Purple vs. Pixelated: The Obsolescence of States and the Reality of Differences
Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 19, 2008
A few days after the US presidential election, colleague JP Rangaswami posted two maps of results from the 2004 election. The first map showed the results by states, portraying them as red or blue. (NB: In the US quite oddly and contrary to the political color-coding used in the rest of the world, blue represents the sometimes left-of-center Democratic Party while red is the color of the right-of-center Republicans). The second map showed results by county, giving a more variegated portrait of results.
JP writes that the difference between the two maps suggests that there are neither red nor blue states — nor counties, cities, and households — but only purple ones. My own take is that America’s red/blue divide is very real, albeit one that can no longer be encompassed by geographic boundaries gerrymandered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Just as in digital photography, what appears purple from afar is divisible on a pixel-like-level into primary colors. Fault-lines separating red and blue are increasingly divorced from geography. They might be hard to chart but they are very real nonetheless. My short comment on JP’s post can be read here, for a far sharper take on the reality and permutations of the red/blue divide see Frank Rich’s The Moose Stops Here.
The larger implication is that America’s states appear purple because they are entities without substance, irrelevant to real fracture lines that divide the country and define the issues that confront it. States are administrative inheritances from a past age and are increasingly obsolete as clusters of interests or self-identification. Immigration and trans-state migration within the US, the rise of megalopolises that span state boundaries, and the divorce of economic functions from locational agglomerations call into question the utility of states and their efficacy in coping with or resolving economic, infrastructural, and environmental challenges.