A theory of a divided nation.
Jonathan Cohn October 5, 2012 | 12:00 am
... We’ve come to think of “blue” and “red” states as political and cultural categories. The rift, though, goes much deeper than partisan differences of opinion. The borders of the United States contain two different forms of government, based on two different visions of the social contract. In blue America, state government costs more—and it spends more to ensure that everybody can pay for basic necessities such as food, housing, and health care. It invests more heavily in the long-term welfare of its population, with better-funded public schools, subsidized day care, and support for people with disabilities. In some cases, in fact, state lawmakers have decided that the social contract provided by the federal government is not generous enough. It was a blue state that first established universal health insurance and, today, it is a handful of blue states that offer paid family and medical leave.
In the red states, government is cheaper, which means the people who live there pay lower taxes. But they also get a lot less in return. The unemployment checks run out more quickly and the schools generally aren’t as good.
Assistance with health care, child care, and housing is skimpier, if it exists at all. The result of this divergence is that one half of the country looks more and more like Scandinavia, while the other increasingly resembles a social Darwinist’s paradise.
Americans have been arguing over which system is morally and economically superior since the beginning of the republic. But every now and then, the worldviews have clashed and forced a reckoning. The 2012 election is one of those moments. ...
THE QUINTESSENTIAL blue state is, of course, Massachusetts. There, health care is available to almost everybody, regardless of income or preexisting medical conditions. Welfare benefits are among the most generous in the country, and the state spends hundreds of millions on public housing each year. These programs don’t always lift people out of poverty or protect them from financial catastrophe. Still, Massachusetts’s residents get a lot more help from their state government than people who live elsewhere in the United States. It is reliably at the forefront of efforts at the state level to do what the federal government will not.
In colonial times, during their fabled town meetings, New Englanders established America’s first public schools and worked to look after those who had fallen on hard times, even though it meant higher taxes. In Albion’s Seed, a history of colonial settlement patterns, David Hackett Fischer writes that efforts to care for the vulnerable “went beyond the minimum.”
As Fischer pointed out, New England Puritans tended to be, literally, "from Scandinavia:" their English-born ancestors were concentrated in the Danelaw region of a thousand years ago in eastern England. Isaac Newton, for instance, a classic eastern English Puritan, looked rather like Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap.
About a century later, a wave of immigrants from central, southern, and eastern Europe arrived in the Northeast and upper Midwest, grafting Catholic notions of social justice and Jewish notions of social responsibility onto the old Yankee sense of mutual obligation.
... The South was slower to industrialize and slower to take measures to protect the vulnerable. By the time of the Great Depression, most Southern state governments did not provide any form of cash assistance to people in poverty.
One likely reason was the region’s own equally distinctive colonial ancestry. Appalachia had attracted fiercely individualistic immigrants from the Scottish and Irish woodlands. Virginia’s founders, meanwhile, were a group of well-educated elites who, unlike the Puritans, wanted to recreate the society they left behind, including its class divisions. ...
But something else had soured the South on social welfare: race. Programs to help poor people were, inevitably, programs to help African Americans. Southern whites wanted nothing to do with helping former slaves get an equal footing in society. They did embrace the New Deal, in part because Franklin Roosevelt and his allies went out of their way to accommodate their racial sensibilities: Social Security, for example, initially exempted agricultural and domestic workers. By the 1950s, however, the South was once more under attack for its denial of civil rights to African Americans. Later, it came to see the anti-poverty programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society as yet another effort to redistribute money to blacks (even though, like the New Deal, it also helped many whites).
... The biggest victory for these counterrevolutionaries came in 1996, when Republicans passed a bill, signed by Bill Clinton, to “end welfare as we know it.” The legislation gave states wide leeway over how to manage benefits and, over time, gave them less money to spend.
... This was fitting, because, just as Massachusetts is the model for the blue state, Texas is the model for the red.
Today, Texas doesn’t even try to provide the kind of protection for its vulnerable residents that Massachusetts does. ...
THIS PATTERN generally holds for the red states and the blue states overall. ... “The story is pretty clear,” Meyers says. “If you are poor, you want to live in a blue state.”
By nearly every measure, people who live in the blue states are healthier, wealthier, and generally better off than people in the red states It’s impossible to prove that this is the direct result of government spending. But the correlation is hard to dismiss. The four states with the highest poverty rates are all red: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas. (The fifth is New Mexico, which has turned blue.) And the five states with the lowest poverty rates are all blue: New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont, Minnesota, and Hawaii. The numbers on infant mortality, life expectancy, teen pregnancy, and obesity break down in similar ways. A recent study by researchers at the American Institute for Physics evaluated how well-prepared high schoolers were for careers in math and science. Massachusetts was best, followed closely by Minnesota and New Jersey. Mississippi was worst, along with Louisiana and West Virginia. In fact, it is difficult to find any indicator of well-being in which red states consistently do better than blue states.
Or, perhaps, the causality of the correlation works in the opposite direction: that wealthier states, having fewer poor people, can afford to be more generous to their poor?
And what makes states healthier, wealthier, and wiser? As Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out: proximity to the Canadian border — i.e., being whiter. For example, Massachusetts is only 18% Non-Asian Minority, while Texas is 51% NAM (which, of course raises the metaphysical question, when Non-Asian Minorities are no longer a minority, what are they?)
So, TNR's lesson is that if Democrats want the whole country to be more like Massachusetts, Democrats should back an immigration policy of letting in more Scandinavians and fewer Guatemalans, right?
By the way, when speaking about Massachusetts, it's important to keep in mind that a major reason it doesn't have many blacks and that its blacks aren't as big of a problem as elsewhere is because it has an abundance of violent, tribalist, anti-black Irish to keep the blacks down. Boston is the only place I've seen in the U.S. where blacks appeared to be afraid of white civilians walking down the street. Having a lot of scary Irish around makes theorizing at Harvard a lot more pleasant.
In contrast, poor Milwaukee, a nice German social-democratic town (as Alice Cooper points out in Wayne's World, Socialist candidates were elected mayor of Milwaukee three times in the 1920s), had high welfare and a direct rail line from the Mississippi Delta, and it just got the worst of Southern blacks.