BY FROMA HARROP
In an entertaining but silly political game, partisans score points by comparing statistics of so-called red states and blue states. Conservative Ross Douthat does that in a recent column, “Blue-State Blues.” Aroused, liberals came back with their own numbers, many of which did not prove much, either.
Douthat holds that conservative red states have managed their economies better than liberal blue states. His evidence: Of the eight states with unemployment rates 11% or higher in June, seven voted for Barack Obama last November.
Brother. First off, what makes them blue states? Of the more than 4 million votes cast in North Carolina, Obama received only 14,177 more than John McCain. George Bush handily won the state in 2000 and 2004. Nonetheless, Douthat counts North Carolina as a bastion of liberal attitudes.
Two of the other “blue states,” Ohio and Nevada, also voted for Bush in 2004. One might further ask whether blame for their economic troubles – a dive in manufacturing in Ohio’s case and the real estate meltdown in Nevada’s – can be laid at any politician’s feet. And isn’t it possible that these two states moved from the Republican to the Democratic column in 2008 because their economies were already hurting and the voters thought a Democrat might do more for them? If they go for the Republican next time, do they turn into red states?
Much political hay has been made of comparing the relatively strong economy of “red” Texas with the weak one of “blue” California. Generalizations about super-states – California, Texas and Florida – are especially dicey. Each is really several states in terms of political culture. The Rio Grande Valley and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex might as well be different countries. [They almost are.]
California may be “liberalism’s favorite laboratory,” as Douthat puts it, but the Golden State is also conservatism’s beloved testing ground. The tax revolt started in California, and the state’s voters recently turned down gay marriage. Fiscally, California suffers from the worst of two worlds, a liberal desire for active government and conservative restrictions on how much money it can raise in taxes. Small wonder its budget is a mess.
Texas, meanwhile, is not quite the red fortress of conservative legend. It is becoming less dependably Republican all the time, due in large part to immigration. As The Economist just pointed out [in a careful comparison of Texas and California], Texas’ state politics are run in a truly bipartisan manner, unlike California’s. And as for social stereotypes, two leading contenders in Houston’s mayoral race are a black man and a white lesbian.
Douthat neglected to note that many “red” states supposedly dedicated to low taxes and small government follow that creed only on the local level. Many of the more “conservative” states live large off the federal dole in agricultural and other subsidies.
Unsurprisingly, these attacks on liberal governance stirred a liberal response. As supreme wonk Ezra Klein wrote, “If you look at the 25 states with the highest average incomes, exactly four of them voted for John McCain.” That is correct, but let’s compare the costs of living in Connecticut with those in Alabama. A $100,000 family income goes a whole lot further in Birmingham than in Stamford.
Every state has its unique mix of race relations, geology, immigration and history. Falling energy prices may hurt the economies of Louisiana and Wyoming and help those of Michigan and Massachusetts. Rising prices do the opposite. These changes happen regardless of who is sitting in the statehouse.
Yes, the red-states-versus-blue-states game can be amusing. But as a tool for promoting one style of governance over another, it’s not very useful.
– Froma Harrop’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer