Mapping the Election

A tour of the first post-election remappings of America. Some will give you hope, others throw you into despair.

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Let’s start with an electoral map (scroll down) of the United States not long after George Bush beat a Massachusetts liberal for the presidency. If you take a quick glance at it, you’ll note that sea of blue stretching majestically from coast to coast with just a few isolated red states hanging off the northern border like the last ripe mangos of the growing season. Sound like the fabulous fantasy of some cockeyed Kerry supporter? Actually, it represents a distant reality — and not even one that you have to approach via some Star-Trek-style worm hole into an alternate political universe. You just have to go back 16 years to 1988 when George H. W. Bush pummeled Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis in a presidential race. Back in those days, as you might now have guessed, the blue states on the electoral map were Republican and the reds Democratic. (Someday, some enterprising young cultural scholar will tell us when, how, and why those colors were flipped and what it all means.) That map of a political stomp-fest is actually a reminder for all Democrats that the political world at the presidential level hasn’t always rolled directly downhill. In 1988, even massive fraud by the Democrats wouldn’t have helped.

Since 1988, however, we’ve entered a world of ever more extreme, polarizing words and images. Just this week, for instance, Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, wrote in a letter to George W. Bush:

“In your re-election, God has graciously granted America — though she doesn’t deserve it — a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. You have been given a mandate. We the people expect your voice to be like the clear and certain sound of a trumpet. Because you seek the Lord daily, we who know the Lord will follow that kind of voice eagerly. Don’t equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ. Honor the Lord, and He will honor you.”

In the right-wing Human Events on-line, there’s even a “modest proposal,” filled with the usual levels of anger, resentment, and a sense of eternal victimhood, that calls for expelling the “liberal states” from the U.S. complete with instructions on how to do it. (“If the so-called ‘Red States’ [those that voted for George W. Bush] cannot be respected or at least tolerated by the ‘Blue States’ [those that voted for Al Gore and John Kerry], then the most disparate of them must live apart — not by secession of the former [a majority], but by expulsion of the latter.“) In the meantime, a rejiggered map that shows North America divided into “The United States of Canada” and “Jesusland” — one of a number of similar embittered joke maps — has been zipping around the Internet among disappointed anti-Bush and/or Kerry voters.

I had my own polarizing moment, however, back in that extreme red/blue year of 1988. Not long after the election, looking at that pathetic little string of red Democratic states at the northern edge of our national map, I had an urge — which turned out to be a few years ahead of its time — and wrote my first piece for the Nation magazine. I invented two Canadian political scientists who, I claimed, had produced a massive pre-election report suggesting a logical political realignment of North America, incorporating those Dukakis states into an enlarged liberal Canadian commonwealth. (It turned out to be a realistic enough sounding scenario even then for a Canadian Broadcasting Company interviewer to call me looking for the two — quite fictional — scholars, having been unable to track them down either at their nonexistent institute in Toronto or at their home university in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.) I thought, you hardcore weekend Tomdispatchers might find this peek into my archival past amusing and perhaps still of interest in the present context. Even then, as you’ll see, I was quite aware that this country was far more complex than any map filled with red-and-blue blocs of color could possibly begin to indicate.

Analysis of the 2004 election began pouring in from all quarters even before the counting ended; certainly before we could think straight about what had actually happened. I’ve generally found far more illuminating the many varieties of electoral maps that have begun to circulate. They do a better job of indicating how much more complex and confusing we are as a nation than any single electoral-college map could begin to catch. (Even these maps, focused as they are on the vote, can’t catch the complexities, ambiguities, and confusions with which Americans — those who did — went to the polls to make what, after all, is a black-or-white, red-or-blue choice). So let me just offer a little tour of these first post-election remappings of America, some of which might give you hope and others throw you into despair.

Here, as a start, is the essential red-and-blue map of this election. (Above it, you can click on and check out the red/blue configurations of elections from 1980 on. If you’re a Democrat and want to know what true depression is, try 1980 or 1984!) But red-and-blue blocs actually tell you remarkably little. So try checking out where Bush and Kerry votes actually came from. You need to squint at these two maps a bit, but what you can see is that the split is less state by state than urban versus suburban and rural. Kerry, for instance, lost Missouri but carried St. Louis; lost Tennessee but carried Memphis; was crushed in Alabama but carried Selma; was dismantled in Texas but carried Austin and El Paso; won California but lost large rural and suburban hunks of the state, and so on. Sean Wilentz considered these splits in a recent Los Angeles Times Sunday opinion piece: “The real electoral division,” he wrote, “isn’t between the coasts and the heartland. It’s between cities all over the United States and the rest of the country…By perpetuating the easy impression of a nation divided into coastal liberals and heartland conservatives, reporters and commentators are misleading themselves and their audiences about the actual political state of the Union.” (However, the inclination of analysts to lump the rural and suburban vote together in the Republican column and think of it all in the context of some kind of metro/retro split probably makes little sense either. Whatever the Republican suburbs are — a subject to which Tomdispatch will return in a few weeks — they can’t be dismissed simply as “retro.”)

As soon as you consider the vote county by county, the look of the red/blue configurations begins to change dramatically — even more so, if counties are essentially not awarded in toto to either candidate. Then you end up with a “purple America” map that begins to take into account the Bush voters in New York City and the Kerry voters in deepest Texas. If you’re really curious, scroll down two maps and try your luck at matching the purple electoral map against a dark-sky snapshot of electricity-use nationwide or simply check out a basic red-and-blue map rescaled for population (scroll down).

Or — to return to red-and-blue America — here are a couple of other ways to go at it: Consider what 2004 would have looked like in electoral-college terms if only voters 18-29 had trooped to the polls (scroll down). It would, of course, have been a Kerry electoral landslide. Or to slice into the electoral map on a different angle, check out a red-and-blue on-the-dole map of the states that do (and don’t) take in more federal dollars than they pay out in taxes. It’s essentially a 2004 election map since “17 of the 20… states receiving the most federal spending per dollar of federal taxes paid are Red [Bush] States.”

By the way, if you have an extra moment, check out Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest piece, The Faith Factor, in the Nation magazine in which she argues that the “great awakening” of Christian “moral values” in Bush’s America isn’t exactly what it’s made out to be. “What these churches have to offer,” she writes, “in addition to intangibles like eternal salvation, is concrete, material assistance. They have become an alternative welfare state, whose support rests not only on ‘faith’ but also on the loyalty of the grateful recipients.” In other words, while attempting to dismantle one kind of welfare state, the President’s “moral majority” has been hard at work building up another (far more modest) version of the same inside the churches. As anyone knows who remembers those classic jobs-and-votes Democratic political machines in big cities like New York or Chicago, there’s nothing better for creating essential loyalty at the polls.

As if to support Ehrenreich’s position on the “moral values” debate, a map in this Sunday’s New York Times Week in Review accompanying a Pam Belluck article, To Avoid Divorce Move to Massachusetts, shows that the lowest divorce rates in the nation are “largely in the blue states” of the Northeast and upper Midwest. Go figure.

Or how about putting the 48% of America that officially voted for Kerry in a global context? Though this map isn’t completely accurate — preferences in some Asian countries like India and the Philippines seem to have been more mixed than it indicates — you’ll get the idea.

Then there are other curious questions maps can raise. For instance, a map floating around the e-universe in recent days shows Pre-Civil War Free vs. Slave States. It is indeed an eerie historical snapshot. Throw in the “territories open to slavery” (and southern Ohio) and you essentially have the blue-red divide again. Perhaps this is a reminder that the great vote switch of our times wasn’t religious at all. It started with President Richard Nixon’s decision to pursue a “southern strategy” (based, in part, on seeing the strength of segregationist Governor George Wallace’s third-party presidential bid in 1968 in which he garnered 46 electoral votes and about 13% of the popular vote). It was meant to drive a wedge right into the greatest of all New Deal Democratic Party contradictions — the long-lived, increasingly uneasy alliance of the northern liberal and southern white conservative wings of the Party. The switch-over of this once racist vote flipped the South finally into the “red” camp and, to this day (however updated), proves decisive in election after election, especially as in 2004 in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The 2004 electoral map probably does tell us that, under the endless layers of a quarter-century of “culture wars” and “moral issues,” including those of abortion and gay marriage, lies the heavy historical burden of America’s slave past and racial history.

Recently, outside observer Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Professor of African Studies and History at Pennsylvania State University — “I could not but be amused wondering what American commentators would say if this were an African election: I bet they would bemoan the regionalization of voting as a reflection of Africans incapacity to transcend primordial loyalties based on ‘tribalism’ and ‘regionalism’; voting misdeeds would be ascribed to the propensity of African governments for vote rigging and the ignorance of ‘illiterate’ voters unaccustomed to democracy.” — took up this subject. In “The Republicanization of America,” an essay not available on line, he wrote in part:

“It seems to me that this drift, what I would call the republicanization of America, can be attributed to the complex and combustible politics of race, empire, and globalization… The cultural values trumpeted by the Republicans and which find so much resonance among millions of Americans primarily tap into the racial codes of American life and are driven by the desire to unravel the civil rights settlement of the 1960s that sought to enfranchise and empower African Americans and other racial minorities… The politics of race ensured unity on the Republican side in this “war” (the party remains predominantly white and in the recent election attracted no more than 10 percent of the black vote), and dissension on the Democratic side as different identity and social projects competed for primacy (as can be seen in the heated debates about gay rights in the African American civil rights community).”

The one factor that might be impossible to map, so deep does it lie under the surface of American electoral consciousness, is the imperial factor. (Speaking of historical ironies, by the way, the racist southern senators of that old, white Democratic South tended to be far more anti-imperial and anti-interventionist, often for the obvious racial reasons, than the new right-wing senators of the Republican South.) If the harsh racial maps of electoral America are officially buried in the past, perhaps it would be reasonable to say that the imperial ones are “buried” in the future. Though most Americans don’t think of themselves or their country in imperial terms, it’s been clear in these last years that fears of a loss of supremacy abroad and what that might mean domestically have risen dramatically (even if overly focused on the single issue of terrorism and couched in the language of patriotism). My own belief is that there was an imperial vote in this election, a vote gripped by fear for what might be lost in the world.

But enough of that; now step with me through the electoral worm hole into the distant year 1988 and consider “the Canadian stratagem.”

How to Create a Land of Liberals

The “Canadian Stratagem”
By Tom Engelhardt
[A satire published in the Nation magazine on December 19, 1988, soon after George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in the presidential election]

Is there hope for a liberal America? Two Canadian political scientists, Martin Sheldon and Arthur Drake, of the University of Saskatchewan at Moose Jaw, hold out a glimmer to “L-worders” cowering in stunned silence in coastal and northern enclaves of the United States. However, their analysis — if correct — also spells ultimate success for U.S. conservatives.

Sheldon and Drake’s 345-page report, The New Realignment: Political Realities for North America in the 1990s, was issued last July by Canada’s prestigious Institute for Strategic Surveys (I.S.S.) in Toronto. Its title may sound bland, but the report makes explosive reading.

While U.S. political commentators argued about whether Michael Dukakis could take states ranging from Georgia and Texas to Ohio and California, Sheldon and Drake assumed that the Democratic nominee would, with the exceptions of Oregon, Iowa and Rhode Island, win only a series of states bordering on or close to Canada — specifically, Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Washington. “It’s true,” says Sheldon, “that Dukakis lost the U.S.election, but looked at in another light, he won the southern Canadian election, and it’s this political reality that liberals and leftists should be facing and debating on both sides of the border.” Dukakis’s victories, Sheldon and Drake point out, fall roughly north of the old British claim-line for the Canadian border in the West. They believe that this particular configuration of states, which they call “the Northern Tier,” is no fluke of history.

As evidence that this “Canadian stratagem” has been consciously engineered, Sheldon and Drake cite the private comments of scores of Democratic politicos. Typically, one close Dukakis aide confided to them: “Someday, we’ll have a few things to teach Canadian liberals about how to run a country.” They also highlight a comment, unreported in the United States, that President-elect Bush made during the New Hampshire primary. Sitting by a radio microphone he thought was switched off, he turned to a New Hampshire supporter and said of the Democrats, “One more push and we’ll have them in Canada.”

From their pre-election analysis of the developing situation on both sides of the border, Sheldon and Drake conclude that we may be facing the first political and economic restructuring of North
America since the American Revolution. In a chapter titled “The Northern Tier: Co-evolution or Chaos?” they suggest that the only way Canadian liberals and leftists can take on the historical task of guarding Canada’s fragile economic independence — symbolized in their recent attempts to hold back the U.S.-Canada free trade treaty — is by incorporating the part of the United States that clearly is no longer wanted.

The result — a Greater Canadian Commonwealth — if achieved without acrimony, would offer both countries enormous advantages. Canada would be thrown solidly into the “L” column, an economic giant able to coexist with its southern neighbor without fear of domination. At the same time, it would do the United States a historically unparalleled favor by turning it into a land relatively free of liberals.

Professors Sheldon and Drake, interviewed in their office in the New Age wing of the Toronto institute where both are spending a year on leave from Moose Jaw, noted that since their report was issued, events have only confirmed their analysis. When asked how two unknown Canadian academics could have spotted trends that escaped the rest of North America, senior author Sheldon, a tall, bushy-haired, 47-year-old wearing a green and red jogging suit, denied that this was so. “We’re no better at foreseeing the future than you are. You shouldn’t view our report as a predictive document but as a series of projections based on bedrock trends there for anyone to see.”

Arthur Drake, a rotund 40-year-old who spent the interview trimming a button fern, offered a somewhat different perspective. “At the risk of sounding impolite, the distinction here is between what Canadians can see and what you in the states can’t see. Remember, we come from a mythical country, one you don’t believe to exist — not a bad vantage point for grasping certain continental realities. It’s harder for you, and we’re sympathetic to that. But all you really had to do was watch the election night maps broadcast by your own networks: that day-glo blue stretching unbroken from sea to sea and the fragile string of red blobs hanging tenuously from the Canadian border. The unconscious sorting out of colors was enough. It told you everything you needed to know, even without our report.”

“Just one thing,” cut in Sheldon. “When you write this article, make it clear that there’s nothing pie-in-the-sky about the report. We’ve looked the problems square in the eye.”

Sheldon and Drake have, in fact, taken special pains to confront the possible criticisms their proposals are likely to raise. In three linked appendixes they deal with the most crucial and difficult of these:

* What to do with states like Maine. (Suggestions range from ragged or discontinuous borders — the so-called Alaska solution — to massive population exchanges with more conservative areas of

* What to do with West Virginia, the District of Columbia, cities like Pittsburgh, and parts of Northern California and black areas in the South. (Suggestions range from the establishment of a “free city” policy inside the United States, to the setting up of Greater Canadian consulates throughout the country and an offer of asylum to Jesse Jackson and other black leaders.)

* What to do with the expected flow of refugees in both directions (a subject so complex that it will be the focus of an upcoming Nation article).

Nation readers are urged to consider the Sheldon and Drake report themselves ($12.95, I.S.S. Press, Toronto) while time still remains for a reasonable discussion of the issues it raises. With this in mind, an ominous signal of which Nation readers may already be aware was George Bush’s comment to hecklers during his postelection Florida vacation: “Read my lips: You’re Canadians.”

When this piece was written, Tom Engelhardt was a senior editor at Pantheon Books. His history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, would not be published for another 7 years; his novel, The Last Days of Publishing, not for another 14 years. It would be 14 years before he created, a weblog of the Nation Institute.

Copyright C1988 Tom Engelhardt


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