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.