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What Painted Us So Indelibly Red and Blue?

Republican and Democratic states aren’t exactly sure what they are for, but they know what they’re against.

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2020 U.S. election results.
(Shutterstock)
“We’re not a collection of red and blue states,” Barack Obama is famously supposed to have said in 2004. “We’re the United States of America.” Obama didn’t use those exact words, but it doesn’t matter. He expressed the same sentiments before, during and after his presidency.

Obama was right about a lot of things during his two-decade public career, but that wasn’t one of them. In the 17 years since he made his legendary speech to the Democratic National Convention, the gulf between red and blue, as all of us know, has intensified and deepened. Most of the states we live in are either solidly Republican red or Democratic blue, and the atmosphere of hostility between them grows more corrosive with each passing year.

The extent of the division is easy to document, especially in presidential elections. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter narrowly won the presidency, the margin in most states was narrow. Carter got at least 40 percent in all but six of them. Last year, when Joe Biden won a close election, he wasn’t even competitive in nearly half the states. There is no need to belabor the numbers. They are all too familiar.

Sometimes, however, the simplest questions become the most difficult ones to answer. We live in a collection of divergent and mutually antagonistic constituencies. How did we get that way?

It’s worth pointing out that rigid regional divisions aren’t rare in American political history. Throughout the second half of the 19th century and for much of the early 20th, the country voted in ways approximating the current red and blue divide. The former Confederate states and the rest of the South were unshakably Democratic. New England and the upper Midwest were heavily Republican. The number of battleground states was as small as it is now, and disproportionate attention was paid to them: In most presidential contests, one party or both placed someone on the ticket from Indiana because that state was perennially up for grabs.

But even allowing for this history, what has happened in the last generation has been remarkable. In the 1980s, eastern states such as New Jersey and Connecticut voted solidly for Ronald Reagan. Today the notion of either of them going Republican for president verges on the preposterous. In most of the 1980s, West Virginia was a Democratic stronghold, as it had been for half a century. Today the state is a lock for the GOP every four years. It’s not just that so many states have switched loyalties in the past 30 years. It’s that those loyalties seem utterly impervious to change any time in the foreseeable future.

OF COURSE, THE DEEPENING RIGIDITIES of presidential voting in most states mirror what is going on within them. Legislatures nearly everywhere have become as deeply and immovably partisan as presidential voting patterns. This is in large part a function of gerrymandering. But there is no way you can gerrymander an entire state. Something is going on that applies separately to state-level politics. What might that be?

In some cases, especially in the Southwest, the answer is demographic change. Arizona and New Mexico have begun voting Democratic for president in large part due to a substantial influx of Latino voters over the past couple of decades. But there is a great deal that demographics cannot explain. West Virginia has changed very little demographically, other than having large numbers of its residents move out. And yet its partisan allegiances have turned nearly 180 degrees.

I think a better way to explain what has happened is to look at the larger concept of state loyalty — where it comes from, where it is strongest and what kinds of forces might drive it to change over time.

I’ve always been interested in the fact that some states develop deep personal attachment among their residents and some don’t. Most Texans, whatever their ideology may be, identify proudly as Texans. “Live free or die” really means something in New Hampshire. Minnesotans take pride in their reputation for civility and decency. But I’ve never heard anyone shout “Ohio Forever” or “God Save Pennsylvania.” I grew up in Chicago and feel a strong loyalty to it many years after I moved away, but Illinois means virtually nothing to me. It’s a state whose most striking modern attributes have been crooked governors and fiscal irresponsibility.

If I had to make an estimate, I’d say that deep attachments to one’s home state are a significant fact of life in less than half the states in the country. But I’m wondering if, in this red-and-blue era of American public life, that may be changing. The majority of states that tilt strongly one way or the other may be nurturing personal loyalties that haven’t existed before, or at least not for a long time.

What sorts of loyalties? Not exclusively political ones. I would describe them, pardon the verbal clumsiness, as political-social-cultural affinities. Missouri might serve as an example. For most of the 20th century, it was the quintessential bellwether state in presidential elections. It nearly always voted for the winner. Now it has turned solid red. What has created that transformation? A feeling, at least among its nonurban residents, that it is true to traditional American values and, perhaps more importantly, that it has next to nothing in common with the coastal elites that it sees as dominating the Democratic Party.

Missouri has cast its lot in opposition to cultural permissiveness in all its many forms. West Virginia has declared itself in opposition to the gun-banning, coal-hating environmentalists that it sees on the other side of the cultural divide. These states may not be exactly sure what they are for, but a majority of their citizens know what they are against. That is a form of state loyalty that I would argue did not exist until the comparatively recent past. Hillary Clinton, running for president in 2016, a 68-year-old grandmother who had grown up in a conservative Illinois suburb and spent much of her adult life in Arkansas, somehow came to be the symbol of everything red America had turned against.

In a similar way, states such as Oregon and Washington, reasonably close between the two parties until relatively recently, seem to have declared themselves against what they see as the unenlightened prejudices of America’s rural and small-town midsection. Guns and fundamentalism still have their passionate adherents in the Pacific Northwest, but those adherents are now a decided cultural minority.

In other words, we don’t just have a politics of red and blue at this point in the 21st century — we have a politics of coast vs. hinterland. And that is binding us to the states we live in more than has been true at any time in the recent past.

ONE OF THE MOST COMPELLING QUESTIONS about the 2016 presidential election, perhaps the most compelling of all, is the question of what the resentful voters who elected Donald Trump were most resentful of. When I think about this, I often envision a small or medium-size town in the Midwest, perhaps in Iowa or Missouri. For most of the past half-century it was a comfortably homogeneous white working-class town, home to a large manufacturing installation that offered stable if repetitive work and a predictable path to retirement.

Now that plant is gone, and the largest private employer is an enormous meatpacking facility whose immigrant workers toil at dirty low-paying jobs that the aging white inhabitants wouldn’t touch. The meatpackers don’t speak much English, and they serve a cuisine, listen to music and celebrate festivals that the old-timers don’t understand or appreciate. Most of the middle-aged white workers who have lost their factory jobs will never find anything remotely comparable again, and if they do work, it is as poorly paid clerks, security guards or discount-store greeters.

These people watch as a highly educated elite living far away secures comfortable work and achieves an affluence they can scarcely imagine. This elite espouses values the aging Midwesterners were taught to consider abhorrent: gay marriage, unchecked immigration, casual drug use, racial apology.

Are the resentments that these changes set in motion mostly economic or mostly cultural? The answer, of course, is yes — they are both of those. But the cultural wounds cut the deepest, and are the most likely to drive working-class people to look at the coastal elites and say: ”That isn’t us. That isn’t Missouri. That isn’t Iowa.” And so a red state is born and retains its redness for several elections in a row.

The scholarly consensus about American political history is that political realignments do not occur primarily because voters change their minds, but because a new generation emerges into adulthood with a different set of values and voting habits. That may be happening now: Polls seem to suggest that the youngest American voters, even in places like Missouri and Iowa, are shedding many of the cultural values of their working-class elders. In that case, some of the current red states will gradually change color, and blue, not red, will become the nation’s primary color. But if it does happen, it will not be an easy transition, and the road will not be a comfortable one to travel.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at ehrenhalt@yahoo.com.
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