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The Blue and Red Blues

by Julia Sneden

Does anyone out there share my distress over the media’s continuing use of those maps of red and blue states? While the red/blue map thought up by some television news person a few years back was intended only as a visual lesson to explain quickly and simply how an election was shaping up, the graphic has begun to assume a rather frightening life of its own.

Coloring states either red or blue is supposed to tell us how a majority of votes were cast in those states, but these days more and more media pundits seem to refer to “red states” or “blue states” (equating red to conservative and blue to liberal) as if every living soul within those borders were in agreement.

The attitude amounts to a kind of Balkanizing of America. The different colors on the red/blue map remind one of Europe, where crossing from one country into another means that the natives owe allegiance to a different government, often speak a different language, and maintain separate legal systems.

Why do we, who have managed to live with our internal differences for two hundred-plus years, and who ought to have learned a hard lesson from our very uncivil Civil War, accept so quietly someone’s idea of dividing us into red and blue? If the Europeans have decided, after centuries of border wars, to reconcile their differences and create a Common Market, doesn’t it seem self-defeating for America now to be voluntarily dividing itself into an us-versus-us mentality?

The last time I crossed from a red to a blue state, I don’t seem to recall a discernible difference. Oh, the license plates were different, but the language was the same (even if the accent was not), and the federal government was still in charge. In both states I saw churches of every denomination, as well as temples and mosques, and in speaking with citizens of both states, I witnessed wide differences of political opinions (the latter within one family, never mind within one state).

The kind of block-think engendered by the all-pervasive graphic is incredibly dangerous to democracy. If the majority of people in those states share political opinions, that doesn’t mean that there’s not a hefty minority.

The University of Michigan has on its website some interesting variations on the red/blue map. Called cartograms, they are maps of population, not acreage. The plain US red/blue map makes it look as if the majority of the country is solidly red, because the large block of red states covers so much territory in the middle of the country. But the country’s densest population is squeezed in on both coasts. Thus, as the website points out, Rhode Island, with its 1.1 million population meant many more votes, despite its tiny size, than Wyoming, with ½ million population despite its huge acreage.

More interesting to me were the cartograms that showed returns by counties. And most interesting of all was one that showed the proportion of red and blue votes, by combining the colors proportionately too, thus creating various shades like purple and magenta and every possible combination produced by the two primary colors. The only visible plain red or blue areas were counties that had gone red or blue by more than 70%. It made a splendid picture, all those permutations of the blue/red mix.

If nothing else, it gave lie to the ridiculous idea (which seems to be held by more and more people) that people in the Red states are all of like mind, i.e. Republican, and people in the Blue states are similarly all Democrats. What a bunch of hooey! How divisive: how insidious.

One particular danger, it seems to me, is that humans are susceptible to the urge to belong. The knowledge that one lives in a “red” state may exert subtle (or not so subtle) pressures, particularly on the young, whose allegiances are not yet decided. But at any age, it is always tempting to go with what one perceives to be the path of least resistance, or to let others do your thinking for you.

The longing to belong has atavistic roots, harkening far back to the days when tribe connoted safety and security. These days some of us haven’t moved far beyond that concept: The other day I heard on the radio an interview with a young woman who was extolling her life in an exclusive suburb, explaining that it gave her “a lot of comfort” to know that when she let her children go to play at another child’s house, she was assured that they would be in a home which “has the same values” as her own.

I must confess that I don’t have a lot of sympathy for that kind of thinking, having been reared by a mother who thought it fine that we were exposed to other ways of thinking and doing. She also encouraged us to think for ourselves, and as a result of that, my brother and I are on opposite sides of the political divide, a state of affairs that has been carried on in the next generation as well. And yet we all share the values that speak of familial affection and loyalty, and truthfulness and kindness.

It seems to me that one of the great errors of our times is the co-opting of values by political parties. The values by which one lives are personal choices formed from experience and belief. To label any political party as the party with moral values should be recognized as rank hypocrisy, be it a party of the left or of the right.

Americans are a diverse people, and what makes us unusual is that we all, in theory anyway, can make room for one another. Certainly we claim that all citizens have the same rights under the law, and even though that is not yet entirely true, we have made and are making great strides to reach that goal. There is room in this country for all political persuasions and religious beliefs and lifestyles. And anything that stereotypes Americans as red or blue espouses the kind of blinkered vision that has no future in a world that must learn tolerance, if only to keep from destroying itself.

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