Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth about the "Real" America / Dante Chinni and James Gimpel -- N.Y.: Gotham Books, 2010

During the past ten or twelve years, political pundits often have repeated that the U.S. is "deeply divided" between "red" and "blue" states. It is, of course, an easy and dramatic shorthand that belies the real state of our society. I suspect that most of those same pundits would recognize this, but few people have offered any alternative description of the natural breaks in the body politic, except perhaps to describe congressional districts or counties as "red" or "blue." While offering a more fine grained analysis of the red-blue divide, these descriptions still fall prey to the deficiency of the basic distinction: geographic regions in the U.S. are categorized merely on the outcomes of a two-party, plurality-take-all electoral system. This system ignores nonvoters and voters who vote for losing candidates; furthermore, it lumps heterogeneous local voting coalitions into two heterogeneous national coalitions. Indeed, most often the only fact revealed by the distinction on a national scale is which party won a majority of electoral college votes.

In Our Patchwork Nation, journalist Dante Chinni and political scientist James Gimpel provide a more nuanced portrait of the country. Chinni and Gimpel analysed data for each of the 3,141 counties that make up the country and postulate that the country can be understood to be composed of twelve distinct kinds of communities, calling them boom towns, campus and careers, emptying nests, evangelical epicenters, immigration nation, industrial metropolis, military bastions, minority central, monied burbs, Morman outposts, service worker centers, and tractor country.

Some of these communities fit squarely into "red America" or "blue America," but others are up for grabs and it isn't always clear why this is. In some instances, the economic interests of the community and/or its dominant social values are directly supported by one or another party, but in other instances, the population of the community is not so homogeneous as to place it squarely in the Democratic or Republican column. For example, the hallmark of minority central is a large African American (or Native American) population; however, in most of these counties European Americans still make up a majority of the population. Moreover, any particular county can and will fit more or less well into one or more community categories, sometimes making it difficult to know what the dominant political motive is for that community on election day.

Dividing the country into twelve categories is, no doubt, an improvement over the simple red-blue distinction, but whether Chinni and Gimpel's twelve categories are a good reflection of the population is questionable. Their method for creating these categories is revealed in the book's appendix. The authors collected a large body of data describing specific "socioeconomic and religious indicators" applicable to every U.S. county. By comparing them, the authors discovered common intersections among the indicators that allowed them to reduce these indicators to an underlying structure of twelve "basic factors." These factors defined the twelve communities. Each county could then be scored for how well it embodied each of the twelve basic factors and histograms were created to show which counties scored highest in those twelve factors. Finally, the authors sorted the counties based upon which basic factor a county most embodied. Some counties scored similarly high on more than one basic factor. In those cases, the authors made judgement calls to complete the sorting.

The results of their work is not particularly surprising, if one has a general understanding of the human geography of the country. Mormons live in Utah, the Great Plains are sparsely populated and dominated by agribusiness, major cities are diverse and densely populated, there are large populations of African Americans in the South living very close to European American who are Evangelical Christians, many people retire to Florida, etc. To get a deeper understanding of these communities, one needs to expose their less dominant characteristics and understand how they qualify the dominant character. Unfortunately Our Patchwork Nation does not do this. Presumably because it is meant for a popular audience, the appendix does not give detailed descriptions of the actual data used in sorting the communities.

The validity of the twelve-fold division is said to have been tested against additional data sets, but it's hard to know how valid it really is. The mere fact that the total population of Mormon outposts is less than two million people makes one wonder if this is worthy of a category at all or if it should be folded into evangelical epicenters or divided among the other eleven communities. The answer depends on one's views about comparative religion. Emptying nests poses a different problem: are the Florida retirees sufficiently like the retirees who remain in the Upper Midwest to consider them part of the same community? It is an open question as to how the various socioeconomic and religious indicators should be weighted in determining the basic factors. If one's economic condition is weighted heavily and one's age is weighted less heavily, the retirees in Florida would make up a separate group from those in the Upper Midwest. Chinni and Gimpel give no indication as to how they choose to weight their indicators.

As vexing as these problems are, Our Patchwork Nation invites the reader to consider the variegated character of our nation and its communities. One conclusion that easily might be drawn from this is that our two-party system cannot possibly be sufficient to represent the interests of such varied communities and their numerous shadings. A more adequate political system would allow these communities (or more precisely, voters) to gather together in numerous politic parties that could express clearly the voter's primary interests and not be subsumed (and often lost) within a heterogeneous big-tent party. Our "patchwork nation," no matter how you slice it, cries out for a multi-party democracy in which our legislatures represent us proportionally. Were we to adopt such a system, many political question that are currently held hostage to our two party gridlock could be separated from the bi-polar power struggle and resolved to the satisfaction of an issue-specific majority.

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