Primary colors oversimplify a politically complex nation

  • By Osborn Elliott
  • Tuesday, January 11, 2005 9:00pm
  • Opinion

Here’s a New Year’s resolution for all Americans: No more chatter about that made-for-TV map carving up America into blue states and red states. That divisive contrivance – a product of television’s need for visual simplicity – has distorted political reality, exaggerated social and geographic differences and deepened animosities across the land. It has helped create a dangerous hubris among Republicans and unwarranted despair among Democrats.

By now the new map of the United States is all-too-firmly imprinted upon our minds: two coasts and an upper Midwest forming tight blobs of Democratic blue, and vast regions in the center and the South awash in Republican red. It looks like a country chopped apart, with the “reds” overwhelming the “blues” in every respect – land mass, population and electoral clout.

Print and broadcast commentators have contributed mightily to this geopolitical misrepresentation. Seizing on the dramatic visual, they have concocted a cartoon country where the blue states swarm with the latte-sipping elites, cruising in their Volvos from one windsurfing regatta to the next; and where, in red-state America, gun-slinging fundamentalists pilot their pickups to weekend NASCAR rallies, with Bibles (or perhaps six-packs) at the ready.

All this is, of course, a travesty of the truth. The biggest distortion created by the new map is its rendering of vast red and much-smaller blue swatches, suggesting a hugely-skewed distribution of population. The truth is that the U.S. population tends to bulk up in such blue areas as California, Illinois and New York, where big cities are to be found, not in those sprawling red tracts of far emptier space. The distorted red-and-blue map also suggests a huge gap in electoral and popular votes – when in reality, in 2004, both counts were close. President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry by 286 electoral votes to 252, and his margin of the popular vote was a slim 2.5 percent. Only in a dozen states did either candidate win 60 percent of the vote or more; even deep in the heart of Texas, one of the redder of the red states, Kerry won almost four out of every 10 votes – and in true-blue Pennsylvania, Bush walked off with a shade less than half.

What all this adds up to is that within every red state there is plenty of blue to be found (46.8 percent in the case of Colorado, for example) and within ever blue state there’s plenty of red – 40.5 percent in the case of New York, 44.3 percent in California. When you get down to the county and local level, things get really blurred; instead of sharp red and blue divisions, you find smudge after smudge of mauve, purple and pink.

The true dynamics of the 2004 election were complicated in the extreme. Instead of stereotypes marching lockstep to the polls by geographic, religious, economic or racial pre-ordination, it turns out that many individuals were asserting a quirky unpredictability. Did all those soccer moms really morph into security moms this time around? Were the voters who cited “moral values” protesting the immorality of gay marriage, or were some, as exit polls suggested, decrying the immorality of a “preventative” war by voting Democratic?

As for racial preferences, Kerry held on to most of the traditionally Democratic black vote – but Bush made sizable gains among Hispanics. And religion? It turns out that the challenger may have been done in not so much by the evangelicals as by his fellow Catholics in Ohio. Kerry might well have held onto these natural allies, and thus won the presidency, by judiciously spending the $14 million that remained in his campaign coffers the day after the election.

It’s a pity that TV’s need for dramatic visuals created such a false America this fall. And it’s a shame that the commentariat, ever needful of material to fill air space (and editorial columns such as this one) so eagerly pushed and poked things even further out of shape. America is a big country, with real differences. But often the divisions are a good deal more subtle than suggested by the stark renderings of that red-and-blue map.

Before 2008 rolls around, let’s dump the cartoon cartography and figure out a way to paint a self-portrait to reflect all the shadings and the subtleties – and the fundamental cohesion of this amazing land. That might just help Democrats rediscover their self-respect, and Republicans a modicum of modesty.

Osborn Elliott is a former Newsweek editor and dean emeritus of the Columbia University School of Journalism. This column originally appeared in The Day of New London, Conn.

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