American Perceptions of Red and Blue States Widens The Actual Divide
All states are purple states, despite how it’s often presented
“The biggest lie perpetrated on the American public in the last thirty years has been that we’re irrevocably divided between Red and Blue.” -former senator Bill Bradley
In 2009 Abraham Rutchick and his co-authors published a paper, Seeing Red (and Blue): Effects of Electoral College Depictions on Political Group Perception. Here is what they said about their research:
Colored maps depicting electoral results may exacerbate perceptions of polarization, rather than merely reflecting them. Participants viewed maps of state-by-state Presidential election results that were either Electoral (red/Republican or blue/Democrat) or Proportional (purples that proportionally reflected each group’s support).
Half of the maps also displayed state-level numeric electoral results. Participants viewing Electoral maps perceived the nation as more politically divided, stereotyped the political beliefs of residents of various states more, and saw people holding views in the political minority as less agentic and less likely to vote. These differences occurred even in the presence of numeric data.
They reported that American political viewpoints span a wide spectrum and which are in most states fairly moderate. Certainly, some states lean more one way than the other, but that no state has a monolithic political identity. Depicting the states as either universally Red or Blue, not only misrepresents the fact that all states are purple states, it reinforces the perception of a deep political divide in this country, which in turn, reinforces an Us/Them outlook.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the history of the Electoral College and how far from it being something that was specifically crafted by the Founding Fathers to work the way it does, it was really a cobbled-together compromise that they came to in order to accommodate a variety of viewpoints about how to choose the President. Some of the Founding Fathers were very nervous about the democratic idea of letting ordinary citizens have that much direct power. At that time, there were no other functioning democracies and so it was a revolutionary idea. Not so in the present day, where there are plenty of democracies that do just fine without some kind of checks on the will of the people.
But whenever I talk about the Electoral College, there are always those who assert the idea that it protects the smaller states or the middle states from being at the mercy of big population states like California, which are perceived to be largely urban areas full of die-hard Democrats. Sure, there are a lot of people who live in big cities in California, and more of them are Democrats than in some other places in the country, but if you look at the map above, you can see that it’s a light purple state, but it is still purple. Besides the fact that minority rule is not exactly a democratic principle, this assertion about California has other problems.
Outside of the populated urban areas of California, there’s a lot of farmland, so it’s clearly not all urban centers. It’s where most of our produce comes from after all. In addition, California has a long history of movements to separate into new states to better reflect the diversity and different regional flavors. These initiatives to break up into several smaller states has been on-going since 1855, pretty much since the very beginning of statehood. In 1965 the state Senate passed a bill to divide California into two, with the Tehachapi Mountains as the dividing line, but it never made it out of committee in the state Assembly. Then again in 1992 a bill passed the state Assembly to divide into three separate states, but this time it died in the state Senate. In light of this, it’s absurd to try to characterize California as a homogeneous monolith.
And California is only one example of a state with a lot of diversity that tends to be painted with a broad brush of uniformity when it comes to political discussions. Texas lives in most people’s minds as a firmly Red state, thanks in part to the Electoral College, but if you look at the map above, you’ll see that it is one of the most blended of the purple states. Joe Biden didn’t win Texas in the 2020 election, but he came pretty close — surprisingly close, by some estimations.
With two exceptions (Nebraska and Maine), each state has a winner-take-all allocation of votes in the Electoral College for a presidential election in which the candidate receiving a plurality of votes in each state is awarded all of that state’s electoral votes. Due to the Red–Blue electoral map, each states’ political attitudes then get presented to us in a binary fashion.
This changes our perception of what is really going on because the Red–Blue depiction implies little overlap in the political views of each state. “Even the smallest margin of victory appears as if it were a unanimous decision; it displays a 51% Republican — 49% Democrat result as 100% red and 0% blue. Moreover, perceivers place disproportionate attention on the outcome of a group decision when evaluating group members’ attitudes (Allison & Messick, 1985).”
This encourages us to focus more on the dichotomous outcome than the actual proportion of voters supporting each candidate, which tends to overestimate the support of the candidate with the majority of votes. Although it’s accurate for the purpose of Electoral College allocation of votes, classifying an entire state as being either Red or Blue greatly exaggerates the extent of the divide in American political beliefs.
In the 2008 election, there was considerable variance among red states in how “red” they are, ranging from Wyoming’s 64.8% Republican to Missouri’s 49.4%. Blue states are similarly variable, ranging from Hawaii’s 71.6%. Democrat to Wisconsin’s 49.7%. This variability is ignored in Red–Blue depictions. Moreover, as observed by Seyle and Newman (2006), different states may vote the way they do for different reasons. Equating, for example, the political views of Washington with those of New Jersey (as the Red–Blue map does) ignores considerable regional and cultural differences between the states.
Although this may not be the intent, this type of binary depiction of electoral information influences perceptions of polarization, political attitudes, political agency, and the likelihood of even bothering to vote. Rutchick, et al determined that participants in their study who viewed the Electoral map saw the nation as more divided both in general and with respect to specific political issues. “Exposure to Electoral maps thus polarized perceptions of political attitudes: residents of conservative states were seen as more conservative, and residents of liberal states were seen as more liberal, than when participants were exposed to Proportional maps.”
Consequently, people in non-battleground states who are in the political minority are perceived as having less political agency, which in turn led to the fear and to the perception that such people were less likely to vote. One of my main criticisms of the Electoral College is that it essentially robs close to half the population of so-called “spectator states” of the impact of their votes, and provides a disincentive to residents of those states to vote in the first place. In the 2016 Presidential election, the vast majority of campaigning was done in just 4 states.
But aside from these aspects related to voter turn-out and political perception, the increase in polarization actively works against the tenets of democracy, which almost by definition, requires collaboration and political compromise. As we have seen more and more in recent years, polarization leads to gridlock and inefficient government. “Compromise is a hallmark of democracy (e.g., Moaz & Russett, 1992; Mousseau, 1998), and the consequences of failing to find common ground are often lamented: partisan politics and legislative deadlock, often accompanied by considerable rancor.”
Reinforcing political tribalism sells TV airtime and gains both print and online readership, but that doesn’t mean that it’s in the larger interests of the nation. And as far as I can tell, the Electoral College doesn’t do anything relevant or beneficial for the modern political process. For more on that, read If You Support The Electoral College: You probably fear that those you distrust might get too much power, just like the Founding Fathers.
What it does do is distort the political character of this country and further solidify a perception of state political identity that doesn’t actually exist. It furthers the Us vs. Them narrative which doesn’t serve the average citizen. It only serves the media outlets who want your attention and the advertising dollars that come with that, as well as the political machinery that also wants your time and money for its own ends.
We do have a lot of political diversity, in each and every state of the union, and because of that, I’m going to stop using the terms Red state and Blue state. They contribute to polarization, and to the misperception of vast differences between regions (coastal states vs. interior states) that are destructive. Regional differences and varying state flavors do exist, but not in the strict binary that we’ve been being fed.
The Electoral College may not have been instituted as propaganda, but that is often how it’s used today, and frankly, we don’t need more divisive rhetoric, we need less. The Founding Fathers didn’t envision a two-party political system but rather instead devised something to deal with a wide variety of unaffiliated candidates who would ultimately be sorted out by the House. They couldn’t foresee a nation divided along two social and political poles, but I doubt that they would have supported any efforts to magnify and deepen the perception of that divide.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2020
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.