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Red and Blue Reality

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I voted for Bush but I am a social liberal, an economic and environmental moderate, and a strong believer in the separation of church and state. Based upon what I have been told by many on both sides of the Great Divide, I should be very concerned about what the 2004 election results say about our nation, a result to which I contributed with my vote.

But I am not worried about the social and moral state of the nation more than usual, and think voters are a lot smarter and more nuanced than many are giving them credit for: a vote for Bush was not necessarily a vote against social tolerance or any other broad-based agenda. In my case, I just thought it best to return Bush to office to (attempt to) finish what he began regarding the war on terror. I simply thought he was the best choice at this time under these circumstances: that’s it – no broader agenda than that.

I didn’t give the guy a “mandate,” I gave him a vote based upon my own personal juggling and balancing of priorities, just like most of the rest of the nation that doesn’t have a stereotypical “agenda” and set of litmus tests. And a lot of people vote Republican out of a perceived preference from their wallets, whether they admit it to pollsters or not.

And then there is the whole red and blue nonsense: a stark graphic that purports to reveal so much more than it actually reveals as to end up a net knowledge — or at least insight — loss. The red and blue depiction (see below) DOES reveal the political realities that derive from our winner-take-all electoral college system for the states in presidential elections, but otherwise it fails both on geographical and on social/moral levels because its surface is so glossily shallow it obscures equally or more important underlying truths and realities.

As to the moral issues, for once I agree entirely with Frank Rich, who as a political columnist I typically view as a fine theater critic:

    There’s only one problem with the storyline proclaiming that the country swung to the right on cultural issues in 2004. Like so many other narratives that immediately calcify into our 24/7 media’s conventional wisdom, it is fiction. Everything about the election results – and about American culture itself – confirms an inescapable reality: John Kerry’s defeat notwithstanding, it’s blue America, not red, that is inexorably winning the culture war, and by a landslide. Kerry voters who have been flagellating themselves since Election Day with a vengeance worthy of “The Passion of the Christ” should wake up and smell the Chardonnay.

    The blue ascendancy is nearly as strong among Republicans as it is among Democrats. Those whose “moral values” are invested in cultural heroes like the accused loofah fetishist Bill O’Reilly and the self-gratifying drug consumer Rush Limbaugh are surely joking when they turn apoplectic over MTV. William Bennett’s name is now as synonymous with Las Vegas as silicone. The Democrats’ Ashton Kutcher is trumped by the Republicans’ Britney Spears. Excess and vulgarity, as always, enjoy a vast, bipartisan constituency, and in a democracy no political party will ever stamp them out.

    If anyone is laughing all the way to the bank this election year, it must be the undisputed king of the red cultural elite, Rupert Murdoch. Fox News is a rising profit center within his News Corporation, and each red-state dollar that it makes can be plowed back into the rest of Fox’s very blue entertainment portfolio. The Murdoch cultural stable includes recent books like Jenna Jameson’s “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star” and the Vivid Girls’ “How to Have a XXX Sex Life,” which have both been synergistically, even joyously, promoted on Fox News by willing hosts like Rita Cosby and, needless to say, Mr. O’Reilly.

Hypocrisy, mixed loyalties, the pursuit of profits – all of these pretty much guarantee the propagation of trash culture in all its exuberance and pressure to keep governmental hands off of our activites and ourselves.

    It’s in the G.O.P.’s interest to pander to this far-right constituency – votes are votes – but you can be certain that a party joined at the hip to much of corporate America, Mr. Murdoch included, will take no action to curtail the blue culture these voters deplore. As Marshall Wittman, an independent-minded former associate of both Ralph Reed and John McCain, wrote before the election, “The only things the religious conservatives get are largely symbolic votes on proposals guaranteed to fail, such as the gay marriage constitutional amendment.” That amendment has never had a prayer of rounding up the two-thirds majority needed for passage and still doesn’t.

    ….But it’s not only the G.O.P.’s fealty to its financial backers that is predictive of how little cultural bang the “values” voters will get for their Bush-Cheney votes. At 78 percent, the nonvalues voters have far more votes than they do, and both parties will cater to that overwhelming majority’s blue tastes first and last. Their mandate is clear: The same poll that clocked “moral values” partisans at 22 percent of the electorate found that nearly three times as many Americans approve of some form of legal status for gay couples, whether civil unions (35 percent) or marriage (27 percent).

Powerful points all, and numerically undeniable. The 22% may want to tell the rest of us how to conduct our lives, but the 78% can tell then where to put their moral values.

Rich then makes note of which group the speakers at the RNC belong to:

    Sam Brownback, the Kansas senator who champions the religious right, was locked away in an off-camera rally across town from Madison Square Garden. Prime time was bestowed upon the three biggest stars in post-Bush Republican politics: Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger. All are supporters of gay rights and opponents of the same-sex marriage constitutional amendment. Only Mr. McCain calls himself pro-life, and he’s never made abortion a cause.

And that’s the Republican future.

There will always be cylces of action and reaction to speific issues (which may be the case right now regarding gay marriage, a reaction by many that “things are moving too quickly”), but there is zero question that the greater arrow of American history moves in the direction of greater tolerance and personal liberty.

The geographical assumptions require more looking into as well. First, here is the red (Bush) and blue (Kerry) map reflecting the winners by state for the 2004 election (all maps courtesy Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman at the University of Michigan).

Rather stark in the regional solidarity, which has led many to declare “two Americas.” But Gastner, Shalizi, and Newman give that view a twist by weighing for population, creating a “cartogram”:

Assuming for a moment there ARE two Americas, they start to look a bit more equal from the population perspective.

Here is the vote by county, a much less monolithic view of the vote (USA Today version here):

And here is the county cartogram:

Then, perhaps most revealing of all, the trio use red, blue and their union, purple, to reflect actual vote percentages rather than winner-take-all:

The cartogram:

Suddenly it becomes graphically clear that there is relatively little true “red” America: there’s an awful lot of purple and blue out there, and that’s where the people tend to be. Back to my opening paragraph, I am personally quite purple and I am not alone.

Yet another way to look at this data was very cleverly devised by Robert David Sullivan, who cut up the nation into 10 political regions, each representing about 1/10 the electorate (around 10.5 million voters).

Sullivan concludes:

    The 10 Regions approach also puts the perplexing question of what the Democratic Party needs to do about the South in a different light. Right now, common wisdom is that the party must reduce the Republican margin in Appalachia by somehow neutralizing the “guns, God, and gays” issues that have doomed Democrats in rural areas. But it could be just as important to build on the party’s foundation in Southern Lowlands, which is more urban, better-educated, and more populated by racial minorities than the other Southern regions (indeed, Southern Lowlands has the highest percentage of blacks in the population, nearly 28 percent, of any of our 10 regions). In states like Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, the Democrats compensate for their weakness in rural areas by rolling up big margins in major cities and holding their own in the suburbs. Unless the party manages to nominate a Democrat with strong appeal for white rural voters (and those are getting hard to find), it will have to think about doing the same thing in North Carolina, Virginia, and especially Florida, where the Southern Lowlands cities of Daytona Beach and Orlando could combine with the El Norte southern tip to offset the Southern Comfort Gulf Coast and panhandle.

Again, no monolith, but an intricate system of politically-similar regions that mix and match their way across what is a very complex and heterogenous nation.

Despite what you may have heard about the 2004 election, the 100 flowers still bloom and will continue to do so largely unfettered. Fear not the great cultural/political clampdown, for it isn’t coming.

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About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted, Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.
  • A vote for Bush means exactly what Bush says it means.

    No amount of whining is going to change that.

    Because his god tells him that’s what a leader does.

  • Eric Olsen

    actually, a vote means what the voter says it means – that’s why we have such things as polling. Voting is basically binary – the decisions that lead to it rarely are

  • boomcrashbaby

    Eric, I understand that a vote for Bush this election doesn’t necessarily mean that the voter wants a return to medieval times, my fear though is that those who speak loudest on tv as well as paleo-cons here like Reporterette BELIEVE that it does. And Bush is spooning them late at night when Laura is asleep.

    When I talk about all the discrimination and oppression I face, it’s there, it’s real and I do face it, but the majority of people are tolerant, even most Republicans out here. Of course all the Republicans we happen to know personally are lawyers so they know tolerance while at the same time being able to offend EVERYBODY.

    It’s the power this administration thinks it has, and the power the right wing thinks it’s been given the go-ahead with, that scares me. I hope and I pray you are right, and I want nothing more than you to be able to say ‘I told you so’.

    on another note, this election has caused most people to quit talking about Iraq. Here’s a bunch of pictures that you won’t find in the mainstream media.

  • curt

    boom –

    just visited the fallujahpictures.blogspot…sort of a sobering view on the reality of the invasion and occupation, isn’t it?

    real citizens – men, women and children (sights you won’t see on a florida college campus); and real american soldiers – those brave enough to actually enlist (and able to take orders)…

    …killed or maimed.

  • I wonder, next year, how willing Eric will want to wear a “I voted for Bush” badge in public on the streets (hint, make sure to wear a cup). Not so much, I suspect when everything goes down the sewer.

  • Yeah. Disappointed. Eric and Frank Rich’s good points notwithstanding, there is a war brewing. Dubya insists he’s going to spend his political capital and that means ugliness is on the way, whatever well-meaning people who voted for the terrorist-and-thief think.

  • Eric Olsen

    Boom, I hope I am right too, but that doesn’t mean the election was not at least partially a (temporary I assume) rearguard action against tolerance and equality – I don’t blame you for being concerned.

    Re the pics: war sucks, does anyone not believe that war sucks, is in fact, hell? But if you’re going to do it, you do it and you do it to win. This is reality.

  • Eric Olsen

    Nat, I appreciate being credited as well-meaning. I believe there are those who are trying to foment cultural conflict, but they will not succeed in anything but the shortest term. Just look at the demographics, the real political realities of red, blue and purple: the larger arrow will continue to move in a positive direction.

  • In my case, I just thought it best to return Bush to office to (attempt to) finish what he began regarding the war on terror.

    The question I’m struggling with right now is just what it is he started. Is what’s going on in Iraq a feature or a bug?

  • Eric Olsen

    I see Iraq as part of the war on terror, that mission must be completed while we continue to work with Afghanistan and continue to vigorously pursue al Qaeda throughout the globe. We have to deal with nukes in North Korea and prevent them in Iran – it’s a perilous and difficult time.

  • I hope you are correct about the larger arrow, Eric, but I am not as positive as you. In fact, I have lost whatever faith I had in 51 percent of those who voted. Bad stuff is coming — or worse stuff, rather, considering things were intolerably bad as they were. Your guy, bought and paid for by the Religious Wrong, has political capital to spend, and he means to spend it. Good people with means ought to flee and flee fast.

  • Oh — and think about those who can’t flee, those who are beaten down by the policies Bush votes, intentionally or not, supported, those who live every day without legal equality or economic justice, those who suffer because of the Bush gang. If you think a war isn’t brewing, please think again. Some of us have had it. Things are going to get ugly.

  • boomcrashbaby


  • There is hardly any need to pursue terrorists in Iraq – virtually all of them are home-grown and there for the taking.

    The problem is all the other terrorists around the world, who rather than going to Iraq have spread far and wide, gaining new converts as they went because of hte carnage created in Iraq.

    The problem has gone far beyond Al Qaeda (and the very few leaders captured).

  • alethinos59

    Eric… I like what you’re trying to say here… We all know that the Republicans AND the Democrats are both bedding big business. Historical records show that Big Business doesn’t really care if there is a Dem or Rep in the White House. Oh certain people scream about TAXES but Federal taxes are amazingly low and HAVE BEEN for nearly 30 years.

    But the problem is that Bush and his ilk are riding a TIGER that they may very well not be able to dismount… Insanity once unleashed is damn hard to lure back. We have plenty of examples of this in the last 100 years…

  • RJ

    “Good people with means ought to flee and flee fast.”


  • RJ

    “If you think a war isn’t brewing, please think again. Some of us have had it. Things are going to get ugly.”

    Are you threatening violence?

    I thought that was against your “religion”…

  • RJ – don’t worry, the left doesn’t have any guns anyway!

  • geezuz! don’t you guys ever get tired of playing with these lame stereotypes?

    i can play too:

    no, the left doesn’t have guns, we’ve got books.


  • gonna throw ’em?

  • Eric Olsen

    Anyway, my main point is the “sides” don’t exist nearly to the extent perceived, that there are a very large number of people – probably the plurality – who don’t identify with the hardline agenda of either the right or the left, who pick and choose, who weigh priorities from election to election, and who may well go the other way next time around if they feel the pendulum is too far from the center.

  • . . .and that’s why the most Right Wing regime since the Reagan years was just elected. Not. The people who voted for Bush voted for all the bad things that are going to happen under his very hard line regime. They can wiggle as much they want, but we should not let them off the hook.

  • Eric Olsen

    whatever you say Boss

  • If you had ever seen one, you’d know it would hurt to get hit by a book.

  • HA HA!!! That was humor…I get it!!! I’ve seen ’em…we burn them all the time!!!

  • curt


    ok, it’s safe to burn your copy of “unfit for command” now…

    “mission accomplished” (as your guy would say)


  • I gave it to my pop…he loved it!

  • Eric Olsen

    alethinos59, thanks a very good point, once unleashed memes often take on lives of their own and won’t be controlled by those who unleashed them. In this case, though, there just isn’t wide enough support for the more radical aspects of the agenda

  • I appreciate all the research, Olsen. Excellent job finding the maps and everything else — I only wish your view of foreign policy and Iraq were as nuanced, careful, and evidenced.

    None of what you cite disproves the culture thesis, really. Rich’s arguments are mostly anecdotal and don’t address the fundamental differences over gays and Rove’s stated strategy to turn out the evangelical base in 2004. The maps don’t disprove the culture thesis either — urban dwellers lean Democratic (not only because of higher minority population) and suburban and collar counties are Republican targets. This is old news to anyone who’s spent any time analyzing politics. The vast sea of red states in the South and rural West point to historical differences that go back to culture. Clinton and Carter won the more moderate of those red states because they were, for all intents and purposes, cultural conservatives when it came to religious values and race in the eyes of white voters.

    I can write a lot more about this. The main reason the election went the way it did is because Bush was the far better candidate with the far better team. Kerry couldn’t communicate domestic policy in a way that connected with women, minorities, or the elderly, sine qua non of Democratic candidates. But the fact of the matter is that Kerry lost because he couldn’t overcome cultural obstacles due to his weakness as a candidate. Kerry could have and should have won despite the cultural obstacles due to Bush’s many failures in policy.

    I don’t think the cultural thesis is sufficient and leaves out a lot of the story in this election. However, it does point to enduring social cleavages that have been overlooked in many discussions of modern elections and reminds us of how fundamentally conservative a nation America is. Good strategists like Karl Rove and Dick Morris know all about this. Bad ones like Mary Beth Cahill and Bob Shrum don’t. I think it’s a mistake — and clearly resented by much of the Heartland in America — for liberals who backed Kerry to dismissively point to “red stater mentalities” since that’s too facile an explanation and the very thinking that lost Democrats the election.

    I can get way deeper into this.

    A good reading suggestion for you all: Thomas Frank’s new book. I think it’s called “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” or “What’s Wrong with Kansas?” that’s specifically about this issue: why populism died in America and why blue-collar or working Americans in the Midwest and South have now become reliably Republican voters.

    That is all.

  • Eric Olsen

    I disagree that Clinton was perceived as cultural conservatives, especially regarding race. He was able to enact welfare refrom specifically because he was perceived as a social liberal – triangulation, Nixon in China-type stuff