A few years ago, before the 2000 election, I did a lot of research for what I thought might be a long article or a book on the cultural and social distinctiveness of what we now call Blue and Red America. One motivating interest of mine at the time was a widespread perception in at least a segment of elite public opinion that the Red States were the source of the countryâs moral ballast.
âEliteâ has many meanings. But here I was thinking of the talking heads on the Sunday shows, the best-read newspaper columnists, authors of well-read books and so forth. It was certainly the self-perception of the political voices of Red State America (Remember Newt Gingrichâs claim that Susan Smith, who murdered her two young sons in South Carolina and then tried to pin the blame on a black man, was a product of the Great Society.) But what struck me even more was that it was a perception shared by many --- at least many of the elite opinion-makers of the sort I discussed above --- in Blue America.
It was a window into an odd sort of self-loathing or self-critique that interested me greatly.
The oddity of this Red State moralism argument emerges most clearly when you look at statistics for virtually every form of quantifiable social dysfunction. Divorce, out-of-wedlock birth, poverty, murder, incidence of preventable disease --- go down the list and youâll see that they are all highest in the reddest states and lowest in the bluest.
There are exceptions certainly --- the Prairie states being the key examples. But the pattern is striking and consistent.
The issue that interested me most were the statistics on murder, in part because they seemed to have the most interesting historical roots. Murder rates are also least affected by cultural bias. For instance, non-reporting of rape varies widely from country to country and region to region. The same can be true of assault. Murder, on the other hand, tends to get reported, regardless of the cultural context.
Thankfully, murder rates in the United States have dropped rapidly over the last decade. But the regional patterns remain. Broadly speaking, New England and the parts of the country originally settled by New Englanders have low murder rates --- some only a fraction of the national averages. The South on the other hand, and the parts of the country originally settled by Southerners, have higher murder rates. (The highest homicide rates are in the Old Southwest --- Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.)
The regional patterns get even more interesting when you drill down deeper into them.
Commonsense would probably tell most of us that big cities have higher murder rates than suburbs and small towns. And thatâs true. But not everywhere. In the North and in much of Blue State America, for instance, big cities have higher rates of homicide. But in the South the pattern is turned on its head. The murder rate is highest in the small towns and rural areas.
Digging deeper still we find another difference --- though here the evidence becomes a bit murkier and less definitive. In the North, where murder rates are higher in urban centers, they tend to track with the commission of felonies.
In other words, people get killed by people who are in the process of committing felonies --- whether those be drug sales, muggings, robberies gone bad, organized crime, or something else. But in the Southern states, where murder rates are higher in small towns and rural areas, this isnât the case. Rather than happening in the process of committing other crimes, these murders tend to be rooted in what are best described as violations of honor, personal slights that escalate into violence or in the simplest sense, rage.
The role of honor, or rather status and respect, caught my attention because it dovetailed with issues Iâd dealt with in my academic research in graduate school --- comparisons between how the early northern and southern colonies were organized in the 17th and 18th centuries, really obscure stuff like how violence was used to organize society and discipline labor.
In any case, with the regional political cleavages so marked now and apparently even more entrenched than before, it got me to thinking over these issues again, about the historical roots of the cultural cleavages we now see before us.
I want to return to that point. But let me finish this post on a slightly different, but related, note.
Coming out of this election we hear again and again that folks in the Blue states have to give up their attitude of condescension toward those in the Red. The story comes in different flavors and intensities, ranging from admonitions to âreach outâ to folks in the Red states to more acidy claims that folks in the Blue states need to get over their alleged hatred of religion and Red state culture.
At some level, something like this is certainly necessary. I can do the math as well as anyone. And what these last two elections have shown (particularly this last one) is that if the country is divided more or less evenly, that âmore or lessâ isnât working in our (i.e., the Blue states) favor. Weâre in the minority for the moment, even if itâs a close run thing. And Democrats canât keep going into elections in which so many states are simply out of play. As I wrote a couple days ago, Democrats need to find a way to put a good half dozen more states into play in every election.
Yet, the immediate political question isnât the only one to discuss.
The talking point about Red State âcultureâ is often bandied about as though the Red States were the only ones which had one --- as though the Blue States were living in some deracinated post-cultural secular-dom. But at the risk of stating the obvious the Blue states --- to the extent we can talk in such broad brush strokes --- have one too.
You can define it in a variety of ways. Iâd say itâs based in modernity and tolerance. But once you see it in that light, is it simply a matter of the Blue States having an attitude of condescension toward the Red ones? The country has become sufficiently divided that there is a good deal of mistrust and animosity on both sides. And I think it is fair to say that that ill-will on the part of the Blue state America does sometimes express itself as condescension.
But the bad feeling of Red State America toward the Blue is just as often expressed as contempt, moral denunciation or simple rage. To the extent that one hears Blue Staters dissing Red Staters as holy-rolling trailer park denizens, the Red staters routinely portray their fellow countrymen as corrupt, deviant, rootless perverts who express their flipflopper-dom by oscillating between being limp-wristed whiners on the one hand and signing up to work for Osama bin Laden as terrorist fifth-columnists on the other.
All joking aside, I don't think either side in the Blue-State/Red-State face off has a monopoly on unkind views of the other, though given the 51%-48% it is a more pressing concern for those on the Blue parts of the map.
In our continuing effort to bring you examples of the sort of wing-nuts and fanatics who now sit in the councils of power in Washington, note this exchange yesterday between George Stephanopoulos and James Dobson on This Week, shortly before Dobson and a hand full of his followers dragged George out to Desales Street and burned him at the stake ...
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Dr. Dobson, you also have a problem with the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy. I want to show something that was reported in "The Daily Oklahoman" during the campaign. In the "Daily Oklahoman," it quoted you saying, "Patrick Leahy is a God's people hater. I don't know if he hates God, but he hates God's people." Now, Dr. Dobson, that doesn't sound like a particularly Christian thing to say. Do you think you owe Senator Leahy an apology?
DR JAMES DOBSON: George, you think you ought to lecture me on what a Christian is all about? You know, I think -I think I'll stand by the things I have said. Patrick Leahy has been in opposition to most of the things that I believe. He is the one that took the reference to God out of the oath.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But Dr. Dobson, excuse me for a second. You use the word hate. You said that he's a "God's people hater." How do you back that up?
DR JAMES DOBSON: Well, there's been an awful lot of hate expressed in this election. And most of it has been aimed at those who hold to conservative Christian views. He is certainly not the only one to take a position like that. But I think that that is -that's where he's coming from. He has certainly opposed most of the things that conservative Christians stand for.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So no apology?
DR JAMES DOBSON: No apology.
Another measure of the Bush landslide.
President Bush won reelection last Tuesday with 286 electoral votes (over Kerry's 252).
That is the second lowest electoral margin for the winning candidate since 1916 when Woodrow Wilson beat Charles Evans Hughes by a margin of 277 to 254.
(ed. note: Between 1900 and 1912, the size of the electoral college went from 447 to 531 -- only seven fewer than there are today. So comparisons to elections more than one hundred years ago don't work unless the electoral spread is judged in percentage terms.)
And what was the lowest margin? President Bush four years ago with 271.
Now, having said this, I don't want to give people the impression that I'm ignoring the reality of the Republican victory. I'm not. To me, the most troublesome sign about last week's results for the Democrats was less the presidency than the losses in the Senate. And the issue there is what I would call the continuing geographical elasticity of the Republican coalition and the relative inelasticity of the Democrats'. (Ed Kilgore has a good discussion of the reasons for hope and worry in this post at his NewDonkey site today.)
We'll be talking more about that. But what I mean by that clunky phrasing is that Republican senators can still often run and win in blue states despite the unpopularity of the national Republican party in those states. But Democrats have a far harder time doing the same thing -- as Daschle, Bowles, Tenenbaum, Castor and Knowles found out to their dismay.
This is not simply a matter of bad candidates or poorly waged campaigns. It's a pattern that Democrats need to grapple with -- and, unfortunately, it's one that echoes into national and House elections as well.
That aside, Republicans are pushing this decisive victory meme to create a climate of presidential entitlement, an atmosphere in which President Bush not only won the presidency but with it an effective right to dictate the terms of major legislation because of the scope and breadth of his victory.
Given that fact, it seems worth pointing out that this election, rather than being a decisive win or a "landslide", was actually, by every objective measure, one of the half dozen or so closest presidential contests in modern American history, along with 1876, 1916, 1960, 1968 and 1976.
A good run-down of the day's events from the summary section of today's Nelson Report ...
SUMMARY: is there an object lesson for North Korea and the 6 Party talks as Iran seems ready to make a deal on at least freezing its nuclear program? A combination of hard work by European diplomats, the results of the US presidential election, and a convergence of US/Euro negotiating positions seems to have resulted in solid progress in defusing the Iranian nuclear weapons crisis. Previously skeptical US observers report optimism that a ârealisticâ European position has narrowed the differences which kept the Bush Administration at armsâ length, just last month. So the US is now more active than before, not just letting the Euros do it all. Big question remains...what can Iran âreally say âyesâ to?â Secretary of State Powell will meet the Iranians Nov. 22-23, and is expected to offer to lift some important bilateral sanctions, in return for Iranâs announcement itâs ready to suspend uranium enrichment âindefinitelyâ. Bush not likely to OK complete lifting of ILSA sanctions, but a quiet deal not to enforce it against European companies may be enough to move to the next level. In any event, a Powell deal on the 23d would head off an immediate sanctions vote crisis if the IAEA had to refer all this to the UN Security Council. Longer run, some observers warn Iran is not really giving up its nuclear weapons ambitions, but is trading temporary concessions for badly needed aircraft parts, investment money, etc. So at worst (for Iranian bomb supporters) Teheran has brought some time, and potentially opened a big rift between Europe and the US if things fall through because of a tough US line which neither China nor Russia would support, in any event.
Gossip: nothing solid yet, but business community sources are buzzing that every Republicanâs favorite free trade Democrat, Rep. Cal Dooley, of California, is a good bet to succeed Bob Zoellick at USTR. Dooley would not appease House Dems, who consider themselves international human rights victims, at this point. But the press and public certainly could be expected to see the symbolism of President Bush putting into practice his promise, last week, of a more sincerely bipartisan approach for his second term. Where is Zoellick going? Some say heâs hoping to land a private sector CEOâs position, and will keep his eye on future hopes at Treasury.
Supreme Court...the Drudge Reportâs Sunday item that Bush is seriously thinking of Clarence Thomas for Chief Justice is not taken seriously...and if advanced, would stiffen the backbone of every Democrat, and not a few Republicans. Smart money remains on Justice OâConnor for Chief. In meantime, itâs still not clear if Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter has talked himself out of the Judiciary Committee chairmanship by daring to warn about not overturning Roe v. Wade, then backtracking, frantically.
I keep returning again and again to this issue of the comical overstatement of the Republican victory last Tuesday. But let me just hit at least once on two of the silliest talking points of those pushing this argument.
First is the argument, voiced by Mr Cheney and others, that President Bush won with more popular votes than any president in history. A truly silly point. Yes, the president got more popular votes than any other candidate in history. He is followed by John Kerry. And Kerry is followed by Ronald Reagan and Al Gore, in that order.
The fact that the president got more popular votes than anybody in the past isn't a measure of the margin of his victory. It's a measure of population growth, which (unless he's more of a bounder than we know) he is not responsible for, and a high-turnout election, for which his unpopularity is as responsible as his popularity.
And please, no more of this nonsense about how the president's crushing victory is plainly shown by just how much red there is on the map.
As in this flourish from Robert J. Caldwell in the San Diego Union-Tribune ...
From California's border to the Atlantic coast and from Canada to Mexico, the political map of the United States is awash in Republican red. A once dominant Democratic Party is now largely confined to three enclaves: the Northeast, a thin fringe along the Pacific coast and the upper Midwest (where shrinking majorities put the Democrats' hold there increasingly at risk). Almost everything else is Republican.
Maybe the most telling shot across the bow of Arlen Specter came yesterday from a man who hasn't even been sworn in yet as a senator: Sen-elect John Thune, the man who will succeed Tom Daschle.
Here are Thune's comments from yesterday on This Week, as reprinted in the Frontrunner, when asked if he would support Specter for the Judiciary Committee Chairmanship ...
I think all that's going to be decided...next week when we get in for orientation and as the leadership begins to make committee assignments. There's some proposals about changing the rules to give the leaders more latitude when it comes to making those types of assignments. The seniority system in the Senate is something that's worked for a long time, but I do -- I am troubled by what Senator Specter said. And I think he quickly, as you noticed, came back and said that he had misspoke. ... My assumption is that, if he's going to be the person that's going to be set forward by the leadership, that we'll all support him. ... But I think it's going to depend upon an understanding from many of us, particularly new members, the freshmen who are coming in, who are concerned about the things that he said and were, many of us, elected, you know, because we spoke about the importance of judges and having judges on the bench who are going to be judges who interpret and apply the Constitution, the laws of the United States. So I suspect there's going to be -- there will be some questions asked by those of us who are coming in as freshmen who ran our campaigns and built around that very central theme that we need to have good judges on the bench.
Here's a story that pulls together a slew of questions we'll be watching closely over the next weeks and months.
Remember that just after his reelection, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) suggested that President Bush should be cautious in nominating doctrinaire pro-life judges after he becomes Judiciary Committee Chair next year. Specter is outspokenly pro-choice.
Soon after, however, Specter was volubly protesting his fealty to the president and insisting he'd give the go-ahead to more or less anybody the president nominated to the bench.
Evidently, in the interim, Specter got a call letting him know that if he wanted the Judiciary Committee Chairmanship, he'd better recant. And quickly. And so he did.
At this point, to use judicial jargon, the White House had already forced Specter to enter into a non-custodial relationship with his testicles. But now the ante is being upped.
James Dobson, one of the most powerful leaders of the religious right, now says he doesn't want Specter as Chairman no matter what. "He is a problem," said Dobson, "and he must be derailed."
I have a hard time believing that Specter will actually be turned aside while he is so loudly protesting his willingness to toe the party line. But it puts even more pressure on Specter to be a down-the-line supporter of every judicial nominee the president sends up to the Hill.
This raises two issues. First, how much room will remain for the moderate GOP senators and how much freedom will they have to deviate from the White House line which, predictably, is now moving even more decisively to the right. Second, how much de facto control will the White House and the president have over the internal governance of the senate under Bill Frist? Who chairs what committees? What rules get or don't get changed, etc.?
A couple days ago, I wrote that I believe "Hillary Clinton never should and probably (hopefully) never will run for president." And a number of you have asked, why?
I have two basic reasons, one principled, another pragmatic.
Before we get to those, however, I should note that I wrote close to the same thing almost four years ago in an article in Slate about why the Hillary for President idea was fanciful verging on ridiculous. And, on top of that, I'm a fan of hers. I don't buy into any of the Hillary-bashing myths.
(At first, I believed that only journalists and Republicans were fueling the Hillary for Prez line. But eventually I learned that there were actually some Clinton insiders who believed and wanted it to happen.)
But back to the two reasons.
First, I don't like the idea of the presidency becoming the private preserve of a few chosen families. It's bad for democracy, even if a given individual might have much to recommend him or her as a candidate.
Since many are now talking up the possibility of Jeb Bush running for president in 2008, that opens up at least the theoretical possibility that one family could hold the White House for most of a 28 year period (1989-2017). Whether you're a Republican or Democrat, Bush-lover or Bush-hater, that can't be good for republican government in the United States.
(Much is made of the father-and-son presidencies of John (1797-1801) and John Quincy Adams (1825-29). Much less is made of the fact that they were, in effect, members of different political parties.)
As big a fan as I am of Bill Clinton, I'd be against another Clinton family presidency even if there weren't a Bush family. But given that we're now two President Bushes and counting, it makes it all the more important for Democrats to be clear on the principle at issue. A (Hillary) Clinton v. (Jeb) Bush grudge match in 2008 would be a sign of all sorts of sclerotic tendencies in American politics.
Now, to the second reason, the one I focused most on in that Jan. 2000 article in Slate. And that would be, 'Are you kidding?'
Let's be honest, Hillary Clinton is a deeply divisive figure. And if there's one thing Democrats have learned in this and the previous election it is the danger of going into a national election with a candidate who cannot even get a real hearing over a large swath of the country.
As I wrote in that Slate article ...
Gore won virtually all the Northeast, all the West Coast, and nearly all the Industrial Midwest, but failed to win any other state except New Mexico. What did him in in the rest of the country was cultural liberalismâsupport for gun control, abortion rights, and gay rights. This handicap was particularly evident in AppalachiaâWest Virginia, Tennessee, western Pennsylvania, and southeastern Ohio. And who is more identified with cultural liberalism, Al Gore or Hillary Clinton?
Also worth noting is this article in today's Post on Rove's strategy and victory. There's a lot in here that is simply the winning team's version of events -- clever gambits that would have seemed foolish had the result turned out differently. But they didn't turn out differently. And it's worth understanding why and how they believe they did it.