Monday, June 26, 2006

There are no Blue States or Red States, only Purple States

Analysis by abstraction has turned into an ordinary habit of thought. It governs not only the newspaper graphics and all the studies of everything under the sun, but also the stock market, conversation, political debate, advertising, the Olympics, education, literary criticism--nothing has escaped it.-Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence

David Brooks sounds an awful lot like novelist Sinclair Lewis when describing what he calls the "Sprinkler City," located in "the fast-growing suburbs mostly in the South and West that are the homes of the new-style American dream." Problem is, Brooks purports to write non-fiction.

Brooks has indeed carved out a niche as a pop sociologist who makes jabs at an elite "blue state" culture filled with "NPR, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and socially conscious investing" while suggesting that such blue staters are in turn woefully out-of-touch with how red staters enjoy life, with "QVC, the Pro Bowlers Tour, and hunting." To help illustrate the stark contrasts he sees between red state and blue state culture, Brooks took a trip to Franklin County, Pennsylvania, soon after the 2000 election was decided in favor of Bush and around the time that pundits were opining on a cultural divide that was magically delineated by the squiggly boundaries of states.

Funnily enough, Brooks himself is the blue American he describes. A resident in the Democratic Montgomery County in Maryland, among the country's upper middle class, a writer for the New York Times editorial page, and a frequent contributor to NPR, Brooks' own life must be pretty free of the "meatloaf platters" that he claims is the standard entree in typical "red" county restaurants--perhaps a satisfying midday repast for the red-blooded hunter who hasn't shot any buffalo that morning or the antsy housewife who has had enough Susanne Somers for the day.

Or maybe Brooks doesn't have much of an idea of what he is talking about. That is what was suggested by Sasha Issenberg back in an April 2004 article in PhillyMag. According to Issenberg, Brooks' socio-cultural analysis is self-contradicting and misguided. As Issenberg explains, Brooks "takes [contemporary sociological] findings and, regardless of origin, applies to them what one might call the Brooks Consumer Taste Fallacy, which suggests that people are best understood by where they shop and what they buy." Issenberg points out that although
"there are salient cultural divides in the United States and, in fact, different values and practices among residents of Montgomery and Franklin counties..consumerr life is the place where they are most rapidly converging." Indeed, one could just as easily sip a Sulawesi blend coffee at a Starbucks in Montgomery County as they could in the Starbucks in the Borough of Chambersburg in Franklin County.

The reason I even bring up Brooks is because it is he and his colleagues who insist on defining their version of our nation on the pages of their mainstream newspapers and journals. (Also, Brooks has recently proven himself a hyperbolic fool in his most recent Times column). As Issenberg demonstrates by disproving much of what Brooks described in his visit to Franklin County, Brooks may well be seeing what he wants to see. So often in their demographic analysis of the Democratic party, public figures like John Kerry and Howard Dean, and in their depiction of the American people, the Washington-based media are quick to apply a simplistic divide that paints every Democrat as a Barbara Streisand and every Republican as a Joe Q. Taxpayer.

The sad part is, some in the Democratic party are complicit in this portrayal. In particular, many Democrats in D.C. have fallen into the media's trap of equating being outspoken with appearing too liberal, and thus too "blue." If Democrats are outspoken, they become the latte-sipping, hybrid-driving, New York Times-reading caricature that America supposedly doesn't want...except that lattes are available all over the place, hybrids are becoming increasingly popular, and plenty a Democrat has become disgusted with the NYT. My suggestion to Democrats who want to lead our party to victory in November: don't listen to what the people in D.C. say they know about flyover country too much, unless they're familiar with places like Franklin County, Pennsylvania (and David Brooks doesn't count).


eugene shats said...

You're right, all states are purple because an overwhelming majority of Americans are purple.

Elaine said...

Yes, I agree. To divide us as red and blue is a game pundits like to play to help their joke political science analyses. Nice website, by the way.