What painted us so indelibly in red and blue?

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“We are not a collection of red and blue states,” Barack Obama reportedly said in 2004. “We are the United States of America. Obama didn’t use those exact words, but that doesn’t matter. He expressed the same feelings before, during and after his presidency.

Obama was right about a lot of things in his two-decade public career, but it wasn’t one of them. In the 17 years since he gave his legendary speech at the Democratic National Convention, the divide between red and blue, as we all know, has intensified and deepened. Most of the states we live in are either a solid Republican red or a Democratic blue, and the atmosphere of hostility between them becomes more and more corrosive with each passing year.

The extent of the division is easy to document, especially during presidential elections. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter narrowly won the presidency, the margin in most states was narrow. Carter got at least 40 percent in all but six of them. Last year, when Joe Biden won a close election, he wasn’t even competitive in nearly half of the states. There is no need to dwell on the numbers. They are all too familiar.


Sometimes, however, the simpler questions become the hardest to answer. We live in a set of divergent and mutually antagonistic constituencies. How did we get there ?

It should be emphasized that rigid regional divisions are not uncommon in American political history. Throughout the second half of the 19th century and much of the early 20th century, the country voted to move closer to the current divide between reds and blues. The old Confederate states and the rest of the South were steadfastly Democrats. New England and the upper Midwest were strongly Republican. The number of states on the battlefield was as small as it is now, and disproportionate attention was paid to them: in most presidential competitions, one or both parties put someone on the ticket. of Indiana because that state was always up for grabs.

But even taking this story into account, what happened in the last generation has been remarkable. In the 1980s, eastern states like New Jersey and Connecticut overwhelmingly voted for Ronald Reagan. Today, the idea of ​​one or the other of them becoming Republican for the presidency borders on the absurd. For most of the 1980s, West Virginia was a Democratic stronghold, as it had been for half a century. Today, the state is a lockdown for the GOP every four years. It’s not just that so many states have changed their loyalties over the past 30 years. It is that these loyalties seem quite impervious to change at any time for the foreseeable future.

WELL SR, THE RIGIDITIES DEEPEN of the presidential vote in most states reflect what is happening within them. Almost everywhere, legislatures have become as deeply and steadfastly partisan as presidential voting models. This is largely a function of gerrymandering. But there is no way to gerrymand an entire state. Something is happening that applies separately to policy at the state level. What could it be ?

In some cases, especially in the South West, the answer is demographic change. Arizona and New Mexico have started voting Democrats for president in large part due to a substantial influx of Latino voters over the past two decades. But there are a lot of things that demographics can’t explain. West Virginia has changed very little demographically, other than the departure of many of its residents. And yet his partisan allegiances have turned nearly 180 degrees.

I think a better way to explain what happened is to look at the broader concept of state loyalty – where it comes from, where it is strongest, and what kinds of forces might push it to change over time.

I have always been interested in the fact that some states develop a deep personal attachment among their residents and others do not. Most Texans, regardless of their ideology, proudly identify as Texans. “Live free or die” really means something in New Hampshire. Minnesotans pride themselves on their reputation for civility and decency. But I never heard anyone shout “Ohio Forever” or “God Save Pennsylvania”. I grew up in Chicago and feel a strong loyalty to her many years after I moved, but Illinois means next to nothing to me. It is a state whose most striking modern attributes have been rogue governors and fiscal irresponsibility.

If I had to guess, I would say that deep attachments to one’s home state are a significant fact of life in less than half of the states in the country. But I wonder if, in this red and blue era of American public life, that might change. The majority of states that lean heavily one way or the other may harbor personal loyalties that did not exist before, or at least not for a long time.

What kinds of loyalties? Not exclusively political. I would describe them, forgive the verbal awkwardness, as politico-social-cultural affinities. Missouri could serve as an example. For most of the 20th century, it was the state of choice for presidential elections. He almost always voted for the winner. Now it has turned solid red. What created this transformation? A feeling, at least among its non-urban residents, that he is true to traditional American values ​​and, perhaps more importantly, that he has little in common with the coastal elites he sees as dominating the Democratic Party.

Missouri has opposed cultural permissiveness in all its forms. West Virginia has spoken out against environmentalists who ban guns and hate coal it sees on the other side of the cultural divide. These states may not know exactly what they are for, but the majority of their citizens know what they are against. It is a form of loyalty to the state which, in my opinion, did not exist until the relatively recent past. Hillary Clinton, a presidential candidate in 2016, a 68-year-old grandmother who grew up in a conservative Illinois suburb and spent much of her adult life in Arkansas, has become something of a symbol. of everything that Red America had turned against.

Likewise, states like Oregon and Washington, quite close between the two sides until relatively recently, seem to have come out against what they see as the unenlightened prejudices of the middle part of the countryside and the small American towns. Guns and fundamentalism still have their passionate followers in the Pacific Northwest, but these adherents are now a determined cultural minority.

In other words, we don’t just have a red and blue policy at this point in the 21st century – we have a coast versus hinterland policy. And this binds us to the states in which we live more than has at any time in the recent past.

ONE OF THE MOST ATTRACTIVE QUESTIONS About the 2016 presidential election, perhaps the most convincing of all, the question arises as to what the resentful voters who elected Donald Trump wanted the most. When I think about it, I often imagine a small to midwestern town in the Midwest, maybe Iowa or Missouri. For most of the past half-century, it was a comfortably homogeneous white working-class town, home to a large manufacturing facility that offered stable but repetitive work and a predictable path to retirement.

Now that factory is gone, and the biggest private employer is a huge meat-packing factory whose immigrant workers work hard in low-paying jobs that aging white locals wouldn’t touch. Meat packers don’t speak much English, and they serve food, listen to music, and celebrate festivals that the elders don’t understand or appreciate. Most middle-aged white workers who have lost their factory jobs will never find anything like it again, and if they work, it’s as low-paid employees, security guards, or discount store hostesses.

These people see a highly educated elite living far away securing comfortable work and achieving wealth that they can hardly imagine. This elite espouses values ​​that aging Midwesterners have come to regard as abhorrent: same-sex marriage, uncontrolled immigration, occasional drug use, racial apologies.

Are the resentments aroused by these changes primarily economic or primarily cultural? The answer, of course, is yes – they both are. But the cultural wounds run the deepest and are the most likely to cause working class people to look at the coastal elites and say, “This is not us. It’s not Missouri. It’s not Iowa. And this is how a red state was born that retains its blush for several elections in a row.

The scientific consensus on American political history is that political realignments do not happen primarily because voters change their minds, but because a new generation emerges as adulthood with a different set of values ​​and values. voting habits. Maybe that’s what’s happening now: Polls seem to suggest that younger American voters, even in places like Missouri and Iowa, are shedding many of the cultural values ​​of their working-class elders . In this case, some of the current red states will gradually change color and blue, not red, will become the main color of the nation. But if that happens, the transition will not be easy and the road will not be comfortable to travel.


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