Tag Archives: electoral divides

Narratives, Agency, & Electoral Maps

The entry of the data visualizations into the pitched narrative of the Presidential election is not new. If thought to begin in the collective unfolding of the election-night drama on television screens, as the casting of ballots long understood as a collective action of union has prompted a narrative of division, CNN offers a new model to personally intervene on one’s iPhone or android, as if to offer the means to ramp up agency on social media, inviting users to tap on one’s personal screen to build-your-own electoral map, perhaps to assuage one’s heightened anxiety, granting the illusion to allow yourself for entering your own alternative future. Echoing the algorithmic thinking of tallying “pathways to victory” we’d been following to exist the Trump Era with increased desperation, courtesy FiveThirtyEight and others, we imagined scenarios of the electoral constellation that might prepare for the dawning of something like a new age. As different campaigns used maps to assert “multiple pathways to victory,” the statistical likelihood of a victory seemed to suspend agency, in ways that would come to haunt the nation, in the aftermath of the election, as the tally of the vote was questioned in multiple ways, undermining the accuracy of the tally of individual votes, and injecting a degree of supicion dangerous to democracy in the name of ‘transparency.’

The standard map of the United States became a model for the President’s personal lawyer to present “evidence” by appealing the vote, long after the votes were tabulated, and winner declared, in a new form of aftermath for an election we had never experienced. If the security of paper ballots were put into question by the question of “hanging chads” that demanded hand counts with observers back in 2000, a weeks-long battle that suspended any announcement of a victor in a divided nation, that demanded “optical evidence” of the will of voters, by scrutinizing some 537 votes out of the entire nation in order to determine the victor of the electoral college, and forestall the celebrations of Democrats over the nation who expected that victory was at hand, the aftermath became distilled in 2020 to the contestation of an electoral map, the map that had come to mediate the election, as the President’s lawyer, looking like Frankenstein, returned from the dead, declared the continued existence of “multiple pathways to victory”–the very phrase that Joseph R. Biden’s circle had announced in predicting his victory. The “post-truth” announcement was not only post-truth, but a dumbed down version of voting before multiple American flags, presenting the states that the map labeled “red” that had voted for Biden to be at basis “red states,” and inevitably destined to fall into President Trump’s column. The news conference that was presented at Republican National Committee headquarters on November, 19, almost three weeks after the election was held, seemed to reclaim states’ electors as if they were enemy territory, as Trump’s legal team insisted that a spate of “irregularities in the voting system” had created numerous bases for serious fraudulence in tallies of the voting process.

November 19, 2020/AP/Jacquelyne Martin


The made-for-TV moment that was designed to circulate online as an iconic image crystallized the post-truth debates about the actual results of the election–a basis for the myth of a “stolen victory” that would continue until the tragically violent insurrectionary invasion of the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021, a readily recognized power play of seizing the electoral map from the networks, denying the role of the media or television networks from making a prediction or declaring the victor, and deciding to gesture to the selective distortion of the electoral map as if it was evidence of the true “map” of the election, as the image of five “battleground” electoral states that the Trump campaign was announcing were the basis of its campaign to Keep America Great or Make It Great Again focussed, in a new use of Cold War rhetoric, on removing “outrageous iron curtain of censorship.”

Rudy Giuliani, personal attorney to US President Donald Trump, gestures at a map of election swing states marked as Trump 'Pathways to Victory' during a news conference in Washington November 19, 2020. — Reuters pic
November 19, 2020

The results of the Presidential election in these states were not particularly close, and did not recall the nail-biter of 2000, twenty years ago, when the inspection of paper ballots by impartial judges provided an unplanned basis for showcasing the legal efforts of moving the election to the United States Supreme Court as a final arbiter.

But if votes in either Michigan or Pennsylvania were hard to say were not conclusive, without either a legal theory or strategy to discard the existing tallies of the election, without disenfranchising hundreds of thousands, the post-truth campaign posited a systematic lack of vigilance of Democrats to play rough and tumble with registered voters and enshrined voting practices, arguing that the norms of voting practices were so systematically violated both in the voting machines themselves, especially paperless touch-screen voting machines that were argued to be open to manipulation, as well as the farming of ballots, and unreliability of mail-in voting practices. The proliferating basis of instability for the tabulation of votes–the foundation of the democratic process–was argued to be inherently imperfect and corrupted at its root, suggesting the election was stolen. The argument that a small Texas company had made–“Allied Security Operations Group”–posited all software used in Smartmatic voting machines demonized as designed by a corporation with ties to Venezuelan founders: the basis among staunchly conservative activists to push a sense of widespread voting fraud–perpetuated on Newsmax in Dominion voting machines–was launched not by experts, but a myth of fraudulenceWashington Post has tied to Texas businessman Russell J. Ramsland, Jr., Trump advocates would adopt to discredit the outcomes of voting tallies already tabulated in battleground states.

The story of deep skepticism about the outcome of the election was in many ways nourished by the relative indeterminacy of possible outcomes for 2020, all of them hinging on battleground states that would push the electoral college one way or another. If the process seemed to remove the voting systems from the voters, the unfounded conspiracy theory Ramsland endorsed suggested the shaky foundations of democratic institutions that were trotted out with readiness to defend the outcome of the election they sought–and seemed to find consolation in an iconic map that painted these “swing” states a uniform red. The accusations that seem to have found particularly fertile ground on one side of a digital divide, increasingly skeptical of the “irregularities” in the tabulation of votes without a paper trail, and ready to doubt the need to question faith in the electoral process as itself an erosion of democracy–a questioning that led to the belief that the hacking of voting machines were at the basis of a pernicious electoral fraud which would overturn the election that a third of American still consider fraudulent. The cartographic affidavit that was presented with the air of an undertaker as all courts had officially thrown out Trump’s case for voter fraud–even as new lawsuits proliferated, originating from Texas and filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) with members of the Trump campaign and seventeen Republican attorneys general, who seemed to sanction a new standard of electoral authenticity. The figure of Giuliani, unfortunately and unintentionally channeling the image of the Don Corleone charaters in the five mafia families he prosecuted when he worked for the Southern District of New York, who offered an icon of Republican attempts to strong-arm an electoral map into submission.

November 19, 2020. Sara Silberger/Washington Post

We’ve rarely had so divisive a President as Donald Trump, who has sought to divide the country by race, region, religion, and income, and the hopes for emerging with a new vision of the union are slim–making the amount of weight and meaning that rests on the map appear greater than ever. How it would spin out was unclear, but the red block that Trump had pulled to the considerable surprise of all political pundits was promised to be able to be chipped away at in multiple ways, sketched by so many algorithmic story maps as alternate “paths to victory.”

The array of paths each candidate faced–though we focussed on Biden’s range of options and winced at those of Trump–could be organized in what seems a rehearsal for the glossing of possible eventualities, as multiple data visualizations that led to alternative futures like so many forking roads out of a dark, dark wood.

The hope to find coherence in the map seems even greater than ever, as if it might finally purge the divides of the last four to six years. There was a grim sense of being defeated by the electoral map during the 2016 and 2020 election, with the skewing of electoral votes to low-density rural states–skewed further by the increasing distance at which those local problems appear from Washington, DC. The configuration of the electors, as the configuration of the federal representative government, are compromised by giving more pull to residents of many rural states and creating a red block that one can only hope to chip away at in the age of coronavirus either by online donations, phone-banking, or, at this late stage, by imagining alternative futures, and playing around with the map to see how the post-election endgame will play.

This election, sequestered behind our walls, often having already cast our ballot, the parlor game of playing with the CNN interactive graphics may come as a relief offering an interactive model for adjusting and tweaking the electoral map, playing out alternative scenarios whose conclusion and potential endgames we can indulge ourselves and to an extent confront our fears in this most anxiety-producing of elections by imagining alternative scenarios playing out, using a tentative set of color choices, more familiar from polls than television, to suggest the possible outcomes of the elections as we try to assemble the final tabulations of the vote, and the disputes that may arrive in each locality about margins of victory this time round, hoping to heal the abrupt chromatic divide still huring from 2016, using polls’ take on “battleground” states to game outcomes of potential electoral maps.

Polls and Potential Electoral Distribution of 2020, CNN

The above (imagined) electoral map would be the narrowest of Democratic victories, but affirm some deep divides across the nation from 2016, but might be arrived at only after recounts and disputes. The fantasy map suggests not only the open-ended nature of the vote this year, where the large number of absentee ballots tabulated during the pandemic poses problem of tabulation exacerbated by local restrictions on when the tally of votes is able to begin.

But cognitively trained as we were over the previous months–conditioned?–to entertain multiple contingencies of electoral paths “to victory” in the ecosystem of data visualizations, schooled by the acumen of considering “paths to victory” entertained by Nate Silver, the CNN maps offered not only a parlor game, but a rehearsal for glossing electoral configurations based that might emerge on November 3, 2020, should we be forced to entertain multiple “pathways to victory” that might emerge–or, as it happened, remain–as the evening proceeded. They cued possible narrative scripts.

In retrospect, of course, we could barely imagine an electoral map that was so delicately balanced on tenterhooks. The dramatic unfolding of multiple “roads to 270” suggested a possibility to reclaim the dominant metaphors from sports, pace Silver, to a narrative of democracy. Although some petulantly suggested that the mail-in ballot was more than a bummer but a trap, presenting more possibilities of limiting votes and discarding ballots, by making us more dependent on mail delivery and USPS, the expectations for vote-counting that were a byproducts of the COVID era may well have furthered democratic discourse, and the focus of the voting drive, as well as affirming the democratic centrality of the mail: as much as provide a route for the current joyless hack of a Postmaster General to intervene in the expression public will, the narrative of tabulating every vote and creating a true paper record was an unexpected reform of the tally of votes and voting process, as tabulation foregrounded political participation as a schooling in votes nowhere more evident than in the unexpected drama of the slowing down of the tabulation of votes and arrival of data into the electoral map provided an unexpected lesson of democracy.

Electoral Map as Ballots Tallied in Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania

We expected little conclusiveness in the electoral map on election night, even into the wee hours, unlike the intense drama of earlier years. The election will continue even after the counts are finalized in each state, as it is bound to be contested in perhaps ongoing and painful ways, if it proceeds not only to polling places but up through the federal courts, as new complaints about the validity of votes are posed by the Republican Party. The hope to restrict the franchise in any way possible plays to fears not only of aliens who are exercising a vote, but a new array of restrictions on the franchise.

2020 Electoral Projection of Nate Silver, Election Day 2020

And we could fear an endgame destined to subvert the narrative drama once located only on the electoral map, its narrative unhinged from the map, pursued in cases that debate the ways votes were tallied, compiled, tabulated beyond November 3. Nate Silver’s map as not purely prognostic. If it reinforces the deeply divided nation fractured on broad-based faults of terrifyingly portentous contiguity, it suggests a painful endgame narrative, as court cases were pressed, recounts demanded, and charges of illegal voting launched in the face of attempts to aggregate votes from mail-in ballots in states predicted to “go blue.” The possibility of such “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” was not at all appealing.

Even if static, the alternative electoral maps staged a sort of drama of hypotheticals that anticipated the dangers of deep dissatisfaction across the nation. There is a deep fear that if no souther state “flip blue,” even a truly “tenuous win” might be almost pyrrhic. The narrative is grim, if its end result may have positive elements. Is its biggest impact not in delivering a President–the outcome of the electoral system–but, this year, it is also a map of the painful endgame of litigating the vote, even if the nation is haunted by a Mason-Dixon latitudinal divide among electors which most of the nation valiantly hoped we somehow might soon put behind us.

The narrative is displaced from the election. While Nate Silver notoriously went wrong in prognosticating 2016, he reminds us, in case we forgot, “Trump didn’t win the last election by that much.” This year the true terrifying story may well be the aftermath, and the difficulty to call the election, and what this means for the nation–which is a narrative that one may only gloss from the map, which threatens not to materialize in any trustworthy way until all the votes are counted–and all legal battles around their tabulation are hopefully resolved. But the most despicable sort of battles about VOTER ID, and the deeply divisive questions of the legitimacy of who could cast a ballot, were immersed in the heady waters of debates about immigration, seemed game for inclusion, as eighteen states now require VOTER ID, in ways that pose broad risks for disenfranchisement that local administration of elections threaten to perpetuate, after the refusal to amend the historic Voting Rights Act whose teeth were removed.

As other nations puzzle over the arcane methods for employing an electoral college that dilutes the actual popular vote that is distributed among apparently aristocratic holdovers of electors, but is in fact far closer to an ideal model citizenry of those honorable to place nation first over sectarian interests, the passionate intensity of division made such ideals seem destined for planned obsolescence, for reasons maybe not far removed from media technologies.

The liberating nature we find in designing our own DIY electoral maps on our peripherals offer more than a fun exercise in alternative realities in a national compact; playing with the maps are far more effective and engaged than most other forms of narcotics for assuaging anxiety, and do lower blood pressure. There was some pleasant chutpah to seeing Phillipe Reines put out his own prediction of an overwhelming Biden electoral victory that kept Trump below 200 electors, on November 2 2020, with a prescience reveals that the narrative was indeed there to be unpacked.

https://twitter.com/PhilippeReines/status/1323473321107857408

There was a sense of liberation in the ability to easily enter alternate futures, thanks to CNN graphics team and your smart phone, of greater national harmony–if the possibility of harmony seems in many places pretty illusory or lost, across the red dust bowl of arid lands Great Plains, echoing John Wesley Powell’s “lands of the arid region,” now only starting to be imagined to be rendered other than red, and Appalachia. This alienated “forgotten” American persists even in the DYI electoral map that not based on tabulations of votes. But such a map seems telling: tapping states to flip their votes invest a sense of agency in our ability to make possible predictions, even more important than the vote: we have ingested so many polls in news maps, there is something liberating in playing with the electoral map ourselves, gaming multiple scenarios, fidgeting with the map as an outlet for nervous energy as we wonder how those polls will translate to an electoral map,–

Fantasy Electoral Map, Built on CNN

–and how those states will add up to produce the only numeric legend the will really in the end count.

If we once relied on television pundits to explain the translation of the “raw” popular vote and the possibility of a win of electoral victory without a popular vote victory–then a deeply doubted as an eventuality–in describing the contest for “the percentage of the republican vote” as an obscure statistical construct. When even in the 1980 election, pundits bemoaned this “long electoral season,” the “magic map”

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Filed under 2020 election, data visualization, electoral maps, interactive maps, Red States/Blue States

To Levitate an Elephant

Rarely has a political convention focussed so strongly on distracting attention from current actualities and reconstituting a disparate party as the 2020 Republican Convention that met to nominate Donald J. Trump. While the country had been counting COVID mortality rates and lamenting police violence and the injustice of health inequalities across the nation, a balloon of good news was levitated, an elephant leaping to the stars. If the racially coded origins of the pachyderm were quite obscured by the red hued elephant rearing its trunk, the introduction of the emblem was an uncanny recuperation of the original radicalized intent of the circus elephant. Indeed the new version of the anthropomorphic emblem in 2020 seemed to distract attention by hearkening back to the circus elephant that first inspired the logo of the Republican party.

The origins of the party elephant are often linked to the anthropomorphic partisan emblem cartoonist Thomas Nast, even if they were openly adapted from the advertisements and publicity that circus impresario Phineas T. Barnum. The American circus entrepreneur, the first to feature a menagerie that was focussed on the elephant, and to do so by making increasingly clear references to race and the geographic origins of the first Bush Elephant he displayed, Jumbo, captured in Sudan by a game hunter in 1860 before being imported for Barnum’s circus by 1882 to such sizable crowds that a week at Madison Square Garden recouped costs of overseas transport and the beast. Now displayed to audiences as the “Towering Monarch of his Mighty Race“–openly invoking racial ideals as an attraction–at the center of his menagerie, the elephant promoted as the largest elephant held in captivity became a focus of mass communication, years before Jumbo was replaced by “sacred white elephant” of Burma, as a new centerpiece for currying racial fascination that was to become the mascot and icon of the Republican party after it was promoted by the pen of the cartoonist Thomas Nast, in the November, 1874 political cartoon that cast the Republican vote as a group of voters scared by the prospects of a Democratic President of dictatorial pretenses remaining in office.

Barnum’s eager hocking of a hoax–a trickster “hocus pocus” redirecting his audience’s attention to concerns that were latent in the display of the menagerie, of detecting racial difference, were converted into showmanship in the circus he promoted, in ways that might be profitably compared to the disguise of racial anxieties and feelings of persecution or economic compromises within the identification of “hoaxes” that Trump pointed out to the electorate in his candidacy. Trump’s career as a real estate promoter–a promoter more than an actual expert in construction–led him to promote a number of hoaxes happily that generated new attention and eager involvement in his candidacy. And the introduction of a new symbol for the Republican party, a “red elephant” rearing with five stars featured on his body, seemed to embody the tradition of hoaxes and promotions that the use of the elephant as an icon for the Republican party had long enjoyed, since it was introduced by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the era of Reconstruction. But the white elephant–who Nast introduced in the press as a new symbol of partisan purity in 1884 as proudly possessing the dignity of purpose unlike the beast fleeing from a President overstepping his office, cast the corruption-free party as a sacred beast with open reference to Barnum’s circus attraction, now using his pen to promote the pure skin color in a “Sacred Elephant” akin to a circus promoter but as a new partisan brand.

The bush elephant Jumbo had moved across borders: trafficked across the Mediterranean by a network of animal traders, first to German collectors as the traveling Menagerie Kreuzberg, Paris’ Jardin des Plantes, and London Zoo before Barnum featured “Jumbo” to impress audiences with his enormity. Barnum had renamed the elephant he bought for public display from the term of endearment,”Mumbo Jumbo” Londoners used to indicate its African origins, referencing to the masked male west African dancer, in Mandinka “Maamajomboo”, to promote its exoticism as a pagan idol, a fallen idol of sorts who become a popular attraction for London children to exercise imperialist imaginations before he succumbed to increasing fits of rage. The showman Barnum did not follow curry religions hokum, but displayed the elephant to bolster claims of being the Greatest Show on Earth; its iconic image gained center stage on promotional posters plastered in the towns where he toured, years before the elephant was adopted as the emblem of the GOP, Barnum strikingly made the elephant into a curiosity of openly racial intent.

The arrival of the “white” albino elephant during the era of American reconstruction after Jumbo’s death, Toung Taloung, was promoted as a gentler and more civilized version of the African Bush, and indeed of a different race, to delight popular circus-going audiences with the notion of an elephant from a different corner of the world by clear analogy to the debates of blood-purity and skin color that were dominating America, as has been argued: the white elephant was not only an exotic beast, but Barnum’s celebration of its “white” constitution could be understood by white circus-goers as a response to the tensions around racial tensions in Reconstruction America. While the introduction of a red elephant as a revised emblem of a partisan icon was by no means referring to race as explicitly as had P.T. Barnum in displaying African or Burmese pachyderms, the partisan icon of a red elephant–invoking the size of the red states in the electoral map, channeled connotations of race for American audiences. Is it a coincidence that the red elephant was trotted out in 2020 as a purified elephant–now entirely red!–to meet the tastes of the Party of Trump? The large size of the elephant seemed capacious enough to contain the many hoaxes that Trump had promoted from before announcing his Presidency, in order to create a political movement rooted in promotion and promoting the sense of rugged stalwart isolation before the dangers of a rigged world.

The 65 days that led to chaos at the Capitol - BBC News

The introduction of the red elephant as a party emblem boasted the chromic homogeneity of the GOP in ways that almost seemed to revive the long forgotten fascination in elephants as a nativist symbol. If the cartoonist Thomas Nast famously assigned the dignity, probity, and size of the popular central figure of the circus menagerie as an aspiration of how claims to dignity that might allow his party to win the White House once again, Trump consciously chose the beast of a uniformity of color to express aspirations of recreating the red map in the 2020 Presidential election, in selecting it as the new emblem of a party that had grown increasingly identified with his person, casting the new red elephant as a bold statement of partisan aspirations that may have bracketed race–but channeled the deeply racialized character of the white elephant of Reconstruction. While the story of Nast’s invention of the anthropomorphic icon has been often recited, the use of an elephant to incarnated the current capaciousness of a desired electoral victory echoed the rhetoric of securing the presidency by replicating the same margin of victory in red states alone, in the victorious image of a rearing, martial elephant, as if auguring a rise of red states in 2020 as staging a cartographic reconfiguration of the electoral map.

The elephant was an emblem of the go-it-alone spirit of the party, repurposing the animal affirm the capaciousness of a secessionist nation that echoed a Manichaean gloss of “sovereignty” RedStateSecession.org had extended across all of North America by 2019. The image of a “peaceful red state secession” was by no means mainstream in the political party, or a part of its platform, that no platform was ever devised for Trump’s renomination courted the broad worries of the dilution of a white majority nation filled with “illegal aliens” and foreigners Republicans had often mapped onto blue states–and echoed the strength that a “country formed from red states” might provide, in substitution for the internationalist commitments of a non-white majority nation that the actual United States held–promising the rebirth of a “country formed from Red States” alone, in a 2018 Facebook meme might generate a form of national renewal adhering to the U.S. Constitution. The pseudo-map, which circulated on social media and the internet, rather than in printed form, was itself a hoax–to use the terms Barnum claimed–using the smoke and mirrors of data visualization to crop the counties of an electoral map as if they would provide the new borders of a “new country formed from Red States” as if it was more faithful to the spirit of America–while leaving little question in the mind of viewers that the verb “follow” meant adhering to the politics of national renewal that were tied to a closure of national borders, embrace of white-majority culture, and refusal of “socialist” health care.

Red-State Secession - YouTube
RedStateSecession.org, 2018

The pseudo-map existed only as a derivative copied form of the distribution of Republican voters in recent elections, but it was powerful and strong as an image of common like-minded ideological preferences and political cultures, a sort of resegregation of the nation that might reveal the enlargement of the old south, not suggesting only white-majority areas, but areas where conservative voters had won since 2018. While the bizarre image of the “Sovereign States of America” took the logic of rewriting sovereignty of clear borders to an extreme, in its explicit adoption of an electoral map, omitting Broward and Miami-Dad counties in Florida, omitting much of the Northeast, Illinois–home of Barack Obama–and Southern Wisconsin, as well as California and most all of Arizona, the monochrome icon seemed to willfully dispense with California, New York, and Washington out of hand, with a vitriol that only grew in the year of social justice movements of 2020.

The emblem of the big red elephant referenced a notion of a nation created from a congeries of conservative-dominant counties, disdaining “blue states” as compromises not worthy of inclusion, lest they sacrificed ideals of America’s purity in light of the danger of immigration by creating new borders for the nation as a nation. The elevation of the monochrome pachyderm became a floating signifier of the ideals of red purity on which the party would base itself in a new image of sovereignty, often asserting economic independence by the addition of oil- and gas-rich provinces within a “Sovereign States of America” of the like-minded social media bubbles, echoed in the attacks directed to “globalists” on Canada-based alt right networks like Rebel Media, that proposed a repurposing of nation as a concept and conceit, and would be mapped onto the new sacred collectivity of a purely red beast that threw earlier Republican’s red, white, and blue elephants out as relics of RINO’s–those “Republican in Name Only,” and to map a scrappy new collectivity which hewed to one geopolitical agenda and moral script. Did the “fantasy map” not only push the logic of extreme federalism to its ends, but in juxtapose the “Sovereign States of America” with a far-fetched notion of energy independence, dismissing the allegedly “internationalist” regions of the US-Mexico border, the northeast, and Pacific rim as an internationalist “Bluetopia”–by remapping the Keystone XL and other crude pipelines as in line with American economic interests located entirely on sovereign soil.

Tale of Two Countries, 2019

To be clear, the map was a bit of a “hoax,” or the logic of the hoax–a term deriving from “hocus pocus,” the claim of a magician or juggler, and itself the sham-Latin perversion of the sacramental claim that the host present the body of Jesus Christ–an etymological origin for “hoax” that was oddly appropriate to the re-presentation of the nation as another beast, and the rewriting of sovereign allegiance to an underlying fabric of America in red states alone, a blood and soil doctrine that mapped energy extraction to allegiance to the political party representing the nation.

The red elephant rising echoed the glee of remapping of national sovereignty as if sovereignty were lines of affect–ties to the true interest of the nation, evident in the preservation of racial hierarchies, preserved, in the circus, by the in If Trumpism depended on a new “red nation,” RedStateSecession.org materialized a cartographic rewriting of the nation and national sovereignty, often privileging energy independence and clear borders, and imposing those borders on a map, but affirming the elephant as an image of its capacious quality–adding the petroleum reserves of Alaska and shale deposits across Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba as if to make up for the absence of the wealth of California, the northwest, and the northeast from a “sovereign” map that would end culture wars. Revising the “Jesusland” map of 2004 to include shale deposits in the north integrated a network of petroleum pipelines from like-minded “red states” north of the border, imagining a “United States of America” of radically redrawn borders embracing Calgary, Regina, Edmonton and Saskatoon as its own endless reserve of energy and national wealth–a new fantasy of national “belonging” that denied the actually lopsided nature of the America’s population and wealth.

Mark Joseph, February 2020

The fear of globalism was a steeped in internationalist rhetoric of “open borders,” disguising a disdain for national culture and America First, in its promotion of open borders, was deemed a dismantling of the nation as we know it. The map of “red America” was a rewriting of NAFTA, and a rewriting of the secessionist Civil War, imagining the Mason-Dixon line elevated to embrace all Pennsylvania, imagining the survey that defined the border disputes between Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware as a basis to expand the division between two “United States,” one blue and one red, a spectacle of sorts that engaged observers in the image of a remapped red United States, as if imagining the old northern border of the confederacy to be hiked to include the swing state of Pennsylvania, even above the “West Line” Charles Mason surveyed between Pennsylvania and Maryland in 1768, to create a mythic country of 2020 that expanded upon Trump’s surprising 2016 electoral victory, as if re-imagining the boundary line that became a division of slave states and free states as a division between Americans and internationalists. Indeed the determination of the new “boundary” able to preserve American integrity was cast as natural, but included the area along which the Keystone XL was planned to transport crude and Canadian shale reserves as well within the United States of America–arriving at an economic integrity that the Confederate States of America had lacked.

“A Plan of the West Line or Parallel of Latitude,” Charles Mason 1768 (detail)

Such a realization of economic imperatives transcended the use of lines of latitude as a dividing line; the inclusion of the land where the Keystone ran within the “new nation” gave it an integrity often lacking in the division of the nation by political afliations or voting patterns–

How to split the USA into two countries: Red and Blue
Dicken Shrader, 2018

–but sought to prevent the fluid Geography_of_Gilead, in which “where the edges are we aren’t sure . . . they vary, according to the attacks and counter-attacks,” but try to preserve an image of American integrity as if it were “natural,” by incorporating the petroleum pipelines and the shale reserves from which they carry crude sludge to realize the adoption in the 2016 Republican Party platform of promoting the Keystone XL within a vision of “North American energy independence” as if the Bluetopian environmentalists of the previous Democratic administration had strayed from such ideals. The map realized an actual division that seemed economically viable, if it would indeed “Support #CALEXIT!” as the “Tale of Two Countries” meme suggested.

If the electoral map has become. a spectacle of repeated glossing, fetishizing, and analysis since 2008, often wrestling with an imagined discrepancy between the appearance of greater sovereign acreage of a party with fewer votes, essentializing “redness” lay in the eye of the observer, and the old partisan mascot served to embody the identity of a party that trumped reality, as if the continuity of red counties might gain sovereign status of its own.

Unreported Stats - FactCheck.org

There was something almost Barnum-esque, as much as Alt Right, in the prominence with which Trump raised th hoax of globalism toexpose as a conspiracy of “globalist elites” as a threat to the nation in almost existential terms. P. T. Barnum had hewed the cultivation of hoaxes as a means to attract his audiences in the first age of mass-printing, viewing the “hoax” Barnum viewed as a part of the spectacle and business plan for the circus that he pioneered: from the display of mermaids to human freaks, Barnum promoted illusions to attract the complicity of spectators in “hoaxes” in ways surprisingly akin to the centrality of “hoaxes” as hooks able to attract and to consolidate support for Trump’s Presidency and presidential campaign. If some hoaxes served to distract attention of collusion of the Trump campaign and Russian government, Trump had long reserved ire for the allegedly internationalist “hoax” of global warming and climate change he had disdained revealed in 2015, before announcing his candidacy, through casting the coronavirus pandemic as “their new hoax” in the final year of his Presidency, from February to March of 2020, adopting the term “hoax news” later dropped to the damning “fake news” to suggest the extent of an information society that was rigged. Trump’s labeling of “hoaxes” is not only an echo of QANON, but used the identification of hoaxes engaged in a “plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty” to attracted many supporters by seeing economic integration, internationalism, much as Barnum promoted hoaxes (if he didn’t call them that in announcements) as a way to attract audiences. For Trump, hoaxes served to stoke popular anger by unmasking how his opponents disrespected the nation’s integrity: Trump attacked “global warming hoaxsters” of scheming to raise higher taxes in January 2014, and labeling a “hoax provided a powerful way to rally his base before a new sense of the nation, freed from the allegedly pernicious logic of “open borders,” globalist elites, digital media and internationalism–the very same specters he decried on January 6, 2021.

If “hoax” was not at first among the preferred words of rage to use in his social media accounts, it grew as a way of voicing collective rage. A text analysis of Trump’s tweets charts how he grew aligned with political discourse as a way to vent his anger and direct the rage of his constituents, as his use of social media morphed from personal attacks promoting the bogus “birther” theory about Barack Obama’s birthplace–a primal hoax–to the calling out of hoaxes more quickly than they might be mapped, processed, or charted, as he alternated schoolyard insults to channel a paranoid persecution of describing hoaxes with greater traction as he ridiculed investigation into the Russian ties of his campaign and cabinet. The twittersphere encouraged Trump to act as a border guard, identifying “hoaxes” with illusory clarity on a medium that encouraged the retweeting falsehoods; as Trump attacked Fake News, his public statements included an increased number of falsehoods, according to Factba.se’s tracing, rising with his social media presence, calling out hoaxes became a broader truth game that extending to questioning the accuracy of voting machines of the 2020 Presidential election, allegedly both owned and operated from overseas. And as claims of a stolen election seem set to be relaunched in debates about voting integrity, the fierce urgency of identifying a hoax may loose momentum as they are increasingly evidently about race. The candidates’s visibly vertiginous delight in discerning of globalist hoaxes only came back to bite him only as he persisted casting the spread of COVID-19 not as a pandemic, but just another liberal hoax–stretching credibility in the face of cognitive dissonance of rising mortality rates of coronavirus and Trump claiming people’s surprise . . .

Claims of hoaxes–or fake news–had mutated into claims that the candidate alone understood or got global politics. The red elephant introduced in the 2020 Convention afforded a new image of the nation that was the inverse of the hoax. It was a statement of the credulity of the party and the party line, as well as an identity for partisan unity–channeling a mental imaginary rooted not in continuity or federalism, but a uniformity of consensus in Trump’s own words. Trump’s attachment to “hoaxes” as compelling fighting words defined much of his presidency, as much as his social media presence. But the identification of hoaxes as objects of scorn, and insults to the nation, found a counterpart in the newly triumphant icon of decorous anger Ronna McDaniel unveiled in 2019, in hopes to consolidate or conjure a new alliance of red states to promote the Republican hopes for victory in 2020.

Charlote, NC/August 2, 2019

One could detect a sense of the circus when political strategist Ronna McDaniel took it on herself to channel Vanna White and middle America, revealing a reinvigorated elephant as a new logo for the Grand Old Party for 2020, her flowing red dress underscoring to the new monochrome of icon. Having been named to lead the RNC by Donald Trump after she had served as a delegate from Michigan who supported Trump in 2016, as the vacancy opened, with Rience Priebus becoming Chief of Staff, with the only precondition dropping her maiden name to erase any hint she had supported her uncle Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, McDaniel was elevated to be the chair of the Party, ensured that she could be counted on for her allegiance to Trump’s agenda and to promote his brand–demonstrating allegiance by imitating Trumps’s own warnings of voter fraud before the 2020 election and warning widespread fraud had led to the electoral loss of the man she trumpeted as as a “moral leader” while using her zealous defense of Trump as a cover to steer RNC funds to companies run by family members or as a quid pro quo for donations.

President Donald Trump arrives to speak at Republican National Committee, Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte NC
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Could not one say that the use of the red elephant by Trump, a man widely known to delight in manipulating details of his public image, and indeed his brand, channeled P.T. Barnum in re-presenting the red elephant as a party emblem to the 2020 Republican Convention in Charlotte, NC? The elephant that was displayed in the political convention that was located proudly in a southern state without explanation by RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel in 2019, as an icon of partisan purity by 2020. Was the red elephant not a recuperation of the spectacle of the elephant as a refraction of America’s still fraught racial politics? Barnum was a master of public relations, and used the magnificence of the elephant as a centerpiece for his show, and an elephant seemed to incarnate hopes for an augur of victory in the next Presidential election, in the memes and media circus of unveiling of an icon of partisan identity. The symbol of the 2020 Republican Convention was unveiled to bridge novelty and tradition within the Republican party, but invoked performative rituals of circus-going as a spectacle about race, whiteness, privilege, and spectatorship–as much as a new mascot. Its political symbolism might be placed in a volume of Circus Studies or political symbolism, a regal pachyderm that recalled the Monarch of Illusions by invoking the partisan remapping of American politics as a swath of red states. The energetic red elephant proposed as a new symbol of partisan identity seemed an attempt to reenergize the party headed and embodied by the circus-master Donald J. Trump.

Was not Barnum, a showman who had perfected the arts of mass communication in the Gilded Age, gliding from popular entertainments to mass spectacles with unprecedented ease, able to transform the circus into an economic machine and public spectacle in ways eerily akin to how Trump has changed the political process of the United States? As much as changing Free Speech, Trump has exploited anxieties by offering what audiences “wanted to see” in a new regime of politics and political performance, continuing a Barnum tradition of combining minstrelsy, freak shows, entertainers, collections of menageries, and clowns in a “big tent” of the profitable economy of the circus show. Barnum was not only an orchestrater who expanded the circus as an institution of modern life and mass culture, converting spectacles into profits by promising to transport audiences into the fantastic, but was a promoter who insistently promised “good faith” to his audiences even as this strained credibility.

Barnum was the great American creator of ‘hoaxes’ central to capturing public attention and framing public opinion. Although the “Sacred Elephant” he later displayed to extend anxieties of the determination of racial difference to the animal kingdom was not white, promotion of the elephant that was appropriated by Thomas Nast as an icon of the Republican party prominently triggered fears of the identity of racial characteristics by universalizing them to the ostensibly pleasurable arena of the circus. Hoaxes were there from the very start of Barnum’s career as a promoter of the fantastic and curious wonder for audience’s pleasure: Barnum’s career began with his purchase of a slave he exhibited as George Washington’s own Mammy–a figure able to cross racial lines, peddling racial stereotypes in a spectacle of servility. Barnum promoted the woman, Joice Heth, as a sideshow curiosity, importing the plantation economy into vaudeville, as the allegedly hundred and sixty one year old Mammy of the first president entertained white audiences with barely credible stories of how she had nursed George Washington, that promoted the social dynamic of a plantation as the American narrative, as he deployed race and racial anxieties in a human museum, in the American Museum in downtown New York from 1842: as improbably as the White Elephant he imported from Burma gained crowds as an alleged education on racial difference, Barnum began from exploiting desires, fears and boundaries of normalcy; mass advertising in printed flyers attracted audiences’ interest to freak shows, promising “prices reduced to suit all classes” and boasting of his own populism, offering audiences primarily “instruction and happiness” while pursuing financial gain. The show begged complicity with the master-showman–Barnum boasted at combining “smoke and mirrors” with “a little ‘clap-trap’ occasionally, in the way of transparencies, flags, exaggerated pictures, and puffing advertisements” in “the wildness of wonderfully instructive and amusing realities,” that set their own criteria of truthfulness.

P.T. Barnum’s 1835 Handbill Advertising Joice Heth as “Natural & National Curiosity”

Was prominent billing of a long-lived manny as a “natural and national curiosity” a template for inviting audiences to witness the contrast the “sacred” elephant to darker African elephants, shipped to America at Barnum’s expense?

Mr. Barnum’s White Burmese Elephant, ‘Toung Taloung”

P.T. Barnum had arrived at the use of the elephant as a focus on entertainment and moral instruction followed how his American Museum suggested a welcome traffic with and blurring of knowledge and science in the name of compelling illusions and pleasure. And after the Museum burned down in 1865, rather than being the end of his career, he promoted “P.T. Barnum’s Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus” as a road show, publicizing its contents for audiences across the nation. He returned to New York by 1877, promising to cater to all audiences’ pleasures by featuring the new addition of “$500,000 worth of Foreign Features” with assurance of “prices reduced to suit all classes,” emphasizing his egalitarianism. If Barnum boasted “the largest, finest, and best menagerie and circus in the world” he cast himself not as a promoter but as acting “to my countrymen and countrywomen as a minister of instruction and happiness, while pursuing my primary purpose of making money.” The arrival of a Bush Elephant purchased in 1882 from London Zoo as the central exhibit in the menagerie displayed in Madison Square Garden, promoted widely as “the largest elephant in captivity,” whose prominent billing and attracted such massive crowds to recoup costs of transport and purchase in just four days; Jumbo’s later 1885 death in a train accident led the elephant to be replaced him with the commanding attraction of a Burmese albino elephant, shipped to New York, to replace the bush elephant’s central billing in his menagerie. Barnum long exploited print advertising, and promoted the “sacred” Burmese, Toung Taloung, imported from the Near East, as a “white elephant” whose different stock than elephants of African origin was morally instructive, Barnum, as if its white skin denoted a different race, courting popular fascination with miscegenation and shades of skin color in Reconstruction America.

The hoax, as so often in recent years, was part of the point. Even if the display of the white elephant was more about race than exoticism, the shift from the size of the elephant Barnum promoted fit the times of Reconstruction, but tapped into the display of race and racial difference within Barnum’s promotion of a carefully curated image of Americana. Barnum featured exploitation of race in his showmanship in 1835 by exhibiting former slave Joice Heth to paying audiences, as the mammy of George Washington as a national curiosity in New York’s Niblo’s Garden. The hoax who delighted audiences by promising storeis of raising “little George” for the Washington family, Barnum exploited the place of enslavement held in the national fabric of America led directly to his subsequent exploitation of an elephant in the racial politics of reconstruction America by 1884, when he had promoted the purity and probity of an albino “white elephant” before it arrived in New York by ship from London as an animal possessing greater distinct characteristics from the African Grey he had featured in his menagerie and traveling show–a probity featured as Nast used the pachyderm as an anthropomorphic icon of the Republican party that very year.

Who else but a zealot and convert to the cause of a candidate obsessed with political promotion and image would realize the critical importance of rebranding of the party in anticipation for the 2020 election, to take time to promote and announce the roll-out of a new political iconography of the elephant–a red elephant–with purity of purpose? While Trump’s commitment to steer the party to victory in 2018 midterms had failed to translate unprecedented advantages in fundraising McDaniel had ensured to a margin of victory, the largest elephant in the room of animating the electorate for the Presidential election. Was it surprising Trump felt the party needed rebranding? The elephant would be a potent signifier of the purity of red states to those who wanted it, inviting images of a domestication of wildness, a channeling of white anger, and a sense of bucking tradition and loosening of decorum, all rolled into a rearing beast.

President Trump Addressing 2018 Republican National Committee Winter Meeting

The redesigned “red elephant” was perhaps a white elephant of political iconography, but a new regime of truth for the political party. For in abandoning the red, white and blue to promote a uniformity of purpose and single mindedness that echoed the “sacred elephant” cartoonist Thomas Nast had adopted to represent the Republican party’s nobility by anthropomorphizing Barnum’s new exotic addition to his famed menagerie–a “white elephant,” nobler and more kind and docile than its African cousin–in ways that would consciously play to the consciousness of race among circus-goers in post-Reconstruction America. Was the new red elephant, distinctive in its chromatic design, a color that might not only signal rage, or anger at the declining moral standards and protection of liberties, but a conformity around an image, in ways that Trump, a master of the image, must have found appealing as a new branding of the political party under his own imprint?

GOP Square.svg

While the elephant was long red, white, and blue, the new monochrome elephant projected an imaginary of a unified party, no doubt composed of “red” states, purified and poised to advance into the 2020 Presidential election as a united front, long before the social justice protests of 2020 that reacted in shock to George Floyd’s brutal murder by white police, head forced to the ground in Minneapolis by local police before a crowd of onlookers, and the social reckoning these protests bought by the convention itself. Having spent party funds on covering all legal fees related to defending the sitting President from charges of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential campaign, McDaniel seemed to seek to make a fresh start for Trump’s campaign for reelection, adopting a logo of chromatic conformity for a campaign that would not adopt or issue a party platform, but that revolved around the new leader of the party.

How the party would map onto the country was a question that was on the front plate of many separatist groups by the summer of 2019, when the question of how a non-nation rightly secedes to create a ‘country’ prompted many cartographic fantasies rooted in the appeal that “nation” was an ethno-linguistic group of common customs, and the alleged principle that all states have the right to secede from the union: “red states” did not really follow state lines, but could be carved from electoral districts and drawn by software in a loopy map of alleged unity, not without appeal to many white supremacist ideals, avoiding most coastal regions, and larger cities outside Texas and Georgia. While this internet map originated from a political fringe, the fantasy of a monochrome elephant foretold a red coalition’s coming victory, as in inviting readers to contemplate the legal justification that might exist for eastern Texas, western Louisiana, or the western panhandle of Florida to secede from the nation.

Red State Secession/August, 2019

Redesigning the very republic as if in DIY drawing of electoral districts, in an inelegant from of gerrymandering that dropped sections of Florida, Wisconsin, Michicagn, Ohio, Arizona, Colorado and Virginia and a strip of Nevada that echoe the demand to “do your own research” to recognize your allies. The oppositional politics of the map of almost Manichean design was best met by a uniformly red elephant as its emblem. Perhaps the deep fantasy of cartographic excision was less based on the secession of the Civil War, than the Looney Tunes logic of separating Florida from the United States to the Atlantic with a saw in 1949, with the cry “that does it–South America, take it away!” to redraw the nation in the Red State Secession by cutting Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties from the Union, in a hardly convincing map of states that “follow the Constitution”–derived from electoral maps. The almost comic cohesion of a red elephant might enjoy suggests a regime of stagecraft and suggestion, that openly showed little but gestured to a rich history of political iconography far deeper than its crude cartography suggests.

Bugs bunny cuts florida off America.

The fantasy of the monochrome elephant might be sufficient to accommodate all local interests in a buoyant beast of even larger girth was hardly new. The image of a monochrome elephant s party logo began with the introduction of the animal by Republican cartoonist Thomas Nast, who took the image of an albino elephant–the first “white elephant” of allegedly greater purity than its African cousin–at the height of reconstruction to appeal to Republican’s adherence to greater dignity in their own party’s principled platform of reform. By the time that the convention to anoint Donald J. Trump as nominee for a party without a platform got underway, as if to tell us we had been watching dangerous performances all summer long in social justice protests spread across America, the remodeled red elephant that hearkened back to Thomas Nast’s pioneering use of the bull elephant to champion the vigor and capaciousness of a party to which he belonged as an image of the nation and the purity of its leadership. The recuperation of what Nast saw as an image of nobility and purity of purpose in Barnum’s new addition to a menagerie boasting moral instruction was also in ways a return of the repressed, tapping into the racial anxieties that were projected onto the African elephant as an emblem of the domestication of the savage beast.

For elimination of all tricolor in the new brand of the President’s party recycled the very racial insensitivity and unsavoriness that the exhibition of circus elephants had long signalled. When circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum extolled the purity of the exhibited albino “white” elephant he purchased to introduce to American audiences as a nobler alternative to African Greys, he desired to please circus-going audiences in Reconstruction America. Unlike the darker “cousin” Jumbo, who after being captured in Abyssinia in 1861, was sold by animal traders to the Jardin des Plantes as the largest elephant in captivity, and who Barnum had brought to America by boat from London as a centerpiece for his traveling show, Barnum promoted the albino elephant as a gentler, nobler, and more docile breed. The creature, described as of different cast and moral status than other elephants who had toured the nation, became a media sensation whose claims to purity Nast had channeled. While the cartoonist hoped to communicate the new moral character of the Republican party, in the very costume Barnum outfitted and exhibited the Burmese beast, the racial anxieties he tapped were eerily akin to those Trump stoked at the 2020 Convention. Barnum had promoted a beast not captured from Africa, but from Burma’s court, where it was regularly serenaded and invested with sacred character, suggested the subject removed from “blackness” and slavery, a different stock and perhaps race of elephant, in ways that the audiences of Barnum’s circus could not fail to appreciate and discern. Was the mild eugenics of Barnum’s beast not implicit in the “white elephant” by which Nast embodied his own political party? The Red elephant not only was a new embodiment of the party, but mapped it onto red states.

Thomas Nast, “The Sacred Beast” (1884)

The new logo keyed into a color line, in ways that may hint at the future meaning of the semiotic weight of the party logo for generations who may only know the political animal and not the living beast. To be sure, whatever future semantic properties of the pachyderm as a symbol of political party were raised in 2010–as the animal’s significance seemed remote from then-current political debates–

–found an unexpected response as the Party of Trump reclaimed the elephant in ways that reclaimed its spectacularity in a circus, as the jumbotron in Charlotte, NC, unveiled the spectacle of the pachyderm, devoting far more attention as the party leaders who planed the meeting wanted to discuss the “new logo” combining the iconic elephant and the city’s crown, describing the city they claimed to be far more concerned with business and development of the city. The logo’s unveiling followed President Trump’s disgraceful call for members of the U.S. Congress to “go back to the countries from which they came” in a city viewed as “business-first, not politics-first,” calling the first order of the day being “the unveiling”–a term often associated with commemoration than politics.

August 1, 2019

The Republican Party unveiled a sleek lines of a new red elephant in preparation for the 2020 Republican Convention recuperated the performative origins of the once-sturdy quadruped as it appeared on the jumbotron, whose very size communicated how much air the presence of Donald J. Trump had sucked out of Charlotte’s Convention Center.

What the party billed as a rejuvenation of the vitality of the old elephant staged a rebirth of the party at a time when its ties to the nation had been increasingly tenuous, and seemed to mask the deep fragmentation that the politics of divisive opposition had been stoked by the shock jock tactics of a President over his first term.

The GOP elephant had by the 1970s and 1980s retained its stability in abstract form, but seemed an unassailable image of the party’s security, its sleek form a clear contrast to the far more fluid, and perhaps mutable, Democratic donkey–and, when the streamlined icon emerged int he late 1970s, to assert its modernity.

Democratic donkey and Republican elephant

The new “red elephant” was not only a logo unveiled at the 2020 Republican Convention, of course, but an emblem that had arisen on social media, akin to the new emblems of patriotic devotion that were first engraved by the U.S. Mint on national currency to offer evidence of the piety of the after the Civil War, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received letters from ministers beseeching him to include adequate “ recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins,” and imploring him “What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?,” leading Chase to impress upon the Director of the Philadelphia Mint the need of a device able to depict “the trust of our people in God . . . on our national coins” by a device and motto proclaiming national recognization of God, reasoning that it was evident that “no nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense.” Facebook groups Red Elephant media launched March 5, 2017 or The Red Elephant–a FB group and twitter handle, @redelephantt–founded April 9, 2018–suggested the new hue of the populist party of Donald J. Trump , an aggregator and amplifier of tweets by folks like Rep. Jim Jordan, Rep. Matt Gaetz, Gov. Ron De Santis and Marjorie Taylor Greene, a new republican Party that issued the post-inaugural proclamation to be back in other form.

Donald Trump’s party may not have known how sharp his focus on Law & Order would be in 2019. But the focus on a red-state party, which commanded consensus as much as presented a platform, used the traditional party logo as an “proud and strong symbol” of–pardon the pun–a deeply truncated party, which might have been indeed a stuffed beast, eviscerated of any vital principles, and more of a symbolic avatar of fealty to a new ideal type of red states. The Republican elephant of 2020 unveiled in Charlotte, North Carolina, attempted to invest strengthened unity for a party that had changed its identity, in ways that threatened its resilience. The proverbial four blind men who came to describe an elephant might not detect the chromatic shift, but the seismic shift in partisan identity was huge in a party whose sense of identity was being strong-armed by the sitting President. The prime political parties of American politics were defined since the late nineteenth century were symbolized by animals in ways that reveal the dominance of the popular press and editorial cartooning of Harpers magazine, where cartoonist Thomas Nast elevated the elephant to a symbol of party, embodying the collective vote in less that laudatory ways, have become potent signifiers their partisans invested with positive qualities to define their affinities, invested in tricolor mascots imbued with patriotism, the elephant associated with memory, probity, and intelligence bearing three stars, and the donkey, populist, dedicated, and stubborn in holding its ground, emblazoned with four, no longer the American flag that the GOP had once pretended to incarnate for its members, but far more akin to the image of capaciousness and stolidity of tradition, known sufficiently embodied only by red states. 

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Filed under American Politics, Donald J. Trump, political iconography, popular entertainment, Republican Convention

The Revenge of the Infographic?

Long before Barack Obama was a candidate for President of the United States, he took time to chastise the nation about the tyranny of the infographic that divided the nation.  Obama used the occasion of his endorsement of John Kerry’s nomination at the Democratic convention in Chicago to remind the nation of the danger of presuming the divide red states from blue states by the clear chromatic fashion that already increasingly increasingly filtered electoral maps of the United States, and has since come to haunt us in the Trump victory of 2016.  And if we were energized by the notion of “swing states” that might be shifted to the Democratic column back in 2012 and 2008 that increased the involvement and political participation of many in the electoral grid, the resurgent immobility of the electoral map divided between what seem to be continuous regions parsed into “red states” and “blue states”–

 

electoral-trump

 

–as if it were permanent divide as well as a fluid choropleth that refracted the spectrum of the American flag.  Indeed, the stability of the fractured electoral divide invest a sense of permanence as an electoral landscape, as the two-color infographic seems to have crept into our unconscious:  while it may be a proxy for an urban-rural distinction that has been championed both by the Trump campaign and as a dominant gloss of the infographic, has the divide invaded our consciousness in ways we are able to gain little distance?

America was, after all, once collectively energized at the prospect of tilting against the inevitability of a red-blue divide in the nation.  If Barack Obama sought to chasten readers of infographics in order to breath life into Kerry’s 2004 nomination as Democratic candidate for the United States presidency, his words were not only energizing, but prophetic of his own candidacy.  For they articulated the possibility of transcending electoral divides as a touchstone of his campaign strategy, foreshadowing Obama’s later electoral success.  And when we hear Donald Trump’s celebration of the “heartland” as the ‘Real America’ as if it might be searched for and found on the map, somewhere far away from “coastal elites” or intellectuals, it serves to conceal Trump’s truly narrow electoral victory by articulating a “real America” with which we on the coasts lost touch.  The spate of much-publicized post-election pilgrimages into the “heartland” by Mark Zuckerberg as self-defined coastal elites sought to find”normal america” needs to be rethought:  it seems to project a creation of the very infographics we’ve long consumed to understand democracy, or as a surrogate for democratic elections, more than a real place.  For where we find “the real America” alleged in so many maps in the contiguous sea of red–

 

348px-ElectoralCollege2016.svg

 

–we have recently found that the red is both far more fractured, and even often echoes the very sort of “news deserts” that are associated with the dominance of local news in media markets dominated by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose dissemination of a right-wing agenda to the televisions of 40% of Americans seems to have increased polarization in the last election.  The decline of local press–and the absence of paper newspapers–seem in another reminder of how the end of the local reporting poses deep dangers to our democracy–and invites unpredicted sorts of vulnerabilities.

 

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Vox, using dSinclair Broadcasting Group data cross-checked with Nielsen; darker areas denote where Sinclair runs more than one station

 

The divide between red and blue masks the dominant place of far more determining sites of constituencies that are more up for grabs–and my determine the election as extra-urban areas that are demographically distinct, and difficult to cast as blue or red.  The refusal to divide the nation into red and blue states, an increasingly meaningless unit, opened the possibility for change that the dominance of infographics in mediating and reframing our democracy has militated against.

Back when Obama energized the convention by reassuring the nation as well as delegates who had assembled in Chicago that, despite the evidence of infographics, the fissures of a fractured body politic that many maps continued to project were not destined to divide the nation:  “We’re not red states and blue states; we’re all Americans,” Obama urged, “standing up together for the red, white and blue,” even if we were powerfully represented as contentious factions on electoral maps.  The reservations that Obama expressed was compelling as an alternative vision of national unity; it in a sense under-wrote the mantra of “Hope” for a new way of seeing the nation, although this division seemed to return with a vengeance in 2016, as if it haunts the nation.

 

348px-ElectoralCollege2016.svg

 

The divide was, perversely, as powerful back in 2004, back when Obama first chastised the nation so firmly for having adopted the divide as inevitable.  So rhetorically powerful was the visual image of national unity as a rebuke to the fracturing of the map to announce Obama’s oratorical eloquence to the nation.  It seemed a healing balm for a riven republic, even as the 2004 election, despite its clarity of divisions by state, trumpeted in a powerful infographic that suggested isolated bodies of blue set apart form an apparently alienated flyover country that blared bright red indignantly–

 

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USA Today/BeldarBlog

–in ways that were echoed if not accentuated in the county-by-county breakdown that USA Today issued the day after, and the way Bush dominated what have been called the “battle-ground” states–then Arkansas, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania–as he did nationwide, even if the distribution didn’t break down at all so smoothly along state “lines”–

 

Mark Newman Red:Blue ma2004countymap-final2.png

 

–to muster the bulk of electoral votes out of the hands of California, Illinois and New York and served to create a solid electoral alliance all the better able to isolate Texas.

The “real America” might well lie in the edges of the blue and red, or the “purple” counties where political debate needs to be foster and occur.  Indeed, the image of divisiveness haunted the political imaginary of the nation so much the nation may have yearned for imagining a new collectivity by 2008.  Despite the fragmenting of the electoral map that occurred in 2004, where states seemed to vote red in their entirety, it might be noted that the same map could be resolved, in a district-by-district image of magnitudes, in a far more complex picture of the deeper red areas perhaps aligning more clearly with states than the more selective distribution of the strongest Democratic voters concentrated in regions voting Democratic–the “blue”–

 

The_2004_Presidential_Election_in_the_United_States,_Results_by_Congressional_District

 

–that is echoed in the far more complex county-by-county picture of 2016, whose shadings are much more telling of political truths:  despite the image of a “heartland” or a true America that is red, many of the areas that seem deep red on the electoral map are indeed light pink or shaded, and suggest that these areas–the less polarized–might be the “real” America much more than the deep red areas, which seem in fact the most remote.

 

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The fracturing of the electoral map by manipulating media was not new to such outlets as Sinclair Broadcasting Group:  Trump turned to the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, noted Media Matters, for interviews to reach a broader demographic, using a group notorious for revealing their boosterism for conservative causes, from ordering stations in 2004 to run anti-John Kerry segments over normal programming over the country–

 

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–using 173 television stations in 81 markets along “180 program streams” in 51 markets:

image.pngGray Television Group Station Map

–as Trump sought to eat into Hillary Clinton’s midsummer lead in national polls, by speaking to voting markets in newly “purple” regions as Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Colorado, and West Virginia, to circumnavigate traditional media outlets.  We would do well to remember that, in ways that raised raised eyebrows for some, that by November 8, 2016, areas like Iowa, Ohio, North Dakota and Arizona were suddenly shifting pink–as would Florida and North Carolina, suddenly an increasingly light blue.

 

November 7 projections 538png.png

 

1. There was a time when the red state/blue state divide was not so powerful in our minds.  The power of such an image of electoral unity was already so ingrained in 2004 that its rejection provided more than a powerful rhetorical image for the man who would be elected President in 2008.  The image of a nation that departed from a fractured infographic became central, in many ways, to Obama’s campaign, and a powerful image of a new political future.  Obama recalled the problematic nature of the chromatic division in his own campaigns several times, most famously, perhaps, to rebuke the danger of returning to a chromatic divide in 2012.  In the heat of the Presidential campaign for his second term, President Obama redeployed the refrain in a tweet simply asserting that “There are no red states and blue states, just the United States,” as if to dispatch or denaturalize the splintered red state-blue geography that haunted our diet of infographics in Presidential campaigns.   When Obama penned the figure of speech in 2004, before addressing the Democratic Convention in Chicago, John Kerry so quickly recognized its rhetorical power that he asked to adopt the image in delivering his acceptance of the 2004 nomination, although we’ll always remember it as Obama’s.

State Senator Obama warned somewhat prophetically of the difficulties implicit in any national mapping that ran against national interests; the junior Senator from Illinois took pundits to task for presenting a picture of the nation that served only “to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states–red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats.”  Obama called out the two-color maps as perpetuating a harmful vision, apt to diminish voters’ sense of their ability to effect political change, and diminishing voters’ agency, by inscribing the voting patterns in a static map that fractured the nation into blocks of like-mindedness as if to portray electoral results as predetermined and not contingent.  (The notion of “swing-states” would only emerge as a way to challenge the authority of this two-color map, of course, during Obama’s own 2008 candidacy.)

But the divides that we have come to perpetuate again in the 2016 Presidential election may suggest that the divides were less starkly drawn between red and blue district than Daily Kos Elections calculations suggest, which shows the dissonance between the map of congressional districts were poor vehicles to mediate the popular vote:  for a map of districts distorts geography; the increased crowding of the population in districts that vote “blue.”  Yet can the divide in the nation in fact be best understood by continuing to contemplate this fracturing, and not attending to the sites of smaller electoral margins–where the decision occurs, or at least which create a sense of tipping points, where the truly consequential electoral decisions seem to be increasingly made?  Obama’s caution not to be seduced by slicing and dicing the country seems particularly perceptive, and suggests the danger of trusting a chromatic divide of the country.

 

districts 2014.png

Xenocrypt

 

2.  Obama’s phrase has gained a quite surprising second life in the recent unpacking of how the electoral outcome of the election was sought to be strategically manipulated through the manufacture of a clearer red-blue divide through the voting patterns of purple states.  What were words of caution have gained a new concrete sense after the indictments released by Robert S. Mueller III have revealed outside interest in sharpening contrasts in the electoral map in the 2016 Presidential race, that suggests that the infographic has indeed gained an upper hand in the electoral process in even more dangerous ways than Obama had described.

It’s indeed pretty hard to see the United States divided into “red” and “blue” states, isolated from the world, in the same way again, as if each state shaded pink, light blue or strong red and dark blue in complete autonomy, showing their political temperatures in isolation of from the outside world.  Indeed, although the 2014 House of Representative race was striking for its salmon pinkness–and the deep red of the US-Mexico border, as well as Iowa, such colors are increasingly difficult to be seen as self-contained or removed from the larger world.

 

 

2014 House of Representatives Mid-Term Election 

 

Back when Senator Barack Obama so eloquently endorsed John Kerry as a presidential candidate, his admonition–or quite gentle–scolding struck such a chord not only as an effective image of patriotic identity, and not a reality check.  But the powerful phrasing became a theme of his campaign, and it was unsurprising when Obama returned to it in his 2008 victory speech in Grant Park, and welcomed the good news of what seemed a remapping of the United States, and he took the time to congratulate American voters for having “sent a message to the world that we have never been just . . .  a collection of red states and blue states” and which confirmed that, appearances to the contrary, we “are, and will always be, the United States of America.”  The words had reverberated in many ears with a sense of freshness, from when they were first uttered, as if seeking to disabuse television audiences of the image that had haunted the nation from before the 2000 election, but which had stuck uncomfortably in the background of the nation’s cerebral cortex, creating an image of sharp divisions,–even if those divisions were far less clear on the ground even in 2004, as Obama had suggested–but full of chromatic variations, even when they appeared entrenched, with some eighteen to twenty states mapped in varied shades of purple.  The blurred nature of this dive into voting habits as much as patterns suggests a point-value to political preferences that is misleading, but as a snapshot of the body politic, it suggests diagnostic tool that was valued in altering electoral outcomes as much as the image of individual agency that Bascom Guffin worked to create, using the concept that political scientist Robert Vanderbei had in fact developed for the 2004 Presidential race.  For the map suggested the actuality of the more complicated chromatic divides that Obama had then recently described.

 

purple_nationBascom Guffin, “Purple Nation”

 

Yet the dynamic of the purple regions seems to have been increasingly changed by the emergence in many places of “news deserts”–sites of no or only one local newspaper–in a phenomenon that is increasingly internet-driven, and reinforced by the growing number of news deserts across the nation.  As mapped in interactive form on Carto to reveal the spaces afflicted by the least local news sources–counties with no or one local newspaper, zero suggested by the lightest pink or one by salmon–

 

News Deserts--light pink = zero newpapers; salmon = 1.pngColumbia Journalism review/C. Chisolm

 

–the holes within the information network of much of the nation can be observed that intersect with once purple areas in striking ways, and the hollowing out of a news community in both rural and some urban areas.  The growth of “media deserts” up to 2014 mirror the end of Obama’s second term, and the growth of an alt right movement that has gained an increasingly dominant voice in the American political landscape, where the diminution of local news sources has altered the nature of public opinion have left increasing swaths of the nation dependent on online news sources, altering the information economy in decisive ways that helped allow red/blue cleavages to grow, and polarizing news agencies to reach a larger and more decisive constituency.

 

420005_1_En_14_Fig2_HTML

 

 

Even more compellingly, it suggests the end of an economy of local news over much of the nation.  huge gaping holes have widened to leave the nation like a hunk of swiss cheese, in the southwest, modest, and northwest, as the outbreak of three wobbly but hovering blobs over the nation–including the southwestern border, whose hollowing has left them increasingly susceptible and open to both greater malleability and less reporting of the local consequences of issues of national debate.  In this setting, it is no surprise, perhaps, that internet-driven concerns about immigration, crime, and terrorist threats have been stoked and enflamed with greater ease–and populations most easily subject to outside interference because they lacked the resilience of local news.  In what almost seems a free speech violation, and a difficulty of generating public debate, the growing holes of such news deserts–which, much as it would deprive epidemiologists of needed tools to measure local rates of the growth of infectious disease or influenza–create barriers to assess the local impact of issues exclusively cast in national terms?  Is a decline of local reporting indicative of a qualitative change in the nature of communities, now more likely to adopt oppositional agendas rather than articulate their own?  Or is the rise of “news deserts” congruent with the increase in broadcast news that casts both global policy and national politics in increasingly oppositional terms?

 

Public-health-and-local-media-1024x576.pngDom Smith/Stat News

 

The expansion of such “news deserts” where no or only one source of news exists, according to the American Alliance for Audited Media.  AAUM measured the number of papers that reached at least 1% of each county, and haven’t converted to an exclusively digital form, as a proxy for the decline of news publications, and the increasing reliance on non-local media; while a focus on newspapers is questionable in an era of the dominance of television and on-line news, the hope to measure and map the reduction of local media within issues about issues of national consequence suggested the distinct shift in public debate.  Indeed, shuttering many smaller news publications, both urban and suburban, deprive communities of a local voice in events that seem to spin far beyond the local in increasingly challenging ways, and place global issues–undocumented immigrants; terrorist threats; refugees–in relation to local concerns in ways both challenging and difficult to grasp.

 

one to two souresColumbia Journalism Review–light pink without local news sources; salmon with one

 

Considered another ways, the near-absnence of non-profit news sources outside of metro areas, and few sources of information were available in small towns, and indeed outside the coasts–understanding the “news desert” as an absence of non-profit news, a dearth felt nationwide save in several cities as Denver, Austin, New Orleans, Madison, and Minneapolis–and to consider the different information markets that exist in much of the nation where Trump performed so stunningly.

 

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Each graphic invites us to examine the category and meaning of the ‘news desert,’ a term by no means clearly defined in an era of online news.  Is the fear that a common concern of news media that may itself loose analytic force?   Thomas Jefferson insisted that “The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate,” but the expansion of areas without local news venues or voices, or meaningful political endorsements, suggests not only a dangerous remove from national issues, but a vulnerability to external threats in an age where most get their news online and through Facebook feeds–and the expansion of online news threatens to make it impossible for all to feel themselves able to stay informed.

 

news deserts.pngDom Smith/Stat News

 

The gaping holes in the above GIF suggests a growing eating out of public opinion.  The hugely successful appeal of Trump’s candidacy in areas of relatively low news presence is not a surprise.  Trump was himself quite acutely aware “I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you,” as he told FOX Business Network as the election approached.  Trump’s avoidance of the mainstream media was notorious, although the success with which this became a strategy blindsided many.  But the sectarian–if not almost Manichean–divisions between red states and blue have been fostered and promoted by a decline in non-partisan or non-profit news sources.  And in a new range of articles on the increasingly partisan news offices at FOX or Sinclair Broadcasting, which reaches 39 percent of households in the country before its pending merger with Tribune Media.  Sinclair’s strategy of integrating national messages with local news suggests particularly dangerous ways of masquerading as local news–and driving fear in increasingly oppositional ways, accentuating the blue/red infographic in ways that were not even on Obama’s radar, although he perceptively sensed the divide emanated from screens more than it existed on the ground.

 

3.  The increasingly oppositional divisions are not evident in a stark division of political preference and allegiance within the current national map, and enabled a targeting of the parsing of populations and festering of divides.  Indeed, the success of the Trump team may lie in the address of the purplest populations of the nation, in which the success of the Trump vote can be mapped in what seems an inverse relation to printed news subscriptions:  ‘news deserts’ provided a crucial core constituency for Trump’s success, or at least correlate strongly, if one takes the shaky database of newspaper subscriptions that has been provided by the Alliance for Audited Media–an admittedly incomplete dataset whose questionable focus on subscriptions to local newspapers–not really adequate as a proxy for “news deserts” in an age of television and national news, but perhaps suggestive of the power of the local editorial endorsement–even if the description of “traditional news outlets” remains a questionable metric for access to news information.

 

Politico Deserts.pngLimited Subscriptions to Local Newspapers in America 

 

The growth of online news seems to have removed regions of the south and northwest from the figure of the local newspaper reporter.  Such a divide echoes the rural/urban divide, and may indicate the remove of much of the polity from public opinion, and a deep-set resistance to opinions broadcast from both coasts during the election seems rooted in the erosion of news communities in ways that demand to be mapped.  The growth of venues such as Sinclair Broadcasting provided ways of growing this divide–or fissure–through a virtual stranglehold on news sources in many sites.

 

4.  Obama successfully downplayed deep differences between red states and blue states by more than powerful and affecting rhetorical device.  His bridging of a chromatic divide was not only stirring not only to those in cities, but comforting in small towns.  By 2008, Obama’s audience were happy to accept as an invitation as his own coinage, and take it as an invitation to put aside animosity across electoral divides.  But the very notion of such a blue state-red state divide–and the prominence in such a divide of the purple–has recently gained new meaning and relevance in Robert S. Mueller III’s recent indictment charging thirteen Russians of waging information wars during the election.  For the Russians who were identified as arriving from 2014 aimed to splinter existing political divides by fostering increased dissensus and distrust in the political system in the “purple” states as those where the election of 2016 could be most effectively swung.  Indeed, the very vulnerability of the political imaginary that foregrounded a red state-blue state divide for the global image of American politics made something of an unforeseen return, when it was announced that the Russian operatives who had toured several states to conduct something of a political ethnography of the abilities to create greater political divisions and distrust in the political system focussed on the sensitivity of “purple states” as sites to increase and exploit existing political divides, and create increased political tensions in the United States through the results of its elections.

Taking the occasion of the 2016 Presidential election as an occasion to increase political distrust, and for slicing and dicing the nation For the targeting of what were described as “purple states,” in an unforessen appropriation of maps of a less polarized “Purple America” made after the divisive presidential election of 2000, by political scientist Robert J. Vanderbei .  The new visualization was widely adopted by the news media as a dynamic form of infographic, using colors exclusively to communicate the political temperature of Americans.  Yet the image gained a new second life as it provided a ground-plan for planting social media interventions, Special Counsel Mueller’s indictment reveals that the figure of speech, as well as a concrete metaphor, served to target disrupting political consensus from 2014.   Indeed, “purple America” provided not only a target for winning over the electorate for both political parties, but a target for disrupting consensus evident as much from outside of the United States as from within.

If purple can come to seem a sign of vulnerability, this is in large part because of the possibilities of warping through the electoral college produces clear divides, but which indeed offers a sense of stability–affirming a sense of continuities all too easily disrupted by the dogmatic prism of a red state/blue state electoral map, with a brightest red–actually pink–in the Texas panhandle and Dakotas, but the nation is decisively mottled; even in the divisive 2004 electoral map, “red” only dominated Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho, and redness was evident in blue states, as bluenesses in reds.  Drilling down so far is not, in many cases, an adequate picture of the political process, but offers a counter-map to the electoral map, that reflects a sense of cartographical insufficiency.

 

PurpleStates.jpgEmmie Mears, “These Purples States of America”

 

Emmie Mears’ deeper dive into the data is a striking photoshop map and suggests an even greater expanse of purple.  The contiguity of purple shades that run the vast extent of the nation pointedly challenged the polarities shared by pundits, and reveals, even in the 2016 Presidential race, a widespread admixture of voting tendencies.  Although Obama’s stirring image of overcoming political divides is often retrospectively cast as pandering to patriotism, it increasingly seems an accurate prognosis of a problem waiting to happen.  While Mears’ visualization was intended to affirm the plurality of political opinions, to undo the tension of oppositional confrontation that was generated already in the nightly news, the danger of adopting such a syntax of a census–familiar from the Dustin Cable’s Racial Dot map or the American Community Survey, which show both diversity and stark lines of ethnicity, education, and income, the danger of the vesting of political preference as a question of character–and not a selection in a given time and place–of course dilutes the representational institutions, and poses the problem of whether a two-party system can ever be able to refract our political diversity.

But it also suggests the broad openings for undermining that consensus, as the recent indictment of thirteen Russians who conducted preparatory ethnography as they planned a long-term project of disrupting American political consensus that would intersect in unforeseen ways with the candidacy of Donald Trump–a long-time fringe candidate, whose ascendancy to the oval office had been represented as an unsavory alternate future in Doonesbury, but whose own deep hunger for approval, recognition, and adulation seems to have created a tenacity to court  audiences without much attention to the public good.  Whether or not Trump shared the vision of the electoral map as ripe for exploitation, although his own deep attachment to the two-color outcome of the electoral map hints at how overjoyed he was with the results, the echo chamber of social media certainly helped dilute the deep purpleness of America that political scientists had mapped.

 

5.  If it’s the case that Trump proudly selected a framed map of the distorted division of electoral votes in the White House as one of the first images to be displayed to visitors, he certainly took deep satisfaction at the outcome  which was in part the result of targeting public opinion in divisive ways, even if many of the most powerful and divisive images that announced his campaign promises to the public seem to have derived from suspiciously identified social media sources.  The gap in population density between flatland of the regions of “red America” is thrown into a relief in a prism map that offers a county-results in a tiltable 3-D electoral map between counties voting Trump from those voting Clinton, a gap evident in economic integration, education, and lifestyle, that reminds us of the gap in media coverage increasingly centered in cities; but if it corrects the distorted flatland of an electoral map,  it surely exaggerates that yawning gap, as its blue/red dichotomy erased the purple nature of so many counties where social media news feeds helped worked to fill that gap, allowing Facebook feeds to play an increased role in forming a surrogate public opinion that could effectively intensify existing political divides, so that they appear even more extreme that in previous elections with the sort of “political intensity” that indicted Russians planned to foment.  Did the extension of first amendment Free Speech laws to cover data-driven bots and platforms designed to work by keeping viewers engaged help  expand the blue/red divisions that we’ve come to accept in the electoral map?

 

clintontrump

County-level Margins of Victory legend.pngBlueshift

 

Indeed, the current rash of twitterbots that issued viral memes from #ReleasetheMemo to #Guncontrolnow and #Parklandshooting that hail from Russia–if not St. Petersburg–need to be held to different standards than First amendment rights, but under if seen as speech acts, protected First amendment, although originating in foreign lands, they are able to gain a pressing reality in our politics for their consumers and followers.  The shape of such activity seems especially prominent in creating an apparent groundswell of the alt Right in the last election.  When Mueller’s indictment forced social media giant Twitter was forced to purge thousands of newly suspected automated bots posting from overseas that Twitter’s legal division had seen as protected by Free Speech, deleting 50,000 accounts linked to Russian bots created such sudden drops in the numbers of the followers of figures like white nationalist Richard Spencer or long-time Trump promoter Bill Mitchell that they were suspected as victims of a purge of followers of the alt right.  If the move provoked cries of censorship, we were reminded how much twitter shaped the election in the valleys of areas colored red, where a third of pro-Trump tweets among over a million tweets issued by automated bots, and pro-Trump rallies belying his lower standings in most polls save on Facebook, as millions of bots nudged the geography of the map from behind the scenes through an unforseen barrage of propagandistic images and texts that directed the mental attention of a Durkheimian collective.

Many images displayed by accounts suspected of originating overseas, as of the platform ‘Secured Borders,’ create a quite viscerally striking image of the very geopolitical imaginary that the Trump campaign openly promoted.  But if they echo Trump’s rhetoric, the deeply offensive images identifying migrants as vermin, as if to deny them of legal rights, derive from a right-wing imaginary already current in central Europe, as other images used in Trump’s political commercials, showing hoards of immigrants racing across border, and  betray historical roots in Nazi visual propaganda.  These images created a geographical imaginary rooted in fear, indeed, and promote a geopolitical imaginary–a divide made visibly clear in cartoonish ways in the contrast between the barren lands to one side of the wall and the green lands across it, where the suited Father Figure Donald Trump stands wearing his red tie and flag pin, in a new and creepy image of the defender of the nation–as if to protect the greenness of its grass.  (The creepy smile and richly solid comb over look so little like our supposed President, it is quite oddly designed, if replete with visual triggers, and its hortatory text lacking a comma, its limited punctuation seeming poorly proofread.)

 

 

Secured Borders: immigrant as vermin?

 

Vermin.png

 

 

6.  Such a reality seems to heighten not only the “political intensity” but heighten divides along what we map in red/blue terms, despite the limited explanatory power of an electoral flatland’s gaps between blue peaks of populated centers and the far redder expanses. Even after refining the flat electoral map, by adopting opacities to render margins of victory, retaining a contrast designed to foreground sharp differences fails to register the range of purple regions that turned red, driven toward an intensity of political involvement or disaffection by memes of social media still protected as “free” speech.

The issue is not only, moreover, the troll accounts that were tied to a Russian “troll factory” outside of St. Petersburg, Russia.  For the so-called ‘factories’ that mined images designed to provoke visceral responses that would trump reflection released a steady feed of fake news, based on innuendo and insinuation as well as outright slander and attack, that polluted the global media, as they were actively retweeted by the Washington Post, Jack Dorsey, CNN’s Jake Tapper, to fed an information ecosystem that was waiting to be poisoned, as some 3,000 global news outlets inadvertently included tweets originating from confirmed Kremlin-linked troll accounts in upwards of 11,000 “news” articles as the 2016 Presidential election approached, based on an analysis of over 2,700 Twitter handles confirmed to be linked by Twitter to the Internet Research Agency, a group tied to Russian intelligence–including David Duke (@DrDavidDuke), Sen. John Coryn (@JohnCornyn), Kellyanne Conway (@KellyannePolls), FOX News host Sean Hannity (@seanhannity), Brad Parscale (@parscale), Anthony Scaramucci (@Scaramucci), former White House press secretary Sean Spicer (@seanspicer), and Sen. Ted Cruz (@tedcruz)–in ways that transformed Twitter into a tool of information war.  By targeting audiences by zip-code, education, and wealth, raising the specter of those who “come to our country to change our traditions,” and increasing the fear and specter of unwanted refugees.

 

Meltwater

 

Tweets on new issues of 2016, from illegal immigration to voter fraud, circulated from Russian plants–in cringe-inducing claims such as “If Hillary wins, she will amnesty 30+ million illegal aliens and Republicans will never win an election again”, or “#VoterFraud by counting tens of thousands ineligible mail-ins for Hillary votes being reported in Broward County FL”–mirrored the fears of a “rigged” system and election that Trump had repeatedly conjured, and created a new meme in American political discourse that increased skepticism about the political process.

The overlap between many purple regions and regions with distinct patterns of consuming news in print or online media would have only magnified the divides where social media platforms spread disinformation–that infamous “fake news”–to gain a purchase as real in our political system.  Even if the possibility of infection by viral posts can’t yet be traced or measured with certainty as a map, the disinformation moved by bots or “troll factories” created a pitched battle of electoral intensity, that was staged around electoral votes or at least along fomenting clearly defined geographic/regional divides that Russians charged with visiting states in the United States to gain a sense of their ability to exploit a divided political landscape didn’t even need to travel to America to apprehend, as infographics clearly served as a readily available primer on how best to foment increased divisions.  Indeed, even by creating a distracting static whose constant beat eroded dialogue or trust, from internet accusations of the murder of Justice Antonin Scalia, deep distrust of naming a successor, and a year-long vacancy of his seat, as Mitch McConnell forced the sort of divisive deadlock only able to intensify political opposition.  (While the diffusion of the demand among Republicans began from McConnell’s quick tweet incited a sort of collective resistance, issued hours after Scalia expired in Texas, and lent broad currency to the numerous questions about conspiracies of the nature of his death that circulated online.  The  false populism in many ways echoed Trumpism, issued an hour after Scalia was confirmed as dead, and generated disruptive memes on social media–“OMG They killed Scalia” “I hope an autopsy is done to make sure Obama didn’t have him killed”– which supported an unprecedented, as Glenn Thrush and Burgess Everett reminded us, “rebuke of President Obama’s authority” and “categorical rejection of anyone Obama chose to nominate,” irrespective of their merits, to disrupted trust in political consensus during the Republican and Democratic primaries.  (Was it a surprise that McConnell, the senior senator from deep red Kentucky, playing the part of a disruptor, in late August single-handedly blocked bipartisan decisions to alert the American public to FBI reports of Russia’s unwanted involvement in the presidential election, from staging cyberattacks to ties to the campaign of Donald J. Trump?)

The entrance of this gambit within the context of the political election indeed led all Republican nominees to adopt the issue that drove a wedge between red and blue states and their respective media outlets, in what was cast as a rebuke to President Obama’s lack of respect for the institution of Congress to pursue “his personal agenda.”  A yawning gap between red and blue counties reveals the disconnect in our social fabric but of the consumption of news, and sources of opinion, about which the “troll factory” charged with launching disruptive messages into America’s Presidential election from St. Petersburg were able to play a disproportionately outsized role.  The divide was plain in this 2013 map of print news consumption, where yellow shows the swath of land getting news principally from USA Today, a year later by online outlets Huffington Post and TMZ, where the investment in social media may have had particularly pronounced leverage.  And in a period of increased attachment to divisive news sources that intensified an absence of dialogue between political parties, the expansion of divisive posts on social media platforms helped to undermine civic discourse.

 

7.  When Jared Kushner openly boasted that his father-in-law Donald was able to secure a deal with one of the largest media broadcasters in the United States–the Sinclair Broadcasting Group to ensure superior media coverage, and presumably promote attack ads, he suggested that the Trump team was on board in broadcasting their message to purple states within the political map–targeting a similar audience than that reflected in the yellow expanse below of states that were the most apt to share news stories in 2013–areas that already ran pretty red.

 

print-news-consumption-2013Media Map Showing Most Shared News in Each State (2013)

 

tumblr_inline_mu3vemRap61r62coc

 

The metaphorical trolling of the country that foreground the imminent threat terrorists pose to the nation, raise suspicions about Barack Obama’s or Hilary Clinton’s motivations for being President and ties to suspicious organizations, by the same Sinclair Broadcasting Group.  In ways that recall the media attack ads manufactured abroad, news segments ran on the dangers that immigration poses across the nation’s southern border from anchors of chains of local news stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, a media conglomerate which regularly issues “must-run” segments of news to its 173 affiliates, whose involvement in local news markets is now posed to enter urban areas–and making the news corporation the largest in the nation, with 233 stations.  Did the news group offer a disinformation of its own, now seemingly only poised to grow into an urban market with its acquisition of Tribune media?

Would this expand the map’s red?

 

KXQuekP.png

The splitting of news constituencies reached by the Sinclair Group along an urban/rural divide that reflects the Trump’s “heartland” has been noted, and since 2013 offered a basis for “managing” a constellation of stations that worked around FCC regulations on media consolidation that are intended to promote local news diversity.  The lack of diversity in the 38% of households that they reached–now posed to reach 72%–already offered a powerful megaphone for addressing residents in “purple” states–in the Midwest, West, and Southwest–and mirror the “gaping holes” of news deserts, where local news sources are increasingly absent.

 

sinclair1Technical.ly

 

It is not surprising to see Trump’s FCC to take steps that actively aided the expansion of Sinclair media into American households by merging with Tribune Media, by adopting a loophole that once pertains to UHF broadcasting–and is long technologically obsolete–to allow low-budget stations to grow, thereby allowing it to grow beyond the ceiling of 39% of a national audience to diffuse a fairly reactionary message if one maps its media footprint in ways that would allow it to address more than 39% of its existing market.

 

sinclair_area-Artboard_4_copy

 

Politico mapped existing Sinclair stations against their media footprint

 

8.  Although it was habitual to take what seems Obama’s fondness for the phrase as a sense of its particular rhetorical effectiveness, a more charitable interpretation of his attachment to the phrase might be intimations of the deeply corrosive nature of the metaphorical divide of the nation.  The image of an electoral divide perpetuated by pollsters and pundits was shown to haunt the nation not only in the 2016 Presidential election but, as we have heard in the recent expansive indictment that Mueller issued accusing Russian operatives who travelled the United States seeking strategies to sew discord “in the U.S. political system” from 2014.  Traveling in Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, they defined their mission as  oriented along that very divide.  Defendants Mssrs. Krylova, Bogacheva, and Bovda were charged with conspiracy for not disclosing the motivations of their travels in the United States posing as tourists, developed the idea of targeting “purple states” as sites to foment the greatest divisions–seeking to “create ‘political intensity through supporting radical groups” and transform fictitious personas into “leaders of ‘public opinion’ in the United States” by hundreds of social media account.  While traveling in America a “real U.S. person” advised that they

 

should focus their
activities on "purple states" like Colorado, Virginia & Florida.

 

–and the principle of “targeting ‘purple states'” returned in later months as a ground-plan to disrupt the election, and sew a deeper sense of distrust within our democracy.  Even if the term “purple states” that emerged as sites of targeting may not have been seen as sites where social media platforms could have substantially increased authority, the success of increasing divisiveness readily responded to stark divisions on the map.

The parlance learned in the United States was shaped in the media sphere to enlarge factional divides, if the notion of “Purple America” had been born to give complexity to a blue state versus red state divide.  Avatars on fictitious social media accounts used the categories of political scientists to amplify existing prejudices from troll factories in St. Petersburg, often pedaling prejudices that gained greater reality in what seemed public opinion as the election approached.  The “information warfare” waged on social media that was an odd spin on globalization, that kicked into gear with racial prejudice channeled by Russian hipsters working round the clock in twelve-hour shifts from a designated “Facebook department” in Taylorist fashion within a “troll factory”:  the surprising success of targeting voters in the United States was based on extensive mapping of political divisions, and a design to exploit them through social media.  Were the addictive apparatus of a medium that seeks to command the attention of observers part of the plan?

Such images, texts, comments, and posts designed to stoke divisions were based on ventriloquizing Americans, but pushing the envelope on the standards of address:   in a scene straight of Adam Smith’s pin-making factories, the web of disinformation that was spun from Americans’ social media fabric extended not only what seemed to the Russian who created them incredibly “believed [to be] written by their own people,” and even worked directly with the Trump campaign to coordinate rallies in purple states like Florida.  If Trump didn’t detect that the divisiveness Russian trolls devised on Facebook feeds incriminated his campaign, because Mueller did not reveal direct ties between the desire of the Internet Research Agency to sew disinformation and division was distant from his own campaign–“Obama was President up do, and beyond, the 2016 election.  So why didn’t he do something about Russian meddling?”–what Trump confidently imagined to be a wellspring of popular support for his candidacy may well only have intersect with the more successful than anticipated adoption of the Russian trolls’ stories in Facebook platforms that created the intense emotional involvement which drove an under-the-radar aspect to the campaign, from images linking Hillary Clinton to Satanism to targeted voter suppression to diffusing enthusiasm by openly promoting third-party candidates as effective protest votes.

Indeed, Facebook and Twitter did the heavy lifting of ensuring that trolling from St. Petersburg were sent out across America, and to effectively mask the diffusion of messages along various social networking platforms to create something like an inadequate surrogate for public opinion–even as Facebook was foreign to Russian social networking when the Internet Research Agency was begun in 2014.

 

world-map-social-networks-dec-2014

 

The Internet Research Agency, perhaps an acronymic pun on the Irish Republican Army, worked to foment what seemed a similar faith-based war by manipulating styled prejudices to “spread distrust” to online communities they had infiltrated, warning of misleading “hype and hatred . . . forcing Blacks to vote for Killary” to “Woke Blacks” Instagram accounts in October 2016–weeks before the election–and adding “we would surely be better off without voting AT ALL” than cast a vote for the Democratic candidate.  As well as  unleashing an unprecedented epidemic of trolling, the St. Petersburg “troll factory” staffed by 900 employees posted over thousand times each week at the height of the election from over one hundred Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, in ways that magnified the rifts in the isolated filter bubbles had previously existed in order to turn them against one another.  When Eli Pariser in 2011 coined the phrase to describe the dangers of isolating information ecosystems in selective news feeds forming virtual echo chambers of false comfort in an insulated information bubble,

 

atomization.png

 

the tools of social media sites enabled the splintering to actual communities in an almost mechanical fashion of cause and effect, as if sending ripples able to create the sort of electoral disruption in strategic ways.  In doing so, they mirror the very danger of which President Obama in his final public speech cautioned against “retreat into our own social media feeds” as rendering Americans uncritical information consumers [who] start accepting information, whether its true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on evidence that is out there.”  The warning delivered after the election of Donald Trump and delivered in Chicago saw Obama trying to move out of the bubble, and was delivered near to where his 2008 victory speech celebrating an America able to transcend its image as a nation divided between red states and blue states.  But the bubbles in which selective calls to not go to the polls or demonize the Democratic candidate were launched as narratives may have made them difficult to detect or counteract.

The sort of fragmentation that troll factories Mueller has charged were orchestrated from abroad are described as being planned after reconnaissance in the United States.  The same divides, it is important to remember, could have been as easily gleaned online.  And even if trips to the United States are described as developed by operatives traveling to the United States to discover, much the same sort of prejudice pedaled in postings crafted in St. Petersburg to disrupt the Presidential election based on a fractured public politics could have been gleaned form an infographic.  The disruptiveness of disinformation created feedback loops that only mimicked oppositional racism as much as it mimicked back prejudices observed in ethnographic study of American social media Facebook groups.

Indeed, the stories of Russian hipsters working twelve-hour days on posting divisive comments on Facebook from 2014-16 in St Petersburg, posing as Americans, and required to write an essay in English on Hillary Clinton to determine whether they were suitable for the job, suggests just how invested the foreign government was in addressing social media to purple states to influence the election’s outcome, and doing their best to dissuade blacks and other minorities from supporting Hilary Clinton, despite an overall eligible voting population that was more racially and ethnically diverse than ever, according to Pew Research, but for the first time blacks declined as a share of voters since 2004.   Black voters were not only among the “three major voter suppression operations” Trump advisors worked to lower turn-out, with white liberals and young women, but one of the most successful efforts seemingly tied to Trump’s director of data digital operation in his San Antonio headquarters, Brad Parscale, whose nightly electoral simulations seemed aimed at providing a basis for to partly its data into a new news organization, mirrors techniques of turnout suppression adopted by destabilizing social media divides.  Facebook accounts such as the “Blacktivist” page that urged that voting for Jill Stein–a candidate with close ties to Russia–was “not a wasted vote,” clearly recycled historical images of African-American nationalism and solidarity, in hopes to decrease voter turn-out in Maryland.  The use of the emblem may seek to re-engineer the energy of black voters for past Democratic Presidential victories, and to scare others who might see it.  With other accounts openly urging Muslim voters to boycott the election, the goal was to dilute and splinter the very coalitions that the Clinton campaign assembled by sowing distrust–and indeed, to exploit social media by triggering a clear emotional response, more than making an argument.

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The studies of social media patterns that began from at least 2014, which were, as if by coincidence, marked by huge Republican gains in Senate and House under a banner of the most angry national midterm elections to be directed against a sitting President, was effectively amplified with the encouragement and traction that the bitterness of 2014 elections had set across the southern states and deep south, southwestern Texas along the US-Mexico border, and in formerly ‘blue’ or ‘purple’ states–creating a particularly obstructionist House of Representatives that succeeded to obstruct so any of the policies President Obama sought to pursue in his final two years.

 

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National results of the 2014 House races, showing Republican gains in bright red

 

9.  The proliferation of robo-posts seeking to foster divisiveness upped the ante far more than Sinclair Broadcasting, but the two seem to have mutually reinforced one another–if not using strikingly similar tactics.  The divisiveness continued by injecting increasingly radicalized terms of political debate, and even fundamentalist notions of apocalypticism, that seemed foreign to American political debate, depicting Hillary Clinton as increasingly satanic and promoting open borders, promoting division and distrust around bizarre social media memes.  The offensive cartoonish images promoted by the IRA-sponsored “Secured Borders” borders account, designed to appeal to Trump’s supporters and introducing an icon of his campaign, resembled the icon of the United States Border Patrol to create an image that not only recalled its official insignia–

 

 

 

–but did so to link a specific presidential candidate to patriotism in extreme ways, celebrating the at of rejecting refugees and asylum-seekers and increasing border protection as a need for national protection, creating a false equivalence if there ever was one, and straining any logical linkages.  (The conceit of “liking” advocating political isolationism is a bizarre mashup of Facebook’s prescriptive language of immediate unconsidered emotional reaction and a political position with all too dangerous political consequences.  Was the irony of using social media to raise questions of border protection not ever perceived?  or was the idea to root the image of a tough border so deeply in one’s mind, that one didn’t think that clearly about its politics, consequences or implications?)

 

 

 

Rusian FB ad for Secrured Borders.png

 

 

Indeed, an ethnographic study of Facebook groups might target alone groups living on the southern border, Christian fundamentalists, white supremacists and Black Lives Matter as potential groups to manipulate to stoke divisiveness on partisan lines, and sow disorder on the performance of a two-party system by gaming electoral geography.  There is hope in puncturing the filter-bubbles of Facebook groups, however, by the increased calling out of the need for resolve on a true issue–gun control–too regularly and dismissively side-lined by the staged political debates that were shared in posts, and which seems, if only because of the strength of its blunt actuality, to puncture social media with an urgency that can’t be denied.

 

10.  The decision to direct a social media focus on purple states as sites where divides would stand the greatest chance to disrupt or even to tweak the electoral results reveals a bizarre recycling of what was designed as a classificatory map to increase divisions, and gave a distinctly new ideological flavor and torque to the left-wing concepts of swing states that were so successfully promoted within the 2008 Obama campaign.  By recycling attention-getting image of chromatic divides developed for television audiences, purple states emerged as targets for online spooking, and Facebook aggregation gained traction around affective ideas like casting the color red was a form of patriotism.

But the notion of pressing advantages on social media in states purple, but maybe able to be nudged Republican, provided the deepest rationale for division.  Defendants, posing as members of the group “Being Patriotic,” under the guise of that patriotism offered the idea of pressing their advantage by the notion of a wedge in purple states.  The defendants offered in emails, “we’ve got an idea.  Florida is still a purple state and we need to paint it red.  If we lose Florida, we lose America.  We can’t let it happen, right?  What about organizing a YUGE pro-Trump flash mob in every Florida town?” on August 2, 2106, and offered, “We clearly understand that the elections winner will be predestined [sic] by purple states.”  While not brilliant as strategy, as a selective basis to sew distrust and disorder in one of the most over-polled elections ever, where we watched the results of multiple daily polls as if to deliver the odds on horse races, tweaking the electoral map toward a new color combination was enough.

The “purple” region gained the most striking new sense as sites of information warfare in the United States over a period of years–in ways that might be detached from the actual campaign.  The figure of speech born of data visualizations gained a newfound torque as a form of divisiveness, and the chromatic metaphor operative force, as “focusing on purple states such as Florida” became, for the fictional identity “Josh Hamilton,” a strategy proposed by a false grassroots efforts that was communicated to Trump campaign officials.  White most tracks were concealed, a few were not.  And although the Trump campaign didn’t need to be advised, necessarily, “to focus on ‘purple’ states like Colorado, Virginia, and Florida,” the targeting of areas where there didn’t seem a clear polarity promised to create a far starker one.   But Russian use of a language of infographics served to materialize, in a starkly divided map, existing fault-lines that one needed only to exploit, push apart, and throw into relief to engineer a surprising electoral result, using images that recovered more subtly shaded areas where blue met red as tools that were able to be exploited to show the world a far more bitterly divided United States, as if even raising the specter of a deep red region could sow considerable distrust in a Democratic system, or just vacate whatever appeal its constitutional rights held in Russia and Central Europe.

 

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New York Times:  2016 United States presidential election results by county 

 

The organizing of false grassroots efforts according to the Mueller indictment not only to organize rallies that would “focus on purple states,” but to create a divide in doing so that best exploited divisions in our electoral maps.  Indeed, the notion of such a divide that had been picked up by Nate Silver and across the art of political forecasting was not something that would have had to come from any sort of special informant, being in the air of 2016 and widely broadcast on the airwaves, as the “Purple America” coined right after the divisive presidential election of 2000, by Vanderbei, as a way to come to terms with starkness of the opposition between Bush v. Gore; Vanderbei recast what seemed a polarity in the context of a variety of political opinion, leading to articles after 2004 to insist that America is not divided into sub-nations, or on the brink of a second Civil War, and continued to map the mutation of purple America in future elections.

 

11.  The conceit of Purple America rescued to some extent the simplified opposition implied by a chromatic divide between red v. blue.  Articles ran entitled “Most Americans live in Purple America, not Red or Blue America” rather than in a blue or red state, created a sense of consensus and diversity, befitting a democracy, but the yawning gaps in areas of intense redness meant that purpleness provided a language of opportunity for those seeking to grow division and craft heightened political dissensus.  Vanderbei offered the original “Purple America” to help refine a clearer statistical image of the dynamics hidden between the political polarization of a body politic, and to give greater agency to a varied range of political opinions in most states.  By embodying a red flyover zone, or a blueing of the coasts, the intention was to encourage a deeper dive into the national vote, as well as to retire the tired glossing of the electoral map:  the bridging of a division that Obama would make in his speech in support of John Kerry’s Presidential candidacy fenced the hegemony of a similar symbolic divide, and cast it as at its root dangerous to democracy.

 

 

PurpleAmerica2000

Purple America (2000)

 

But it didn’t remain there.  The migration of a language designed for a broad market of TV news infographics to a language of political operatives interested in subverting the democratic process is perhaps instructive.  The map was perhaps replayed in the media as it contained sufficient dramatic tension to foreground problems of crafting political consensus, as if social policies and political opinions were identified with an area in the country, and as if every issue in the political platform was fundamentally designed to capture a divisive issue of political debate–around abortion, social security, gun control, climate change or global warming, environmental regulation, and monetary policy or fiscal restraint–whereas the options on the table were not, in fact, that divergent.

The maps however naturalized the divisions, and, paradoxically, left them open to be exploited, perhaps not so much since we were fractured into filter bubbles as because pundits wanted to create the necessary degree of dramatic tension, and to craft and foreground the dramatic arc of an election season, as if the notion of a ground-plan and an electoral strategy could be portrayed and represented as a military as much as a political one.  The guiding metaphor of divisiveness and division that was foregrounded in this map–as if blocks of population existed with one preference, despite the subtler variations in voting, despite the blue/red divide imposed by majority victory–

Mark Newman Red:Blue ma.png

–even if such a decision, a sort of hold-over from a pre-parliamentary languages of democracy, that privileged the notion of a ruling party in a quasi-monarchical way, obscured the variations once one drilled down into voting patterns–

 

votes- red v blue, by county and interest level

 

–but obscured the huge number of “ghost votes” across the less inhabited areas, where isolated communities, suspended outside of the metropoles, were magnified in an electoral college that robustly enhanced their political voice in ways bluntly reflected by the flatness of the two-color map in stubborn wasy.  But as Chris Howard, inspired by the blended voting maps created by Robert J. Vanderbei of the 2012 election that showed purple America, and the cartograms of Mark Newman, transparencies could capture the magnification of political voices of low-density in the electoral map, in ways that might have suggested the potential for electoral disruption to those seeking to do so–even if such a perverse reading of the language of infographics was hard to imagine.

 

howardmap

The graphic language, migrating from electoral processes to the nightly news, may have provided a basis for newscasters to naturalize a drama of political  contestation, more than conversation.  Whereas we are increasingly talking not of “states” that suggest the fragmentation of the union, we live in an increasing economic divide largely oriented not along pitched lines of battle, but by urban/rural divisions, if the divide is belied in the flat pasteurization of space of electoral maps.  The growth of megacities across America have raised multiple divisions electoral maps fail to capture, with its fundamental insistence on the county as a unit of voting, despite the increasing evacuation of its meaning as a unit of political representation.  But as a metaphor, or master-trope, the fracturing of states was something of an invitation to a foreign nation to seize up and try to pry apart, however, as French cartographer Luc Guillmot showed in an alternative cartogram, sized by votes in red states in the so-called heartland of the midwest, in the manner of Ben Hennig’s cartograms.

 

 

deep-blue-cities-hennig

 

But President Obama’s own words come back to haunt us.  In the electoral maps for the 2016, indeed, the masking of gradations of division produced the sense of a democratic result we were bound to accept–

 

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–even if it brought an intensified red that was really clinched at the margins, or in Texas, Florida, Michigan and Virginia, but whose deep red “heartland” created the sense for the victor that he was indeed recognized by the “real Americans” he so desired to court.  Trump was so taken with the electoral map to have it framed, and has been so personally obsessed with imagining the scale of his supposed victory to be present in the intensity of the square mileage of red hued states to take a truly personal offense at the idea that voters swayed by Facebook pages and Instagram groups are seen as diminishing the status of his victory, and an election he imagines a total victory he pulled off by bravado, and dismiss concern of dangerous effects of foreign disturbances of the voting process.

 

12.  Widespread exploitation of such divisions, and indeed the language of opposition, subverted the democratic process by a vision of polarization that maps reinforced.   And by exploiting that narrow margin of purple states of the nation, local consensus was ready to be flipped, and precedents of civility overturned.  By stoking an an enthusiasm that few saw as even in reach on the eve of electoral night, America seemed to fall into two camps, but with the electoral collect staying clearly in Clinton’s camp.  (The hold on the lighter blue states like Florida and North Carolina were tenuous, however, and the loss in Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania tipped the scales.)

If the blue states seem able to hug the red core to prevent it overflowing to both coasts, the glare of the divisions between blue and red states was so starkly naturalized to masquerade the extent to which flipping purple states would in fact flip much more of the nation red, and alter the outcome of the electoral count in ways that renders the flat dichotomy of a two-color prediction irrelevant.  The flipping of purple and pink states upset the predictive power of a map, but did so in ways that seem only to have reinstated the logic of the divided nation we have created in our infographics which may, in the end run, do far less to inform.

 

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The fact stubbornly remains that it wouldn’t involve that much demographic science or pinpoint precision polling to know that enough pressure in the purple states could create a crisis in consensus enough to blur the outcome of the vote.  But we clearly can’t go back again to seeing the national shores as creating a red/blue divide that is taking the current temperature of public opinion in each state, in isolation from the rest of the world.

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Filed under 2016 US Presidential Election, Donald Trump, electoral maps, News Maps, Presidential Elections

Infographics in America

If the nineteenth century America has been often described as an era of geographic integration, perhaps no one more than the ambitious statistician Francis Amasa Walker created a new way of seeing the nation that foregrounded both the local differences that continued to divide the nation, but staked out the challenges for integration that the country faced in geographical terms.  His extremely influential 1874 Statistical Atlas, based on the unprecedented 1870 US Census that he directly supervised and made the case before Congress about the undeniable need for funding, whose maps created an image of the challenges of national unity that remained in the republic in the wake of the Civil War in which he had fought:  the Statistical Atlas extends the enterprise of the expanded Census, validating how statistics present a synoptic picture of the political economy–illustrating relations of the local to the polity across continuous United States as if processing part of a mental effort of consolidation.

Even before the unprecedentedly bitter electoral divide of 1876, Walker advanced maps as providing a new way to embody the polity through the visual records derived from statistical aggregates.  Although Walker’s subsequent tabulation of the data on immigrants in the late nineteenth century led him to fear their arrival as threatening the nation’s productivity, based on his perception of the depth of racial differences to the national polity, and encouraged others to do so, he advanced the embodiment of statistics in geographic maps, in ways no doubt influenced by his close collaboration with his father, the economist Amasa Walker.  In ways that prepared a basis for his use of maps to express the contested electoral results of 1876, Walker treated maps as coherent statements about the nation’s divides otherwise not able to be articulated, as a basis to start debate about the well-being of its political economy.  (His maps were so convincing, indeed, in framing a question of geographical organization, that they may have encouraged a narrative of continental integration only recently challenged by investigations into local and regional geographies.)

 

Walker's Image of the Nation's PopulationMapping Population Density in the US, 1870 (Francis Amasa Walker)

 

Susan Schulten has recently advanced the quite compelling argument that Walker’s innovations constituted gave the “invention of the infographic” distinctly American roots.  Her argument spoke appositely to the almost obsessive return in recent elections to infographics that suggested the likely tendencies of voters, and indeed often reframed a narrative of division into “red” and “blue” states–and even designated some “purple”–in ways that revealed an undeniable undercurrent that verged on obsession of questions of national unity and division that were of the very sort that Walker had similarly sought to address when he undertook the reformation of the decennial Census in 1869 at an amazingly young age of twenty-nine–no doubt with insight as to the ability to advance and illustrate the distinct distribution of space that the nation occupied.

Even as a staggering proliferation of maps of electoral zones flooded airwaves, newswires and web during the 2012 election, Schulten traced the invention of the American infographic to the innovative visualizations of data and government statics by an enterprising statistical mapper who after working to organize the 1870 Census, not only drew up a comprehensive reform of the census but treated its findings to create a “statistical survey” that came to  embody the nation’s political and economic unity.  While earlier Censuses were strikingly unscientific, Walker advanced issues of political economy in maps as an extension of his expansion of the decennial census, organizing the tabulation of population, agriculture, mortality and manufacturing data on 39 million Americans, and placing prime importance on geographically orienting statistics as tools to better visualize the nature of social and economic divisions after the Civil War in which he had fought and been grievously injured.

Walker’s maps framed the issue of integration in legible fashion–and produced them to allow the fate of the nation’s unity and division to be processed for a wider audience than would have otherwise confronted them–they did so since they readily processed statistics that went far beyond physical phenomena to chart the racial composite by which the national economy could be understood, moving beyond existing models of its physical geology–which he also included in the Statistical Atlas

walker-map-geologyPrinceton University (from Statistical Atlas, 1874)

–to attempts to embody the composition of its human inhabitants whose aggregates were earlier not clearly understood, in what was indeed the first public census to count African Americans who were former slaves as part of the nation’s fabric.

Colored in Aggregate

Colored Populations in the United States (1874) (Courtesy of Princeton University Library)

Walker’s advocacy of such choreographic statistical maps as snapshots of the political economy led to an invitation to join the editorial board of the New York Times–which he declined, probably since he continued publishing in competitors from Scribners’ Monthly to Harpers’ New Monthly, emerging as a public intellectual of originally progressive bent.  For Walker had convinced the US Congress to adopt a variety of projects that used recent lithographic techniques and statistical correlations to use the results of the 1870 US Census map an coherently compelling image of the nation’s situation for public debate.  If all maps reflect both the character and competency of their makers, Walker’s maps reflect the excitement and tenacity of mining data from the Ninth US Census of 1870 that he had compiled with congressional authority, compiling, correlating, and refining the image of the distribution of wealth, illness, and health to a degree that had not ever been earlier achieved.

He engaged in mapmaking in print as a form of public discourse that elevated the statistical map as a tool for envisioning the nation as an aggregate.  Walker’s early involvement with late nineteenth-century newspapers like the Springfield Republican Newspaper as well, from the late 1860s, at the Atlantic Monthly, in fact no doubt encouraged his trust in the power of such organs of public debate–and the power of printed supplements based on the US Census, several of which he published for Harpers’ New Monthly, as well as in Scribner’s Monthly, The Century and North American Quarterly, in ways that no doubt led to his conviction in the infographic as a way to shape public debate on political economy, population density, home servitude, and the working classes.  Walker’s position as Chief of the Bureau of Statistics and Taxes may have helped him use his position as Superintendent of the fifth US Census at just twenty-nine to present the project of the first Statistical Atlas of the country, a project which he expanded in the 1880 Census, whose unprecedented twenty-two volumes collected an even greater range of information than ever previously collated and greatly refined the unscientific nature of previous decennial censuses.

Francis Amasa Walker saw the U.S. Census not only as a way to view populations of states, but to expand the vision of and the likeness of the nation by the more arduous measure of density per square mile, and to then use that image to chart the distribution of the national population as a demographic tool.  He worked with the census to conceive of the map as a measure for mapping complementary sets of data, by mapping relations between density and select quantifiable variables, mapping population density against wealth distribution, literacy, childbirth rates and disease–but not voting preference–in maps that created a legible record of the country, whose public good he convinced the US Congress to fund Atlases in 1872 and 1873.  By transferring statistical observations into a detailed picture of the nation, he began from a base layer of the contours by which its population was distributed, without focussing on jurisdictional bounds, in ways that effectively augmented the independent authority of maps as media of sociological investigation and public communication to an extent that had never before been the case, but established a central place for detailed choropleths in the American Grain.

Walker's Image of the Nation's Population

The maps are stunning choropleths that exploit lithographic techniques to picture the national population in great detail.  Walker started from the initial map of density, using the census of 1870, of which he was superintendent at the age of 29, and whose possibility for converting into cartographical form he seems to have readily perceived.  The plans led to the publication in 1874 of the Census’ data, in an initial atlas that totaled just fifty-six pages, each map of which has a degree of detail never seen as a visual embodiment of the nation, but emphasized its distribution of population and industry to an extent never realized–and, at least among its readership, posited questions of national coherence that concretize concerns for the country’s political economy:

Mapping Density in US

Density of Population in 1870–including African-Americans as well as Whites

For the first time, they also offer a mode to integrate African-American former slaves within a national economy, and posit a detailed, comprehensive and analytic image of population density across the north and south that suggest the value not only of statistics but of imaging the nation and its divisions in a decennial census.  The embodiment of issues formed as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury placed issues of political economy before the eyes of their readers in especially effective ways.
The fine grain of variations provided a new way to look at the nation, as the compelling lithographic choropleths of Alexander Bache, by using line-engraving to chart the population rather than topography as their concern, or coastlines or hydrography, than the shifts that the 1870 census revealed.  If riverine paths were noted, the South looked distinct when one saw the vast “gaps” or absences of population in much of the rural areas of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia, and indeed the concentration of the population most entirely along rivers where agricultural trade grew.
Population Distribution chloropleth
The image of population density dramatically grew in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, in ways that charted the new image of the nation, and must have posed questions of how  population density mapped onto the distribution of wealth, or, an extension of it, childbirth rates, in order to refine and better understand the picture of national population it put forth.
Virginia to Georgia Chloropleth

Things got more complicated and more exciting when Walker mapped the distribution of wealth among these densities of population, in ways that helped reveal the uneven distribution of incomes across the post-war nation, and revealed a conspicuous ongoing divide between northern and southern states that related to industry but also to the extreme impoverishment of much of the population in the southern states that would continue to be a contradiction and difficult conundrum in the nation:

Mapping the Distribution of Wealth

The sort of graduated shaded in maps that Walker created provided something of a counter-map to the symbolic uses of mapping as a way to envision national unity, and pinpointed questions of the intractable nature of differentials of wealth.  If pockets of wealth extended deep West into Iowa and Kansas, and lit up Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania in deep auburn hues, the Mason Dixon line was a divide in how wealth was distributed whose light ochre and pockets of white were rarely interrupted by redoubts of wealth, almost entirely along the coast or select segments of the Mississippi River.  His maps adopted the recent precision of mapping population density against its distribution that had been pioneered by Alexander Bache’s compelling visualization of the records of the 1860 Census with the German emmigre engraver Edwin Hergesheimer

The detailed cross-tabulation of population and wealth seems a bit of an odd ancestor of the modern infographic, although their kinship is clearly recognized.  For the image of Walker demanded the sort of detailed attention as a picture of the nation to which the compacting of information or metadata in the range of infographics generated by GIS programs rarely provide.  If Walker anticipated GIS in a fashion, the rapidity of generating the infographic that synthesized metadata with amazing facility and rapidity rarely demands the sort of attention that Walker’s images command.  In part, the lithographic medium habituated viewers to the parsing of refined distinctions in the economic landscape that variations of shading revealed:  the starkest of our blue/red maps with some pink or light blue question marks are removed from the fine-toothed sort of distinctions drawn in the census, or from a similar statistical subtlety.

But the proliferation of the infographic so readily produced and tabulated provides less of a reference tool than an attempt to hold onto the permanence of a snapshot provides within the rapidly shifting and changing landscape that often seems adrift in the electoral sea.  The questions that Walker asked–distribution of wealth, literacy, disease rates–are rarely raised in the infographics we see most frequently, even excepting Fox News’ proclivity for the infographics that perpetuate stark divisions.  The ‘mediazation’ of the modern infographic as a labor saving device not for observers, but whose construction demanded a more limited investment of detailed attention, has created a new assembly-line production of images of limited refinement, whose authority rests on their mapping substrates, rather than on the measurements they mediate and encode.

The limited subtlety of the infographic suggests not only their ideological points, but a shift in what might be called, with the late Michael Baxandall, a “period eye” to express the tastes of interpreting images from media to the viewing map–the habitual practices by which we look to maps in an age of the rapid-fire production of new infographics each day for broad consumption and, also, ratings appeal–or how infographics snappily  process an argument in a bottom-line nature, rather than approach the social topography whose complexities we’d maybe rather not want to detect or explore at close range:

Affordable-Care-Act-1-C5918

Most items that bear the name of infographics might not be data visualizations, or even use the map as a tool to construct the meaning of its contents, since the map is so often and so readily abstracted from the territory. Maybe a map might even suggest what we might want to keep distance from, rather than to consider up-close:

Top Party Schools

These pilfered objects are a bit extreme, but their divorce from any sense of geographic meaning is somehow telling.  Sure, these are something like visual jokes, but they make the point I want to make about the liabilities and deceptiveness that the using maps to organize contemporary infographics reveal that adopt maps to bolster their suasive abilities as much as frame a problem.  The mock-maps–the second based on an episode of Ira Glass’s “This American Life” by E. J. Fox, from a series he titles “This American Infographic”– illustrate the problem of the need that cartographical infographics fill, of both adopting the authority of the map (without containing much geographic information) and of using it to display the ready access to metadata that most images of GPS presume–or, in the most banal but most common case, the weather maps on the Weather Channel–and that most folks expect.  Data-mining becomes replaced by graphic design tools imported from the world of advertising, and the maps are a blunt instrument to make blunt arguments, or present an image of the status quo:  the big parties happen at big state universities.

Maps are especially powerful tools to process information for viewers.   Some less ridiculous examples of infographics reveal some surprisingly similar attempts at using mapping forms or mapping syntax to preserve an illusion of omniscience and often to illuminate or make a comment about national unity.  But they also often use maps in ways that, unlike the maps  derived from government censuses that Walker examined with considerable care to demographic variables, conceals an absence of  analytically meaningful argument.  They treat the map as a form of metadata that reduces analytic specificity–from a map of the “battleground states” that effectively uses a format of mapping in order to suggest either the limited support for the Democratic party in the nation (by using a shade of yellow closer to red than blue) or indicate the deeply flawed nature of the democratic process to their viewers.

Recall the sort of maps that were all the rage when Schulten described Walker’s innovative practice, if you can bear it.  Rather than resting on numeracy or the tabulation of relative measures of difference by a statistical model, the map foregrounds the indeterminate nature of places where polling was within a margin of error, rooted less in mathematical literacy but in pollsters’ relative ability of prediction.  The mediazation of the map is removed from a mathematics of mapping or an expectation of refinement, for it is almost more of a symbolization of a politics of stasis or an electoral divide:

photo

The greater refinement of other maps that shaded “tending towards” in lighter colors foregrounded the unpredictable nature of voters’ preferences, more than the composition of the electorate, as they seem to table the question of national coherence or cohesiveness as a whole other issue.

2012-swing-state-map

In each of these admittedly varied cases, mapping indicates an aura of accuracy or invests a sense of stability in the face of indeterminate data.  The map is a totem by virtue of its processing of information from varied diverse sources, but the map blunts potentially far more precise tools that seem to divide the polity and focusses on electoral results.   The questions of numeracy that divide the nation are less based in a tabulation of data or statistical familiarity; the block-hues of states mute meaning analysis.

Blocks of red in the map seem possible of being emptied of geographic meaning.  One famous FOX infographic purported to identify a strategy for Republican victory, but undermined the very legitimacy of this potential scenario for the attentive few by mislabeling the states it purported to count with accuracy–as well as deceptively reinterpreting polling trends:

%22Western Path%22

The absence of an expectation of reading measurements beyond numerical addition are evident in a map more reminiscent of the refined criteria of a jigsaw puzzle than in puzzling questions of national unity or ideological difference:

electoral colors map

In part, ideological differences are just not that pronounced, and the maps are oriented to processing polling numbers that were changing like a stock-market ticker-tape, rather than providing a firm basis for a national portrait.  But the father of the infographic would most certainly not be pleased.  The adoption and diffusion of mapping forms in infographics provide metadata constructions perhaps most significant for how they quash related questions or discussions, by ordering a massive amount of data whose impression of preponderance is more likely to take away one’s breath than pose a question, and is almost always likely to conceal an argument.

To some extent, of course, the new elevation of infographics is the creation of the new media economy.  There’s an odd dynamic of devaluing of the analytic power of the map at the same time as elevating its explanatory power.  The map, in an age of reduced news content, seems to substitute for the strength of an analytic news story, as a GPS program produces a snappy infographic that seems both content-heavy and a pleasing amuse-bouche.  The need to process different news sources or on-the-ground informants might be both excused and avoided, where we can come up with a symbolic rendering of what happened, even if we don’t need to look so closely at what its causes or its actual ramifications were.  The absence of analytics in the infographic–which presents, as with the weather, the state of things as they are as an actuality that does not need further analysis or attention to local variation–is perhaps its most pernicious feature as a medium.  They stand at a remove from the maps that the great nineteenth century statistical geographer Francis A. Walker so valuably labored to design.

We develop infographics such as the following by crunching some obtainable numbers–in an image that unsurprisingly perhaps uses the residue of a weather map as its base–to tell a story that collapses multiple different narratives into a single set of information that the viewer can quickly process.  The iconic map that was diffused after the last election was less about fault lines or divisions in the nation, than a cartogram of the new image of alliances in the nation, where the entire midwest stood as a block of blue with the Western states:

Final_2008_electoral_cartogram

That is not to say that infographics can tell a subtler story of similarly chorographic proportions, to describe the image of unemployment in 2003, for example in the country:

choropleth of unemployment in US 2003

But at what cost?  Choropleths such as the below seem to remove individual experience from their comprehensive picture–and provide a “big picture” that is actually difficult if  to comprehend for all the metadata they synthesize.  And they present an intractable image of a social divide whose dark bands of dark blue reveal a density of those out of work that only grew by 2008 in the very same areas:

choropleth of unemployment in US 2008

There was a similar crunching of numbers at a remove from individual experience of tragedy in a map of electric outages suffered as a result of Hurricane Sandy, providing a purview of outages from Augusta to Raleigh.  The map is powerful and striking, but also elided the stories of its destructions or narrative of its meteorology with an easy infographic of a sort of least common denominator to everyone can easily relate of the lights going out.

infographic on power outages from Sandy

These maps erase their inhabitants. So what, then, we might ask, is the territory?

The ghost of Walker, and continued prestige of his aesthetics, have led Nathan Yau of Flowing Data to provide a comparable set of visualizations that embody our national territory, based on the ongoing statistical surveys of the American Community Survey of 2010, to “revive” the project of a Statistical Survey in the footsteps of his august predecessor, noting with some evident pain the absence of any plans by the US government’s Census Bureau to produce one after 2000, perhaps due to the high costs of the Census itself–and the recent Republican-led effort to even claim that the decennial Survey is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy–even though it provides the best basis for the apportionment of government funds, and one of the clearest demographic portraits of the country–that tarred the survey in no uncertain terms as “intrud[ing] on people’s lives, just like the Environmental Protection Agency or the bank regulators,” according to Daniel Webster, an inspiringly named first-term Republican congressman from Florida, who questioned the random nature of the survey as illustrating its “unscientific” value, despite its assessment of over three million American households in considerable demographic detail about their occupations, housing, literacy, languages spoken at home and at work, and levels of education, as well as their approximate computer use.

Perhaps with some premonition of the dangers of resting our democracy on the thin infographics consumed by watchers of television news, the self-published Survey Yau published online imitated the august elegance and clarity of Walker’s maps to point up the absence of needed visualization of the data that the Census compiles.  The images–able to be bought individually as posters–suggest the deep presence of Walker’s idiom of visualization within our current media circus, when the proliferation of news maps from various outlets and Graphics Depts. seem dislodged from the interest of the public good.  Yau’s project was may seem to have obviated need for an impartial assessment of all the data that the Census compiled.  Indeed, while the Times, which once offered Walker a seat on its editorial board, created a brilliantly colored set of interactive visualizations based on data from 2005-9, Yau offered nostalgic images that embodied the images of the nation that the government has puzzlingly withheld, with climatological and agricultural data that provide a similarly detailed atlas of the coterminous United States which, in an age overflowing with data visualizations, remind us of the need to preserve a picture of the nation to ensure we keep the public informed.

Yau

FlowingData

The detail of the maps, set in a sepia background with shadings that somewhat approximate the exacting palette of Hergesheimer’s half-tones, provide a set of gradations of population as revealed in the data of the 2013 ACS,

population-density

FlowingData

Or, to depart from the demographic and verge into the statistics of the environment, the distribution of levels of rainfall,

weather-rain

FlowingData

wetlands
water-landcover-wetlands1FlowingData

or landcover:

landcover-forest1

The data waits to be visualized, and the simple monocular visualizations capture its complexion with quite understated elegance.  While less rooted in concerns of political economy, the visualization hearkens back to a unified choreography that we often seem to lack–even if it only pictures tornadoes–in ways that go beyond the existential qualities of weather maps as records of the present day.

Tornadoes

FlowingData

To be sure, the political economy of the nation has become so fragmented that it is hard to visualize by such clearcut lines or shadings, even though the Times’ visualization of the American Community Survey similarly uses the map as a surface on which to throw the composition of the nation–and the nation’s cities–into relief, here drawing on the Survey to present the complexity of the population of an actually quite segregated New York:

ACS 2005?

from New York Times–“Mapping America: Every City, Every Block

Should such mages serve to whet your appetite for better visualizations that embody an accurate image of the nation, folks based in the Bay Area might want to check out how the students at UC Berkeley’s I-School stack up against Fox News, Huffington Post, the New York Times, and even Francis A. Walker, by looking at the results that are now showcased at http://www.ischool.berkeley.edu/newsandevents/events/finalprojects2013.  (The website promises to present recent graphic charts of Changing BehaviorsEnhancing Information Systems, and Information Organization and Tools that have been refined over the last three years.)

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Filed under data visualizations, GIS, infographics, political economy, statistics