By David Langlieb
Last Word Editor
The “red state/blue state” paradigm of electoral politics has become so firmly entrenched in recent discourse that few have taken time to investigate its origins. The concept was introduced on the night of the 1976 presidential election by John Chancellor, who thought it might pep up his network newscast to color Republican states blue and Democatic states red as the returns came in (the colors were later reversed). Chancellor was a good man who is probably rolling in his grave as he watches the seemingly innocuous gimmick become the theater of battle for a culture war that does not exist.
Red State/Blue State as it is discussed today evolved from an article by neoconservative pundit David Brooks, who â€“ prior to drinking the Bush Administration’s Kool-Aid at the New York Times â€“ wrote a piece in the Atlantic Monthly titled “One Nation, Slightly Divisible.” Brooks visited two places: heavily Democratic Montgomery County, Maryland, and Republican-voting Franklin County, Pennsylvania. From these visits, Brooks squeezed out a pretentious and dishonest take on America’s sociopolitical divide.
Rural Franklin County is “a place with no Starbucks, no Pottery Barn, no Borders or Barnes & Noble,” he writes. “No blue New York Times delivery bags dot the driveways on Sunday mornings. In this place people don’t complain that Woody Allen isn’t as funny as he used to be, because they never thought he was funny. In this place you can go to a year’s worth of dinner parties without hearing anyone quote an apercu he first heard on Charlie Rose.”
Suburban Montgomery County (where Brooks lives) is “—more sophisticated and cosmopolitan—just ask us about our alumni trips to China or Provence or our interest in Buddhism—In my world the easiest way to categorize people is by headroom needs. People who went to business school or law school like a lot of headroom. They buy humongous sports utility vehicles that practically have cathedral ceilings over the front seats. They live in homes the size of country clubs, with soaring entry atriums so high that they could practically fly a kite when they come through the front door.”
Which is all well and good. There are undoubtedly people in Franklin County who don’t like Woody Allen, just as Montgomery County surely has a lot of people who have been to China and own large homes. If Brooks had stopped there, he’d have written something dull and obvious but essentially harmless.
But Brooks ups the ante and tries to pass off the Franklin v. Montgomery comparison as illustrative of America’s conservative/liberal split. And that dog (as they say in Brooks’s faux “red state America”) just won’t hunt. In fact, it can barely walk.
Brooks chooses Montgomery County as his liberal “blue state” enclave because it’s where the liberals he knows personally all live. But Montgomery County is only one kind of heavily Democratic place. And it’s not the most common type.
Though Democrats continue to win decent shares of the suburban vote (particularly as compared to their suburban performance through the 1980s), the country’s liberal strongholds are majority urban and largely poor. Suppose that an enterprising journalist like myself were to try and characterize “blue state America” as Washington D.C.’s majority-black Anacostia, one of the country’s poorest, most Democratic communities. It might read something like this:
“Anacostia is a place with no Starbucks, no Pottery Barn, no Borders or Barnes & Noble. Few people have time to read the New York Times on Sunday mornings because they’re too busy sweeping up the crack vials from the hallways of their public housing project. In this place people don’t complain about Woody Allen not being funny anymore because they don’t know who he is. In this place you won’t hear anyone talking about Charlie Rose at dinner parties because the dinner parties are held at gunpoint and everyone’s mouth has been clamped with a rag and they’re really not dinner parties at all but burglaries.”
It’s about as pretentious as Brooks’ column but more accurate because it describes a neighborhood closer to the “average” Democrat-voting community than lily-white Montgomery County.
Brooks is propagating the myth – reinforced by a Washington media living amongst Montgomery County liberals â€“ that Democrats are the party of elite, new age yuppie professionals and Republicans are favored by the poor. It is complete garbage.
Don’t believe me? Among voters earning under $15,000 a year, Kerry beat Bush 63% to 36%. Among voters earning between $15,000 and $30,000 a year, Kerry beat Bush 57% to 42%. Among voters earning between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, Kerry beat Bush 50% to 49%. In every single other income bracket Bush beat Kerry by progressively greater margins. Voters earning more than $200,000 a year went for Bush 63% to 35%.
Brooks’ red state/blue state paradigm is the Republican Party’s attempt at a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they can create the illusion that Democrats are all a party of out-of-touch elites, then they might be able to peel away some working class votes.
An honest account of America’s socio-political divide would acknowledge the enormous number of votes that Democrats get from poor urban strongholds like Philadelphia, Cleveland, and the Bronx. It might also mention some of the horribly impoverished majority-black rural communities in Mississippi and Alabama that vote overwhelmingly Democrat. And maybe even the Republican-voting exurban communities in cookie cutter suburbs of Atlanta and Charlotte where there are loads of rich white professionals who might even go to Starbucks now and then.
I know it wouldn’t fit into Brooks’ model. But it might be, you know— true.