How deep the divide?
Scholars and pundits don't agree on the meaning of red and blue--or whether the nation is deeply split
Thanks to the power of the image--namely, those brightly colored maps used by TV analysts--the 2000 presidential election has come to be seen as the birth of two nations, one red and one blue. But what do those colors really tell us about American voters and the election that lies just ahead? The answers range from "almost everything" to "almost nothing." For even on the question of our divided condition, Americans, it seems, are strongly divided.
To many pundits, scholars, and activists, red and blue unquestionably delineate the two sides of a deep chasm running through the middle of American society, a geopolitical fault line created, most say, by differences in cultural and religious values. Red folks are NASCAR-lovin', gun-ownin', God-fearin' Republicans who mostly inhabit the rural, suburban, and small-town heartland stretching from the Deep South through the Great Plains and into the mountain states. Blue types, by contrast, are highly secular, latte-sipping, diversity-embracing Democrats concentrated in the urban areas on the two coasts and around the Great Lakes.
Conflict. These portraits are crude, of course--even caricatures. The "populist" reds are often hard to distinguish from the "elitist" blues in their deepest beliefs and values as well as in their more superficial consumer styles, and the two groups live more geographically intermingled lives than any bicolored electoral map would suggest. Then, too, some two-nation proponents say that economics and class are deeper causes of what only appears to be a predominantly cultural conflict.
Whatever their differences, though, all red-blue theorists believe that the divide is a deep and significant political reality. The most recent addition to this school of thought is the lavishly marketed, liberal manifesto The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro America, by Arizona entrepreneur John Sperling. While the book is at least partly an exercise in creative rebranding--red is dubbed retro; blue is renamed metro--the author has a much bolder agenda: to show why and how Democrats should regain control of the American political landscape by playing forcefully to their natural metro constituency and ignoring the retros. If his politics are decidedly liberal, though, Sperling speaks with the certainty of most red-blue theorists: "The electorate," he says, "is deeply divided."
But listen to Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina, and you hear a very different story. American voters may be divided quite evenly along electoral lines, Fiorina argues in his new book, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, but the divisions between most Americans on even the most hot-button cultural issues, including abortion, are not that deep. "That divide," says Fiorina, "is usually exaggerated."
Confusion. Facts on the ground do little to settle the matter. On one hand, as the Austin American-Statesman reports, "By 2000, about half of the nation's voters lived in counties where one party or another won the presidential election by 20 percentage points or more." So the geopolitical blue-red divide rules? Well, only if that quarter of the electorate called the swing voters--who inhabit both weakly and strongly partisan counties--is as unimportant as Sperling and others would have us believe.