Red State, Blue State

August 3rd, 2009

In Blue-State Blues in The New York Times, Ross Douthat discusses President Obama’s need to take a new look at the differences between so-called red states and blue states.  Obama has often maintained that he doesn’t see red and blue states; he sees just one country.  That’s fine, but his politics and policy preferences directly reflect blue-state thinking, and the ideas he rejects are common to the red states.

There are obviously lots of fallacies in the red-state, blue-state paradigm.  A state can get its color by a very narrow margin in a state-wide election.  But that one factor obscures many, many other differences in the states.  A county-by-county depiction of red and blue, as shown in this map, is much more instructive.  It permits you to think about who lives in the red or blue counties, why they’re likely to have voted one way or another, and what their policy preferences are likely to be.  You can be sure that politicians and political operatives understand this.

However, one value of the red-state, blue-state paradigm is it permits a comparison of how states with Republican majorities are doing compared to states with Democratic majorities.  It shows, within limits, what kinds of policies state governments are likely to prefer and to implement state-wide.

The point Douthat makes is the President might benefit from considering the way things are done in different states and what the outcomes are.  Texas and California are the primary examples:

The red-blue contrast is often overdrawn. But it’s a sensible way to understand Obama’s summer struggles. On health care, energy, taxes and spending, he’s pushing a blue-state agenda during a recession that’s exposed some of the blue-state model’s weaknesses, and some of the red-state model’s strengths.

Consider Texas and California. In the Bush years, liberal polemicists turned the president’s home state — pious, lightly regulated, stingy with public services and mad for sprawl — into a symbol of everything that was barbaric about Republican America. Meanwhile, California, always liberalism’s favorite laboratory, was passing global-warming legislation, pouring billions into stem-cell research, and seemed to be negotiating its way toward universal health care.

But flash forward to the current recession, and suddenly Texas looks like a model citizen. The Lone Star kept growing well after the country had dipped into recession. Its unemployment rate and foreclosure rate are both well below the national average. It’s one of only six states that didn’t run budget deficits in 2009.

Meanwhile, California, long a paradise for regulators and public-sector unions, has become a fiscal disaster area. And it isn’t the only dark blue basket case. Eight states had unemployment over 11 percent in June; seven went for Barack Obama last November. Fourteen states are facing 2010 budget gaps that exceed 20 percent of their G.D.P.; only two went for John McCain. (Strikingly, they’re McCain’s own Arizona and Sarah Palin’s Alaska.) Of the nine states that have raised taxes this year, closing deficits at the expense of growth, almost all are liberal bastions.

My views on domestic policy issues are generally liberal, and at a gut level I support most of the kinds of policies promoted in blue states.  However, I’m not blind to the results of policies, the successes and failures that indicate whether a particular approach does or doesn’t work.  I agree with Douthat’s analysis, and I would add one more point that he didn’t make — Texas manages to do quite well, thank you, without a state income tax.


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9 Responses to “Red State, Blue State”



  1. Brian Bagent |

    It should really come as no surprise that the conservative ideal (“rugged individualism”) holds more sway in suburban and rural areas, and that the liberal ideal (“community”) holds more sway in large, densely populated areas.

    Another interesting thing for both parties to note is the racial demographics of the areas that they hold. The democrats are largely dependent on the minority vote which makes up roughly 25% of the electorate, and the minority votes are concentrated in urban areas: NYC, Newark, Philadelphia, Miami, Houston, St. Louis, Detroit, Madison, South Texas, Southern California, New Mexico, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Portland. There are exceptions, of course, as there are plenty of “white” areas that consistently vote democrat as well, but a minor shift in the minority vote would spell disaster for the DNC. The people that run both parties are, I think, acutely aware of this.

    What they don’t know, and I suspect most Americans don’t know either, is that neither party holds any real appeal at all for up to 30% of the adults in this country. I’m talking about those that know they are libertarians as well as those who hold largely libertarian views and do not realize it. Take this short quiz to see where your heart and mind has you. You might be surprised.


  2. Tom |

    Hmmm. I took the test and came out in the upper left of the centrist box, smack on the line between “left” and “libertarian.” Maybe this thing could use a few more questions and a little more refinement….


  3. larry |

    Aw yes.
    Just as I suspected.


  4. Brian |

    Tom, they’ve been using this test for about 25 or 30 years. It has been refined to this point after lots of test takers. These 10 questions hit the majority of the high spots as quickly and easily as possible.

    One of the things that this test does is demonstrate the inadequate view that the “left-right” line leaves us with. One can be far right or far left and still hold to views that would imbue the state with too much power. NAZIs, communists, and socialists would generally fall below it.

    To me, the most important point to take away from the quiz is whether you fall above or below the x-axis. You obviously are above it, so your ideology values freedom more than authoritarianism.

    Larry, what did you suspect?


  5. Lisa |

    I took the test and found out I am libertarian but in the right quadrant. It is an eye opener.


  6. Brian |

    Lisa, lots more folks are libertarian that realize it. It’s a dirty little secret that most of our politicians are afraid of, and more than that, they’re afraid that the people who are might some day discover it.


  7. larry |

    Brian
    I would have figured Tom for a centrist, same as me. Could such a result also mean we are part of the much feared undecided?


  8. Lisa |

    Brian, While I am a registered republican, I am most concerned about lowering taxes and smaller govt than I am about weighing in on MOST social issues. As a retired military officer, I vote for the candidate with demonstrated leadership ability as an executive. Incidentally, while I was serving in the military, “community organizer” was an additional duty which everyone did and it did NOT deserve mention on performance evaluations.


  9. Brian |

    Lower taxes and smaller government have a trickle-down on social issues.

    I am repulsed by many things, but as long as those things do not injure anyone, then those things are really none of my business. I do a great many things that would offend/repulse people of a more sensitive nature (hunting and fishing come to mind, a Copenhagen habit, an arsenal large enough to start a war in Surinam, etc). Those fall under “NUNYA” and I don’t any more want people interfering with my doing those things than I would interfere with cigarettes, fatty foods, or buggery.

    As far as criminal law, if somebody isn’t getting their toes stepped on, the government should probably stay out of it.


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