More than two colors

Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do
Andrew Gelman, David Park, Boris Shor, Joseph Bafumi and Jeronimo Cortina
Princeton University Press

Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey Into the Heartland
Rose Aguilar
Polipoint Press

The stark blue and red contrast of the electoral map is misleading: In reality, not just states but groups and even individuals are varying hues of purple. But even with the election over, how shall we make sense of the vast, overwhelming diversity of our political landscape? Two new books offer contrasting models of how to do so, with some tantalizing similarities: Both seek to complicate the easy red-blue snapshot offered on television.

Andrew Gelman and his co-authors’ cleverly titled Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State is not a nightmarish Seussian bedtime story, but rather a dense yet readable statistical excursion through what he calls “the red-blue paradox”: the idea that while blue states are richer and red poorer, it’s not lower-income people voting for Republicans that make it so. In all states, he asserts, poor voters vote Democratic and rich voters Republican—but the pattern is stronger in some states, weaker in others. It’s this pattern variance that yields that red-blue map, where poor Mississippi is red and rich Connecticut is blue, meaning that there’s “an essential asymmetry between the patterns of support for the Democrats and the Republicans.”

Gelman’s analysis hits back at Thomas Frank’s well-known What’s the Matter with Kansas?, in which Frank asked why poor Americans in states like Kansas were voting for Republicans. According to Gelman’s book, if you break out voting patterns within states, they’re not—at least not uniformly: “Kansas has been a symbol of working-class Republicanism and, indeed, low-income Kansans gave George W. Bush half of their votes—but high-income Kansans gave him 70%.” One issue in the book is that “rich” and “poor” are not always clearly defined, so that class issues (always vexed in the United States) can seem a touch cloudy, but Gelman nevertheless spotlights a fascinating series of voting paradoxes.

The book’s complex arguments are supported with copious graphs, and further buttressed by state-to-state and international comparisons (a look at rich-poor voting patterns in Mexico vs. the United States is especially intriguing). This isn’t necessarily an easy read, but its rich vein of statistics and well-crunched numbers are essential to see through those glaring red and blue map hues.

In Red Highways, Rose Aguilar also explores the territory of political contradiction—literally—by getting in a van and driving around red states (Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Montana) to ask people why they vote the way they do. This anecdotal approach could not be more different than Gelman’s, but the spirit of complicating the color map is similar.

Aguilar, a liberal radio host in San Francisco, sets off on the road thinking she will employ “a more effective, less presumptuous approach: ask [people] what they think instead of telling them what to think.” Sounds like a plan—though her asking sometimes sounds enough like a leading question that she often gets herself in trouble with her views (and her boyfriend, who is prone to lecturing strangers or wearing “Free Palestine” T-shirts to gun shows, gets her in even more trouble).

Still, they speak to pastors, congregants, Democrats, Republicans, anti-abortion protesters and a Planned Parenthood clinic director, and just about everything in between—all of which yield a lively and complicated picture of the delicately purple-hued corners in America’s reddest states.

These two books make a riveting pairing as election season finally ends. Their different approaches balance each other nicely; when your head can’t wrap itself around another graph, you can switch to vibrant snapshots of individuals. Either way, you’ll get a fresh slant on that two-color map.