THE RED AND THE BLUE: The Cultural and Political Divide in America

Tuesday, January 22, 2002

Is America a divided nation? Sharp regional voting patterns were evident in the 2000 presidential election: rural, Midwestern, and southern voters went for Bush; urban and coastal voters went for Gore. These regional voting patterns have led some to describe America as one nation with two cultures. Is this an accurate way of looking at American society? Or is America divided along economic rather than cultural lines? Just how fundamental are these differences, and what impact will they have on the American political landscape?

Recorded on Tuesday, January 22, 2002

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: what's red, blue and divided in two?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: the Red and the Blue.You may recall seeing this map shortly after the presidential election of 2000. It shows the results county by county. Counties that voted for George W. Bush, largely rural, Midwestern and Southern, are shown in red. Counties that voted for Al Gore, largely urban and clustered on the coasts in blue. This result has led some to talk about the United States as two nations sharing a single country. Just how deep are the divisions between the red and the blue? What accounts for them and what effect are they likely to have on coming elections?

With us today, two guests. Michael Barone is a Senior Writer for U.S. News and World Report and the author most recently of The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again. Ruy Teixeira is a Fellow at the Century Foundation and author of the forthcoming book The Emerging Democratic Majority.

Title: One Nation, Divisible?

Peter Robinson: Writing about the red and the blue the journalist Andrew Sullivan: "America is currently two nations as culturally and politically alien as they are geographically distinct. One is Republican, the other Democratic." Is the line between Republican, red, and Democratic, blue, cultural, economic, ethnic or perhaps religious? Michael, choose no more than two of those adjectives.

Michael Barone: Choose it, I would say it is cultural and religious but you can throw some of those other things in there too.

Peter Robinson: Ruy?

Ruy Teixeira: I'd say it's cultural and political. I mean, these are very broad terms but I guess that's what I'd say.

Peter Robinson: Now I quote another journalist, I'll stop this after a while. David Brooks: "There are a couple of long standing theories about why America's divided, one of the main ones holds that the division is along class lines between haves and have-nots. This theory," I'm still quoting him, "can be found in America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters" by you [Ruy Teixeira]. So haves and have-nots, explain that thesis.

Ruy Teixeira: Well actually that's not a precise sort of summary about the case made in the book. The book is really--it's confusing descriptions with motivations. What the book does is it tries to look at a demographic slice of the U.S. electorate, these white working non-college educated voters and say what happened to them, how have they been voting in the 90's, how important are those to the political parties and does that have any relationship to how they have fared economically and how they feel about that. And so it tries to get a descriptive sense of what's going on with that. But does it say these voters are primarily motivated by economics or certainly only motivated by economics? No, and it certainly doesn't say that what politics in the United States is about is strictly class politics. Instead what it argued is that some of the ways these voters react to things are colored by their economic experience and that parties have to respond to their economic experience, particularly the Democrats but does that mean respond in the sense of class warfare type politics, does that mean respond in the sense of, you know, politics is just about class and I'm just going to speak to you as a working class against the affluent upper class? Not at all.

Peter Robinson: Not at all. This is a little bit surprising though isn't it? We have one of the longstanding patterns in American history is the Republicans, before them the Whigs, before them the Federalists were so to speak, the upscale party. There was a kind of division between haves and have-nots, right? But it didn't apply in the last election.

Michael Barone: Well I think that's been over-exaggerated actually. I would argue that on the whole in the long run of American history, cultural differences have been more important politically than economic differences, not always. You can certainly point to places where they were. The New Deal period you really do see an economic overlay, economic splits in very many states although, you know, even then in the south, you didn't have any black people voting. All the white people voted Democratic in most of those states, rich, poor, in between. But I think that the red and the blue states is really an example of--that is primarily a cultural difference that correlates highly with religion. Before the 2000 election, I wrote an article in U.S. News and World Report where I--essentially I think kind of forecast what was going on. I had taken a look at the election returns in the Presidential elections in '88, '92, and '96. And what I could see is that the Democrats had made significant gains in those major metropolitan areas especially the seven largest in the country, that have a quarter of the population. Those are culturally the more liberal parts, less conventionally religious. The Republicans had made corresponding though somewhat lesser gains in rural, non-metropolitan areas. And so that the end result of those two movements in the opposite direction is the deadlock we see between the red states and the blue states in November of 2000.

Peter Robinson: If cultural differences are more important than economic differences, didn't Al Gore make a huge mistake in the 2000 campaign?

Title: Running on Empty (Slogans)

Peter Robinson: How is it that somebody as adept at American politics as Al Gore and his pollster, Stanley Greenberg, could have got things so wrong? Gore said it might have been his campaign slogan for FDR, the slogan the people versus the powerful and yet Gore loses among non-college educated white voters by seventeen percent and among non-college educated white men by twenty-nine percent or as Michael Barone put it, Appalachia voted for Bush but Beverly Hills voted for Gore. How come? I mean that almost suggests that economics, haves and have-nots is, if anything, it indicates the reverse of what one would expect. Has it lost any predictive power at all?

Ruy Teixeira: I don't think it's lost entirely its predictive power but I think it just shows how complicated and complex American politics is in this era we're moving into. It's not simply a matter of class and it's not simply a matter of politics. It's a matter of both those and other things as well. For example, if you're going to look at these white working class non-college educated voters who went for Gore, you have to look at, you know, obviously not only their economic experience but also cultural factors such as how they feel about Gore and about the Clinton administration, about the scandals, so on and so forth. These things were clearly important motivations in moving them away from the Democratic column and into Bush's column. So again, all of this is too complicated I think to be reduced to an issue of culture versus class or culture or class.

Peter Robinson: Was the importance of culture as opposed to economics well understood going into the election of 2000 so such that Stanley Greenberg and Al Gore himself just got things completely wrong? They were sort of behind the emerging…

[Talking at same time]

Michael Barone: They didn't get things completely wrong. They nearly won.

Ruy Teixeira: Right, I mean, I was about to say, I mean, it's easy to criticize the Gore campaign for doing a lot of wrong things and they did do a lot of wrong things. They had a lot of baggage they were carrying around but to make the statement that because they adopted a populous tone in some ways, because they talked about the people versus the powerful, because they talked about social security and Medicare, they talked about government programs that would help, you know, sort of the average person versus rich people and so on, that that was a big mistake they made. On the contrary, I don't think there's a lot of good evidence that that's a mistake they made. Those themes were popular. It just turned out they weren't enough.

Michael Barone: They weren't. Well they weren't enough and I think there was some miscalculation there on the part most of all of the candidate. I mean, remember the peroration of Gore's convention speech, which was generally pretty well received. He talks about his father telling him to never forget the depression. Most voters in America don't know much about the depression since we've mostly given up teaching about American history altogether in our schools. Most voters come out, I'm exaggerating but only slightly, most voters don't know much about the depression. The only thing they know about World War II is the Japanese-American internment. You know, they've missed out on that whole thing. Gore was appealing to emotions, which simply do not exist in most voters I think and it was kind of a misfire. Gore was more like his father who was defeated thirty years before than George W. Bush was like his father who was defeated eight years before. It was Al Gore…

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: So Al Gore the putatively new age candidate was in fact the old-fashioned candidate.

Michael Barone: Well, in fact, he had trouble with some specific issues on which the Clinton-Gore administration had taken a strong stand and which gained them votes in the major metro areas, gun control, abortion, environmental issues like the Snake River levels in the Northwest, like the non point source pollution in farm states, like the Missouri River levels in Missouri. Gee, that stuff sold well on mailing lists to people in suburban New Jersey and suburban California but for people actually affected by these policies, these were vote losers. And, of course, he lost…

Peter Robinson: Back to our examination of the red and the blue beginning with ethnic differences.

Title: What Boat Did You Come In On?

Peter Robinson: Political consultant, John Morgan--you know John don't you?

Michael Barone: I know John Morgan.

Peter Robinson: Okay. John's a great guy. "The Republican Party," that's red America, "represents the descendents of people who came here in colonial and early American times. They're the ones who took the land and settled it. The Democrats represent everybody else. It's sort of Plymouth Rock versus Ellis Island." Now that's one way of getting to this question of the country versus the cities because we know that the first wave of immigrants, colonial and early American, tended to stay in the countryside, that subsequent waves of immigrants have settled in the cities. So how's that for an explanation?

Ruy Teixeira: Well not particularly good I don't think.

Peter Robinson: You don't think so?

Ruy Teixeira: I think it does touch on some elements of what we see going on today. I mean, the Democrats certainly represent a number of sort of emerging forces in the country in my view. They represent the sort of the increased wave of immigrants and the growth of the minority population. In early 1970's ten percent of voters were minorities. Now it's up to nineteen percent. It could be a quarter by the year 2010. Obviously a lot of that is driven by waves of immigration. The Democrats represent the trends, sort of the moderate, sensible, and increasingly consensual parts of the movements of the 60's like around women, consumerism and environmentalism. They're the party that represents those kinds of points of view. They actually are increasingly the party of professionals as a much larger proportion of the electorate.

Peter Robinson: The Democrats are?

Ruy Teixeira: Yeah, the Democrats are now the party of professionals.

Michael Barone: Over a hundred thousand-dollar voters were only 54-43 for George W. Bush. That's a pretty narrow margin among the affluent.

Ruy Teixeira: And they also represent and this gets a little bit to your point about the countries and the cities. The Democrats have become the party of the most economically advanced parts of the country, what we call, in my new book with John Judis, ideopolises. If you look at the counties in the United States that are part of these ideopolises, if you compare the Reagan election in the 1980 to the 2000 election, almost all of the shift into the Democratic column since 1980 comes in these ideopolises as the most economically advanced areas…

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: Tell me what you mean by ideopolis.

Ruy Teixeira: Relatively high tech areas of the country where production of ideas and services are sort of over…

Peter Robinson: Okay so name a few, would be San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Austin…

Ruy Teixeira: San Francisco, Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle, Austin, Boston, you know, New York, Los Angeles…

Michael Barone: Boston, I think it gives…

[Talking at same time]

Michael Barone: I think it does get a little more complicated than John Morgan says and Ruy says. I mean, I think to some extent, people are sorting themselves out by metro area. You know, affluent people in the San Francisco Bay Area are overwhelmingly Democratic. Affluent people in Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex are Republican. Why is that?

Peter Robinson: Why?

Michael Barone: Well I think the answer is partly just the perceived character of those two places is self-reinforcing. If you're an affluent person, you generally and professionally, you have a choice of where to live. Affluent liberals offered a job in Dallas-Fort Worth won't take it. Affluent conservatives offered a job in the Bay Area won't take it. So they tend to cluster where they go.

Ruy Teixeira: Some of it might be migration patterns but I think that's a hard thing to get any really good data on. I mean another plausible theory is that as areas change, the people within them change as well through a mix of both the people themselves changing and the people who grew up there changing and also in migration and out migration. I mean all of these things are possible.

Peter Robinson: I'm starting to feel sympathy toward Stanley Greenberg. This stuff is very complicated. Look at those red counties, rural America. At least this much of John Morgan's thesis is right. We have Bill Frey says that over half the counties in America are still at least eighty-five percent white. So that much is true. You've got the interior of the country is still the old Protestant white stock and that votes Republican, right?

Michael Barone: Even then it's a little more conservative--look at that upper Midwest. That's an area which was settled by Scandinavians, northwestern Minnesota, central Minnesota.

Peter Robinson: And they're socialists wherever they…

Michael Barone: That area used to vote for the Democratic Farmer Labor Party but that was part of the sort of what I call flannel shirt America that moved from the Democrats to the Republicans in the last twenty years even while the sort of casual Friday merino wool sweater America moved from the Republicans to the Democrats during the same period. And, you know, so those are very different old stock people than the white people in Mississippi or something else. Those people have been voting at odds with each other for many years but now we see a sort of rural solidarity to a very considerable extent.

Peter Robinson: And that's new, newish.

Ruy Teixeira: Well, some of it's particular to the 2000 election too. '92 and '96 were quite different than 2000 in terms of rural voting patterns. For example, if you look at Minnesota, you look at the voting data from Minnesota, a lot of counties that have the people you describe went for Clinton in '92 and '96, for various reasons didn't go for Gore. I'd put that down to the trust factor to some extent. And really what this map is about to a large extent is it basically shows, you know, the Republicans do very well in rural areas. Eighty percent of the landmass in the United States is rural. Seventy-five percent of counties are rural.

[Talking at same time]

Michael Barone: …country music movement too that carried five electoral votes for West Virginia, for George W. Bush. I remember telling Karl Rove, the Bush strategist, he was wasting his time in West Virginia, why was he doing such a foolish thing? Obviously he knew more than I did.

Peter Robinson: Next let's explore the claim that America is divided into two different moral systems.

Title: The Demography of Morals

Peter Robinson: Gertrude Himmelfarb publishes a book in 1999, One Nation, Two Cultures. The journalist Michael Barone chimes in, "The two Americas are two nations of different faiths. One is observant, tradition-minded, moralistic. The other is unobservant, liberation-minded, relativistic." Michael, explain yourself.

Michael Barone: Well it's the beautiful people versus the dutiful people, if you will. I think there was more difference in this election of presidential vote between people who attend church or religious services weekly or more often and those who attend less often or not at all, than there was between the highest income group and anything except maybe the under five thousand dollar, low income group. And I think that correlates with the whole series of issues that have come along over time of which abortion is one and gun control may indeed be another. The Clinton scandals I think tended to accentuate that in 2000.

Peter Robinson: That's a temporary. We'll see that recede?

Michael Barone: We'll see if it's temporary or not but, in any case, it did accentuate it for 2000.

Peter Robinson: So it's God-fearing America versus secular, pagan America. You going to go for that one?

Ruy Teixeira: Well I'd say that's a bit overwrought. I think that in the 2000 election, church attendance and its relationship to voting. In terms of the 2000 election, the relationship was quite strong, stronger than we saw in '96 and '92 though they're not as unprecedented as some people have it. But what's that all about? Is it a temporary spike or is it here to stay? I mean, I would argue that I think there will be differentials in voting on the basis of your religiosity, of your church attendance, we'll continue to see that but I think there probably was a spike in 2000. I'd put it down…

Peter Robinson: Because of the Clinton scandals?

Ruy Teixeira: …to the Clinton scandals and the perception of the National Democratic Party that Gore could never escape and, in fact, in many ways he accentuated by his apparently kind of, you know, wiggly, squirmy, sighing kind of behavior that people just didn't like at all. But does that mean this is a permanent and also does that mean there's a permanent division in America even if less so? I don't know. I mean, what do you mean by a division? I mean, I thought David Brooks did a nice job in the piece that was in The Atlantic, talking about how yes, Franklin County where I went, people are more religious and it's a different kind of culture than they have in Bethesda where I live but, you know, even there he said people are respectful of diversity. People are tolerant. People see that they don't want to dictate to anybody what their behavior should be.

Michael Barone: We do see that people are tolerant of each other to a greater extent than election rhetoric or the Florida controversy suggested and I think we saw that on September 11th. In many ways, the red states and the blue states instantly became red, white and blue America. So I think we appreciate now more perhaps than we did before that that while we do differ on some things that are pretty important to us, we also all agree on some things that are very important to us. And that's a good appreciation. But I think this change may be more than just a spike for 2000. I think that it reflects some pretty serious and significant attitudes and differences in the country between basic moral attitudes that are important for many, not all public policies. And we'll see. We simply don't know about the future. I mean, let's…

Peter Robinson: We may not know about the future but let's see if I can persuade our guests to make a few educated guesses.

Title: Continental Divide

Peter Robinson: What do the parties do to break this deadlock? What do the Democrats do to win some of those red counties into the blue column? Likewise what does Bush--what do Bush and the Republicans do to win some of the blue? So Ruy, let me quote you now "As Americans rejected the older ideal of self-denial, they embraced a libertarian ethic of personal life. Women asserted their sexual independence, adolescents experimented with sex and courtship, homosexuals came out, these values have spread throughout society and have become an important basis for a new Democratic." Key word, "majority." So how did the Democrats build that majority?

Ruy Teixeira: Right. Well yes, we are evenly divided now but the question is, as you're putting it, is what's the direction of change? You know, where is the equilibrium going to be--going to hold or is it going to go somewhere and if so, how can the parties deal with it? And I think that the…

Peter Robinson: How do they push it off dead center?

Ruy Teixeira: How do they push it off dead center? The quote that you gave is from my new book and we do, John Judis and I do argue in that book that if you look, broadly speaking, at the last several decades and even more of cultural change of the United States, we are moving toward a society that is more diverse, that is more tolerant, that is many ways more secular, there were women's rights and women's equality are an important part of sort of the warp and woof of societal culture where homosexuals can, you know, even if--as long as they don't sort of impose their lifestyle on someone else, they have a right to do what they do. I mean this country has really changed enormously in the last four decades. One thing that all public opinion analysts agree on is that the biggest changes in public opinion in the last four decades have been in this relatively liberal direction on all of these cultural social issues.

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: So all the Democrats have to do is wait?

Ruy Teixeira: No it's not all the Democrats have to do but the Democrats need to--I mean, the Democrats need not be afraid of continuing down the road of supporting women's rights, of supporting gun control, of supporting--protecting the environment. These are fundamentally popular issues.

Michael Barone: I think there are cross currents here and eddies going the other way. I mean, in the last ten years opinion on abortion has become mildly less approving of it because of the Partial Birth Abortion Act. Attitudes on gun control since September 11th, Americans have seen that they need self-protection as well as beneficent government controlling everything and that has probably become less popular with voters. So these things go back and forth. Big competition for the emerging groups. It's wrong to see Latinos and Asians as simply other people of color who will vote almost unanimously Democratic as Black Americans have chosen to do. Latino vote, there's a big competition and a benign one I think between the two parties for that. That has not played out. Asian Americans outside of Hawaii evenly divided in the 2000 election.

Peter Robinson: Let me quote you to yourself Mike, we had Ruy talk about the culture moving in the Democratic or liberal direction and Michael Barone says, "Demography is moving slowly toward the Bush nation." What on earth are you talking about? There Michael, we've got Hispanics coming in and we know that by majority they vote Democratic. Where do you see the demography…

Michael Barone: Hispanics like the Italian Americans of a hundred years ago are not heavily moored towards either party and I think there's a really benign competition…

Peter Robinson: Okay that's your point-- that they're in play here.

Michael Barone: Number two; culturally conservative people have more children than culturally liberal people.

Peter Robinson: Ah ha!

Michael Barone: Not all their kids turn out the way they did to be sure but they tend to. And I think that that's a mild cross current to the things that Ruy correctly points out to that sort of keeps us--you know, we've had three straight presidential elections, three straight house elections in which neither major party has won a majority of the vote. Haven't had that since the 1880's. Nobody has a living memory of that except Strom Thurmond.

Ruy Teixeira: And he doesn't even remember.

Peter Robinson: Ruy, listen to this. You've got a Democratic strategist, Mark Gersh who holds that what you need to do is watch the fifty fastest growing counties with a population of a hundred thousand or more. That population of a hundred thousand or more means that they're not off in the sticks someplace. They're close to these ideopolises that you're talking about. This is where the action is in America. And Gersh says, George W. Bush won forty-five out of those fifty fastest growing counties with a population of a hundred thousand or more and it wasn't close. You aggregate the vote and George Bush carried the forty-five out of fifty by a margin of 61 to 37 percent. Doesn't that give you pause?

Ruy Teixeira: Not really, because even the way that Gersh sets up that particular comparison biases the statistic toward relatively small areas, because a lot of them are going to be clustered to the low end of that because it's much easier to grow fast when you're relatively small and you have like a million or a million and a half people in your county. If you look at the fifty largest growth counties in the United States, the ones that added the most people, didn't necessarily grow the fastest though some of them grew quite fast, but added the most individuals who could actually vote, the Democrats won those counties, 55 to 41 percent.

Peter Robinson: They carried all fifty of them?

Ruy Teixeira: No, no. They won in aggregate that share of the vote in the--so, in other words, the Democrats came out of the fifty largest growth counties in the United States with a 2.7 million vote margin. The Republicans came out of the fifty fastest growing counties in the United States with a 500,000 vote margin. So what's significant when you look at these growth data from the census is not to concentrate so much on the rate of growth but to concentrate on where the people were added. That's really what's significant and if you look at that, the Democrats are doing pretty good.

Peter Robinson: Last topic. Advice for the next presidential campaign.

Title: Being John Edwards

Peter Robinson: You are now not an analyst, you're an advocate and you're advising Joe Lieberman or Al Gore or whoever the next Democratic Presidential Campaign of your choice. Give him one line of advice on how to go after the voters in the red counties.

Ruy Teixeira: My advice would be to be John Edwards. That might help to begin with because…

Peter Robinson: John Edwards is a Senator from…

Ruy Teixeira: John Edwards is a Senator from North Carolina who will probably do much better in terms of projecting the kind of "I'm one of you" cultural sense of moderation I think you need to appeal to people in the red counties. I think he could combine that with a lot of sort of Democratic appeals on economic lines, which actually attract people in rural areas…

Peter Robinson: So in the first place be a Southerner…

Ruy Teixeira: No, I think it would help. I'm not saying it's absolutely necessary but the key thing about the cultural stuff, in general, is to project a sense of moderation about your, you know, sort of by and large fairly liberal positions on a lot of these issues. You want to appear to be one of the…

Peter Robinson: Al Gore let it show too much?

Ruy Teixeira: Al Gore was pushed way too far to the left by Bill Bradley's candidacy in 2000…

Michael Barone: They had a record of eight years.

Ruy Teixeira: …and he's terrible at those kind of nuances. He's not a good politician. People didn't think he was one of them. People thought he was one of the other people whoever they were. And ideally you need somebody running who can project that sense, I am one of you. I understand your problems. I'm not looking down at you. But I don't think to do that you need to necessarily say, you know, gun control is a complete waste of time. We don't believe in women's rights, you know, homosexuals should be locked--none of that's necessary because the drift of the country over the last several decades and it's filtered into many rural areas as well is much more tolerant of all this kind of stuff. They just don't want to feel you're in your face, with a lifestyle they don't approve of.

Peter Robinson: Nominate a moderately liberal white Southerner?

Ruy Teixeira: I think that would help.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Michael Barone: That's the only way the Democratic Party has won since 1964 for the presidency as a matter of fact.

Peter Robinson: Michael, you are now about to advise the Bush operation from your lips to Karl Rove's ears, what do they do?

Michael Barone: Gee, Karl Rove doesn't need my advice but actually I…

Peter Robinson: He's about to get it.

Michael Barone: Well I think that George W. Bush instinctively and on the basis of his study of issues and politics has a pretty good sense of what to do here. You talk about compassionate conservatism in some ways; you talk about the obligation of those who are well off to do something through government and through their personal lives for people who are less fortunate, our communal responsibility. You talk about welcoming new people into the country and being friendly and interested in their possible contributions to this country. Show them that you understand where they come from and what their strengths are, that you have a genuine sense of what they're really like, their good points and that you see immigration in this country not as a problem but as an opportunity to build even a better America.

Peter Robinson: Michael Barone, Ruy Teixeira, thank you very much.

Ruy Teixeira: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge. Thanks for joining us.