The Colors Between the States: The Great Divide and Why It Will Not Close

US Map Red-Blue-Purple States

Click to open map in separate window

Part One 

By James A. Kidney


It is the season of red, blue and purple. That means presidential campaigning is upon us – in force. It is not really a season at all anymore, with round-the-clock, round-the-year, election news coverage, whether warranted or not.

Nor does that combination of bright colors mean the nation is in good cheer. Rather, it is thoroughly divided, as reflected in our representative governments at all levels. Yes, Americans still have far more in common than they do differences, as the occasional columnist feels the need to remind us. But, increasingly it seems, the United States is two cultures united by a common language and divided by very different views of what constitutes America and how to deal with our problems, many of which are conveniently viewed as “caused by the other side” of the red-blue divide.

Red states want less government of any kind for almost any issue except national defense, abortion and certain cultural issues. Red states are hosts to a frequently voiced suspicion — or even hatred — of government, at least at the federal level. There is an undercurrent of yearning reflected in policy suggestions among the red state political leaders that the way to deal with the 21st century’s problems is to revert to the middle of the previous century. Eisenhower, Goldwater and Reagan are the inspiration for sentimental recollections and vague policy prescriptions, although all three might find it difficult to identify with much of what the red state GOP stands for today.  Plus, the world is different than it was as late as the Reagan era.  The U.S. is not the economic giant standing astride a war-ruined world as it was in 1950.

It is not hard to understand why white men, and some women, yearn for such a past.  The anger that it is not going to happen is expressed in extreme venom and, as the John Boehner resignation shows, vengeance against anyone even willing to discuss compromise.

Blue state leaders and their voters look favorably on government, especially the federal government, as the solution to problems such as dirty water and air, climate change and economic inequality. Franklin Roosevelt and, on domestic policy, Lyndon Johnson are the model presidents for these folks. On national american-flagsecurity, however, there is less certainty about America’s role in the world than in the more militarily aggressive red states. Although blue states face their own economic and racial uncertainties in big cities and suburbs, many struggling families — especially white families — across the country perceive an unmistakable disregard for their problems among liberals.

Blue state liberals campaign more poorly than red state conservatives outside of the presidential races, failing to capture the majority in those few congressional districts and state level offices that have not been gerrymandered by either party into one color. Liberals tend to look askance at the positions of the more conservative party and believe the logic of liberal thinking alone can carry the day. Their candidates also don’t fully adopt liberal positions, afraid that they will offend independents, but the resulting “compromise” pleases no one.  Their base is not motivated to vote in off-year elections, so Democrats lose in close Senate and House races.

Red state politicians are better at getting elected by undiluted appeals to the most conservative in their base, many of whom vote regularly. But their government animus and devotion to positions undaunted by the experience of recent history (e.g., failure of “trickle down” economics for over 30 years) cause them to be very poor at governance.

This situation will not change in the foreseeable future. More optimistic projections to the contrary are seriously flawed.

This series looks at the prospects for continuing divide, why it is not likely to change and, later, how these very different political approaches to our problems are reflected in demographics and policies at the state level.

But this website is not all about the highly wonky nature of the red-blue-purple divide. Such postings will be only occasional. There are more fun things to write about. We have and will. But for this series on the Colors Between the States, be prepared for some wonky assessments. Your comments and responses are invited. We will be happy to publish opposing views if supported by reason and facts.  Just email them to us at  Or post them in the comments section.

Sign up for an email alert on this page to learn when the next installment is available.

The Divide Will Continue

If the early craziness of the Republican nominating process continues, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign doesn’t blow up in scandal, Democrats stand a good chance to keep the White House in blue state control next year. (Biden is still coy new_york_crowded_streetabout his intentions as this is written.)  But the prospect for continued gridlock in Washington and GOP control of most state houses is likely to be unchanged for many years to come. Barring some national catastrophe that not only “brings us together” but does so for many years, optimistic reports that Hispanic population growth, interstate blue state-to-red state migration and the younger generation are the death knell of  red state politics are too rosy by far.

The lesson is that liberals cannot sit back and wait for the red state voting population to come to them on the assumption their policies are more realistic, rational and attractive to the have-nots, even if that is so. Rather, they have to small town Main_Street_Stoneham_Mamake their arguments aggressively, persuasively and respectfully if change is to come about. Until then, liberalism will essentially be a bicoastal phenomenon in which the ideologies of the rest of the country are arrogantly referenced as located in “flyover country.”

Liberals have to get out on the street and campaign with the same vigor as their more conservative brethren. There is no inevitable tide of liberal thinking to lift all boats. A liberal future, even in the United States, is not preordained. In fact, history suggests it is unlikely. There have only been three brief periods of liberal ascendancy in the modern history of America: Under Presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Mostly, our history has been one of capitalism unleavened by government regulaton or stalemate.

Ahh, retort the hopeful liberals. Look at immigration! Those Latinos angered by Trump are the future and they will vote for Democrats. If your future is limited to the 2016 presidential race, this is likely true. The GOP well may already be irreversibly poisoned for Hispanics in 2016. But . . .

As we describe in the next posting, Hispanic voters are not certain to be Democratic Party stalwarts if the Republicans ever are able to drop their nativist and racist policies and rhetoric. It now seems that the best the GOP can hope for this election cycle is a giant burp and release of gas in the form of Donald Trump, his followers, and the candidates who mimic him. The party leaders who so optimistically hoped in 2014 that the party would drop its nativist stance now must look to 2016 as a cathartic clearing of the system of anti-Hispanic and anti-Asian bile.

But if the party is stomped in the presidential race and learns its lesson (this time), Hispanics climbing the ladder of economic success might find Republican notions on cultural and economic issues at least as much to their liking as liberal Democratic positions. It is a certainty that if the Republicans stop their anti-Hispanic tub thumping, Democrats won’t be able to rely on that rapidly growing minority to go their way like the African-American vote. Their votes will have to be fought for. We should also remember that the vast majority of the Hispanic population is not immigrants. It is native-born Americans, born to parents who are themselves U.S. citizens.  The problem with the GOP now is not only that it is anti-immigrant, it sounds anti-Hispanic, regardless of where and when those Hispanics were born.

Even more seductive to liberals than the growing power of Hispanics is the notion that as blue state northerners move to the growing red states of the South and Southwest, they will bring a more progressive form of politics to areas supposedly thirsty for blue state enlightenment. We take on this fantasy in our third posting on this subject.

The strongest reason for optimism that a few red states will convert to blue in the relatively near future is that the Millennial Generation is not, so far, attracted to the raw red meat politics of the red states. This is clearly the case with respect to cultural matters. Millennials are significantly less worried about sexual identities and race than the aging Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. But on pocketbook issues and foreign policy the jury is still out, as it usually is with younger generations of voters just starting families, buying houses and embarking on jobs and careers. Plus, many are leaving the more rural areas where red is solid for purple and blue territories with better wages and more interesting work.  We look at that issue more closely in a fourth posting.

Two Big Divides: Density and Income

Setting aside demographics of population transfer, age and ethnicity, the greatest obstacles to a significant closing of the political gap between the blue and red states are population density and income. The former will never change. The latter will change only slowly, if at all.

I.  Density Differences Result in Divide

Everyone knows that the red states are principally those in the southeast and up the Middle West prairie and mountain ranges west of the Mississippi River. There are some sizable cities in these areas – Atlanta, Dallas, Denver and Phoenix, for example – but large swaths are barely inhabited or are occupied by farm land and small towns. Blue states, however, are characterized by urban and suburban areas filled with people, often living and working closely together and commuting long distances to find affordable housing. As with any political generalities, there are exceptions. Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine hardly meet the aforementioned blue state criteria although they are blue in most elections. There are at least six states falling into the purple, or unpredictable, category that cross all these descriptive lines – Iowa, Florida, Virginia, Nevada, Colorado and Ohio. But, for the most part, the generalities hold.

[Click table below to view in separate window]




The difference in density between red and blue is more striking than many might think. In 2014, blue states, excluding the compact non-state District of Columbia, averaged 350 residents per square mile. Red states averaged only 75, or one-fifth of blue state population. The most crowded red state, North Carolina, ranks only 15th in density in the 50-state total. Only purple Nevada and blue New Mexico break the red color line among the 10 states with the least density.

Think about this next time the transportation bill comes up and there is a debate over a gasoline tax increase or how much of the budget should be allocated to mass transit; or when there are policy differences about overcrowded schools or how to address problems of the inner city. Your issues are going to be very different depending on whether you must drive 20 miles to the grocery or hop on a subway; or if your high school has 300 students rather than 2,500, even disregarding its racial mix, which also is likely to be very different if rural or city.

The economies of the red states are dependent on farming, livestock, mineral extraction and other activities that fund the small city businesses and farms outside the big cities. The economies – and the politics – are interconnected, just as they are in the blue states with their concentrations in manufacturing and service industries.

Perhaps there is an even more important characteristic embedded in the lower density of the red states that distinguishes them from the blue states and results in very different attitudes about politics and government. It is hard to measure directly, but isn’t it likely that the very notion of community is significantly different? Every state, city and town has a community interest of some sort, but in red states, outside the big cities, it might be more personal, more knowing of your neighbor, and more reliant on neighborliness than on government services. Cities and suburbs can be neighborly, too, but in a much different way. One can more easily be lost in a city or even hidden in a suburb – by design or by accident. We in the city look to government — to people we do not know — to protect us from other people we do not know and to provide us many anonymous services, from trash pickup to fire protection. Needs are addressed differently in small towns. Government can be suspect, if only because it is less necessary on a day-to-day basis or because everyone knows who delivers the mail, assesses the taxes, responds to an emergency, and sits on the town council. Postmaster Jones? She’s not the government town folk are suspicious of when a federal election rolls around. She’s a good person.

Of particularly current relevance:  A dozen brown skinned newcomers to a city of 15,000 is much more likely to be noticed — perhaps suspiciously — than 1,000 times that many arriving in a metropolitan area of four million.

II.  Density Differences Equal Constitutional Imbalance

Speculative thinking on the nature of community aside, the hard numbers about density translate into political gridlock which, thanks to the structure of our Constitution, is likely to continue for a long time. Although the 24 red states account for only 36 percent of the U.S. population (including blue DC, which is not represented in Congress), they elect 48 percent of the Senate. Blue states, which are concentrated in only 20 states, plus DC, can elect only 40 percent of the Senate, despite housing 47 percent of the population. The six swing purple states, with 16 percent of the population, account for the other 12 seats in the Senate. Were the 100 Senate seats allocated more equitably, perhaps one seat for every one percent of the population, blue states in 2014 would account for 47 seats, red states for 36 and purple states for 16 seats. Rounding would award the 100th seat to one state in one of those categories.

The states remain firmly embedded with their color characteristics in the Senate. Only five of the 24 red states have a Democratic senator. None has two. Likewise, only five of the 20 blue states also are split between parties. Purple states stick close to their swing status. Four have split delegations. Iowa has two Republican senators; Virginia has two Democrats.

Under current Senate rules, 60 votes are required to bring a matter to the floor if a filibuster is threatened – a regular occurrence nowadays. If all red state senators voted with all swing state senators, the 60 vote target would be met. Blue states all voting together in the Senate regardless of party would need all purple states AND at least four red state senators to acquire 60 votes to bring a floor vote, despite housing nearly half of the population.

(Currently, the situation is worse. The five Democrats from red states often vote with their red state colleagues and against the more liberal positions favored by most blue state senators. Very few Republicans in any state vote contrary to the wishes of the leadership, at least not in a more liberal direction.)

The Senate vote on the Iran nuclear arms agreement illustrated the point. The agreement survived because 40 Democrats and two Independents, all from blue states, voted against bringing the rejection bill to the floor without a filibuster. Such a “cloture resolution” preventing a filibuster requires 60 votes. Although only 42 percent of the Senate voted in favor of the Iran measure by voting against cloture, those senators represented nearly 48 percent of the U.S. population, based on Census data for 2014. (We split the populations of the split delegation states equally for this calculation.)

The Founding Fathers intended that the Senate act as a governor on the House, which they feared would be roused by immediate passions rather than thoughtful debate. That is why the Senate term is six years and why, until it was amended, the Constitution provided that senators be elected by the state legislatures. But over time, especially in recent years, the Senate has seemed less a wall against passion than an obstacle to reasoned democratic rule. This is because it is structured based on geography and political boundaries (state lines) which are an accident of history. Regardless, the Senate is with us to stay. So is the geography. The combination suggests there will be at best very slow change in our political divisions.

The temptation among liberals and conservatives alike to create third and fourth parties is raised seriously when frustration over gridlock boils over.  Again, the U.S. system as established by the Founding Fathers is not equipped to handle additional parties. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides that in the event no presidential candidate receives a majority of the vote in the Electoral College, the selection moves to the House of Representatives, where the process is totally undemocratic. The Constitution provides that “the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote . . . .” Under the 12th Amendment (ratified in 1804), the Senate picks the vice president if there is a tie for that office, as there almost surely would be under our current party system. The vote there is only slightly more egalitarian – each senator gets a vote.

The presidential election went to the House for resolution in 1800 (a tie electoral vote) and in 1824 (no majority among four candidates). In 1837, the Senate picked the vice president because there was no Electoral College majority.

Although it is theoretically possible that a multi-party system would encourage the building of coalitions in the House and Senate, as is done in countries with a long history of parliamentary elections, even the amended provisions for determining a president among multiple candidates with no electoral college majority are strictly based on geography. In other words, the disparities are baked into the system.

III.  Another Divide: Rich States/Poor States

Per capita income averages for blue jurisdictions are skewed by the District of Columbia, with income in the Nation’s Capital averaging $76,532 — over $14,000 more than the no. 2 state, Connecticut. Cutting out D.C. drops the average blue state personal income to $46,698 v. red state $41,980 – less than $5,000. But the averages hide some serious differences. (Click on table below to see in a new window).

The State incomesonly red states in the top 20 are North Dakota, Wyoming and Alaska – all beneficiaries of an oil-based economy — and Nebraska. Look for substantial declines in at least the first three of those economies in 2015.  Red states account for 12 of the bottom 15 states in per capita income in 2014. Looked at another way, only nine of the red states are in the top 30, including the aforementioned North Dakota, Wyoming and Alaska. Only one blue state – heavily Hispanic and rural New Mexico – and none of the six purple states had per capita personal income under $40,000 in 2014. Eleven red states — nearly half of them — fell below that line.

This helps both to raise and to answer the question posed by What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank’s 2004 book asking why voters so often cast ballots against their own economic interests. (Kansas, by the way, ranks no. 23 in personal per capita income in 2014, but has become rabidly anti-tax and anti-government under Governor Sam Brownback). As Frank states in his book (p. 68):

Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower.

Frank largely concluded that cultural issues drew everyday Kansans to conservative politicians who then focused on issues favorable to business and the elites. Political history since the election of Richard Nixon with a “southern strategy” clearly supports Frank’s thesis, but Donald Trump’s popularity suggests that the red state rubes are on to the scam. If Trump has any coherent messages outside of immigration, one of them is that the game is rigged to favor the wealthy like himself, and that the mainline GOP is not going to change it. But Trump will not be the GOP nominee. The rest of the field still follows the money to Big Business.

Being economically victimized by downsizing and job exports does not seem to result in whites in red states favoring blue state solutions, such as higher taxes on the wealthy or promotion of labor unions. Trump stands for only modest amounts of the former and none of the latter. There is something else afoot, which goes back all the way to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal or, if you prefer, the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow era of the nineteenth century.

Jim Crow laws were passed with nearly unanimous white support after Reconstruction and were accompanied by statutes and practices which continued the dominance of the wealthy white plantation owners over sharecroppers and other poor folk, both black and white. The South was a society of renters, with ownership limited to the elites. There was little interest by these elites in educating persons of any race beyond such mathematics and reading as was necessary to plant and harvest crops or deal in day-to-day commerce. While the North raced to industrialize, unionize and to address issues of unequal bargaining strength, politicians in the South knew how to capitalize on one critical value among the poor whites, roughly phrased as follows: “At least you poor whites can always look down on the black man, who, by the way, is always seeking to take away your livelihood.”

Even in the face of the Great Depression, FDR had to bow to red state prejudice. Passing social security legislation required exclusion from its coverage of occupations largely filled by blacks employed by whites, such as household help and agriculture. Agriculture also was excluded from coverage of the National Labor Relations Act. This was a condition for Roosevelt to obtain the dominant “Dixiecrat” vote. Would poor white voters punish their representatives in Washington for voting in favor of financial relief critical to their families if it also included reflief to blacks?  We don’t know, but those southern representatives clearly thought so.

Substitute the Mexican for the black man (or, less charitably, join the Mexican with the black man) and one can see that little has changed among the white working poor and the economically threatened white middle class.

There are probably many other reasons one could identify for the red state-blue state gulf. But geography doesn’t change and economies change slowly if at all. They are significant reasons for the divide.

Can liberals make a dent in these circumstances? Perhaps. But not by assuming the red state sentiments will simply die out with aging white men or be diluted by the young and the brown. The hard work of persuasion has to be undertaken. This is made more difficult by what red state whites see, often correctly, as undisguised disdain for them among the ill-defined, but always liberal, “elites.”

Next: Are Hispanics going to make the red states blue?






So what's your view on these issues? Send a comment.

%d bloggers like this: