The idea of blue states and red states is a widely, if not universally, accepted concept in American politics.
Every four years pundits and news anchors like Brian Williams – and before him the troika of the late Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather – stand in front of maps of the United States, projecting which states will turn Democratic blue and which will turn Republican red.
Many have commented about the political and cultural divide between blue states, which tend to be on the coasts and in part of the Midwest, and the red states, which have been everywhere else, particularly in the South and Southwest.
Others have contested that notion.
In his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention that contributed mightily toward launching him to political superstardom, then U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama declared, in one of many memorable phrases:
“The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.
We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”
Obama’s point was that the blue and red distinctions do not really apply to people’s lives. Rather than thinking in these terms, Obama said, we would be better served to base our actions on the recognition that there is “a single American family.”
Since that speech, Obama has continued to advance that same message of national unity – and has been rewarded handsomely.
The center of a meteoric rise that is arguably without precedent in American history, Obama shattered fund raising records on the way to winning a historic victory November 4 that will culminate officially in his inauguration just 10 days from today.
As Obama’s time to govern approaches, he confronts no end of daunting problems. An economy teetering on the edge of catastrophe, two wars, and conflict in the Middle East possibly sparking a global conflagration top a very long list.
Successfully tackling these challenges will require drawing on the commonality that Obama asserted exists throughout the country.
Obama may find this commonality in shorter supply than he would like, but not for the reasons he articulated in his 2004 keynote speech.
The Big Sort: Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, an intriguing book by journalist and editor Bill Bishop with heavy research assistance from retired University of Texas at Austin sociology professor Robert Cushing, may hold the key to help Obama and other readers understand that resistance.
Drawing on an engaging blend of election and census data analysis, psychology, shoe-leather reporting, and historical interpretation, Bishop argues that millions of Americans have, largely unconsciously, participated during the past 35 years in a national sorting process whereby they live in increasingly homogeneous communities.
The consequences of this sorting have been profound, he says. Bishop maintains that this homogeneity has led to the near disappearance of the political center, a diminished public discourse and an entitled populace who approach democracy as consumers, rather than participants.
The sorting has been driven by a number of factors, one of the most important of which has been the increased mobility in America during the past 30 decades.
While acknowledging that America has seen massive migrations before – Bishop refers to the Second Great Migration of African Americans to northern urban centers like Chicago and Detroit in the 1950s – the migration from 1970 to 2000 differed from earlier versions because it was selective and based on personal characteristics, rather than broad demographic similarities.
The ability to choose to live in areas where other like-minded people have gathered before, Bishop says, has led to the formation of thousands of increasingly polarized communities divided along political, economic and cultural lines.
Bishop cites evidence from national elections to buttress his assertions. His tracing of the decrease of political moderates from 1976 to the middle of this decade is particularly noteworthy, as are the maps which show the growing number of communities where one presidential candidate or another won a victory of at least 20 points over his opponent.
Bishop’s book is far from a recitation of statistics.
A fascinating section discusses the boarding houses in Washington, DC, where representatives from each major party stay.
By staying in these houses until Thursday night, when they head back to their districts, these representatives have less contact and dialogue with people from the other party than they did in the past – a phenomenon, Bishop argues, that is a microcosm of what has happened in the nation as a whole.
These sections and nuggets are among the book’s strongest. (His explanation for the reasons that led to the sorting, starting in what he describes as a watershed year of 1965, is more thought provoking than illuminating.) Bishop successfully employs the skills he plied as a projects reporter for the Austin American Statesman with Cushing’s data and other fields to point out divisions that have not previously identified.
Bishop’s gloom about the democratic implications echo those raised about technology by recently appointed Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs chief and noted scholar Cass Sunstein in Republic 2.0.
As impressive as these attributes are, the book’s analysis seems more convincing in explaining the electoral map of 2004, when George W. Bush scored a narrow victory over John Kerry, than Obama’s triumph over John McCain in 2008.
Just three states switched political allegiance from the bitterly contested 2000 race between Bush and then Vice President Al Gore to 2004. By contrast, Obama won nine more states and received more than 10 million more votes than Kerry had four years earlier.
The electoral and financial support of a candidate whose central message based on unity and possibility challenges, if not blatantly contradicts, Bishop’s argument.
To be fair, winning an election is not the same as debating and forging a collective legislative agenda. For his part, Bishop could conceivably argue that the increased political involvement by people of all political stripes in the presidential campaign demonstrates how far the American people had retreated from political life.
Obama’s assumption of the presidency comes at a time of intense national adversity. Such periods in the past, whether during the Great Depression, World War II, or, more recently, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, have coincided with periods of national unity.
The ensuing months and years will tell whether the sorting Bishop ably describes is surmounted on the path to national unity and advancement or whether the excitement generated by the Obama campaign will be remembered as a temporary aberration in an increasingly divided nation.