Thursday, May 04, 2006

Red States and Blue States

In the business section of today's NY Times, economist Hal Varian discusses a recent study by Harvard economists Edward Glaeser and Bryce Ward. (Ec 10 students: Glaeser teaches ec 1011a, the more mathemetical intermediate micro course, so you may see him next year.)

Here is Varian's summary of modern American politics:

Republicans have traditionally appealed to those with higher incomes. The genius of Republicans, beginning with Ronald Reagan and continuing with Karl Rove, was to bring the religious vote into their party, forming a winning coalition of Main Street businessmen, the very wealthy and evangelical Christians. Strange bedfellows, to be sure, but they win elections....

The Economist magazine characterizes American politics as a contest between the incompetence of Republicans and the incoherence of the Democrats. But there is a reason for the Democrats' incoherence: they are feverishly trying to assemble their own collection of strange bedfellows, and no one quite knows what it is.

And here in their own words is a summary of the Glaeser-Ward paper:

In this essay, we revisit America’s political geography and ask what is true and false about the “red state/blue state” framework. We begin by identifying five myths associated with this framework: 1) American is divided into two politically homogenous regions; 2) The two parties are more spatially segregated than in the past; 3) America’s political geography is more stable than in the past; 4) America’s cultural divisions are increasing and 5) America is becoming more politically polarized.

But despite the myths surrounding the red state/blue state paradigm, there are two important truths captured by this framework. America is a country with remarkable geographic diversity in its habits and beliefs. People in different states have wildly different views about religion, homosexuality, AIDS, military policy and wildly different consumption patterns. The distribution of states along all dimensions is continuous, not bimodal, but this continuum should never be confused with homogeneity. Moreover, America’s ideological diversity is not particularly new. In the 1930s, New England was much more socially liberal than the South. The extent and permanence of cultural divisions across space is one of America’s most remarkable features.