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Monday, March 25, 2013

Why Are States So Different?

Bill Keller wonders in the New York Times (3.25.13) why states are so different from each other.  How is it that Colorado could have such a permissive marijuana law while in neighboring Wyoming you can get thrown in jail for a year for small possession.  Or why North Dakota has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation while South Dakota has a far less onerous one. He concludes that the principal reason is not a real difference between states, despite current theories of ‘sorting’, geographic self-selection into red and blue areas, and rural-urban splits, but because of nature of state legislatures themselves:

“People who participate in state and local government tend not to be representative of the masses at all,” Abrams told me. “They tend to be highly engaged political elites — 15 percent of the population who think they’re fighting this culture war. They’ll see an opening. They’ll see a judge, they’ll see a legislature that looks amenable to something, and they’ll try to push it through and build a groundswell around that.”

This is an interesting but facile conclusion. Anyone who has travelled by car through the United States knows within a few miles that he is in a different state.  Although Mississippi and Alabama are often lumped together by political analysts who see them similar in their political cast and social indicators, they are vastly different places.  Mississippi has the Mississippi River and the rich Delta bottom land where vast cotton plantations were established. The legacy of slavery, the industrialization of cotton, and the outflow of capital over the years left the Delta the poorest area of the state. Mississippi has the highest percentage of blacks of any in the country, and the Delta counties the highest percentage of all . At the same time, many of the descendants of King Cotton era plantations never left Mississippi contributing to its social conservatism. 

Alabama, on the other hand, while sharing much of Mississippi’s history was far less reliant on cotton.  Without rich delta lands, newcomers turned to forestry or river trade.  Alabama has always had an important deep-water port, Mobile, while Mississippi had to rely on New Orleans.  Alabama has far fewer blacks than Mississippi (26 percent compared to 38).  In short, its geography and history have given it its own uniqueness.

The same can be said for my native state of Connecticut.  While it shares much with neighboring Massachusetts, no one could confuse the two.  Boston dominated the Colonial and Revolutionary periods and was a major engine of Northern economy in the early days of the Republic. Boston was an important hub of the Three Cornered Trade and became a major economic and financial center. Connecticut grew because of small industry and farming along its major rivers. The Colonial and post-Revolutionary history and politics of the two states were quite different beginning with the characters of the modest Thomas Hooker of Connecticut and the important Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Both states today have distinct geographic and socio-economic areas. Fairfield County, a bedroom community of New York City is one of the wealthiest in the nation. Far eastern counties near Rhode Island are relatively poor.  Western Massachusetts has little in common with the eastern, maritime region. Although similar in their socio-economic and cultural diversity, the differences are different; and the character of each state is made up of these distinctions.

While the landscape of eastern Texas looks much like that of western Louisiana for 100 miles or less, the traveller soon realizes that he is in a very different state indeed.  Northern California has much of the same rugged coastline as that of Oregon, but one soon recognizes that their history and geography, migration, and climate make them distinct and unique. The same can be said of most if not all states in the Union.

Therefore, one cannot easily dismiss the importance of these socio-economic and other factors when assessing states’ political character.

Recent publications by Morris Fiorina and Bill Bishop have sought other factors that contribute to the phenomenon of red and blue states and why they seem never to change.  In fact, except for the major political shift of the South from blue to red in the era of Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’, there have been few other significant dislocations.  I have written recently (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2013/02/are-we-really-polarized-nation.html) about political polarization and find no evidence as other have of a more unified, or at least less divided country.  Only demographics will change the calculus of the Southern red states, for example.  The percentage of blacks in Mississippi will only continue to rise and with it an erosion of white conservative strength.  Hispanics will move quickly into the state as they have elsewhere in the South when economic opportunities arise.  States like Mississippi, largely because of demographic shifts, may become swing states because of a black-white split, just as others like Ohio, Florida, etc. have split for geo-economic ones.

The divisions in political expressions, then, can be explained by reflecting on and analyzing the social, demographic, economic, and cultural trends of any state and predict how they will vote on any particular issue.  While there is no doubt that the configurations of state and local political bodies are more susceptible to extremist ideas, their positions do not come about solely because of the functional disconnect between legislator and governed. There has to be something about the idea itself that is generated from within the state.

There is one important, if not seminal factor that is almost never raised when discussing political divisions and polarity; and that is between those who base their assumptions on logic, and those who don’t. Not only is Mississippi the poorest state in the Union and the most politically conservative, but it has one of the highest numbers of Christian fundamentalists.  Most surveys indicate that over 60 percent of Americans are fundamentalists, and that number is significantly higher in the South and higher still in Mississippi.

Most fundamentalists are ‘fundamental’ because they believe in ‘Biblical inerrancy’ – the literal and absolute truth of the Bible. In other words, the Bible has primacy when it comes to sorting out world affairs.  The lyrics of the old country song, “How do I know? The Bible tells me so” remain even more pertinent than ever.  In an increasingly complex and modernizing age, the Bible for many is the only place to which to turn for certainty (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2013/03/why-we-are-unable-to-compromisebrain.html).  In fact, early fundamentalists became militant in reaction to a modern world which they saw as eroding Christian values.

Christian fundamentalism refers to a movement begun in the late 19th and early 20th century British and American Protestant denominations among evangelicals who reacted energetically against theological and cultural modernism. Fundamentalists argued that 19th century modernist theologians had misinterpreted or rejected certain doctrines, especially biblical inerrancy, which evangelicals viewed as the fundamentals of Christian faith (Wikipedia)

It is no surprise that a state like Mississippi, which is so fundamentalist Christian, votes extremely conservatively on social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, women’s rights, reproductive rights, the teaching of Evolution, and even civil rights.  Looking at the electoral map, the same phenomenon is true across the board – the more fundamentalist the population, the more predictably socially conservative the voting patterns.  Within a fundamentalist society there is no process of logical exegesis – reviewing contradictory claims, subjecting them to a disciplined, objective analysis, and arriving at a conclusion.  There is no question that abortion is wrong because the Bible says it is wrong to take a life.  No one needs to debate the nature of life, the origin of life, or whether the fetus is a sentient being or not, or whether it even matters.  Abortion is simply and always wrong.

Many researchers on conspiracy theories (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/10/conspiracy-theories.html) have observed that once an individual subscribes to one illogical theory, it becomes far easier to accept a second or more; and eventually to conflate all into one grand unified theory – They Are Out To Get Us.  So it is with Biblical inerrancy.  Once one rejects objective analysis for faith-based (illogical) conclusions codified in the Bible, then it is not so hard to jump to unsubstantiated theories about creeping socialism, international cabals, unholy alliances, and the coming nuclear apocalypse.

In conclusion, if one really wants to predict how a particular state will vote on a particular issue, look first to the number of fundamentalist Christians on the rolls.

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