Thursday, 30 October 2008

"Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State", by Andrew Gelman

Why do Americans vote the way they do?

With the American election taking place next week, it seemed an apt time to take a look at the myths and misperception about why Republicans (ostensibly the party of business and the rich) keep winning the poor states, while Democrats (the party of the poor and workers’ unions) keep winning the richest states.

Andrew Gelman and his team of assistants draw on existing research in political science, building on its foundation to create an accessible and engaging book. The book is not meant as some high-academic, scientific explanation, but rather an accessible look into American politics (at the presidential-, congressional- and state-levels) for the general reader who wants a little more than they can find in newspapers or weekly magazines.

The book puts paid to Thomas Frank’s argument in What’s The Matter With America?, in which he suggests that poor Americans vote for the Republican Party, against their interests. He also shows that the richer voters do not always favour Democrats, as author and journalist David Brooks has observed (in Bobos In Paradise). Gelman, through extensive use of polling and voting data, shows these arguments to be false.

After removing these assumptions, Gelman is able to show what’s really going on in America’s polarized politics. His main argument is that simple Red State-Blue State polarisation is not sufficient to explain why Republicans now win poor states and Democrats now win rich states. One of his answer is: “Voters in richer states support the Democrats even though within any given state, richer voters tend to support the Republicans.” And apparently, because there are more working class people in urbanised, rich states, then they can usually tip the balance towards the Democrats. Although, it is also true that in New York, California, Massachusetts and Connecticut, the difference in numbers between rich voters voting for Republicans and Democrats is narrower. Gelman addresses all the possible voting indicators, including religion, race, political sorting (where people move to areas more conducive to their own political and social ideology) and economic situation – even touching on the idea of correlating the number of Starbucks or Wal-Marts with voting patterns. One fact that intrigued me the most is that it appears as though the “culture wars” are predominantly a thing of the richer states, with poor state voters still voting along economic lines. For a Republican to win, though, he only needs to get just enough of the lower-income voters to tip him over the top.

Despite the book’s accessibility, it is not without flaws. First off, the style it is written in is very methodical and dry. This has both good and bad points; good because it makes it easy to follow, bad because it can become a little repetitive and occasionally tedious as Gelman feels the need to often reiterate what has been observed so far. A small niggle, but one that definitely is there. The book has a feel of a welcoming university lecture on voting habits, rather than a journalistic appraisal of how American’s decide on their office-holders. The bombardment of statistics will probably turn some readers off, but ultimately it all goes to painting a far more complicated picture than we have often been led to believe by the media. The extensive inclusion of graphs and maps is good, but ultimately some will probably find them confusing, which means the main people who will get use out of them are likely to be political science students, pollsters and maybe journalists.

This book is a quick read (I polished it off in about a day), and full of interesting arguments and insights that will turn many deep-seated beliefs about American politics on their head, and make a lot of people reconsider their assumptions and biases.

Gelman has added much to the argument that America is not so much Red and/or Blue, but rather it is far more Purple (just look at some of his maps!). I would recommended this book to all politics-junkies and political science students and lecturers everywhere. It will also be interesting to see how/if his observations hold true for the 2008 election, too.

Also try: Mark Penn & E. Kinney Zalesne, Microtrends (2007); Rick Shenkman, Just How Stupid Are We? (2008); Earle & Merle Black, Divided America (2007); Bill Bishop, The Big Sort (2008); Karen Kaufmann, John Petrocik & Daron Shaw, Unconventional Wisdom (2008); Thomas Frank, What’s The Matter With America? (2005)

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