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More Pinker Pinker Pinker

After I posted this recent comment on a blog of Steven Pinker (see also here), we had the following exchange. I’m reposting it here (with Pinker’s agreement) not because we achieved any deep insights but because I thought it useful to reveal to people that so-called experts such as us are not so clear on these issues either.

AG: I noticed your article on red and blue states and had some thoughts. . . . The short summary is that I think that your idea is interesting but that, as stated, it explains too much, in that your story is based on centuries-long history but it only fits electoral patterns since the 1980s.

SP: Though the exact alignment between red and blue states, political parties, and particular issues surely shift, I’d be surprised if the basic alignments between geography and the right-left divide, and the issues that cluster on each side of the divide, have radically changed over the past century. (Obviously if you define “red” and “blue” by the Republican and Democratic parties, they’ve changed radically, but that isn’t what I was referring to.) Certainly the difference in rates of violence go back centuries (I show this in Better Angels, using data from Randolph Roth), and at least qualitatively, some of the other differences (hawk-dove, corporal punishment in schools, capital punishment, religion in public life, liberal attitudes on race and sexuality) go back at least several decades, probably longer. This is all an interesting empirical issue. Do the GSS data go far enough back, particularly disaggregated by region, to see how many of the signs of the correlations have flipped?

AG: Regarding politics, the Democras have been on the left and the Repubicans have been on the right since the late 1960s on just about every issue. But the red state blue state division that you see in the maps has really been happening only since the 1990s. And if you set aside the south and racial issues, the Democrats have been to the left of the Republicans since 1932. Just to take a couple examples, California used to be a solid Republican state and New York State used to be around the national median. So, to the extent the right/left divide is reflected in voting in presidential elections, yes, the basic alignments have change a lot.

Regarding correlations in issue attitudes, we have a paper in the American Journal of Sociology from a few years ago. We used the National Election Study. Corrleations among issue attitudes have been gradually increasing along with partisanship. My guess is that correlations between ideology and geography were lower 40 years ago.

I believe you when you say that certain geographic patterns go back centuries, but issue attitudes depend on so many other things. For example, in the two world wars, the east coast was interventionist and the midwest was isolationist. That makes sense based on ethnic sympathies (lots of people of English descent in the east and German descent in the midwest) and also economics of international trade. It’s not necessarily anything to do with deep attitudes toward the military or violence. That’s just one example. My point is not that it’s a bad thing to look for deeper connections, just that if every issue is complicated by particulars, you won’t necessarily get the right answer even if you look at lots of issues at once, if you try to map voting (“red and blue states”) or issue attitudes to coherent mindsets.

SP: Putting aside the red (blue?) herring of Democratic vs Republican parties, I still get the feeling that there’s a principal component of more-or-less left-right opinion (across issues), and a correlation with a North+Coasts vs. South+Mountain-States geographic vector, across a century or more—though I’m prepared to believe that there is a lot of variance that isn’t accounted for by either, and that both the variance accounted for by the LR component and the magnitude of the correlation have shifted over time. Mind you, this is based on qualitative historical readings by Fisher, Nisbett, Sowell, and others—I don’t have the kind of quantitative data that would settle it.

The real point, I suppose, is that neither Pinker nor I are experts here. But sometimes the experts get confused too. See this post from a few years ago, where I discuss the celebrated twentieth-century partisan reversal and argue that an interpretation of this pattern by actual experts, published in the American Political Science Review, was flawed. One reason that there’s an opening for quasi-outsiders such as Pinker and myself to advance hypotheses here is that there remain lots of data sources that have not been well integrated into existing historical writing.


  1. Psych says:

    “I’d be surprised”: hasn’t checked, doesn’t want to check if it’s true. But sticks with it anyway…


    • zbicyclist says:

      Validation can only tell you that what you thought was true, was wrong.

      If you already believe you’re right, there’s only downside to checking.


  2. Nameless says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Pinker that parties shift more than geographical patterns. What happened in the 1970-1990 was not that modern red/blue patterns have somehow been formed, but that the parties (especially the Republican party) have become strongly polarized around well-defined ideological centers, and these ideological centers were influenced by geography. Back in the 1970’s voters were sufficiently nonpartisan and parties were sufficiently close that most states would flip one way or the other, depending on the issues and the personality of the candidate. For example, Tennessee used to be a swing state (in 10 elections between 1960 and 1992, it went Republican 6 times and Democratic 4 times). In 2012 it went Republican by a 60-40 margin.

    To illustrate the shift, here’s some data out of GSS. Back in the 1970’s, homosexuality was considered generally wrong: (“always wrong” – 72%, “not wrong at all” – 14%.) Democrats were slightly to the left of Republicans (68% “always wrong” vs 76% “always wrong”) but parties were in a general agreement.

    But the roots of current polarization were already showing. Homosexuality was “always wrong” for 54% of respondents in 12 largest metro areas (e.g. New York and Los Angeles the ones that we consider Democratic strongholds nowadays) and for 84% of rural respondents. It was “always wrong” for 80% or more respondents in southern states (88% in the four “east south central” states, TN, AL, MS, and KY), but only for 59% in “pacific” states.

    Another recent hot issue: gun ownership. In the 70’s, Democrats were already slightly to the left of Republicans. 46% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans were gun owners. But parties were close and it was not a polarizing issue. In contrast, there were strong geographical patterns (gun ownership rate ranging from the low of 22% in New England to the high of 68% in “east south central”.

    Fast forward 30 years: even as the geographical gap narrows (52% East South Central to 22% New England), the political gap widens (46% Republicans to 26% Democrats). Now it is a polarizing political issue. The geographical pattern is the same, but parties are different.

    • Nameless says:

      There’s a number of similar issues where, by the 1970’s, you see geographical polarization (usually along the same axis, with New England and Pacific states at one pole, and East South Central at the other), which is not matched by political polarization. In each case parties start relatively balanced and converge on their respective poles over time, sometimes flipping their positions in process. One could say that we’re actually seeing “over-polarization”: parties adopting polar positions, even though their own voters are far from 100% on the issues.

      * Legal abortion (a hot polarizing issue since the 1970’s), the most liberal version (legality of an abortion for a married woman who does not want to have any more children): 58% New England, 34% East South Central; 40% Democrats, 45% Republicans. Note that the parties had to switch places in the process of geographical alignment. They were tied in the 1980’s, shifted to 49% to 37% in the 1990’s, and, by 2006-10, the issue was favored by 54% of Democrats and 32% of Republicans. The underlying geographical pattern has remained virtually unchanged, none of the regions moved more than 2% in 30 years.
      * Legal marijuana: 32% New England, 17% East South Central; 24% Democrats, 16% Republicans.
      * Feelings about communism as a form of government, the choice “It’s all right for some countries”: 29% New England, 12% East South Central; 21% Democrats, 16% Republicans.
      * Having “a great deal” of confidence in the scientific community: 50% New England, 41% East South Central; 44% Democrats, 48% Republicans.
      * Government spending too much money on military/defense: 36% New England, 17% East South Central; 31% Democrats, 22% Republicans. Here the geographical gap slightly declines over time, but parties sharply move away from each other, end result being that, today, Democrats are more anti-defense-spending than the average New England voter, and Republicans are more pro-defense-spending than the average Southern voter.

      • Andrew says:


        Indeed, we discussed this in chapter 8 of Red State Blue State.

        • Nameless says:

          I don’t have the full text, but I believe that my point is deeper than that. It’s not just that parties have become more polarized even though voters didn’t. It’s that parties have aligned themselves with underlying geographical patterns, which were already there in 1972 and possibly far earlier than that.

          You wrote: “If the current red-blue map, or something like it, had persisted for 200 years, then, sure. But the current division between red and blue America pretty much dates from Clinton’s first election in 1992.” I’m saying that the current red-blue map was already there and it looked much like it does today, we just didn’t know it because that wasn’t reflected in election results (yet). The last transformation of the 20th century that had major effect on ideological geography of the country was probably the Great Migration of rural southern blacks into northern cities in 1940-60. Parties just needed time to catch up.

          We are now seeing a new transformation under way, this one having to do with Hispanic immigration. The primary effect is that Nevada, Arizona and Texas (which used to be safely red in the current geography) are slowly moving out of the red camp, California is drifting out of the blue camp, and all four are on the course to form a new geographical entity whose prevalent attitudes (fiscally liberal but socially conservative) are closer to Democrats but don’t really align with either party.

  3. MikeM says:

    It seems to me that this polarization is more of a split between individualism and communitarianism than red and blue states. And of course, we’re all communitarians to some extent, but our definition of who’s in our community (e.g., only coreligionists or “people like me” vs. all god’s — or gods’ — children) makes a huge difference.

    • Nameless says:

      A split between individualism and communitarianism may be one of the mechanisms, but it’s not the fundamental cause.

      One of the largest differences you can find in GSS between Northeastern states and the southern core is on the scale of “religious fundamentalism”. In 1972-1980 surveys, 65% of East South Central respondents self-identify as fundamentalists, compared to only 9% of New England respondents. Unlike the coastal states with their sizable Catholic and non-religious minorities (in New England, Catholics were a majority) and constant influx of immigrants, the South has already been a monolithic fundamentalist protestant region with strong resistance to outside ideological influences.

  4. Steve Sailer says:

    Much of the current geographic polarization is driven by land prices — Democratic states tend to have more expensive housing — and much of that difference is recent. Most notably, California, which went for the Republican Presidential candidate 9 out of 10 times from 1952 through 1988, had fairly low home prices, at least in Southern California, until about 1975. So, a major mechanism behind the current Big Sort wasn’t all that relevant until recent generations.

    In defense of Pinker’s Albion’s Seed-driven thinking, much of what tracks with expensive housing in modern America — environmentalism, living near deep water, historical preservationism, and high educational standards — is most closely associated with Fischer’s post-Puritans. For example, Northern California, in Fischer’s model, is an outpost of elitist New England and Southern California of pro-business Pennsylvania. Thus, Southern California held out longer for more development until recently deciding the Northern Californians were right about environmentalism and the like.