Red, Blue, and what?
1 April 2004, 11:26 AM
OK, so Your Humble Blogger may as well join the blogofuss. Sasha Issenberg wrote an article in Philadelphia magazine called “Boo-Boos in Paradise.” In the article, he criticizes David Brooks’ article in the December 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly called “One Nation, Slightly Divisible”.
The first article describes the difference between “Red America” and “Blue America”, and concludes that “although there are some real differences between Red and Blue America, there is no fundamental conflict.” It is based on a lot of conflicting sociological studies, and also a “project” he describes as taking place over several months, presumably summer and autumn 2001, in which he drove to and around portions of Franklin County, Pennsylvania. He describes both general differences between Red America and Blue America and specific differences between his hometown of Bethesda, MD and the Franklin County region. It isn’t always clear which is which; when he says, “We in the coastal metro Blue areas read more books and attend more plays than the people in the Red heartland”, is he speaking from personal observation, sociological study, or stereotype?
The most memorable part of the essay, I think, is the bit about how cheap it is to live in Franklin County. He is making the point that the wage differences between Blue America and Red America do not correspond simply to class or economic differences because of the differences in prices. This is an interesting point, and one that people do forget. The use of statistics to describe rural poverty, to talk about class differences and to divide Red and Blue America is confounded by this.
But he says “On my journeys to Franklin County, I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal.” He fails. He says that he went to the most expensive places he could find, and ordered the most expensive thing on the menu, and never spent more than twenty dollars. He gives the impression that he is talking about dozens of meals, “enough creamed corn to last a lifetime”, and every one of them less than a double-sawbuck. It’s a telling point; there is, as he puts it, “an invisible deflation machine” that makes, in short, money more valuable in rural areas.
Generally, perhaps true, but his specific story is preposterous. Mr. Issenberg goes to a Red Lobster in Franklin Country—Mr. Brooks specifically mentions Red Lobster—and spots a Steak and Lobster combination for $28.75. He spends $50 at the Mercersburg Inn eating veal. This was in January of 2004, some two and a half years after Mr. Brooks travels, but inflation, in either Red or Blue America, hasn’t been that high. Mr. Issenberg challenges Mr. Brooks, who replies that he the line was partially tongue-in-cheek. It is not. Yes, it is supposed to make the reader, specifically the Blue American reader, laugh, but when I read it, I certainly did not assume that he could easily have found a dinner for, say, $22. Making up colorful, memorable details that happen to be false is the sort of thing that journalists should and do get fired for. Mr. Issenberg scores on that, and I thank him for it.
There are other problems with Mr. Issenberg’s article, though. Where Mr. Brooks says that Blue America doesn’t follow NASCAR, Mr. Issenberg notes that three of the top five television markets for NASCAR were in Blue states. This strikes me as silly on two counts. First, the state breakdown is pointless; Mr. Brooks notes that states are not uniformly Blue or Red and in fact picks an area of a Blue state to typify Red America. Second, where exactly do we expect the big television markets to be? Yes, cities. Nobody is denying, I hope, that Blue America is more densely populated than Red America, and therefore should naturally be better television markets. And that’s not counting that Mr. Issenberg is using numbers from well after Mr. Brooks has his article published, for no reason that I can see.
More important than those details, though, is that Mr. Issenberg seems not to have noticed the point of Mr. Brooks article at all. Mr. Brooks says, “Americans are in no mood for a class struggle or a culture war.” He notes that people can and do often move back and forth between Blue America and Red. “We are not a divided nation. We are a cafeteria nation.” We choose to be interested in different things—NASCAR or NPR, or what you will, and often choose to associate with people interested in those things that interest us. Mr. Issenberg says that “One Nation, Slightly Divisible” “examined the country's cultural split in the aftermath of the 2000 election, contrasting the red states that went for Bush and the blue ones for Gore.” Slightly Divisible.
If David Brooks failed to describe Red and Blue America accurately, it calls into question his conclusion. I happen to think that there is a divide, a deep divide, between city and country. I think the universe I perceive is very different from that my fellow Americans in what we call Red America perceive. Am I right? Well, I’m not likely to find out from David Brooks, or from Sasha Issenberg, either.