The Continental Divide: Why are Red States So Red and Blue States So Blue? - Spectator Blogs

31 October 2012

6:37 PM

31 October 2012

6:37 PM

So, for the third time in the last four American elections it looks as though this contest is gonna be a close one. As in 2004, however, the narrow-but-significant advantage still lies with the incumbent President. Indeed it is possible that this is one of those rare occasions in which the electoral college actually hurts the Republican candidate.

Be that as it may, the United States remains pretty evenly divided between its Blue and Red teams. Steven Pinker delves into history and anthropology in an attempt to explain why, as he puts it, “ideology and geography cluster so predictably?”

As you might expect he cites David Hackett Fischer’s masterpiece, Albion’s Seed, (still one of the most important interpretations of American history):

The North was largely settled by English farmers, the inland South by Scots-Irish herders. Anthropologists have long noted that societies that herd livestock in rugged terrain tend to develop a “culture of honor.” Since their wealth has feet and can be stolen in an eye blink, they are forced to deter rustlers by cultivating a hair-trigger for violent retaliation against any trespass or insult that probes their resolve. Farmers can afford to be less belligerent because it is harder to steal their land out from under them, particularly in territories within the reach of law enforcement. As the settlers moved westward, they took their respective cultures with them. The psychologist Richard Nisbett has shown that Southerners today continue to manifest a culture of honor which legitimizes violent retaliation. It can be seen in their laws (like capital punishment and a stand-your-ground right to self-defense), in their customs (like paddling [ed: ie, smacking] children in schools and volunteering for military service), even in their physiological reactions to trivial insults.

Moreover, as Pinker notes, the echoes of the Frontier can still be heard in contemporary American politics even though the Frontier closed more than a century ago. That is, the idea of the west still has some resonance and helps explain or inform, in terms of a kind of inherited folk memory, some of the political trends we may discern in today’s America.

Still, there are other forces at work too. Neither the south nor the west was ever dominated by heavy industry. No southern or western city (other than Los Angeles or San Francisco) ranked in the ten most populous cities in America before 1960. As late as this, more people lived in Baltimore than Houston.

It should not, therefore, be surprising that neither the south nor the west developed infrastructure – in terms of social housing and such like – to accommodate mass urbanisation nor as generous a safety-net to cope with the consequences of industrial decline. Moreover, the absence of heavy industry south of the Mason-Dixon line and west of the Mississippi ensured the labour movement never had as much influence on city and state politics in the south and west as it once did in the north-east and mid-west. This too helps account for south and west’s lesser emphasis on collective action or social solidarity or, for that matter, equality of either outcome or opportunity.

So while it’s certainly true that the various strands in American culture owe something to patterns of immigration and settlement these alone are not enough to explain why some states are so red and others so blue. (We should also be wary of forgetting that, actually, almost all states are really purple: Democrats win millions of votes in the south and west just as Republicans still win millions of votes on the east and west coasts.)


This is America, yo, so race matters too. Nixon’s Southern Strategy exploited a rich seam of resentment that’s not yet exhausted (though time is running out on the Win With White Folks approach). In the Deep South and Appalachia this manifested itself as a fear that liberating – in an economic as well as a political sense – blacks could only hurt working class whites who were not, incidentally, necessarily doing so very well for themselves as it was. And if the federal government could impose civil rights legislation, what else might it not feel like imposing some day in the future?

Gun control is another good example. By defeating Al Gore in 2000 the good people of Tennessee helped remove gun control from future presidential elections. Nevertheless, those Americans who insist upon their Second Amendment rights are not wrong to suppose that many other Americans would, if they had their way or could find a path towards doing so, severely limit those rights. Frankly, this includes the current President too.

That’s some of the reason why Obamacare is unpopular too. The mandate – purchase health insurance or pay the federal government a fine – smacks of big government bullying. Nor does the fact the mandate began life as an idea sponsored by the conservative Heritage Foudation in Washington change that. Nor does it matter that if Obamacare actually works (much too soon to say!) many of those people most likely to benefit from it are the same working-class whites in the south (and, to a lesser extent the west) who dislike Obama the most.

One of the things Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? thesis struggled to understand properly is that cultureis often more important than economics. What’s more, the people in the poorest states are also the people who may be least susceptible to political promises that voting for Candidate A will bring happier, sunnier, economic times. They’ve heard that often enough and dawn still hasn’t broken. On the other hand, the perceived threat of losing cherished cultural rights is more immediately and more obviously powerful than the hypothetical promise of economic advancement.

This is not just a question of left vs right either. In the 2008 Democratic primary Obama was man-handled by Hillary Clinton in the Redneck Arc that sweeps down the Appalachian Mountains and west towards the Ozarks, taking in parts of south-west Ohio and much of Kentucky as it goes. Race doubtless had a part to play in that contest too but there was more to it than that. Obama – a professorial, urban, northern liberal – just isn’t the kind of Democrat who plays well in West Virginia, Tennessee or Arkansas. But Democrats can win in these states: Montana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Arkansas all have Democratic governors. These politicians, however, tend to be from the party’s populist wing.

What’s more, this region is also home to the American-Americans. Some seven percent of census respondents decline to state their ethnic ancestry and instead write-in “American”. These people are most-highly concentrated in the country-music-and-college-football belt running in the Southern Highlands and either side of the Appalachians. Not coincidentally, these are the parts of the United States most heavily populated by the Scots-Irish and their descendents. (Their ur-Americanness is one reason, incidentally, why there’s not much of a Scottish lobby in America).

It ain’t – or shouldn’t be – a surprise that the American-Americans are liable to mistrust other Americans who, at least in their eyes, define themselves along ethnic or racial lines. These are the people who, as Jim Webb put it in his minor-classic Born Fighting, breed the boys who are disproportionately likely to fight and die in America’s wars.

You might think all this a long way from the Old Country and, in some measures, you’d be right. It’s hard to look at contemporary Scotland and Ulster and see these places as exemplars of rugged individualism. Nevertheless, if you look more closely you can still see some parallels between “redneck” culture in America and working-class protestant culture in Glasgow and Belfast.

Here too you can find a working-class culture that makes claim to a better, purer birthright than that afforded less fortunate catholic or otherwise foreign souls. A culture that boasts “We are the people” yet fears it’s not only misunderstood by the establishment but also actually under attack. The Orange Order and the Glasgow Rangers are, in at least some ways anyway, long-distant cousins of the American hillbilly culture. (Glasgow must be the “most Merle Haggard” city in Britain, too)

These people often horrify “right-thinking” metropolitan folk in this country just as surely as the rednecks appall the New York Times on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. In Scotland this cultural resentment hasn’t yet found a real political home (though, of course, it has one in Ulster) and perhaps the parallels ought not to be stretched too far. Nevertheless I think they exist and are worth paying attention to.

Back to the United States: even with the caveat that all states – even Oklahoma and Vermont – are more purple than the map suggests there are good reasons for the divide between red and blue and at least some of these date back to the earliest years of the Republic. That too is something worth trying to understand.



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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice thought.

  • WG

    Nice to see your club going down the toilet Alex; you’re nothing but an apologist to the guardian reading intelligentsia.

    NB We are the people!

  • john smith

    yeah uh alex that would work if there had been any consistency over time in the political expressions of the culture. as it is, for much of the 20th century the centre of socialist politics was the deep south and bible belt – oklahoma and kansas in particular. union membership was high and support for govt involvement in controlling the market was substantial.

    By contrast the republican north was wary of govt and jealously guarded individual rights against the state. the south backed the new deal enthusiastically; vermont and maine never voted for fdr once.

    “Obama – a professorial, urban, northern liberal – just isn’t the kind of Democrat who plays well in West Virginia…” you say. Really? So how was west virginia one of the half-dozen states that voted for dukakis in 1988. they also went for adlai stevenson over eisenhower.

    the current red-blue split emerged after 1988. before that it was more volatile. carter won texas and new york, but not california. reagan won vermont, etc. the current split has more to do with the uneven transition from industrial to post industrial economy, than herders for goddsake. y need to know a little more us history. i’ll go with thomas frank…

  • victor67

    Obama wil win not because he is a good candidate but because the republicans have alienated women, blacks,gays and hispanics. The days of winning elections with only middle class and rich white men are over in multi-cultural America.

  • Paige Belle

    To quote Steven Pinker is to announce that you are not very bright. Pinker is one of the truly fraudulent intellectuals out there. Even if he is right now and then, it is only by accident.

  • Eddie

    Anyone know why the US uses RED for right wing and BLUE for left wing, thus being out of step with the whole developed world?

    And why don’t they change?

    I am sure they talked about the ‘Reds’ when communism was a threat, as the commie USSR flag was red. Wasn’t that confusing? Reds under the Beds might mean Sarah Palin is under your bunkbed (something akin to the clown in that movie Poltergiest!)

    Is it a sort of ‘World Series’ situation again, where the US just does it differently, and doesn’t like football but razzy sports only they play?

  • kevinc

    This is utter bunkum. Up until the 60s/70s the South was almost entirely Democrat. This changed primarily as a result of civil rights legislation introduced by the Johnson administration.

    • John Cronin

      precisely. Massie has a bad habit of making rather hard to justify sweeping generalisations re US politics. The southern Democrats contained Klansmen and folks like GovernOr Wallace.

      I was in New York and (briefly) Chicago in the mid 80s, and was struck by the way that the Northern white working class, having religiously voted Democrat for a century, abandoned em en masse for the GOP as soon as the Dems put up a black councilman or mayoral candidate. Remember Harold Washington?

      I was taken aback by their attitudes, but they said: “Look at Detroit, look at Cleveland, look at Gary Indiana. First thing that happens when you get a black mayor is you get a black police chief, black fire chief, black sanitation chief, black education chief, then black deputies, and so on down the chain: the affirmative action machine rolls into action, the blue collar public sector jobs get handed to blacks regardless of their competence or honesty, honest long serving white cops and firemen and teachers get kicked out, the city infrastrcucture collapses under the weight of black incompetence and criminality, whitey moves out to satellite towns and the city goes down the toilet. The best way to avoid the scenario is to keep blacks out of office.

  • Baron

    Why dig out the original settlers, one can cut it with scissors of today. In the red states, people mostly work for living in primary, secondary sectors of the economy, have ‘real jobs’, jobs that create wealth, in the blue states it’s predominantly either voting for living or jobs in the tertiary sectors of the economy paid from transfers, these jobs pay alot nowadays, but ain’t essential for putting bread on the table.

    Just think, if the Republic were to implode whose output would be key to individual survival, that of a university professor, a trader on Wall Street, or a farmer, a car fitter? It’s a guess, but Baron reckons the majority of the former vote blue, the latter red.

    • Alex Massie

      Baron: most Wall Street traders vote Republican. Car fitters? Depends where you are. In much of the mid-west they’re as likely to be Democrats as Republicans. Especially in, say, Michigan and Ohio.

      • Baron

        Point taken, Alex, but it would still be interesting to know how the voting patterns fit the pattern of the Federal/State budget spend by state, not perhaps in a single year, but over say a five year time span (eliminating the impact of the Federal money on disaster relief and stuff).

        • Alex Massie

          Baron: Well, this ain’t a five year figure but on a per capita basis the states that receive the most federal cash are: Alaska (most), Virginia, Maryland, Hawaii, New Mexico, Kentucky, Alabama, West Virginia, Connecticut and North Dakota. Quite a bit of that is defense spending or government procurement but make of all this what you will…

          • Baron

            Alex, you win, Baron has checked three of the states that receive the highest Federal payout just on wages, they all vote Republican, the barbarian theory doesn’t stack up, he drops it, retires to the corner to repent in silence.

  • Kevin

    Well, that is a thoroughly plausible analysis of 50 states’ and multiple generations’ worth of souls in a country of 300 million whose southern border appears to be wide open.

    Here is my guess: people who live in metropolitan areas have nothing to do but fornicate, while those who live in “frontier country” have a much greater quality of life. That is why Obama is promoting abortion as possibly his number one policy, ahead of an economic agenda, in the hope that metropolitan liberal voters will outnumber the “rednecks”.

  • John Cronin

    Steve Sailer: could not have put it better myself…

    “Okay, but my copy of Fischer says that most of the South was settled not
    by Scots-Irish but by Southern English, who came from an
    authoritatively-governed wheat-growing and cattle-raising culture.

    You can’t talk about why the South today has a lot of white solidarity
    centering around the Republican Party and the North does not without
    talking about the, uh, Canadian border.

    Pinker’s Massachusetts is 6 percent black, so what’s the worst that
    could happen if the Democrats control the statehouse? A bunch of white
    Democratic politicians will just steal billions more on the next Big
    Dig. But, eventually, it will get dug. Every so often the white people
    of Massachusetts elect a Mitt Romney to cut down on the thieving by
    white Democrats, but it’s really not that big of a deal.

    Mississippi is 37 percent black, so what’s the worst that could happen
    if the Democrats control the statehouse? Well, blacks will make up the
    majority of the Democrats, so … Detroit, Gary, East St. Louis. Not
    surprisingly, almost all the white people in Mississippi make sure to
    vote Republican.”


  • CraigStrachan

    “In Scotland this cultural resentment hasn’t yet found a real political home”

    Surely the SNP’s no stranger to cultural resentment?

    • FranzFerdinad

      In the 70’s and 80’s that was almost certainly true….but the McGlashan style of Scottish nationalism with it’s Bannockburn anniversary march have long since been binned…..around about the same time they stopped their post 1979 referendum decline and began their ascent to power.

      The SNP aren’t unique in completely shedding their previous skin andd evolving towards the electorate….The Tories did it under Thatcher and then again to a lesser degree under Cameron…..not that long ago Labour was a Clause IV socialist party….

  • John Cronin

    Steve Sailer thoroughly debunked all of this last week in his website. Firstly, the South was settled by at least as many English as Scots-Irish (as the Americans refer to the Ulster Prods) – the upper and mid class English mainly settled the tidewater areas, – their descendents still own most of the land there – and sent the Scots-irish, whom they regarded, correctly, as a royal pain in the b*****cks, up into the hills to fight the injuns. It is only in the mountain areas of the South that the Scots-irish were the dominant ethnic group, and most of em weren’t “herders” any more than their ancestors in Ulster or Galloway were.

    The vast majority of southern whites abandoned the Democrats in the 60s and 70s and went over to the Republicans, basically cos of civil rights for blacks. 90% of blacks in Tennessee or Alabama vote Democrat (those who can be bothered to vote that is) and probably 70% of whites in those areas vote Republican.

    • John R Schuh

      Southerners are a blend of German-ScotchIrish and English, many of the latter coming from the hilly area west of London. The frontier experience melded them into a certain type. And whereever its sources, it is an honor society. Glen Campbell once made a movie set in Arkansas. The script had him getting into an argument with another character. He took the script to the director and said he couldn’t say these lines. Why not, because, Campbell said, if a Southerner said these words, the other guy will not argue back: he would lash out with his fists.