Red State, Blue State: Why Americans Vote the Way they Do

The Founders knew they didn’t have final answers, and they made compromises between their ideals and practical reality. They embodied these in the Constitution, and even wrote an operating manual for it, called The Federalist Papers, which, like most operating manuals, got lost in a drawer somewhere. Maybe we need to figure out how to be practical idealists again like our Founding Fathers.


By Stephen W. Browne l February 14, 2018


I am trying to remember when I first started hearing the terms “red state” and “blue state.” I think it was during the Bush Sr. administration.

We’re all familiar with the terms for the states that usually vote Republican or Democrat, but we also mean something deeper. We use them to mean politically left-leaning or conservative, but also culturally bohemian versus more traditional.

Why red and blue? Perhaps because they are two of the colors of the American flag, and nobody wanted to say: “white state.” And maybe because news people, as a group, are overwhelmingly left-of-center and didn’t want to slap the label “red” on the left.

We should try not to over-generalize or think in terms of simplistic labels when talking about complex subjects, but in this case the labels describe something real and significant.

Americans are sharply divided over the kind of governance they prefer and the culture they wish to live in. The divide runs strongly along geographical lines. Even more when you consider counties rather than states. And, it is growing more pronounced, as people vote with their feet.

After years of head scratching and, “Surely it can’t be that simple?” we’ve admitted there seems to be one thing that explains it better than anything else.

Race, gender, income, etc. are all factors, but population density explains voting patterns better than anything else.

The greater the number of people per square mile, the more likely they are to lean blue, the fewer the more likely to lean red.

If you think about it, this makes sense. Consider noise, traffic, foul odors, or whether you can shoot jackrabbits off your back porch. Think about how worried you are about your kids walking home from school or playing outside after dark. All of these have a lot to do with how many people live near you and how many are complete strangers, and it shows in the rules we want.

If you are a political junkie or aspire to a career in politics, where do you go to start off on the ground floor? City councils and zoning boards – or county commissions and soil and water boards?

These are differences that transcend party lines. I once covered an election for state legislature in North Dakota. Three Republicans challenged three Democrat incumbents. The only significant difference between them was over changing the legal age of deer hunting, and in the end the voters went with experience.

I’m sure if they’d been running for national office I’d have seen some real differences of opinion. And that’s where the problem lies.

At the national level many are still wedded to a top-down, one-size-fits-all, my-way-or-the-highway style of governance that just doesn’t fit a nation as large and diverse as America.

It’s more pronounced on the left, but not entirely absent from the right either. Obviously, we can’t avoid trying to speak with one voice when it comes to foreign policy, but it does not follow we have to do so when it concerns our own neighborhoods.

The blue left tends towards utopianism and a belief we could solve all our problems, if those damned obstructionists would just quit obstructing.

The red right tends towards pragmatism, and trust in the wisdom of tradition and experience.

Though the left is enamored of ideologies from the Old World, both sides represent something deeply American.

The Founding Fathers were pragmatic idealists. They knew they were creating a new society by an act of will, a “novus ordo seclorum” like they put on the money so we wouldn’t forget. But they based it on local institutions more than a century old and carefully studied the history of other federations and states, in particular for how they failed.

Somehow those strains of pragmatism and utopian idealism became separated.

The Founders knew they didn’t have final answers, and they made compromises between their ideals and practical reality

They embodied these in the Constitution, and even wrote an operating manual for it, called The Federalist Papers, which like most operating manuals got lost in a drawer somewhere.

Maybe we need to figure out how to be practical idealists again like our Founding Fathers.


Stephen Browne has been a sewage treatment plant worker, a truck driver, an English teacher and a journalist. In 1991 he received his MA in anthropology and set out for Eastern Europe, which was to become his home for the next 13 years. While teaching English and working with local dissidents abroad he began to write professionally about the tremendous changes happening after the collapse of the Soviet empire. In 1997, he was elected Honorary Member of the Yugoslav Movement for the Protection of Human Rights. In 1998, he co-founded the Liberty English Camps in Lithuania, which teach the principles of free markets and political liberty through English-language instruction, and eventually became the Language of Liberty Institute. He returned to the U.S. to study journalism on a graduate fellowship and pay some dues in rural newspapers in the Midwest. At present he lives in his native Midwest with his two children Jerzy Waszyngton and Judyta Ilona. Mr. Browne is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.

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