Honestly, the red state versus blue state thing has got to go. It popped up again recently, in a collection of suggested tag lines for my adopted hometown: blue dot in a red state. It makes me gnash my teeth and snort like a grampus. Our town is not solid blue and our state is not solid red. Perpetuating those myths is divisive and sloppy.
“Red states vs. blue states” is and ever has been a false dichotomy. I didn’t figure this out–some people at the University of Michigan did, building on the work of Robert Vanderbei at Princeton University. Check out their maps, they’re very cool. The first part of the Michigan researchers’ Web site uses cartograms to illustrate how our uneven population distribution can make the election night map appear to contradict the returns. (A candidate can win lots of big, sparsely populated states and still lose the election.) To me, what comes next is even more interesting.
The margin of votes between the Republican and Democratic candidate is often slim, so designating an entire state–or even an entire county–pure red or pure blue does not accurately reflect how people voted. Using shades of purple to identify areas of close margins results in a very different picture, one that rings a lot truer, in my opinion. Plenty of red and plenty of blue, with significant areas of purple in nearly every state. That’s us, that’s who we are–complicated, and not that far apart in a lot of ways,.
Another way in which the red-blue dichotomy misleads is by encouraging us to think of individual votes as purely red or purely blue. Yes, when it comes down to it you have to jump one way or another. But plenty of data indicate that many or even most voters have more moderate viewpoints than the media’s maps reflect. (See Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, 3rd edition by Fiorina, Abrams and Pope) It’s the politicians, the pundits, and the media that are deeply divided and ideologically polarized–it’s not us. By following their lead, though, and buying into their one-liners and over-simplified visuals, we lose sight of the vast expanses of common ground that make up such a large part of our political landscape. Certainly, we face unimaginably dire problems and we naturally will differ about how to solve them. But only by beginning on our common ground can we move forward toward solutions. We do it every day in our neighborhoods and towns, but hardly ever see it in our state legislatures or in Washington. Bipartisan compromise used to happen, at least sometimes–think of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill in 1983–but not any more.
I can’t think of a way to bring it back, except by declaring every election from now on a single-issue race: the will and ability to engage in bipartisan governing. No more win-at-any-cost campaigning and scorched-earth legislative antics. Voters resolve to ignore party ideology and focus on whichever candidate shows signs of thinking about how to solve problems. Of course, come November, this criterion may well leave us with a bunch of “none of the above” dilemmas. And I don’t have an answer for that. Meanwhile, though, I hope more Americans will stop and think before swallowing over-simplifications and myths, and supporting those who pitch them.