20 January 2010

On the myth of the "red state" and the "blue state"

The completely implausible victory of a Republican candidate for the open Massachusetts Senate seat provides as good an opportunity as any to consider the myth of the "red state" and the "blue state." Conventional wisdom goes that the "blue" states generally support liberal causes and candidates, while the "red" states support conservative causes and candidates. This myth has the advantage of being extremely straightforward and simple. It is not even incorrect; states do generally vote in a similar fashion over time. It is precisely the general correctness of the theory that makes it practically useless and dangerous. Any theory that is "usually" true but breaks down in extreme situations is worse than no theory at all, because it lulls its followers into the false sense that they "understand" the essence of a situation when they have in fact not gotten past a simple unification of a series of experiences into a cohesive set of not-yet-essential appearances.

Two politically opposite examples of this same point are the victory of President Obama in the 2008 elections and the present election of Scott Brown that we are now considering. In the 2008 elections, the Republicans not only accepted but embraced the entire "red state" mythos. Their presidential candidate was a fighter pilot POW and their vice presidential candidate was a gun-toting "hockey mom" (whatever the devil that meant). They ran a gleefully anti-intellectual campaign calculated to appeal to the masses of "red" voters who supposedly drove trucks and owned guns and hated the "liberal elite." When it came down to the election, the McCain-Palin ticket found itself derailed not just in the blue states, but in many of the red states as well. What happened?

In Massachusetts just yesterday, the opposite event occurred. Martha Coakley seemed like an ideal blue state candidate. She was extremely "progressive," well-educated, and would have been the first female senator from the state (if I am not mistaken). While arguably she ran a relatively uninteresting campaign, she did this precisely because Democrats don't need to campaign for national office in this state--they always win. Yet she lost, and to precisely the sort of person who one would expect to win in a red state, a truck-driving national guardsman whose biography, as Jon Stewart observed, seemed tailor-made for a nighttime TV drama and not a Massachusetts senator. How could this possibly have happened in one of the bluest of the blue states?

The answer to this question lies in the overcoming of the belief in the actual division of the population into partisan political factions. Not because this belief is incorrect, but because it fails to explain that which is most in need of explanation in a practical theory of political psychology, which is the sudden and incalculably unexpected upset. The fact that red states and blue states only retain their chromaticity in the everyday situation should already suggest to us, who are (hopefully) more penetrating observers than most, that there is another force at play here...


Der Wolfanwalt said...

I don't believe that applying "black swan" analysis is truly necessary here. The demographics of Massachusetts are such that registered independents are more numerous than both Democrats and Republicans put together. Even though they are in all probability more liberal on a given day of the week, the fact that they chose to register as "not-Democrats" shows at least an intellectual openness to the possibility of not voting as a liberal 100% of the time.

Couple that with a political backlash that has much less to do with ideology and more to do with frustration and a shorter collective fuse, and it seems to me that this was coming, and nobody was surprised at the election result that was following the news for the last couple of weeks.

Sebastian said...


Please pardon that my response will be brief.

I am aware of the fact that there are more registered independents than Deomcracts in Massachusetts. However, the fact of the matter is that the state is so thoroughly liberal that 90% of the state House of Representatives and 35 of the 40 state Senators are members of the Democratic party. All ten US Congressmen are Democrats (and have been for ten years or more), and up until a few days ago both US Senators have been Democrats for decades.

Based on this data, I dispute your contention that the people of the state show "intellectual openness" in politics. The fact of the matter was that what transpired in Massachusetts was completely unpredictable. Until literally two weeks ago Mrs. Coakley was ahead by somewhere around 15 points. For Mr. Brown to win by around 5 points means that 1/5 of voters changed their minds in a span of two weeks. This is not the sort of thing that happens everyday, in fact, it is virtually unheard of, so much so that the media had to scramble back to mid-90s Congressional races to find analogues of any sort at all, which they even admitted were not proper analogues since the stakes in this race were so much higher.

At any rate, that point aside, I believe you may have missed the point of my post, which was to comment that the theory of "red vs blue" states is a poor theory because it fails in predicting races precisely when the need to be predicted. While the explanation you provide ("shorter collective fuse") may make sense after the fact, I do not believe it has any helpful predictive value at all and thus is not an explanation of the same order as "blue state" and "red state" purport to be.

Hopefully this clarifies my point.

Der Wolfanwalt said...

You seem to misunderstand me. I'm not disagreeing that the demographics of Massachusetts are overwhelmingly liberal, simply that the fact that they went to the trouble of registering as independents rather than Democrats indicates that there is a difference that is more than semantic.

As far as the outcome being unforeseeable, I would also dispute that - which was the focal point of my original comment. I think that the elections of last November, plus the substantial public backlash of last summer over the healthcare proposals working their way through Congress, pointed to the probability of this outcome. A similar thing happened during the last presidential election year: more so than "red vs. blue," the ideologies that drove that election were emphatically personal - to whit, they focused on whether or not you liked George W. Bush. I don't think anybody expected that the results of 2008 would be anything other than a total rout of the Republicans.

The most recent election in MA was a black swan only if you take for granted that past history indicates ironclad habits. Given the overall temperature of society, and that short fuse that has been in evidence since the latter half of last year, I would contend that the Democrats should have seen it coming, and fielded a better candidate.

Sebastian said...


Against your claim that

"As far as the outcome being unforeseeable, I would also dispute that,"

I can call a no more compelling witness than you yourself, who wrote precisely two weeks ago on Friday the 15th of January on your own blog that:

"Up until the other day, I hadn't been paying attention to the Massachusetts senate race because I, like everyone else, pretty much assumed that the "real" election was the Democratic primary. It's Massachusetts, for crying out loud."

This would seem to tell against your assertion that people "should have seen this coming," since you admit that you, "like everyone else," did not see the events that transpired coming.

I believe this point is now settled.

Der Wolfanwalt said...

I believe not, as a couple of weeks ago was a lot sooner than most people seemed to catch on.

Though I agree, that point is pretty settled.