The Disjointed States of America

After the results are counted on November 7, the varied political complexions of the 50 states will play a big role in post-election punditry. But beware of Wednesday-morning quarterbacks whose analysis goes no deeper than a contrast between red-state believers and blue-state pagans.

The assertion that America's red-blue divide is rooted in "moral values" was recently and rightly condemned by Newsweek's Jonathan Alter as an explanation that is "loaded and unfair, and was popularized by lazy-minded journalists." Pundits have latched onto "values" because nothing else seems to explain why so many millions of non-wealthy Americans are so insistent on voting so heavily against their own economic interests.

On this election eve of 2006, let's get a jump on the analysts and examine more closely the deep differences among the states in some of their most important characteristics.

Wages, wilderness, and Wal-Mart

Those post-2004 election maps that showed a blue "United States of Canada" draped over a big red "Jesusland", witty as they were, painted only an incomplete political picture. Leaving aside the usual election-year fascination with scandal, abortion, sexual orientation, and fear of foreigners, I took a more analytical approach, computing the relationships among states' rankings for eight different economic and environmental characteristics. Based on those rankings, I've bent and stretched the red-blue map in some new directions.

I compiled rankings of the 50 states for a range of characteristics, including wages, taxes, and energy costs from a recent Forbes Magazine's survey entitled "The Best States for Business," an environmental policy ("green-capacity") rating by the Resource Renewal Institute, and government data on median income, income inequality, population size, and the number of Wal-Mart Supercenters relative to population. Then I fed the data into a statistical procedure called "principal component analysis" to produce a different kind of US "map":

If you're interested in the details of how I carried out the statistical analyses, with links to the sources of data, see the notes at the end of the article, or for even more detail, visit here.
As you read through the state abbreviations from left to right on this statistical map, you move toward lower wages, lower taxes, cheaper energy, lower median income, cleaner air, and worse environmental policies. As you go from top to bottom, you move toward larger population, greater income inequality and poverty, and a less well educated workforce.

I've colored the states according to their 2004 electoral college vote: red for Bush states, blue for Kerry. The map almost completely separates the higher-business-expense, higher-wage, "greener" blue states from the business-friendly, low-wage, "browner" red ones. It's important to note that the data used to create the map did not include any geographical or partisan political data. The red and blue states differ so strongly in their economic and environmental characteristics that they sorted themselves out.

But look again, because the red-blue separation is more complex than can be conveyed in two primary colors.

States that stand out

On this map, the red-blue sorting happens in only in the left-right dimension. As you move from the top to the bottom of the map -- that is, as you move toward larger populations and a bigger gap between rich and poor -- you encounter both red and blue states all along the way. As a result, the presumably similar red states of Montana (MT) and Texas (TX) end up lying much farther apart than do, say, blue Connecticut (CT) and red Arizona (AZ).

As a campaign season wears on, candidates tend to "run to the center," and, accordingly, the media zero in on swing voters and swing states. But if, as we often hear, we're becoming a more divided nation, then it's worth looking at the states that are leading the way as the nation fractures. To do that, I drew a small circle around the map's center and cut it out, removing 16 states that hover close to the national average in most of the eight rankings. We're left with this map:

Now let's look at the divergent groups of states in the four corners. I generally don't like the kinds of catchy group nicknames favored by pop psychology and sociology. But rather than refer to the states on this graph with boring terms like "the group in the lower left", etc., I've gritted my teeth and named them according to their most obvious political and geographic traits:

Deep Blue (upper left): Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oregon, Vermont, Washington

Metropolis (lower left): California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas

Big Sky (upper right): Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming

Greater Dixie (lower right): Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee, West Virginia

All of the states in Deep Blue are, of course, blue. Metropolis is also the only group containing both red and blue states (3 red, 6 blue), so I've colored it purple in the table below. The other two groups are pure red. First, let's look at these groups of states for the eight yardsticks that went into making the map:

In addition, here are some other measures that didn't go into making the map but vary strongly among the groups:

The average scores given the groups by Forbes show much higher wages, taxes, and energy prices in Deep Blue and Metropolis and rock-bottom business expenses in Greater Dixie. And the mostly blue groups with higher wages and taxes have a larger supply of better-educated workers.

RRI's green-capacity index differs markedly between red and blue states, with greener states, liker bluer ones, having higher wages, taxes, and energy costs. Of the seven states praised by RRI as setting the best environmental examples (in order of their ranking, Oregon, New Jersey, Minnesota, Maine, Washington, Massachusetts, and Vermont), four belong to Deep Blue, two to Metropolis, and none to the red-state groups.

But no part of the country is doing enough to protect and restore the environment. Even by RRI's far-from-radical criteria, the best state groups score less than 50 out of 100; Oregon, at the top of the class, gets a grade of just 73. So there's no group of states we can label "Deep Green."

The tendency for states with better green indexes to have more air pollution is not the paradox it may seem. More highly urbanized states with a history of pollution have put stronger laws in place in recent years. States with more open skies have fewer regulations; for example, plans have been hatched recently to place two big new coal-fired power plants in sparsely populated western Kansas, primarily to serve Denver and the other cities of Colorado's Front Range. And the cancer-risk ranking that I used is only one of many possible measures of environmental quality. Nitrate pollution of water, for example, is a bigger problem in the more rural states.

The Metropolis group of states is by far the most populous. Indeed, eight of the ten largest states and nine of the nation's ten largest metropolitan areas (not counting Washington, DC, which isn't included in this analysis) are in the states of Metropolis. And median incomes in Deep Blue and Metropolis are a whopping 25% higher than in Big Sky and Greater Dixie.

Since 1970, income inequality has grown more severe in every single state in the Union; the most widely accepted measure of inequality, the Gini coefficient, has increased by an average of 20% within states. But inequality, unemployment, poverty, and racial/ethnic diversity don't strictly follow the red-blue divide. Unemployment and inequality are highest in Metropolis and Greater Dixie and much lower in the thinly populated, mostly rural Big Sky group. Poverty is least severe in Deep Blue and by far the most widespread in Greater Dixie.

Big Sky and Deep Blue states, which differ sharply in many ways, have at least two things in common: high voter turnout and heavily white populations. These results are consistent with recent University of Texas study (pdf) showing that greater income inequality is associated with more poverty and lower voter turnout. (It also showed, interestingly, that in the 1970s and 80s, states with greater inequality tended to vote more Republican but that now they vote more strongly Democratic.)

The minimum wage nationwide is set by the federal government, currently at an abysmal $5.15. (Compared with its value when it was last raised a decade ago, it's now worth a little over four bucks). States can set the minimum wage at a higher level if they wish, and it's currently 23% higher in Deep Blue and Metropolis than it is in Big Sky and Greater Dixie. The $5.15 federal minimum prevails almost everywhere in the two red groups.

Probably the starkest difference among these groups of states is in the number of Wal-Mart Supercenters per million residents. Supercenters, regular Wal-Mart stores, and Sam's Clubs are a universal feature of the landscape in Big Sky and Greater Dixie, as well as Georgia and Texas of the Metropolis group. Wal-Mart's many foes will see this as fully consistent with the low-wage, business-friendly, earth-unfriendly policies that prevail in the red states. The company's admirers, no doubt, will see the low density of Wal-Marts in the blue states as yet another example of liberal elitism.

The two red groups, where anti-big-government sentiment traditionally prevails, actually have stronger ties to the federal government than do the blue groups, with almost 20% more civilian federal-government jobs and 58% more military deaths in Iraq, relative to population. The higher Iraq casualty burden being borne by Big Sky and Greater Dixie, which grows largely out of the greater number of military bases and higher rates of enlistment in the South and West, is perhaps the most tragic result of red-staters voting against their own interests and, at the same time, against moral values.

Finally, evangelical Christians are almost twice as thick on the ground in Greater Dixie as they are in Metropolis or Deep Blue. It is this difference, along with opinion-poll questions on "values", that political analysts have relied upon to explain red-state voting patterns since 2000. But for pundits to set aside the huge disparities between red and blue states in wages, business and environmental policies, income inequality, population size, racial and ethnic makeup, poverty, and military impact, only to concentrate on their residents' feelings about "moral values", same-sex marriage, and the rights of fertilized eggs must require heroic concentration.

In this month's issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott demolished once and for all the idea that, as he put it, "the good people of the red states walk in Jesus's sandals while the rest of us are following Satan into the licking flames." And Wolcott's thesis has gotten plenty of backup from "Pastor Ted" Haggard, former Representatives Mark Foley and Bob Ney, and an ample cast of other red-state characters.

In view of the numbers we've just seen, a more likely explanation for evangelical enthusiasm in Republican-controlled regions was provided 162 years ago by a different kind of Red-stater, Karl Marx: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

Think locally?

Low- and middle-income people know only too well that there's class conflict in this country, and they know who's losing. In voting for the Right anyway, millions of people, mostly white, are in effect throwing up their hands and declaring surrender in the class war. Writing for New York Press in 2004, Mark Ames argued that those who would go to the polls that November and once again toss aside their own objective interests to keep the Republicans in power were not just hapless victims of clever manipulation by corporations or the media. Rather, he contended, they were casting a "spite vote" against well-heeled liberals whom they regard as happier than they are.

Ames declared that if he, like those downtrodden voters, was "mere wage-slave fodder", he also would "vote for the guy who delivers a big greasy portion of misery to the [Susan] Sarandon- [Tim] Robbins dining room table, then brags about it on FoxNews. Even if it means hurting myself in the process."

If it is a spite vote, it's not only futile but also badly misdirected. The policies that turn people into "wage-slave fodder" and wreck their quality of life are hatched mostly by Congressional, state, and local officials, not in the White House.

As the second table above shows, the red-blue divide in the presidential vote is mirrored in the party affiliations of senators and representatives that voters currently send to Washington and to their state legislatures. That will remain largely true in the next Congress, despite the larger-than-normal turnover that's expected. But, viewed state-by-state, the pattern's not so clear-cut. Blue Pennsylvania has a Congressional delegation that's two-thirds Republican. Arkansas and West Virginia (both of which gave Bush double-digit margins of victory in 2004) count 13 Democrats among their total of 15 representatives and senators. Meanwhile, state legislatures come in even more shades of purple.

As midterm elections go, the ones coming up on November 7 are arousing unusually broad and keen interest, thanks mostly to the Iraq war. That's a lot more interest than GOP leaders would like to see at this point. Reeling from the Iraq disaster and a variety of Congressional scandals, the Republicans seem desperate to direct voters away from big national debates, urging them instead, just this once, to think locally (unless they're thinking about John Kerry).

As Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told the Washington Times earlier this month, "We will do the same thing we have been doing -- spending tens of millions of dollars reminding voters this election is about local issues and local personalities and not a national referendum."

Mr. Forti had better be careful what he wishes for. If working Americans in every state -- red, blue, or purple -- really do head for the polls November 7 determined for once to vote their interests on issues of consequence, it's going to be a long, grim election night for the Right. For the rest of us, voting out the worst of the worst will be an important step toward a more equitable and greener United States. But we'll still have miles to go.

Note: As raw material for this analysis, I used eight lists of data listed below that rank states for characteristics that bear directly on the interests of working people, business owners, and the nation's ecological health (more detail on the analysis can be found here).

- State-by state rankings for business costs ("cost of labor, energy, and taxes") and size and skill of the labor force ("educational attainment, net migration, and population growth") given in Forbes Magazine's Aug. 2006 survey of "The Best States for Business"

- The ranking of states for cancer risk from air pollution, compiled by the pollution information site

- The "green capacity" of each state, calculated by the Resource Renewal Institute (RRI) from 24 indicators, encompassing information such as development of climate-change action plans, support for public transport, and protection of wild landscapes (pdf)

- State rankings for population size, median income , and income inequality (measured by the "Gini coefficient": (pdf )

- States ranked by their number of Wal-Mart Supercenters per million residents.

The usual red-blue political map classifies the states according to a single measurement, which is easy to show on a two-dimensional map but not very enlightening. The rankings I used place the states in an eight-dimensional space, but, unfortunately, such a space can't be put on a map. We can't perceive more than three dimensions -- at least in this universe -- and without fancy animation, I can show only two dimensions very clearly on your computer screen.

So I fed the correlations among the eight state rankings into a "principal component analysis", which can collapse many dimensions into one or a few that retain most of the original information. In this case, I plotted the first two principal components on a two-dimensional graph to create a new "map" of the 50 states, one that scatters the states according to their economic and environmental characteristics rather than by latitude and longitude.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.