Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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My column for this weekend’s National Post discusses the two most important books on US politics I read this year, Andrew Gelman’s Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State and Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort.

Good news: If you haven’t already read any of the half-dozen books published about John McCain in 2008 Ñ or the many more published about Hillary Clinton Ñ or the Palin books Ñ or the Bill Richardson book Ñ then you are in the clear! Game over, time saved.

But there are some books of enduring value that emerged from the 2008 political year, and two of them in particular are must-reading for anyone anywhere who wants to understand the inner workings of American politics.

The first is Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State. The book’s title and cover art may pay homage to Dr. Seuss. The author, however, is a doctor of a very different kind, one of America’s leading statisticians, Andrew Gelman of Columbia University.

In a lively and accessible way, Gelman sifts through data from the 2004 election to understand how the rich and the poor vote in America.

At first glance, American voting seems topsy-turvy. Super-wealthy communities like Beverly Hills, Aspen, and the Upper East Side of Manhattan vote Democratic. Meanwhile, Appalachia and Alaska are becoming ever more Republican. Republicans accuse the Democrats of “elitism.” Liberals wonder “what’s the matter with Kansas” and suspect low-income voters are either gullible or racist.

Gelman deconstructs the paradox. He argues that low-income voters understand their class interests very well. Americans who earn less than $30,000 vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Poor whites are less Democratic than poor blacks and Latinos; poor Texans are less Democratic than poor New Yorkers; but these are just details. If only the poor voted, the Democrats would win every state in the Union.

Where things get complicated is with more affluent voters, the richest one-third of Americans. In the red states, they vote overwhelmingly Republican. But not in the blue states. In places like California and Connecticut, these upper-income voters swing Democratic: not as Democratic as the poorest one-third, but Democratic enough to solidify a Democratic majority.

Why? Gelman delivers a surprising answer. Most of us have the notion that issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and immigration divide a more liberal, more permissive elite from a more traditionalist voting base: Bob Reiner vs Joe the Plumber. Not so, says Gelman, and he has numbers to prove it. Downmarket voters are bread-and-butter voters. It is upper America that is divided on social issues: a more permissive, more liberal elite in the Northeast and California Ñ a more religious, more conservative elite in the South and Midwest. It’s not Hollywood vs. Wassila. It’s Hollywood vs the wealthy suburbs of Dallas and Houston and Atlanta.

That division is the preoccupying theme of Bill Bishop’s Big Sort. Bishop begins with a startling fact:
In 2004, George W. Bush defeated John Kerry by less than 2.5% of the popular vote. Yet almost half the American population lived in a county that voted for one candidate or the other by a margin of 20 points or better. This trend toward “landslide counties” is new: In 1976, only one-fifth of Americans lived in a county that went for Ford or Carter by a margin of 20 points or more.

What’s changed? In an increasingly mobile country, Americans are able to “sort” themselves by lifestyle Ñ and increasingly, ideology is a component of lifestyle.

As people choose to live with others like themselves, they fall victim to a well-known phenomenon of group psychology: the tendency of like-minded groups to move to extremes more radical than any individual member would have gone on his or her own.

In other words, as Americans sort themselves out, they also become more divided from each other. Fewer than one out of four Americans report having regular conversations with people who disagree with their own political views. To choose a town becomes to choose a side. As local communities polarize, they elect representatives who are more partisan. Co-operation becomes more difficult, politics becomes more zero-sum.

As Americans become more isolated from each other, they increasingly treat reality itself as a political choice. In the 1990s, Republicans were much more likely to describe the economy negatively than were Democrats. After 2000, partisans switched sides, with Republicans more optimistic.

Bishop, himself a liberal Democrat, concludes his book with a surprising paean to the virtues of political apathy. “Having a good number of people who didn’t care much about politics was just as vital to democratic government as having the voting booths filled …. Indifferent citizens leavened the system, gave it suppleness, just what the partisan personality lacked. Apathy gave politicians room to maneuver, compromise, make deals, smother grease on the gears of representative democracy … Nothing could be more destructive than a society filled with knowledgeable, active and opinionated [citizens].”

On the other hand, democracy always needs at least some knowledgeable citizens Ñ and those who read these two brilliant, unexpected, and challenging books will register high on the list.

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