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Blue states vs. red states?

COMMENTARY | March 28, 2005

Sociologist Leo Bogart says that labeling states as 'red' or 'blue' disguises the complexity of people's thinking about politics. There's a good bit of blue in the red states, and vice versa.

Q. Does it make much sense to think of states as "red" or "blue?"


By Leo Bogart

[Leo Bogart died in October 2005 at the age of 84.]


Since the last election, even the most sober of news media have been using the terms "red" and "blue" states to characterize America's polarized political orientation. The constant reiteration of this language has led to the assumption that there is a sharp ideological divide between the "liberal" West and Northeast coasts and the "conservative" remainder of the country.


In 2004, voters in 25 states chose George W. Bush by margins better than 53-47, and 13 states plus the District of Columbia gave John Kerry margins at least that big. Results like these tend to make reporters comfortable with the red and blue labels. But they shouldn't be.


Historically, there have always been sharp disparities in outlook within the United States. At various times these have reflected the differences among regions - in their economies, their levels of wealth, education, class structure and the ethnic origins of the inhabitants. But the differences between the people of Wyoming and those of Rhode Island are differences of degree. Democrats and Republicans, radicals, "liberals," "conservatives" and reactionaries can be found in every state of the Union.


The contrasts in opinion between urban and non-urban residents are far more striking than those that separate one state's voters from another's. Men and women characteristically differ in their political preferences. Should we label men "red" and women "blue"? In some states election results have been too close to call on the day after; in many states a majority for one party or another is tenuous indeed. The outmoded and undemocratic Electoral College system labels a state "red" or "blue" regardless of whether the popular vote was close or a landslide.


The use of this color-coding by journalists perpetuates a cliché and disguises the real complexity of people's thinking about politics, policies and candidates. Labeling people as “conservatives,” “liberals” or “moderates”, as many pollsters do, similarly obscures the reality that people’s opinions may lean left on some public issues and right on others.


This country shines in varying shades of purple, not red and blue.

Nieman Watchdog
See a related NiemanWatchdog item, 'Is the culture war a myth,' dealing with the views of Morris Fiorina and posted in August 2004.

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