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October 2, 2006

purple nation

We're just back from a high school reunion in Macon, Georgia. Bush took 58% of Georgia's vote in 2004, and 96% of the "white conservative protestant" vote in the state. At the reunion, nobody talked about politics, but religion was freely discussed, and it was clear that most participants were conservative and protestant (and white). We live in DC, where only 2% of exit poll respondents described themselves as "white conservative protestants" in 2004, and Bush took just 9% of the vote.

This seems a good time to mention "A House Divided: The Psychology of Red and Blue America," a recent article by D. Conor Seyle and Matthew L. Newman in The American Psychologist. The authors criticize the omnipresent map of red states and blue states. They contend that this map is not merely a flawed device for representing our situation; it also affects us in troubling ways.

The map is a misleading representation because it organizes America along one dimension and divides all the states into just two categories. In reality, there are differences among Democrats and among Republicans, and there are big regional variations within states. Sometimes, the line between red and blue seems clearly inappropriate. For example, Pennsylvania and Ohio are pretty similar politically; but on the map, Ohio is as red as Utah, and Pennsylvania is as blue as Vermont.

This misrepresentation may have negative effects:

1. It can make the political minority in a state feel marginal and demoralized, although sometimes they have great political potential. (For example, Kerry took Bibb county, where Macon is located.)

2. It can prompt the two groups to move to their extremes, following a well-known pattern in social pyschology.

3. It can instill a sense that we are fundamentally divided into two identity groups, whose members not only vote differently, but also worship differently, eat different food, and hope for different futures for their children. To a large extent, that's false.

It's worth contrasting the red-versus-blue scheme with old-fashioned party labels. The "Democratic" label is a cue to think about electoral politics; and electoral politics is about disagreement and competition. To call yourself a "Democrat" may prompt positive feelings among fellow Democrats and negative ones among Republicans--which is fine. Even people who vote differently can get along well when they're not talking about politics.

In contrast, "red" and "blue" appear to be "unique and overlapping" categories (as Seyle and Newman write). They indicate a person's culinary taste, regional accent, denomination, race, preferred means of transportation, favorite news source, and practically everything else about him. If we think in such categories, it's hard to cooperate even when we happen to agree.

Senator Obama was right:

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 in 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. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

October 2, 2006 7:33 AM | category: Barack Obama | Comments


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