Thursday, July 10, 2014

You Live in a Purple Country: The Myth of Red States and Blue States

What if I told you that every electoral map you've ever seen on the news was a lie?  Not a lie in the sense that the results were faked, but a lie in the sense that the truth has been skewed to promote discord and strife.  The electoral maps that we watch during elections are not accurate representations of voting in this country.  Red States and Blue States are a lie, we live in a Purple country.

(This blog entry makes heavy use of the work of Mark Newman of the University of Michigan.  He has graciously made his work available for public use, and I am trying to avoid outright plagiarism, but you should really look at his work here.)

Here is the familiar electoral map of the 2004 election.  The map that inspired the kinda joking, kinda not, meme of the United States of Canada and Jesusland.

The News coverage after the second George W. Bush election made it seem clear that Bush had a mandate, and the divisions in the US were growing deeper.  Have you ever wondered what that election would have looked like if the results were shaded proportionately and showed county results?  Here is what the actual election results were:

Not so black and white after all, or should I say Red and Blue.  (Source for these two images)

We are all familiar with the dichotomy of Blue States and Red States.  Every election cycle we hear about the Blue/Red divide.  We hear about swing states.  The constant message is that there are two Americas fighting it out.  And each election only one America can win.

Lets look at the most recent presidential election.  Here is the familiar election results map.  Even though Obama won, and carried most of the swing states, there is a lot of Red.  It still looks as though there are two Americas, and huge portions are opposed to Obama.
But what would happen if we made the map proportionate to population?

Now we see Red America Squeezed.  Clearly there is a vast Blue America that dwarfs the Red States in terms of population.  But what would happen if we looked at county results in a dichotomous representation?
Now we really see that the states are not homogeneous.  There are not Red States and Blue States, there are archipelagos of Blue in a sea of Red.  When you look at this map it seems clear that the US is a Red Country, but it is being controlled by a leader that only represents isolated pockets of America.

But we've already seen that the geographical representation does not reflect the population data, so what happens if we adjust the sizes of the counties to reflect population?
I like to think of this image as the Red and Blue Eagle of Political Discord.  All of a sudden Red America becomes a Blue nation streaked with Red.

But we are still not seeing an accurate representation of the political landscape.  This image only shows who won the elections.  It does not show how people actually voted, there is no subtlety, no shades of grey, only the dichotomy of political division.  Lets look at a shaded map of the 2012 election.
Now we see the US, not as two nations, but as a single country that shades continuously from Blue-Purple to Red-Purple.  And what does this Purple America look like when adjusted for population?
I like to think of this as the Purple Eagle of Reality.  There are truly Red areas, and truly Blue areas, but those areas are the true archipelagos.  Islands of homogeneity in a sea of heterogeneity.

If you live in the US you do not live in a Red State or a Blue State.  With few exceptions, if you live in the US you do not even live in a Red Community or a Blue Community.  You live in a purple nation.  A nation where people disagree, but still manage to live in communities.

It can be easy to believe that there is a culture war going on when there are stark divides between major political divisions, but those stark divides are illusory.  It is important to realize that when you are talking about those people who disagree with you, you are not talking about people in a distant state.  You are talking about your neighbors.

P.S.  I just wanted to throw in one more image from Princeton because I am an Alaskan, and as and Alaskan it bugs me that Alaska and Hawaii are never included in these.  It is also the 2012 map, but it shows the non-contiguous states as well.  While Alaska is a reliably Republican voting state, you can see that it is actually a rich violet shade of purple.

P.P.S.  The colors of Purple America are still artificial.  The blue and red spectrum is an artifact of our two-party system.  I'm sure that if you could apply color values to the range of political values the country would actually just be a greyish-brown mess.  I strongly suggest that you click through here to view a gif of election maps from 1960 to 2012.  I especially would like you to note the 1992 map from when Ross Perot came the closest to being a viable third party candidate in the last half century.  The one time that we had a nationally viable third option the map was not purple, it was an indescribable purplish-greenish mess.  By accepting a Red and Blue dichotomy we are silencing the actual diversity of opinions in this country.

P.P.P.S  If you would like to read a more scholarly article on the idea of a Purple America you can find one here.


1 comment:

  1. Blue archipelago dweller here. Join us: it's bliss.