andrew-gelman-red-state-blue-state.thumbnail.jpgDiscussions of American politics in the media are dominated by conventional wisdom and lazy stereotypes rather than serious inquiry into the data. The cure to this disease is Andrew Gelman’s < Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State an inquiry into "why Americans vote the way they do" that’s brief and about as readable as a rigorous, data-driven book can be. Gelman crunches the numbers and uses words and graphs to explode much of what people think they know about American political behavior.

In fact, for all the talk in recent years about working class conservatives and latte liberals, Gelman shows convincingly that rich people remain loyal Republicans while those further down the economic ladder support the Democrats. What is true is that wealthier states such as Connecticut back the Democrats while poor states such as Mississippi prefer the GOP, with middle income states such as Ohio forming the swing constituency. Still, though Mississippi as a whole is poor and Republican, the base of Republican support in the state is wealthy Mississippians not poor ones. The famous red/blue maps are misleading in this regard, prompting people to use a fallacy of composition and assume that Republican voters have the characteristics (low income) of Republican states.

Nor, Gelman shows, is it true that downscale voters are ruled by their religious or moral sentiments rather than economic self-interest. On the contrary, religiosity and opinions about hot-bottom cultural issues have little impact on the voting behavior of poor Americans. It’s among the wealthy where you see cultural issues making a big difference and religiosity highly correlated with voting behavior.

In particular, in rich states voting patterns show little correlation with income. The poor of Connecticut, in other words, vote pretty similarly to the rich of Connecticut. This isn’t the case in poor states, where poor people are dramatically more likely than rich people to vote Democratic. The difference is that the rich people in the rich states are much more culturally liberal than the rich people in the poor states. The result is the famous "culture war" waged not between yuppies and the working class, but between the wealthy residents of wealthy states and the wealthy residents of poor states.

Much media confusion about American politics then stems from what’s essentially a coincidence—political journalists are heavily concentrated in places like Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, and California that exhibit the voting behaviors of rich states. It is true in those places that voting behavior features little income polarization and that wealthy people are generally well-disposed toward the Democrats. Political commentary from David Brooks on the right to Tom Frank on the left is often dominated by the assumption that you can extrapolate from political patterns in places like Maryland out to the country as a whole.

It’s an understandable mistake, but also a serious one. And everyone interested in political activism owes it to themselves to understand the truth and everyone interested in the media owes it to the world to correct the record. Reading Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State is a great first step down that path. I read the book before the election and loved it, and so I’m excited to both introduce it to some new people and also hear with Professor Gelman has to say about the election we had a couple of months ago.