Red Vs. Blue
"You shouldn't think of America as being
separated into a blue world and red world."
According to Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston Director Edward Glaeser, the country is no more divided than it ever was. The issues are just different.
The 2000 presidential election birthed the popular notion of a cultural divide between what are now known as the red and blue states in America. But the country has always experienced differences based on geography, according to Edward Glaeser — in fact, even before it was a country.
"In the 17th century," he says, "it's hard to think about the nascent colonies of Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York and not think of three areas that could be formed on more different principles."
In his article "Myths and Realities of American Political Geography," published in 2006 in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Glaeser (with coauthor, Bryce Ward) rebuts the contention that cultural divisions in the United States have reached unprecedented levels. The director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government and of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, Glaeser instead argues that "America is not two nations," noting that the country has fewer landslide states and more swing states than during other historical periods.
"You shouldn't think of America as being separated into
a blue world and red world," Glaeser says. "You should think of a world ranging from the bluest of blues in Boston to the reddest of reds in Mississippi, with a continuum of states, many of which are purple and in the middle."
Debunking what he identifies as myths, Glaeser says that people aren't segregated by party more than in the past and that political geography has remained stable (a major exception was the South's switch from Democratic to Republican during the civil rights era). He also contends that America's cultural and political differences are not increasing. For the past 30 years, he writes, partisanship has been nearly stable.
Yet he also points to two "important truths" within the blue- and red-state framework. First, divisions are increasingly centered around religious and cultural rather than economic issues. From the 1870s to the 1950s, he writes, "richer states were more reliably Republican, and this is no longer true today." Now church attendance more accurately predicts Republican voting. This religious connection also is not new, Glaeser notes: Mainline Protestants typically aligned with the Republican Party during the late 19th century.
Second, people in different states do hold "wildly different views" about such issues as homosexuality and military policy. Surveys of cultural attitudes reveal that more than half of Mississippians, for instance, believe that AIDS is God’Äôs punishment, far more than those who hold the same view in other blue states. As he writes, a "New England agnostic intellectual might indeed feel that the Deep South is another planet."
Neither religiosity nor the legacy of slavery and the Civil War best explain the long-standing geographical divisions, Glaeser argues. Instead, the economist turns to a more commercial explanation: More than anything else, he writes, "Industrialization 85 years ago is an astonishingly good predictor of social and cultural attitudes today and a good predictor of support for the Democratic Party at both the state and county levels."
Glaeser theorizes that different ethnic groups may have developed ideologies that minimized conflict in order to work together. Also, areas that required immigrant labor may have encouraged views of religious tolerance.
"As someone who studies and thinks hard about urban history, the fact that the dense caldron that was New York City produced a different set of beliefs than the rural South was clear to me," he says.
Unlike European countries, where nationalization has helped stamp out regional differences, Glaeser says the United States' system of federalism has fostered continued heterogeneity of political geography. That diversity is something to celebrate, he says, and, of course, something interesting to study. — LR