RED, BLUE, AND HAPPY
The WaPost has been running a series on the "red America" vs. "blue America" split. The opening piece set out a thesis that will sound familiar to readers who remember my pre-election 2000 Forbes column on regionalism, or other work in which I've cribbed an important insight from John Shelton Reed, the great sociologist of the South. Here's the Post:
At the same time, more and more Americans in a highly mobile society are choosing to live among like-minded people. University of Maryland political demographer James Gimpel has documented the rise of a "patchwork nation," in which political like attracts like, and ideologically diverse communities are giving way to same-thinking islands. A recent analysis sponsored by the Austin American-Statesman, comparing the photo-finish elections of 1976 and 2000, made this clear. While the nationwide results were extremely close, nearly twice as many voters now live in counties where one candidate or the other won by a landslide. Person by person, family by family, America is engaging in voluntary political segregation.
Bush and Kerry embody the role of mobility and personal choices in creating the Red-Blue nation. Two Establishment scions, similar in background and education, who parted ways after being at Yale University together, one headed to Red country and the other to Blue. Millions of voters have now made similar choices, which in turn echo and reinforce their initial beliefs and preferences.
As John Kenneth White, author of "The Values Divide," put it in an interview, "The reds get redder and blues get bluer."
The following two articles are profiles of families in super-red Sugarland, Texas and super-blue San Francisco. What's striking to me is how similar they in fact are, despite their political differences. Even more striking is how happy they are. Neither thinks America is going to hell in a handbasket. Neither engages in the cultural pessimism you hear from more official voices of left and right.
Maybe it's the Post's selection bias, but my sense is that the selection represents something true about the vast majority of American voters right now. They think their political opponents complain too much and perhaps threaten their happiness, but they aren't the angry, fearful voices of politics past.
The danger, of course, is that people will believe the stereotypes of their political opposites, because they don't actually know anyone on the opposite side of the red-blue divide. Why do both families see their political opposites as people who complain all the time, who are (my words) essentially anti-American? They aren't thinking of neighbors or family members they disagree with. They're thinking of the voices they hear on TV and radio, where conflict and explosive, extreme statements sell.