Book Review: Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State

Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote The Way They Do, by Andrew Gelman

This particular book is a fascinating statistical analysis, with learned and technical endnotes that show the author’s conceptual debt to data visualizing pioneers like the great Edward Tufte [1] that views the recent polarization of America’s politics, dismantles plenty of punditry and conventional wisdom, and makes a rigorous and well-defended statistical argument for why Americans vote as they do and what that means from a comparative international perspective [2], with a particularly close analysis of Mexico’s politics as a case study alongside the American example. The results are highly intriguing, and can be summarized by the conclusion of the authors that America represents two distinct model cultures, one where expensive property and socially liberal, nonreligious voters proliferate in the coastal regions and the Upper Midwest where income inequality is most rapidly increasing while lower taxes, lower property costs, and greater economic opportunity for middle and upper income residents make the states of the Sunbelt and Mountain West more attractive for conservatives, and furthermore that the growing polarization of America’s society into hostile culture war combatants has been most serious among the wealthy and college educated who have become more internally consistent in their views through relocation and growing political awareness.

It is not only these conclusions but also the way that the author comes to them that is worthy of praise. The book, coming in at about 180 pages of core written material and more than 40 pages of excellent endnotes and an index, is written in a way that ought to appeal to those who are literate in the thoughtful and data-rich display of quantitative information, and moves well beyond a look at superficial apparent paradoxes to examine the cross-tabs and the deeper statistical picture underneath the surface. The first part of the book introduces a paradox, that rich people consistently vote Republican on average and that rich states consistently vote Democratic in the United States, which confuses the political commentators of our country. The author then breaks down what is going on in our contemporary political scene by looking at income and voting over time, the relationship between social inequality and voting patterns, the phenomenon of religious reds and secular blues that is particularly associated with upper income voters, and uses Mexico as a comparative example. Interestingly enough, in Mexico the pattern of voting is that wealthy people and wealthy states vote PAN, poor people and poor states vote PRD, and the PRI is the centrist party trying to prevent Mexico from becoming polarized, after having lost its political power due to Mexico’s growing democratization. The third part of the book shows what these various cross currents mean, showing how political parties have become more polarized, what constraints exist to keep parties from being able to move towards the center in order to build a majority coalition, and then a tidy conclusion to present the author’s arguments wrapped in a bow.

This book succeeds on a variety of levels. For one, it manages to connect social and economic factors of voting into a coherent package, demonstrates that it is the behavior of cultural and political elites that is shaping the widening division in our political culture [3], and examines the treacherous and shifting currents of voting and partisan and ideological identity with a vigorous use of data and a compelling grasp of data visualization, ranging from a skillful use of maps, time series charts, scatter plots, line graphs, and so on. The author uses a highly developed statistical literacy to back his rhetorical argumentation, in such a way that presents a compelling and coherent, if somewhat complicated, picture. Of interest is the fact that evidence demonstrates that the relative position of wealth between states has remained constant for more than a century, demonstrating that even if changes in political culture in recent decades will eventually change the position of rich states and poor states, that the penalties for making widespread mistakes in terms of which social system to support, like the antebellum South’s initial hostility to industrialization and small farms in preference for slavery and export-oriented plantations, is persistent and severe. Let that be a lesson for us today in the fact that our social conditions matter greatly in how our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will live in the future, an unexpected lesson for a worthwhile and well-written work of political analysis.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See also:

[3] This is not a new phenomenon. See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Review: Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Solutions: 2016 | Edge Induced Cohesion

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  3. Pingback: Book Review: The Buyer’s Guide To Business Intelligence Software: 2016 Edition | Edge Induced Cohesion

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