- Feb 20, 2022
The great “convergence” of the mid-20th century may have been an anomaly.
It may be time to stop talking about “red” and “blue” America. That’s the provocative conclusion of Michael Podhorzer, a longtime political strategist for labor unions and the chair of the Analyst Institute, a collaborative of progressive groups that studies elections. In a private newsletter that he writes for a small group of activists, Podhorzer recently laid out a detailed case for thinking of the two blocs as fundamentally different nations uneasily sharing the same geographic space.
“When we think about the United States, we make the essential error of imagining it as a single nation, a marbled mix of Red and Blue people,” Podhorzer writes. “But in truth, we have never been one nation. We are more like a federated republic of two nations: Blue Nation and Red Nation. This is not a metaphor; it is a geographic and historical reality.”
To Podhorzer, the growing divisions between red and blue states represent a reversion to the lines of separation through much of the nation’s history. The differences among states in the Donald Trump era, he writes, are “very similar, both geographically and culturally, to the divides between the Union and the Confederacy. And those dividing lines were largely set at the nation’s founding, when slave states and free states forged an uneasy alliance to become ‘one nation.’”
Podhorzer isn’t predicting another civil war, exactly. But he’s warning that the pressure on the country’s fundamental cohesion is likely to continue ratcheting up in the 2020s. Like other analysts who study democracy, he views the Trump faction that now dominates the Republican Party—what he terms the “MAGA movement”—as the U.S. equivalent to the authoritarian parties in places such as Hungary and Venezuela. It is a multipronged, fundamentally antidemocratic movement that has built a solidifying base of institutional support through conservative media networks, evangelical churches, wealthy Republican donors, GOP elected officials, paramilitary white-nationalist groups, and a mass public following. And it is determined to impose its policy and social vision on the entire country—with or without majority support. “The structural attacks on our institutions that paved the way for Trump’s candidacy will continue to progress,” Podhorzer argues, “with or without him at the helm.”
Read: Beware prophecies of civil war
All of this is fueling what I’ve called “the great divergence” now under way between red and blue states. This divergence itself creates enormous strain on the country’s cohesion, but more and more even that looks like only a way station. What’s becoming clearer over time is that the Trump-era GOP is hoping to use its electoral dominance of the red states, the small-state bias in the Electoral College and the Senate, and the GOP-appointed majority on the Supreme Court to impose its economic and social model on the entire nation—with or without majority public support. As measured on fronts including the January 6 insurrection, the procession of Republican 2020 election deniers running for offices that would provide them with control over the 2024 electoral machinery, and the systematic advance of a Republican agenda by the Supreme Court, the underlying political question of the 2020s remains whether majority rule—and democracy as we’ve known it—can survive this offensive.
Podhorzer defines modern red and blue America as the states in which each party has usually held unified control of the governorship and state legislature in recent years. By that yardstick, there are 25 red states, 17 blue states, and eight purple states, where state-government control has typically been divided.
Measured that way, the red nation houses slightly more of the country’s eligible voting population (45 percent versus 39 percent), but the blue nation contributes more of the total U.S. gross national product: 46 percent versus 40 percent. On its own, the blue nation would be the world’s second-largest economy, trailing only China. The red nation would rank third. (Podhorzer also offers a slightly different grouping of the states that reflects the more recent trend in which Virginia has voted like a blue state at the presidential level, and Arizona and Georgia have moved from red to purple. With these three states shifted into those categories, the two “nations” are almost equal in eligible voting-age population, and the blue advantage in GDP roughly doubles, with the blue section contributing 48 percent and the red just 35 percent.)
The hardening difference between red and blue, Podhorzer maintains, “empowers” the 10 purple states (if you include Arizona and Georgia) to “decide which of the two superpower nations’ values, Blue or Red, will prevail” in presidential and congressional elections. And that leaves the country perpetually teetering on a knife’s edge: The combined vote margin for either party across those purple states has been no greater than two percentage points in any of the past three presidential elections, he calculates.
The increasing divergence—and antagonism—between the red nation and the blue nation is a defining characteristic of 21st-century America. That’s a reversal from the middle decades of the 20th century, when the basic trend was toward greater convergence.
One element of that convergence came through what legal scholars call the “rights revolution.” That was the succession of actions from Congress and the Supreme Court, mostly beginning in the 1960s, that strengthened the floor of nationwide rights and reduced the ability of states to curtail those rights. (Key moments in that revolution included the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and the Supreme Court decisions striking down state bans on contraception, interracial marriage, abortion, and, much later, prohibitions against same-sex intimate relations and marriage.)
Simultaneously, the regional differences were moderated by waves of national investment, including the New Deal spending on rural electrification, the Tennessee Valley Authority, agricultural price supports, and Social Security during the 1930s, and the Great Society programs that provided federal aid for K–12 schools and higher education, as well as Medicare and Medicaid.
The impact of these investments (as well as massive defense spending across both periods) on states that had historically spent little on public services and economic development helped steadily narrow the gap in per capita income between the states of the old Confederacy and the rest of the country from the 1930s until about 1980. That progress, though, stopped after 1980, and the gap remained roughly unchanged for the next three decades. Since about 2008, Podhorzer calculates, the southern states at the heart of the red nation have again fallen further behind the blue nation in per capita income.
Jake Grumbach, a University of Washington political scientist who studies the differences among states, told me that red states, as a group, are falling behind blue states on a broad range of economic and social outcomes—including economic productivity, family income, life expectancy, and “deaths of despair” from the opioid crisis and alcoholism.
Read: America’s red-blue divide is about to get starker
Defenders of the red-state model can point to other measures that show those places in a more favorable light. Housing is often more affordable in red states; partly for that reason, homelessness has become endemic in many big blue cities. Red-state taxes are generally lower than their blue counterparts. Many red states have experienced robust job growth (though that’s been heavily concentrated in their blue-leaning metro areas). And red states across the Sun Belt rank among the nation’s fastest growing in population.
But the big story remains that blue states are benefiting more as the nation transitions into a high-productivity, 21st-century information economy, and red states (apart from their major metropolitan centers participating in that economy) are suffering as the powerhouse industries of the 20th century—agriculture, manufacturing, and fossil-fuel extraction—decline.
The gross domestic product per person and the median household income are now both more than 25 percent greater in the blue section than in the red, according to Podhorzer’s calculations. The share of kids in poverty is more than 20 percent lower in the blue section than red, and the share of working households with incomes below the poverty line is nearly 40 percent lower. Health outcomes are diverging too. Gun deaths are almost twice as high per capita in the red places as in the blue, as is the maternal mortality rate. The COVID vaccination rate is about 20 percent higher in the blue section, and the per capita COVID death rate is about 20 percent higher in the red. Life expectancy is nearly three years greater in the blue (80.1 years) than the red (77.4) states. (On most of these measures, the purple states, fittingly, fall somewhere in between.)