Steven Pinker of Harvard recently posted an article on The Stone at the New York Times called "Why Are States So Red and Blue?" His summary of his thesis:
The North and coasts are extensions of Europe and continued the government-driven civilizing process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that emerged in the anarchic territories of the growing country, tempered by their own civilizing forces of churches, families and temperance.
In essence, the North and South were originally settled by two distinct groups. In the North it was English farmers and in the South it was Scots-Irish herders. These two groups have differing views of human nature based on their property. Herders whose animals can be stolen in the blink of an eye have a negative view of human nature and emphasize self-defense and protection; farmers whose land is more secure are more communitarian and willing to accede to legal resolutions of disputes.
The premise is that these cultures predominated in the two geographic regions and were propagated by the inhabitants as they moved Westward. Hence the North and coasts are "farmy", the South and West "herdy". The essay is not an argument and makes little attempt to justify its claims. Additionally, Pinker seems to be focused (the article isn't super-tight) on why Red states have higher rates of violence (not substantiated).
This suggests that one's view of human nature may be driven by one's property and that the concept of property and property rights are foundational for our views on social organization. Second it suggests that the type of property can drive such divergent views on human nature as, on the one side Hobbesian, on the other Rousseau-esque. Very State of Nature/Social Contract.
Let's extend the discussion beyond the generalization about a propensity to violence. Red states align themselves with a party that claims to be in favor of property rights, individual economic rights, anti-federalism, restricted regulation, restricted social rights and anti-wealth distribution via taxation. Blue states align themselves with a party that claims to be in favor of communal protections, economic equality, federalism, stronger regulations, expanded social rights and some form of wealth distribution via taxation.
Putting aside that the generalizations don't apply to everyone in each state and that when the rubber hits the road, there is a lot less differentiation between the two parties than the platform and rhetoric suggests, we can ask how the fundamental concept of property influences these political platforms. The difference in property is the difference between chattel (look it up) and real property. The implication is that chattel drives belief in stronger individual liberties, reduced taxation and government services, devolution of power to local authorities and free market economics. Real property encourages curtailing individual liberty in favor of common good, wealth distribution via taxation and increased government services, rollup of power to federal authority and greater central control of markets.
I'm going to question first the strong distinction between the two types of property in the two regions. It seems to me that anywhere you have property you will also have chattel and vice-versa. At least in the Southern states there was a strong commitment to real property in the form of plantations. In the West where people grazed cattle on communal land that chattel w/o real property model might fit, but it doesn't seem to hold for the original Southern colonies. If you have land you are farming, you will have property in the form of the agricultural products you produce, which will require the same kind of protections as things like cows and sheep.
I don't see the obvious connection between the type of property and all of the planks of the platforms. It seems, rather, that what is distinctive between the two is the types of products produced by the types of property and the economic systems that evolve around them. I'm not a scholar of American economic history, but it seems that an agricultural economy would need a more sophisticated exchange model requiring greater regulations and more interstate and international trade, which would lead one to value a stronger centralized government to oversee it. A ranching economy would seem to work differently and perhaps allows for more direct interaction between economic agents and a encourage laissez faire approach. Curiously, this echoes the dispute between Cain and Abel in Bible - perhaps the conflict between those who work the land and those who hunt and gather has always been and persists.
Pinker's article is provocative and only so. It's an opinion piece and if you read the comments to the article, you will find many people taking exception to his claims and providing counter-points. There is clearly no way to trace the origin of the current political environment to such a simple and possibly false dichotomy. [Warning: OpEd] One thing it does do for me, however, is to question the political utility of states in our representative democracy. The idea that there are red and blue states seems to me to be indicative of an anachronism that should be abolished. In my adult lifetime, I have seen an evolution of national elections from all states being a part of the process to a focus on 5 or so swing states that determine the fate of the entire nation. Add in corruption, media consolidation and anti-democratic voter suppression practices and it feels to me that representative democracy has failed. The states, as political entities intimately tied up in that system, are implicated. Where one lives determines the value of one's vote. That's not democratic or equal.
Colin Woodard’s book, American Nations, tries to explain many of the historical reasons behind blue/red states. This is a good article about it: http://bit.ly/TFXyMz. I think the main point of the book is that the influences are not restricted to methods of production, but are actually a complex fabric of religion, geography, social structures, economy, etc.
Seth Paskin says
This looks like a great read, thanks for the tip!
Tom McDonald says
At least Pinker is pointing people in the right direction toward understanding and intelligent acceptance of certain philosophical differences, namely, looking at the complex of cultural history, political history, and economic history for reasons why people have developed different philosophical attitudes. This approach stands in contrast to abstract analytical philosophy that gets nowhere analyzing and debating principles in oblivion as regards their temporal-historical emergence.
It seems to me that your beef should be more with the winner-take-all electoral college system than the fact that states exist. The Red State Blue State issue really only surfaces in presidential elections.
Seth Paskin says
You are correct. I had some other ideas swimming around in my head about the state’s role in the Federalist concern for factions and how they represented such and was not quite clear when I wrote the end.
Is Pinker’s history right?
Didn’t the South vote for the Democrats, including for Roosevelt and the New Deal, until Nixon invented his southern strategy?