: Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida, to cite a partial list. I have never heard anyone shout "Ohio Forever!" or "Michigander to the day I die." The interesting question is why they are that way.

On this point, it's possible to make some plausible suggestions. California notwithstanding, most of the non-identity states are large in population and marked by internal rivalry between one or more large metropolitan areas and the state as a whole. Sometimes it is a single metropolis against the rest of the state. New York City and Chicago are such powerful magnets in statewide culture, politics and government -- whether one likes them or hates them -- that they have a way of making broader loyalties seem almost beside the point.

Sometimes it is two big cities, not one. Pennsylvania politics does not revolve around common statewide allegiance; it revolves around the endless competition between the east and west -- Philadelphia and Pittsburgh -- for money, attention and respect.

Other non-identity states are victims more of Balkanization than of head-to-head rivalry. One of the first things I learned about Florida politics, more than 30 years ago, was that Miami didn't know much about Tampa Bay; Tampa Bay didn't know much about Orlando; and none of them knew anything about Jacksonville. Too many people, too many newcomers, too many media markets: It's almost asking too much of Floridians to expect a strong sense of what they might share as residents of a single unwieldy state.

What difference does it all make? Do the non-identity states have more trouble governing themselves than those that have a strong sense of cultural and political unity? That's an extremely difficult question, complicated by issues of economics and partisanship as well as by the identity question. Flush fiscal times can make even the most fractious state run smoothly for a while. A prolonged period of one-party rule -- dangerous as it may be in some ways -- does tend to establish at least an aura of cohesion in a state of any size.

On balance, I'd argue that the non-identity states have more trouble making politics and government work consistently than the identity states. Endless quarrels between New York City and Upstate -- as well as between Republicans and Democrats, governors and legislative leaders -- have made the New York legislature perhaps the most dysfunctional in the nation over the past two decades. In the past several years, turf wars between Chicago and downstate interests have prevented Illinois from coping with its most pressing problems in transportation, health care and overall budgetary stability. I could mention several cases roughly like that.

I also can't help noticing that Utah, the state awarded the highest grades in public management by the Government Performance Project in the current issue of this magazine, would rank among the strongest identity states in the country by any reasonable evaluation. Here again, prosperity and partisan discipline play a role. But I also keep thinking of Utah's image of itself as the Beehive State -- a place where an ethos of ingrained cooperation stems from a common perception of social, cultural and geographical distinctiveness.

Before I take this argument too far, I feel obliged to point out that New Hampshire, which earned the worst grades in the Performance Project, also is a strong-identity state. In this case, identity has proved to be a problem rather than an advantage. The "Live Free or Die" motto and legacy, testimony to the widely held ideal of New Hampshire as a collection of flinty individualists scornful of public institutions, has made it difficult for the state's leadership to adjust to the inevitable complexities of government in the 21st century.

Reasonable people may differ, as I hope I've made clear, on just how a proper taxonomy of identity states and non-identity states might break down. I would insist on only two points. One is that the distinction does exist. The other is that, in the coming years, the bonds of statewide identification are likely to weaken, both in the places where it has been strong and in those where it has not.

There's no way it could be otherwise, in the face of so much migration and so much increased diversity in every state from the East Coast to the Pacific. Vermont isn't exactly Vermont any more, as many Vermonters will tell you; its politics and government have been transformed by new arrivals, especially those who have drifted east from New York over the past generation. Nevada has been inundated by wealthy newcomers from California and poorer ones from all over the country. And the massive numbers of Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, are causing states all over the country to ponder how long they can maintain the image of themselves that they clung to as recently as a couple of decades ago. Immigration is not just about jobs or budgets in this country; it is about identity, and the loss of identity, as well.

When the United States was created, its founders thought it virtually axiomatic that state loyalty would forever take precedence over any other kind: national, regional or local. James Madison considered it "beyond doubt that the first and most natural attachment of the people will be to the governments of their respective states." That was the case in 1787; it was still the case in much of America in 1987. How true it will be in 2027 is an intriguing question to ponder.

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