Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Patchwork Nation

One thing that has been driving me insane over the last few years is the driving home of this Red State/Blue state "wisdom."  The idea of Real America vs a Faux-America, and the resultant polarization of our politics in the idea that you're "with us" or "against us."

And in that feeling, we have this idea that we are divided nation, who either loves or hates the country depending on what button you push at the polls, or which circle you fill on the ballot.

Dante Chinni and James Gimpel have proposed a new model for looking at the nation, beyond the simple Red State/Blue state idea. After two years, journalist Dante Chinni, and professor of government a the University of Maryland, James Gimpel, PH.D, have worked on The Patchwork Nation project. It has proposed a new way to look at the nation, beyond just the regional work of Joel Garreau's Nine Nations of North America.  Based more on the work of urban theorist Richard Florida, and journalist Bill Bishop--whose The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans is Tearing Us Apart is a fascinating read when you have the time--they examine the socio-economic and cultural divides that have sprung up in our society, and how communities across the web of counties across the nation more resemble one another than just the rubric of Red State/Blue state polarization would suggest.

For Chinni and Gimpel, they examined all 3,141 counties across this nation. With some statistical analysis of median age, income, ethnic make up, growth, housing, and cultural influence, they created a model that breaks counties down into twelve types.

Boom Towns--384 counties, with 59.3 million people. Wealthy and growing, like Eagle, Colorado. Lavish before the economic downturn, and rapidly growing communities invested heavily in construction and growth.

Campus and Careers--71 counties, with 13.1 million people. Clustered around college campuses and heavily invested in the industries that their universities are sponsoring, and emerging technologies.

Emptying Nests--250 counties, with 12.1 million people. Where Boomers and retirees are settling for their sunset years, sometimes with fixed incomes.

Evangelical Epicenters--468 counties, with 14.1 million people. Full of young families, often poorer than the national average, but with great faith, often in clashes with the other religious tribes in their midst.

Immigration Nation--204 counties, with 20.7 million people. Mostly in the Southwest, with high Hispanic populations, lower than average incomes, and a higher than average poverty.

Industrial Metropolis--41 counties, with 53.9 million people. Bastions of industry, densely packed, younger, more diverse than average, and packed with neighborhoods that are often as different as night and day.

Military Bastions--55 counties, with 8.4 million people. Packed around our nation's military bases, with middle income families of soldiers, and those who service our bases, and deeply tied to the deployments and families of those who are left behind.

Minority Central--364 counties, with 13.5 million people. African American and Native American populations mark these communities, and often lower income and high poverty rates, with often very divided communities where race is concerned.

Monied Burbs--286 counties, 69.1 million people. Higher than average education, higher than average income, and often evenly split between parties, and opportunities for dropping relative wealth here and abroad.

Mormon Outposts--44 counties, 1.7 million people. Mostly in the Mountain West, heavily Mormon, and often rural and sparsely populated.

Service Worker Centers--663 counties, 31 million people. Centers of tourism or mid-sized towns, where employee benefits are often sparse, and folks are often only seasonal.

Tractor Country--311 counties, 2.3 million people. Farming and agribusiness rule these counties' economic base, and often white, rural, and remote.

The one problem that I've always had with Garreau's Nine Nations, was that Northampton, Massachusetts shares more in common with Durango, Colorado, than it has in common with Boston or even the Cape. Yet, there is a tendency to throw NoHo in the same category as Boston because of the locale. While Mainers share many traits, Portland is a far different place than Skowhegan. And their voting history are far different as well, and the economies and culture are far removed.  The communities of the Finger Lakes are a far different lot than the folks living in New York city, and the breakdown that Chinni and Gimpel have worked out, while some may argue is arbitrary, gives us a wider picture of the forces that work on disparate communities that often share demographics, employment and income figures, and mores. Economics, politics and culture play a role as well. While Presidential elections hinge on the electoral fall of the chips, the Chinni and Gimpel model is a tool that may become increasingly useful to help folks strategize their approaches to elections, and gives us a more complete picture than the simplicity of Real America vs the Fake America that divides and dumbs down the national debate.

Chinni and Gimpel traveled to each county across the country to gather not just data, but to talk to folks in each of these communities. Those anecdotal stories are without irony, and build up a picture of each representation, the people within, and the challenges that they face. While the simplicity of thinking of the country as just Red or Blue makes for easy graphics in the news, it does us a grave disservice, even for those of us who are still invested in Party.  Republicans from Boston are a bit different than Republicans in Nixa, Missouri. While Palin's political base can draw from Evangelicals, it often alienates her from those in the Industrial East. And understanding these differences, and how disparate communities across the nation can share values and mores, as well as similar economic challenges can bring us, as a nation, closer together.

If you haven't looked at the Patchwork Nation project, I urge you to at least peruse it, as a better tool, or at least as a springboard for thinking about the nation less as polar opposites. It is a project that helps bring into focus better the disparate nature of the nation and her communities, as much as Strauss and Howe brought lifecycle influence better into focus with Generations and their cyclical model of generations in this country.

Crossposted to the Motley Moose.

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