Many Americas

Don't confuse the electoral map with the territory.


Whether you think the Electoral College is a silly archaism that frustrates the people's will or a time-tested institution that helps preserve our republic, one thing is certain: That red-and-blue electoral map not only illustrates but dramatically inflates political, cultural, and geographic differences in the United States.

Last November, the oft-reproduced image of a vast sea of Republican red framed by strips of Democratic blue gave rise to much talk about "the two Americas." Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum have long described what they consider the "other" America in clichés that border on nasty caricature. In 2000, the nastiness seems to have escalated—perhaps because, with the election a virtual tie and the results in dispute, there were stronger-than-usual motives to suggest that the other side's votes were less worthy.

The most egregious instance of such vilification was a now-infamous November 13 column posted on MSNBC.com by Democratic strategist Paul Begala. Responding to commentator Mike Barnicle's observation that the red-and-blue map represented a cultural divide of "family values versus a sense of entitlement," Begala proposed a darker way of looking at this split: "You see the state where James Byrd was lynch-dragged behind a pickup truck until his body came apart—it's red. You see the state where Matthew Shepard was crucified on a split-rail fence for the crime of being gay—it's red." He rattled off other awful deeds that occurred in the "red" states, from the Oklahoma City bombing to the teachings of Bob Jones University.

Later, Begala indignantly claimed that his argument was deliberately distorted and that he was trying to show how preposterous generalizations about regional character could be. But that explanation doesn't hold up; at most, Begala's original article allowed that the "red" states couldn't be reduced entirely to a hotbed of hate. The former Clinton advisor was articulating a view of flyover country that is hardly uncommon among the liberal intelligentsia. After Al Gore finally conceded the election in December, Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan sneered that the "angry white males" who had backed George W. Bush could finally claim victory and "go back to their day jobs—oiling their Smith & Wessons, hectoring pregnant girls scurrying into abortion clinics, jeering at welfare mothers."

Conservative pundits have gleefully lambasted this liberal bigotry. And they have every right to be indignant: It's outrageous to peddle vicious stereotypes about millions of Americans simply because they voted for a candidate you oppose. Conservatives would never stoop to such a thing…right?

Actually, three days before Begala's screed appeared on the MSNBC site, a headline on OpinionJournal.com, the Web spinoff of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, referred to the pro-Gore parts of the country as "the Porn Belt." The article, by former Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont, ominously noted that Gore carried the areas in which sex videos make up the highest share of the home video market (the West and the mid-Atlantic states—including, of course, Delaware) and depicted the election primarily as a referendum on traditional morality.

Not to be outdone, National Review ran a piece by Mark Steyn titled, "Who Are These People? Gore's America—And Ours." Gore's America, as depicted by Steyn, consists mainly of "Al Sharpton's entourage, gay scoutmasters, partial-birth-abortion fetishists," liberal Hollywood airheads, and foreigners. A "not-insignificant chunk," Steyn speculated, were either non-citizens who had voted illegally or "people who are U.S. citizens but probably shouldn't be," having been rushed through the naturalization process without criminal background checks. Steyn concluded by deriding the bicoastal metropolitan areas as "debauched dystopias that the rest of us can visit for wild weekends every now and again before returning to our homes in solid, enduring, conservative…America."

There, in stark polarity, you have the two camps' view of each other. Liberals are inclined to see conservatives as bigoted, hate-filled rubes; conservatives are inclined to see liberals as immoral, degenerate, and not really American.

This mutual demonization has an impact on policy ideas. The liberals want to transfer more power to Washington and away from those benighted regions. The conservatives' city-bashing translates easily, today as a century ago, into immigrant-bashing. After the election, former National Review editor-in-chief John O'Sullivan warned that continued immigration seriously imperiled Republican fortunes in future elections. He was echoed by Richard Brookhiser, who sneered at "daffy" pro-immigration Republicans in his New York Observer column.

It's hard to tell which brand of smugness is more obnoxious in its claims to superior virtue. The real question, though, is not which America is morally better but whether there are "two Americas"—a dubious clich? that went virtually unchallenged in post-election commentary.

For one, how people vote for president is a very limited measure of who they are. This is particularly true in a two-party system where the building of often incongruous coalitions is the key to success. Data from the Pew Research Center, which has compiled an extensive taxonomy of the American voter, show that about one in three Republicans are "populists" who like both traditional values and activist government, while about two out of five favor legal abortion and gay rights. Over a third of Democratic voters are generally pro-business and skeptical of government, while roughly as many are social conservatives. Of course, in Election 2000, both major-party candidates strove mightily to blur ideological differences in pursuit of the coveted center.

One of the peculiarities of the electoral vote map is that it treats each state as a solid bloc. Whether the winning candidate's margin of victory is 30 percent or 0.3 percent doesn't matter: pale pink and light blue are not available. The winner-take-all electoral system may be good politics—though I'm not convinced of that either—but it sure makes for lousy cultural analysis. It doesn't tell us, for instance, that Bush got 43 percent of the vote in California, 40 percent in Maryland, and 38 percent in Connecticut, while Gore got 45 percent of the vote in Louisiana and 43 percent in Georgia and North Carolina.

Not unlike the much-touted gender gap, regional differences in political outlook are large enough to influence the outcome of elections but not to support sweeping statements about a polarized country. These differences are smallest when it comes to taxes, social spending, and the role of government; but even on "lifestyle" issues, they are surprisingly modest.

For instance, the coastal regions are indeed the most staunchly pro-choice; in a Washington Post/ABC News poll in September 2000, 60 percent of registered voters in the East and 65 percent of those in the West said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. But 54 percent of Midwestern voters agreed as well, while Southerners were evenly split. Predictably, Easterners are the most supportive of stricter gun laws. However, in another recent Washington Post/ABC News survey, mandatory gun registration was favored by 79 percent of voters in the East, 77 percent in the South, 76 percent in the Midwest, and 66 percent in the West, while a ban on the sale of handguns was opposed by about 60 percent in every region.

This complexity shows up not only in the polls but at the polls. In Nevada, which went for Bush, an amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing abortion rights was approved by popular referendum in 1990; two years later, an anti-abortion ballot initiative was defeated in another "red" state, Arizona. In "blue" California, voters have approved initiatives repealing racial preferences and bilingual education.

Even the juxtaposition of liberal urban centers and conservative small-town America turns out to be much too simplistic. (The staff and most of the contributors of National Review, for instance, actually live in debauched urban dystopias and visit solid conservative America for an occasional weekend.) While cities with a population of more than half a million are indeed a reliable Democratic base, giving only about a quarter of their votes to Bush, 40 percent of Americans in small towns voted for Gore. Besides, the big city–small town dichotomy leaves out the suburbs, where most Americans actually live and which, in Election 2000, were split right down the middle.

One intriguing trend is that, as David Brooks notes with some alarm in The Weekly Standard, the GOP is losing the "new economy" voters in affluent suburbs around the country and in information-age entrepreneurial hubs such as Silicon Valley. Many of these voters probably belong to the group the Pew Center classifies as "New Prosperity Independents": generally well-educated, affluent, not very religious, often plugged into the cyberculture, and inclined to be critical of government. Brooks suggests that, despite their libertarian leanings, these "bourgeois bohemians" are voting Democratic to reassure themselves that they haven't "sold out" and are still faithful to their countercultural ideals. Another possible explanation is that many of them see Republican moral authoritarianism as not just profoundly uncool but hostile to the individual freedom that they consider genuinely crucial to their well-being.

It's not only voting patterns and poll results that subvert stereotypes of the "cultural divide." It would hardly come as a surprise to anyone that the liberal enclaves of East and West are not necessarily havens of racial and cultural tolerance. Paul Begala's catalog of "hate crimes" from states that voted for Bush could be easily matched by a similar list from states that voted for Gore: a shooting spree at a Jewish day-care center in California, a terrorist attack on an abortion clinic in Massachusetts, much racially motivated violence in New York.

By the same token, "real America" is not necessarily a haven of traditional morality: The New York Times article Pete du Pont cited as proof that Bush carried the regions with the lowest rates of sex video rentals also revealed that some ultraconservative counties where video store owners can still face obscenity charges for carrying X-rated tapes are among the most active consumers of pay-per-view adult fare on cable and satellite television.

Middle America may not even, alas, be a haven of rugged individualism. Midwestern voters who tell pollsters that they favor small government are in no rush to give up farm subsidies. One little-known irony of political geography is that the more conservative states tend to be among the top feeders at the federal trough. Bush won 25 of the 31 states that get more in subsidies from the federal government than they pay in taxes.

Forget about the "two Americas": There are many more than that. However uneasily they may coexist at times, e pluribus unum—"out of many, one"—is not just a motto. The electoral map has only two colors; our national palette has many more.