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One more time: we’re purple, people!

August 27, 2010

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.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2010 9:18 pm

    You remember 1983? The years I try to forget…

  2. Alvin McNeely permalink
    September 2, 2010 10:49 am

    I’ve viewed some maps that broke down Presidential returns by county (coloring all of a county either red or blue), and by precinct (ditto); those get lots more purple than by state. I’ve also seen maps that color by proportion of vote.

    Party politics necessitates division. In his book about “The Glorious Revolution” Michael Barone looks at the emergence of the English Tories and Whigs, names that meant “liar” and “thief” by the way. The renown comment that “Patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel” was made by Edmund Burke and directed at his Whig political opponents who were calling themselves “The Patriots”. This it seems to me that political disagreements engender ad homonym attacks.

    As societies widen the social distance between the rulers and the ruled, and as the modern political discourse becomes more dependent on mass media, inevitably charicatures of politicians and parties come into existence that distort reality. You and I both know the world is a far more complex place than is portrayed in the press.

    What to do? Is it correct to disparage the President as incompetent? Congress as disjointed from the populace they represent? Either party as evil? No, it’s not. But it’s easy to cheer your self-identified political party’s heroes as they give the “other” guys Hell. And it’s also far to common to ascribe a comprehensive, logically extended, position to those on the other side that may not actually be their’s.

    But, again, what to do?

    • September 2, 2010 11:01 am

      Alvin, just because it’s easy to reduce our public dialogue to the clear-cut simplicity of a high school pep rally doesn’t mean we should. I’m trying to advocate setting the bar higher and demanding that our elected representatives and unelected thought leaders do the same. Mass media and the 24-hour news cycle have profoundly changed the way information travels and the effects it can have. But we are still in charge, if we want to be, of our own thought processes and our own mouths and keyboards.

      • Alvin McNeely permalink
        September 4, 2010 7:31 pm

        I’m reading a book now called “The Happiness Hypothesis” and I have been reminded that we like the concept of having many, many choices but we, practically speaking, are happier with fewer choices and an illusion of us being in control.

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