Red and Blue States Not Black-and-White: Sharp Demarcations on Electoral Map Don’t Match Reality

August 15, 2004

To hear the pundits tell it, you San Franciscans are a race apart—the bluest of the Blues.

You live in your own world.

You’re said to inhabit the most liberal and atypical of the multiethnic coastal citadels—a polyglot Babel surrounded by homogenous “red” states.

And while you’re still nominally part of America, the talking heads are making a cottage industry of depicting your total disconnection from the white-bread, church-going counties and inland states that voted for George W. Bush in 2000.

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The experts love this notion of a “Red-Blue” nation in which polyglot San Francisco (like Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Seattle) stands cut off and utterly at odds from Main Street America.

“We have two parallel universes,” is the way John Kenneth White, author of “The Values Divide,” put it in a recent interview in the Washington Post. Adds Hans Noel, a political scientist at UCLA : “It’s huge. People in these two countries don’t even see each other.”

Who, then, can blame San Franciscans, blitzed by Beltway stereotypes, for rubbing their eyes at the chasm that supposedly separates them from the gun-toting, Wal-Mart-shopping religious maniacs across the rest of America?

And yet, before the notion of places like San Francisco and its political and demographic isolation and exceptionalism hardens irrevocably, let’s all take a deep breath and consider that the truth of “Red-Blue America” may not be as black and white as the pundits insist.

For one thing, if you look at the actual sentiments behind the polarized two-color map of the 2000 election returns, it turns out Americans’ basic differences are way overblown.

That is the burden of recent books by Alan Wolfe and Stanley Greenberg, after all, and it’s the clear conclusion of an even more forceful one due out this summer titled “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America” by Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina and two colleagues.

Fiorina and his co-authors essentially say the cultural chasm is hype, a Beltway myth based on a misrepresentation of the way the Electoral College distorts outcomes. Look at polling information, they say, and it shows people in Blue and Red states don’t differ that much.

Six in 10 voters in both Blue and Red states agree large companies wield too much power, for example. Seven in 10 in each believe English should be the official language of the United States.

Likewise, majorities across all states favor stricter gun control and the death penalty, while support for women’s equality is overwhelming and nearly identical in both zones.

For that matter, majorities of both Blue-state and Red-state voters believe the government should ensure fair treatment of blacks in employment, though they also overwhelmingly oppose racial preferences in hiring.

Here’s one more: 4 in 10 people in both kingdoms put environmental considerations above job issues.

So much, then, for all the huffing and puffing. San Franciscans’ great estrangement from Red America may actually be oversold because, in fact, their views and those “out there” aren’t so different after all (well, gay marriage is another story).

There’s another way the chasm may be narrowing: The similarly ballyhooed geographical segregation of America may also be overstated, at least in big cities.

Here again, the hype machine has been running overtime, implying that the nation has everywhere been sorting itself into a segregated patchwork of monochromatic, like-minded neighborhoods.

Yet witness a new analysis of neighborhood-level census data from the Brookings Institution, which reveals that in fact a striking degree of racial and ethnic mixing occurred in at least the nation’s 10 major metropolitan areas during the 1990s, whether they be in Blue or Red states.

According to the study by researchers at Wayne State University, fewer Americans in large cities today live in the sort of homogeneous, predominantly white neighborhoods that supposedly constitute Red America than did in 1990, while many more live in mixed communities.

Overall, the number of such white neighborhoods fell by 30 percent during the 1990s in the 10 biggest metro areas. That means that by 2000, fewer than 1 in 4 neighborhoods in those areas was predominantly (at least 80 percent) white. At the same time, the number of mixed neighborhoods rose by 14 percent.

Nor were Red-state metropolitan areas exempted from the new mixing. Granted, such solidly Red strongholds as Atlanta, Dallas and Houston have many more than the Bay Area’s tiny number (29, or 2.4 percent) of predominantly white neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, red-hued Atlanta, Dallas and Houston all saw huge declines in their stocks of predominantly white neighborhoods, and strong ethic mixing. Dallas and Houston, for example, each saw more than a halving of their white neighborhoods, bringing their proportion down to just 13 and 8 percent of the region’s total number of tracts.

Meanwhile, both metropolitan areas exceed San Francisco’s 71 percent proportion of mixed neighborhoods.

The upshot: More and more of the nation’s cities, even Red ones, are beginning to resemble the deep Blue Bay Area.

Or take Sugar Land, Texas, the hometown of House Majority Leader Tom Delay. Reading a recent article portraying Sugar Land as an epicenter of Red America, a place of manly men and Bud Light and gun racks, one might infer from the characters profiled that the city is overwhelmingly white. But like most of metropolitan Houston, Sugar Land’s residents are a racially varied bunch that includes significant numbers of Asians, Hispanics and blacks. As in Dallas, about three-quarters of the Houston area’s neighborhoods are mixed race.

Which suggests again that although Americans may be sorting themselves into communities that are more and more politically homogenous, the facts, at least from an ethnic standpoint, belie the pundits’ picture of an increasingly segregated nation.

In sum, then, San Franciscans should discount the media’s nightmare conjurings of a heartland full of right-wing preachers, clear-cutters and misogynists, just as the rest of the country should rest assured you’re not just a Birkenstock-wearing, chai-sipping, neo-hippie resident of Gomorrah.

There is no culture war convulsing America, at least among regular folks outside the political professionals. And in the big metropolitan areas where demographic change happens first, a nation that is supposedly engaging in a voluntary political segregation turns out to be mixing and changing in other ways in a surprisingly dynamic fashion.

In that sense, the true future of the nation may well be Red and Blue in some places, but it will also surely be brown and beige and black and many other colors unanticipated. Like San Francisco.