Tag Archives: political parties

To Levitate an Elephant

The Republican Party unveiled a sleek red elephant in preparation for the 2020 Republican Convention that seemed a strange recuperation of the circus origins of the once-sturdy quadruped. The 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 classic abstracted pachyderm was no longer an iconic mascot of the past–it had not been the weighty icon of the past, laden with memories for years–but the division of the party was threatening, as was the division of the nation, by the time the Republican Party had assembled and decided not to adopt any platform in 2020, but to accept disruption and assurances of law and order as an identity the old red-white-and-blue mascot would no longer do to express.

As nation-wide movements promoting the sovereign secession of red states advanced online in virtual space of social media, embraced by the party as a basis for generating turnout and votes, Republicans seemed so assured of an approaching electoral landslide as something like destiny that the electoral map of victory became something of a mirror, finding their identity in red states alone in ways that were unveiled in the newly monochrome anthropomorphic icon of a red pachyderm as the aspirational emblem of the GOP would be reborn with newfound unity and vitality and with an apparent spring in its step.

If the first appearance of the “symbolic pachyderm” occurred in Harpers weekly as a stolid party poised at the brink of an open pit of chaos which was only slightly covered by the false support flimsy campaign platforms afforded its bulk, the image of the stolid beast of the party that was slandered in the 1874 election as newspapers accused the party of corruption, that may have led the mighty elephant to trip into the abyss of chaos. If the boastful Democratic donkey that saw itself as Caesar terrified forest beasts, and led Minerva’s owl to drop her tablet, the imposing party struggled not to fall into the abyss of chaos on platforms that could hardly sustain it from the fNew York press’s charges of corruption, let the party somehow loose the stability of Republican voters.

Thomas Nast, “Third Term Panic” (Harpers Weekly, 1874)

The newly designed 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 . 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. 

The 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.

The immensity of a far more animated elephant was a symbol primarily of hulking power, when it was first employed as a symbol of the Union; at the start of the U.S. Civil War, an anti-secessionist Republican party was imagined in an early lithography to render the anthropomorphic elephant an image of power and fire-arms, imagining, in an early New York lithograph, the contest between North and South in terms of a stoic beast, of little naturalism, whose dignity was backed up by fire-arms and the American flag, while a Democratic donkey seemed to squint at the imposing stature of the elephant who symbolizing order, Constitution in his pocket, and sword in his hand, wearing the patriotic stockings before his effete counterpart, “Jeff”–Jefferson Davies, who barely noticed his rural forces are far outnumbered by fire-power and canon, as he scrutinizes him warily through his eyepiece.

“Jeff Sees the Elephant,” E. B. & E. C. Kellogg/lithography by George Whiting, 1861-62
Jeff Sees the Elephant, 1861-2

The recognition scene between a patriotic elephant, donning both a patriotic hat band, stockings and slippers of red and white stripes and stars on a blue field, the American flag behind him, seems to register a divide of Civil War: the elephant armed with bursting guns coolly stares down the scrawny foppish Democrat donkey who lifts a monocle to better apprehend his foe. The future emblem mapped the cleavage between the union and confederates, where an elephant presumed to articulate the union and the donkey the intrepid resilience of the individualistic Democrat. During midterm elections of Republican Abraham Lincoln’s first term in office, when Jefferson Davies was the nominal “President” of seceded confederate states, was the precedent on which the great cartoonist Thomas Nast drew, but was designed long before the deadly violence of Civil War. The crisis of staking out political conditions out of which the animals emerged was pressing, if the dandy Davies seemed to barely orient himself by lifting his monocle to assess the scale of union munitions suggested that the elephant was an icon that was worth noticing.

The elephant long attracted circus-goers in America, but the entrance of elephants in political discourse and iconography demand being placed on a global map. If Lincoln adopted the elephant was a powerful symbol of union, and an announcement of the route of southern armies, which became a mascot of the Republican party, the impressive image of inclusion and monumentality was less evident in the new red elephant, lifting its trunks as if to smell the air, unveiled at the Republican Convention of 2020, when the wonder of the elephants that Siam’s King Mongkut hoped to introduce into “the forests of America” in 1861 had receded into history. The attributes of the animal mascot had over the years become fluid, long before the new elephant’s sleek form recaptured its circus origins, reclaiming its status as a circus animal, far from the upright animal who held his sword as a dignified cane. Lincoln judiciously had turned down the offer of a pair of elephants from his royal stock to propagate in American forests, but despite his respectful demurral that “our political jurisdiction . . . does not reach a latitude so low as to favour the multiplication of the elephant,” he readily adopted the iconography of the elephant as an emblem of the union by 1864: in the campaign, he used the slogan “the Elephant is Coming!” to promise the benefits of union as a partisan symbol.

The divide between a munitioned north that held the constitution in its pocket was drafted after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a wartime measure toward the abolishing of enslavement, defending the field of stars and stripes before the propertied southern landowners symbolized by the Kentucky planter and slave-holder who was President of the Confederate States of America, an office and entity the United States never recognized–here mocked as a foolish gentleman leading farmers into battle. By 2020, the Grand Old Party had been internally wrestling with groups promoting the idea that red states might gain an independent sovereign status. While the notion of such a secession was an intellectual siloing, ignoring that the the economic productivity of “blue states” allowed fiscal solvency and social services across many poorer regions of the nation, the 2020 Convention in Charlotte, SC was an attempt to create a sense of coherence in a party that had been animated mostly by its fear of Trump’s twitterfeed over four years, and hoped to find a possible reconciliation in which the party might in fact be best embodied by Donald Trump, even if a large part of his appeal as a Presidential candidate was his status as a political outsider. Was Trump now to be celebrated as an elephant limned by a border of gold, but also reclaiming its popular origins?

1. The new mascot was unveiled for the GOP, sleeker and redder, recalling the imperial grandeur; the party would be energized as if to disguise its new status as Party of Trump, by a new mascot rearing its trunk. And although the President boasted of his abilities to correctly identify the image of a pachyderm in the routine Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test in late July, the elephant even became a sign of Trump’s own mental acuity and recall, after he was administered a test for Parkinson’s or dementia he boasted he’d actually “aced.”

Was it a coincidence that, about a month before the 2020 Republican convention, Donald Trump measured his success at a routinely administered test to FOX’s Chris Wallace, by describing having “aced” the Montreal Cognitive Assessment by his adeptness identifying an elephant? Wallace almost scoffed spontaneously he’d undergone the test himself, and knew it well–“”It’s not the hardest test–they have a picture and it says, ‘What’s that?” and it’s an elephant‘” Trump claimed identifying the pachyderm was a sense of extraordinary acuity, as he took the opportunity to taunt his opponent, Joe Biden, who he challenged to take the cognitive test as well.

Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test Administered at Walter Reed

This was not a great moment in American politics. Was it not a delicious irony that the test focussed on the elephant, that image of Republican unity that featured in MoCA test his physicians administered had indeed been revised, for 2020, as a rightward facing red beast, raising its trunk as if to rear, in an attempt to promote party unity?

Perhaps it was karma that the httMoCA test that the VA was administering to test the President’s cognitive condition included the emblem of the republican party where he ha emerged as candidate of choice, and the koanic haiku “man-woman-person-camera-tv” was included, as well, per POTUS, as the memory words–a selection that was not on most versions of the test itself, but seem a softball question for Walter Reed physicians to pitch to the former TV personality, whereas standard fare word lists are non-associative and without clear reference or oppositions–“hand, nylon, park, carrot, yellow”; “face-velvet-church-daisy-red.”

Facing the VOX crew, and wishing that he was being interviewed by a woman, “man-woman-person-camera-TV” suggested Trump was riffing on his actual setting, in real time, more than describing the Walter Reed test. But the centrality of the elephant to this test of President Trump’s personal memory received less attention than the fanciful word chain that became a knowing meme: the place of the emblem of the party in the MoCA Test at Walter Reed may have been randomly selected, but was a bit of a reflection on the transformed nature of the Republican party that had emerged with Trump at the helm, and the unveiling by August 1, 2020 of a star-studded (or encrusted) pachyderm before a blue crown as the new “convention logo reflects both the energy of this vibrant city and traditions of the Republican Party,” as well as the one-ring circus direction that the party was headed by the very nominee once worried to tarnish the Party’s reputation permanently.

The one-week infomercial of a convention was entering full gear in its planning stages when Mike Wallace was interviewing Trump in the Rose Garden; President Trump was probably taking a break from reviewing its program and imagining how his improbable leadership of the party whose leaders had only recently feared the deep damage The Donald might inflict on the party’s image, urging him at length to “tone down” his pleasure to bait his base by anti-immigrant rhetoric, as Trump dismissed apologies–“I have nothing to apologize for”–and assured “I’ll win the Latino vote”–and pooh-poohed that he was a novelty candidate, even if he was clearly a different political animal. When he advanced to being the standard-bearer for the GOP, as assurances his candidacy would implode melted, his anti-immigrant comments were repressed, elided, or rolled into the media sensation Trump knew he was.

At PGA meeting at Trump International Golf Course at Rancho Palos Verde, CA, July 6, 2020/Nick Ut/AP

The collective memory of the party was at stake in the new convention–where the basis for forming a party of red states alone seemed to be being tested, the resistance to even pretend to frame a platform in at the Charlotte NC convention suggested, in programming that seemed to foreground both that Donald Trump was not a racist and that he would keep America save from Black Lives Matter social justice protests, that the very logo of the party–a white elephant that dated from Reconstruction–had preserved quite racially encoded memories of its own, that might haunt the party Trump had reshaped, long identified since Thomas Nast bequeathed two anthropomorphic beasts to both parties, in the years after the U.S. Civil War.

There was a logical difficulty in hoping a pure red state republic that some of the planners of the 2020 Republican Convention must have been aware: if the Trump base could be counted upon, red states remained dependent on federal transfer payments or support for food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, subsidized insurance, and Medicaid, and were far poorer states, reliant on effective subsidies to pay troops, the fund infrastructural projects and disaster relief, many of which were increasing due to human-caused climate change. The party was dependent on a good showing in more than red states, and the polls,, as much as they were discredited and discounted by the sitting President, looked bad. But the proximity of the party to The Donald meant that the elephant had to be redesigned to buoy the party’s hopes–putting on the front burner the problem of how to assimilate Donald Trump to a party of long term memory.

Christopher Weyant, Boston Globe

The representation of red states as a base demanded an image of Republican identity demanded a redesign of its logo identified with the interests of red states with grandeur, that might meld the strongly separatist rhetoric in which the image of a Sovereign States of America might exist–without echoing the Confederate secession, even if the image of a Confederate States of America was dear symbolism to Trump’s base. The new elegant if streamline elephant, now emblazoned with five stars that seemed to forecast the “W” of victory, seemed to embrace a “big tent” politics in its size, but was for the first time incarnated in red alone.

And in an era in which we have a President able to channel his inner P.T. Barnum more openly than his predecessors, he sought to unite the party in his increasingly capacious body, by mining a rich tradition of political iconography speaking before a redesigned symbol of the party that perhaps tapped Nast’s icon in recalling a circus–and in recalling the curiosity “white elephant’ that Barnum had imported from Burma, where it was revered as a symbol of purity and power, and whose display to circus audiences implicitly promoted it as a purer version than its African cousin who was a popular component of American circuses, whose appearance was often the culmination and final act of the spectacular form of popular entertainment.

2. If the circus elephants Barnum displaced were such Americanized images as popular behemoths and visual attractions that cartoonists in the Civil War had already adopted the elephant as a sing of the Union, and of the Republican party that defended the union. If Lincoln was said to adore the elephant as an image of the Union’s robustness, the currency of the elephant as a trick in the trade of circus exhibitions may have appropriated the curiosity of the mammoth-sized beast because of its size and to show the marvel of its domestication: if elephants had been taught to dance in the Jardin des Plants, in costume, exhibition of a stuffed elephant at London’s 1851 Crystal Palace by the East India Company bearing a royal carriage that increased its exotic dignity and elevated its ceremonial role as transit vehicle, if the taxidermied skin was a source more of fascination than vivacity, prefigured Barnum’s spectacular display of elephants to popular crowds: the popularity of the museified pachyderm prefigured exhibition of a giant African Grey at London’s Zoological Gardens, and Barnum eagerly bought what was then the largest elephant in captivity to hawk to American audiences in his traveling show, over public objection and anger of London zoogoers who felt they were swindled to lose the locally treasured beast that was a source of cultural fascination and pride:

Walter Goodall, Crystal Palace, 1855 (London)

If the stuffed elephant at the Crystal Palace exhibited in “native” costume as an elegant conveyance, anidst the Pavilion the East India Company populated with material goods, jeweled costumes, and elephant saddles, was far from the way Barnum later displayed elephants in his traveling company with fewer costumes than later adopted for circus elephants as forms of kitsch–Barnum promised contact with the vivacity of enormous beasts’ feats as a popular entertainment, in a tradition of American circus men, probably independently from Lincoln’s near fetishization of the tusked animal to emblematize the unity of the Union he promised in his Presidential campaign. But the connotations of elephant and party that paralleled the popular display of elephants Barnum dramatically pioneered grew as the costumed resumed for the Burmese White Barnum had added to his menagerie by 1884, amidst heated racial politics of Reconstruction, adopting the Burmese beast to provoke debates on the purity of racial descent and skin pigmentation in post-Civil War America, as they were confronted, processed and intensely debated outside southern states, rather decisively increased the adoption and attention to the elephant as a mascot of the Republican Party, as the “white elephant” Toung Taloung arrived in New York City as a fascinating new feature of Barnum’s public display.

The prized white elephant Barnum exhibited was a revered beast, whose purity of stock, evident in the pigmentation of its skin, he argued was more civilized and considerate elephant than the African greys standard in American circuses; the spectacle in Reconstruction was a symbol of racial purity, and the calculation of percentages of racial descent among Americans in the census. Nast adopted the white elephant to suggest the probity the Republican party would do well to adopt in 1880, to regain the White House–the “sacred elephant,” as the Burmese “white elephant” he had purchased was known, not a resident of forests, but a member of the royal court, serenaded and costumed with eastern luxuries. If the venerated white elephant, here shown in the sort of costume he wore in Barnum’s circus, offered a model of comportment Nast argued might lead back to the White House in 1880, the unconscious echo of the circus elephant in the new logo of 2020 seemed to suggest a pure red party would retain power. Is it any surprise that this circus animal was siezed on again and rehabilitated, in the three-ring circus of the Trump Presidency?

Thomas Nast, “the Sacred Elephant,” 1884

The new logo of an elephant rearing his trunk, and advancing, marked the “second coming” of Trump, and destined advance of a newly Trumpified party, although what new beast was slouching toward Washington, D.C. was hard to determine by the red- trunked elephant. Rising above the speaker’s podium as if leaping into space, sporting five stars that seemed to summon a sense of astrological destiny, the proud adoption of a new elephant seemed to suggest an abandon to the race-baiting oratory Trump reintroduced in American politics.

Rather than evoking probity, the elephant suggested the reborn party that rose from a geography of red states where it was now rooted. Cartoonists had recently cast the old guard of the Party as in fear of the President, but the 2020 Republican Convention seemed to remake a platform-free party proudly in an elephant of his own mold, in what would be perhaps his last hurrah before the Convention Committee in late August, as the nation was reverberating with the potent echoes of George Floyd’s killing by overzealous racist police. Trump, newly affirmed by his cognitive assessment, and energized by the demonization of Black Lives Matter, staged a complex affirmation of a unified party, largely rooted in an appeal to a party overwhelmingly white: few would have remembered how George Orwell as a Burmese policeman associated with conscription into the “dirty work of Empire” when, as an assistant superintendent of Imperial police, 1922-27, he felt conscripted into service of empire when tasked with shooting the venerated elephant with a shotgun. George Orwell struggled with wearing a “mask” of imperialist as he claimed to perpetrate the murder of the unruly disruptive elephant, sensing that where the “white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom he destroys.” But the image of tyranny and domination was one that was almost embraced in the Republican party in the prominence of white faces and speakers that it featured and the ideal of restoring order they proclaimed.

If George Orwell lamented being the target of local hatred to empire and his own disquiet with his role as imperial enforcer, Trump cultivated the image of an enforcer at the Republican Convention, accepting the endorsement of the national association of Police Organization for the “most pro-law enforcement president we ever had” as he affirmed that the “violence and bloodshed we are seeing” in the summer of 2020 was only “the direct result of refusing to allow law enforcement to protect our communities.” Trump had exploited support of the Customs and Border Patrol in 2016 to promise a 2,000 mile border wall, and he promoted an endorsement from the national police organization–a collection of 1,000 unions–by promising to hire more police before cries to curb police violence, and “give law enforcement, our police, back their power.” The endorsement responded to Trump’s promised to “actively prosecute” all who attacked law enforcement amidst racial tensions, thundering “I will ALWAYS back the men and women in blue, and never let you down. LAW AND ORDER WILL PREVAIL!”

The power with which he spoke, raising his right hand to make his point, echoed the upwardly raised trunk of the invigorated partisan symbol of Republicans, lifting its trunk as if to communicate its power.

President Donald Trump speaks at Republican National Committee convention, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Was anyone aware of the racial connotations of purity by which the emblem of the elephant was claimed by Republicans in Reconstruction America? The preening insatiability of the red elephant communicated a sense of the eagerness of Republicans to map their candidate onto the body politic, a lumbering but advancing red behemoth, testifying to the electoral majority that the party would assemble in semaphore, in ways that the earlier tricolor icons of pachydermal stolidity had refused to capture as incarnations of a body politic. If the party’s stolidity seemed to convey a sense of order and conservatism in its earlier iterations, adding far more sobriety to an animal once figured by American cartoonists as a circus animal, from the time of the venerable Thomas Nast, master cartoonist of the late nineteenth century, the transmission of this partisan logo seemed to be less and less of a mascot of the party, than a symbol of purity. And if the elephant had become almost a glyph, robbed of semantic value–

–the unveiling of the rearing all-red elephant for a convention that was in a sense the kick-off of Trump 2020, a campaign that team Trump had been planning since 2017, seemed to recast the body politic as a unity of red states alone, without even pandering to the rest of the nation.

3. It is hard not to read the adoption of a new red elephant as party mascot as a unification not of the union–as Lincoln had intended and his party seems to have eagerly accepted–than the sufficiency of the unity of red states in the Trump Presidency, or Republican Party that was now stage-managed as Trump. The “red elephant” that was the descendent proclaimed and adopted descended from the “white elephant” of the 1880 campaign, but as the product of miscegenation of the new tribal currency of the “red states” as not only a base of the Republican Party, but a new identity as a “true” America which defined itself by its patriotic intensity, and their opposition to the representatives of “blue states,” and indeed the purity of Republican identity as a creed and dogma: if the prominence of anti-miscegenation laws in may states in the South long after the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation extended voting rights officially to African Americans–and were only removed long after the war’s end in Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina and Alabama–the very construction of “racial purity” and its fetishization increased the popular attraction of a “white elephant,” and expectation a “white elephant” might adhere to a different metric of civility than its African grey counterpart, and be treated and exhibited in the circus as, by analogy, distinct by its “race.” Red states were invested in the Trump era as a different beast than the states defined as “blue,” to the extent that preposterous claims of electoral fraudulence were entertained in the red states not only as a way of retaining political power, but as Michigan, Georgia, and Arizona–perhaps especially that state that lay in proximity to the border and border wall–were seen as “Republican” territory and recognized as red.

As soon as the new logo was unveiled, it was difficult not to see the attention to this pure-red beast as a reminder of the sufficiency to hold together the unity of the “sea of red” or of red states that Trump had long gloated over as a confirmation of a long over-exaggerated scale of his political victory in 2016 as a “landslide” and a confirmation of the intensity of his relation to the nation that he argued he would protect. It was hard not to remember the intensity with the the Trump family had baited the news media and their base by images of a map of a “sea of red” emblazoned with the taunting challenge “Try to impeach this” as a rather vainglorious boast on the even of the first impeachment of President Donald Trump, and which had only intensified in the 2020 Campaign that was increasingly fought and waged in openly oppositional if not Manichaean terms of political dualism, and later cast as combat tot he death that might itself prefigure Civil War if Trump did not emerge as the victor. Never mind that the map distorted population distribution or that “blue” voters who had supported the Democratic candidate had, indeed, outnumbered those who voted “red” for Donald Trump. This retweeted graphic where Trump received the majority of votes was an emblem of collective unity for candidate Trump in 2020, that led to the use of collective nouns with abundance that seemed to shrink the distance between him and his followers, and elevate the nature of one color in openly tribal terms of political contestation, rather than government, and understood that redmap as a direct tie to the President Trump, rather than to a party or an ideology debated or articulated as a political platform. Indeed, Representatives and Senators in the Republican party were increasingly seen as beholden not to their constituents, or the rule of law, or Constitution but to the appeal Trump exercised over their constituents.

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County-by-County Presidential Vote, 2016

The fetishization of the electoral divide became a mantra and promise for the Trump’s candidacy, as what he saw as an electoral acclamation–even if by concealing his loss of the popular vote–became an affirmation of his political inevitability and identity, and preaching to the “base” that was identified by red states came to conceal the lack of anything like a political platform by 2020: the continuity of red made the political terrain seem something like a mirror–a direct presentation of the nation of which it was the imposing incarnation.

2016 Electoral Map, by County
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Filed under American Politics, Donald J. Trump, political geography, political iconography, Republican Convention

Mega-Regions, Super-States, Micro-States, Islands

Like a patient rising from bed to look in the mirror for superficial signs of illness  or searching for visual evidence of clouded thoughts after a hangover, we compulsively turn to data visualizations for bearings on our body politic, preoccupied by its bruised appearance and searching for visual distillations that tell the story of its apparent fracturing into red and blue.  Anyone reading this blog is compelled by the search for a rendering in iconic form of this sharp chromatic divide by which we seem beset, as if to mute its edges and suggest that a possible contexts of such stark political divides.  But how one can provide an account of the map–or map the meaning of these divides–has created a cottage industry of visualizations, images that serve both as glosses and counter-documents, against which to gainsay the meaning of the impasse of the most current electoral divide of 2016.

We seem to search for a sign of meaning in our body politic, if not  in our representational institutions, and to understand political divides less as signs that all isn’t *quite* all right, and the coherence can be found in how the democratic process balances local interest.  But most importantly, we seem to try to process deep concerns that the electoral map lied:  for if the electoral map is in some sense a powerful measure of our coherence as a community, it seems important to affirm where that coherence lies, if it does indeed still exist–and can be detected in a map.

And in the long aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election, it is not surprising, somehow, that we are still eager to understand or imagine what that “new America” is or what a new map might reveal.  Uncertain in our ability to question our representational institutions, we are pressed to ask how our electoral predictions “lied,” and whether the electoral map itself “lied” by serving to magnify the political voice and agency of a demographically diminishing region.  At a distance of two and a half years from Donald Trump’s surprising election as U.S. President, we continue to seek more refined district-by-distict distributions to pore over the stark chromatic divides, reading them as tea leaves for some sign of what will happen with the 2018 midterms, or as entrails to divine what to look for in our nation’s future.  And then we try to reframe the issue, and see what we can salvage about our actual divisions.

 

 

Come to termsNew York Times/Mapbox

 

Skilled at reading maps, and at detecting their distortions, we also seek to recuperate a sense that maps do not lie.   We pore over data vis to restore a sense of unity in an era when it seems we’re saliently divided by race, class, and religion, but are compelled to locate a sense of home in those divide, and seek a sense of balance and objectivity that can distill the intense rhetoric of deep-lying divisions.  For rather than suggesting or asking how an electoral map may lie  in ways that balanced a widespread sense of shock with a skepticism that that was our map.

And the continued skepticism and uncertainty in the meaning of the divisions of the electoral map lead us to try to dissect and parse their meaning, filtering and sifting their data within other data vis to illuminate, by new granularity and spectra, a broader spread of variables, in hopes to unlock the questions and overcome the challenges that our representational system pose.  We peek deeper into its red heart, as if in hopes to find the coherence or possibility for change in its red center, as if in a form of national introspection performed on the most superficial of registers, whose “truth” cannot even be gainsaid, hoping that it lies there, perhaps in the heightened distortion of electoral votes that distilled from district maps.

 

Red Center?.pngDetail of above

 

Do electoral maps lie more than other maps?  Any is something less like a reflection of actuality, than a puzzle, in which we can uncover not only telling traces among electoral divides  But the new configuration of space that the 2016 election bode, as well as the greater sensitivity that we like to think we’ve gained at measuring spatial configurations in meaningful terms.  The attractiveness of remapping the voter distribution may be a bit of a red herring and distraction from the magnification of divides elaborated in internet chatrooms from 4chan to 8chan, as much as above ground, but the searching for new signs in the entrails of the voter maps–a post-mortem on the body politic–carries as much sense as the foreboding that the representational institutions of states, counties, and other traditional geographic units might make less sense as a basis for structuring a truly representational democracy.

Seeking to stabilize current fears of a crisis of our democracy, we keep on returning to maps, insistently and repeatedly, as if out of trust for grasping how politics is shaped by deep-seated divides by finding a new way space is configured–as if that would help us understand the appearance of our divides.  And so, in hopes to digest the dilemma of representational democracy in we look for cartographical terms, to provide it with some grounding or objectivity, that offer some sense of purchase, other than by affirming the intensity of our divisions and to see that the institutions of political representation we’ve long trusted might make sense with the migration of populations to urbanized areas or the recasting of politics discourse in dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Perhaps, convinced of our increasing savviness to read the display of information in a colored sheet, we try to grasp the distributions of data as a configuration of space by which to grasp what happened in the 2016 election,  What is shown to lie in the deep splintering–does this take many by surprise?–across a body politic and economy afflicted by a politics of intense opposition seems suddenly normalized and explained by maps that normalize our divisions, and set them before our eyes.  But we have been poring over maps of the nation for years–or at least multiple election cycles–to be able to better process the tensions between regionalism and federalism in ways we might be able to come to terms with or effectively digest as presenting–and representing–an actual record of the status quo that is not so fragile.

 

imageColin Woodward (2013)

 

The representational system is oddly sidestepped, of course, by placing the divisions of a fractured electoral map in terms that see it as a lay of the land. The questioning of the fifty-state primary system–or whether our version of representational democracy best accommodates local interests in a fifty-state system–are not seen as being able to be adjusted  to balance regional interests or economic needs better, but reflect a lay of the land.  So much is suggested in by the growth of tribal senses of belonging that provide affective ties that lack in the state or even region, and span space in ways that online groups and news sharing seem to have filled an increasingly pronounced need for meaningful political involvement, in ways television once afforded a social glue.  The deep uncertainty and sense of social dislocation that defined the 2016 Presidential Election in the United States, manifested in the mistakenly salvific power of social media memes seem to have gained as a substitute for other forms of belonging, seems to find a resolution in the power of maps.

Of course, this was the third election cycle that we were divided by maps, and electoral projections, a division that Trump–and his allies, whoever they may be–only sought to exploit and reflect, or unleash with greater intensity by playing them for whatever they were worth in broad circulation.  Maps provided a form to counter that dislocation.  The rage for maps to comprehend an icon of the spatial promise of a United States has led, empowered by GIS, to an intense search for a more meaningful system of maps than that of counties, states, or congressional districts that the economic realty of the metropolis can no longer afford.  The role of GIS here is less instrumental than a sense at grasping for straws to identify the meaningful regions on the map, puzzling the potential for future unity in a terrain whose political processes and practices map poorly onto its divisions.

We were compelled just not to make sense in a fundamental way of the coherence of the political map, if it existed,  but to process what it means for a rearrangement of political constituencies.  If any map presents a puzzle that can be read for its argument, we compulsively returned to the past-time of glossing the electoral map as a way to find resolution.  We returned to data visualizations, especially if paradoxically, as a trusted form of post-traumatic healing, and continue to look to them to try to embody and diagnose our deepest divides, if not overcome those seemingly salient divisions.  Faced by a feeling of fragmentation we turn to maps to better grasp where these divides lie and to try to bridge their fractures.  We turn to maps, to prevent a sense of loss, or prevent the foreboding of a lost unity, and deep-seated fragmentation.

Whether maps can do so much reparative work is open to question, as is the power of maps to explain the deep discomfort at our social divides.  Since they are so salient, and oppressive, the thought goes, they must be able to be mapped.  The relatively recent re-imagining of the nature by which the United States are united led, during the heat of the last election, to a proposal of ordering districts around the metropoles that were foreign to if linked with them–Seattle, San Francisco/Bay Area, and Los Angeles and San Diego were his in this cartography of mega-regions where urban corridors defined the map’s meaning, as much as the regions in which they were nestled or situated, emphasising a metro-cartography of political identity keeping with the times.

 

image.png

 

Dissatisfied with the state as a parsing or unit that was forward-looking, we accepted new geographical units as “megalopolis” to designate the sites that have superseded the city in this cosmopolite model of America, reflecting hubs where the large bulk of the GDP is located, and economic interests increasingly located, although this may neglect the extent to which GDP is linked not only to abstract able figures of income generated, but urban snarls, pollution, garbage production, and greenhouse gases and other forms of waste, using a variation on a five-color map to suggest the units of productive regional planning that might be able to better connect localities–or local needs and economic interests–with a federal government perceived as distant and removed.

 

1.  The notion of using the map to reaffirm a connectivity and continuity that seemed lacking provided a new way to ramp up our 2-D cartographical concerns less to foreground fractures than meaningful commonalities which could be acted upon as the borders between states seemed far less meaningful to suggest  economic connectedness, and indeed national borders seem less profitable fictions to provide possibilities for future economic growth–and indeed the state university structure provided a far less practical basis for public education, despite its value, as public universities seem more removed from educational opportunities or research funds, and others are somewhat vengefully recast as public employees, teaching mission be damned.

The map affords a prospect of tangibility and coherence, particularly compelling in its abandonment of the “state” or “county” as a unit of the polity, and appealing in its potential encouragement of a new sense of infrastructure–a term that provided such an appealing keyword way back in the midst of the  2016 American Presidential election–even if the New Map for America was presented for the lower forty-eight as a sort of forward-looking economic blueprint before the General Election, as if to orient us to a vision of the pastels of a future less brash than the red vs. blue electoral map, its regions far more recognizable, and decisively upbeat, from Cascade through the Great Lakes and Texas Triangle to the Southeast Manufacturing Belt.  The hope is to respond to a sense of dislocation by more meaningful economic units, and indeed an agenda to move forward advanced in Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilizationa hopeful manifesto to shift debate from territorial units and semantics to a vigorous statement of economic power.

 


New York Times/Parag Khanna

 

The shifting of attention to the divides in our electoral map to a the sorts of channels of connectedness Parag Khanna proposed were not to be–or aren’t yet, so strong was the localist and isolationist tide against them.  The cartographical intervention was a view of globalization that was sunny–and with an emphasis on affirming possibilities of connectivity, as opposed to the terrifying sense of an exposure of unraveling and intransigence that the formation of a Trump Train–rather than the sort of proposed High Speed Rail lines–were proposed to create as a new economic infrastructure for a nation that seems increasingly unsettled, and seems increasingly unsettled, and might be hoped to be healed by a remapping of its economic interconnectivity, rather than its divides–an image of interconnectivity that the election erased.

To be sure, the use of the map to affirm needed connectivity (and continuity beyond proximity) among states was long realized to lie in the potential of the map to create further connective lines of communication and economic development.  The promotion of surveying projects, from the railroad lines by Abraham Lincoln through areas of Appalachia in Kentucky and Tennessee, where the President realized the possible vitality of an economy not rooted or based on enslavement of populations provided a basis to encourage unionism.  Walt Whitman saw, in 1860, the nation as a great nation “of many nations,”  and Lincoln argued to survey the region to increase its connection, and offer a new basis to integrate the economic complexities of a union divided on an apparently intractable political debate.  The notion of mega-regions and economic corridors is not, in this sense, so new at all;  fostering economic interests has long been tied to the need to try to envision future possibilities in maps–a need that the 2016 Presidential election has undoubtedly necessitated, although the Trump administration seems dedicated to obscure that need.

 

2.  But if the model was conceived in the midst of a tense primary season that saw political splintering and a large fear of depression in a search for a politics of meaning, the fears of a distance from Washington, DC became the victors of the 2016 Presidential election, as we saw a new and apparently heightened red-blue division imposed on the nation that we have been still trying to wrestle or digest and place in political or historical context, and to parse meaning from a map that seems all too neatly clean-cut after all–unless the fracture lines were indeed that strong that the nation might once again divide, as if reporting on the electoral results were a sort of performance art.

 

Sea of Red

 

Blue America or Red America?

 

The fissures of red and blue reappeared again as what seemed a safe bet of a Clinton majority victory repeated, although newscasters and talking heads found it hard to say anything interesting about it, just three days from the 2016 Presidential election.  But the confidence of these electoral projections that seemed to give a fragile if solid coherence to a Clinton electoral victory, if one that would hardly unify the nation–

 

 

 

–but contain its increasingly evidence divides, rather abruptly ceded to a sea of red, where alternate projections failed to alter the depths of a geographic solidity of those voting for Trump, even if a majority of them seemed resigned that the election would not make a substantive difference.  As multiple electoral night watch parties disbanded with disillusionment, we were resigned to accept these divides, not knowing whether the geographical cleavages had either surfaced or crystallized in the actual electoral map, but suggested a somewhat surprising rejection of the status quo, and an eery sense of a red state continuity, as though we were divided regional blocks after all–

 


 

–and so we pored over visualizations of the nation’s new voting patterns that were increasingly and perhaps over-generously provided to stunned media viewers with a sense of collective trauma, to be processed only by reviewing endless cartographical parsings of the deep reds of the adjusted choropleth of 2016 revealed the coasts could hardly understand the intensity of the interior, seeming to reveal a convincing record of a deep-set urban-rural divide in a map of county-by-county voting trends.

The map of electoral votes was just as widely championed by Trump himself, of course, who not only seemed to have installed it in the White House, but to present his candidacy as victory over the interests that he proclaimed had “rigged” the election, as if it provided a demonstration that the process not so rigged.  (For Trump followers,  the championed results, in which the President “elect” exulted, might have in the “Fake News” of predictions of his electoral defeat, and the false predictions of their marginalization from the country.)  In an election when “rigged” seemed to have defined the 2016 Presidential election as it was used to invest emotions by different candidates, Trump had exulted in what applied equally to the economy, political process, and judicial inquiry as if applied to a “system” that he seemed to disdain, if only to recognize that the “hot term” he used became a basis to showcase his alleged outsider status.  But the electoral map provided, for all its distortion of population, an argument that the “rigged” nature of the vote and “system” was undermined by the electoral system–the same system that he may have called “rigged” at one time.  Trump’s claims for having “introduced the term”–“I’m the one that brought that word up!’–was in fact suggested to him by Roger Stone, who argued within two months after Trump descended his escalator to announce his candidacy, and recommend he base his candidacy on claims ‘the system is rigged against the citizens’ and that he is the lone candidate–did this offer any ideas to Bernie Sanders?–‘who cannot be bought.’”  Trump didn’t immediately adopt the term, but by the Spring of 2016, the term became used to insert himself into a corrupt system of which he could be the savior.

Trump ran so insistently and deftly with the idea to make it his own, treating it as a term to cathecting with his rallies.  He soon began to inveigh against the whole “rigged, disgusting, dirty [political] system” as being rigged, first the Republican primary and then the Democratic, discrediting the electoral process as a “rigged, crooked system that’s designed so the bosses can pick whoever they want” that revealed itself to be during the primaries to be “totally rigged to keep incumbents in power.”   Arguing that the word was his intellectual property, as he had used it before Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton adopted the term he claimed to merit authorship for having introduced into  the election, it cemented new constituencies in an age of increased income inequality, playing very well to an anti-establishment crowd as a new language of empowerment–so that the electoral map seemed to some a populist victory.

 

 

After insisting and bemoaning the extent to which the voting process was “rigged” during the primaries and into the general election by parties and elites, openly fostering distrust in the political process, the narrative suddenly switched when the electoral map–that map that so shocked the nation–was presented as a true victory that rather preposterously confirmed the success with which Trump had presented himself as not beholden to outside interests to a specific audience, as if it was a record of reality.  Enamored of the map of electoral votes’ distribution, Trump presented the electoral map as confirming a populist victory that occurred against all odds., at the same time as his skill at gaming a system of electoral votes.   He wanted the Washington Post to display the map on its front page, as if to announce it as a new reality, a hundred days into his administration, in a bizzarro illustration of his desires to run the press, asking reporters Aren’t you impressed by this map?¨–and regaling reporters with copies of the map as a testimony of reaching a broad audience of voters, as a source of pride and a deeply personal accomplishment of which he was the author, as well as a form of evidence he wanted the entire nation to be entranced–whose stark divisions he even had framed for the White House, as a confirmation of the extent of his appeal outside of coastal media elites.

 

imageThe Hill

 

The electoral map showed a defeat of the so-called “elites” on both coasts.  The majority of voters’ opinion mattered less than how divided we had become, over the next year and a half.  It was hardly a surprise to find these divisions, but their salience seemed a strong shift in political decorum.  As Trump’s Presidency continued, we mapped rise of hate crimes inspired by Trump, as if to conjure the sense his Presidency and rhetoric had changed the nation, and suggested a new meaning of the term “red state” based not on majority voting but confirming a sense of deep-seated anger against an “other” embraced by a good share of the nation, as if tolerance for violence not acceptable elsewhere.

 

 

 

The crisis in belonging seemed, in this red-hued preoccupation, almost about blood, and innate differences, and an anger that had been unleashed either on the campaign trail or its social media spin-offs and detritus, where suddenly the most marginal of voices, rarely recognized in print, began to circulate, and reached a large and strikingly contiguous electorate, from which “we” were actually removed.

 

image

 

 

3.  Which brings us to the deeper crisis of understanding how much of the nation seemed to rally around the idea of a need to garrison and fortify a southwestern border long left intentionally open, as if this would somehow Make American Great Again, and affirm its aging economy, persuaded they had been huckstered by international trade accords, as protection of the border gained greater reality than the civil liberties and rights of due process by which the nation was, for an actual strict constructionist, long defined.

The demand to think “beyond states”–plus ultra!–has been conceived not as a possibility of growing connectivity, but as resigning ourselves to deep divisions as if they were embedded in the territory in the revival of what were argued somewhat misleadingly to be “southern interests” or heritages, and accommodate and instantiate in a map that Colin Woodward has long argued reflects the dynamics of their original settlement–rather than economic development and local political cultures–as if to accommodate the “local cultures” of politics, such as they are, as fundamentally distinct economic patterns that transcend the division of states or economic development.

Possibilities of new sorts of economic interconnectedness be damned, Woodward would have us recognize the long shadows attitudes toward work and not toward race, education, gender, or religion cast across the political fracturing of the once United States, as if to suggest that the notion of being united was itself a bit of a big fraud, or a pretense needed to unite what were long fundamentally different regions, in a new fracturing that reflects eighteenth-century precedents as if to trace the differentiation of ethnic or racial stock in ways that he claims effectively map on our own political divides, and offer new tools to help us understand different points of view that even a Continental Congress was foolhardy to pretend they could ever adequately reconcile, so steeply do they haunt the current polity.

The oracle of Freeport, ME reminds us that “regional cultures” have existed since the era of the continent’s first colonization in ways that command attention, despite the burning issue of apparently recent hot-button concerns from terrorism or immigration, despite their salience in the political debate and their prominence in motivating sectarian hostility.  In a sense, the map may consolingly remind us that Trump has not appealed to “Make America Great Again,” but festered its deepest historical divisions and divides; its commanding division into colors of distinct hues a refutation of the idea that we are living in an era without intersectionality, where divisions deriving from historical priority trump any of the effects of economic inequalities and disparities of income.  It indeed seems to naturalize race relations that have gained ugly  prominence in recent years as being a world that must be accepted as “modeled after the slave societies of the ancient world,” where “democracy is the privilege of the few,” as if this were a tenable cultural position but demands to be appreciated as such.  Rather than describe racism, or race relations, Woodward lets us know that “black people confronted” dominant cultural norms, a formulation that strips them of much agency indeed–or denies it altogether, more accurately.

The quite flat five-color schema of 2013 was recycled in the news, perhaps, because of how it seems to erase the far more finely grained visualizations of the election that appeared in late July 2018 in the newspaper of record, five days previous, as if the precinct-by-precinct map of Ryne Rhola could be made to disappear beneath the far flatter overlays of Colin Woodward’s breakdown.

 

National Precinct Map.pngRyne Rhola/Mapbox

 

For Woodward’s map viewed the United States not as a composite of populated blue islands in a sea of chromatic shades of red that slid to scarlet expanse, but rather crisp lines whose constitution was defined in the eighteenth century, and perpetuated in the self-sorting machine that the United States has become, arguing that the affinities of each place attract their own political brand–a notion that Woodward emphasized in the new iteration of this map that adheres more closely to the national boundaries of the lower forty-eight.

 

New York Times/Colin Woodward (2018)

 

Forget any preconceived ideas of geographical mobility or migration, Woodward enjoins:  the map suggests the computational shape-sorter that the deep circuits of the United States’ history has defined.

That such divisions inform the breaking lines of the new “partisan landscape” hardly require a five-color map.  But Although meant to displace a divide between urban and rural, they may remind us that we are in fact living in an age that might be as easily cast–and we’ll return to this–as a trumping of the local, where states have faded away with the accentuation of local interests.  In ways that are filtered and refracted though the relative homogeneity of media markets and the traditions of certain areas of the nation where immigrants are indeed less openly welcomed or accepted may tend to the slogans of America First championed by Trump, and lines of gender are differently drawn.  Such regions might be less likely to be sympathetic in a deep way with a woman who reminded them, rightly or wrongly, of coastal elites, and accepting of the very caricatures of coastal elites that Trump, in a canny exercise of deflection and personal rebranding, managed to project on her–palling with Goldman Sachs; attending as Secretary of State to foreign relations and not the American worker–that the more removed regions would accept.

The divisions in the “partisan landscape” of the nation that Woodward presented are considerable and are economic–

 

Partisan landscape.pngNew York Times/Colin Woodward (2018)

 

–but curiously suggest the deep red remove of the very region of Appalachia that President Lincoln once sought to integrate better both economically and infrastructurally in the United States, but has sadly lagged further behind, and felt further removed from Washington.

And not only from Washington, DC, but from the complex of the news that is so demonized by President Trump as being an “enemy of the people” today.  For though it is never made precise who this collective is–“the people”–it is not the folks who read newspapers or watch the nightly news, but those who feel far less represented in them, and by them, and less familiar with them to less present to them–for the known density of reporters and correspondents appears an odd echo of the parsing of the lower forty-eight into “Yankeedom,” “Tidewater,” “Greater Appalachia,” “Far West.” and “Left Coast,” as not only different media markets, and different areas that are represented in the news–

 

local qotient reportersDept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics/Occupational Employment Statistics

 

employment correspondents 2017Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics/Occupational Employment Statistics

 

–but that feel alienated from its constitution of reality, because that stands at a remove from their lives and regions.  The existence of pronounced “news deserts” in areas as Appalachia suggest a fragmentation of our news economy that weakens local solidarity and opinion, and creates large voting blocks that are terrifyingly coincident with the paucity of local news sources, as Chisolm’s below burnt red interactive Carto data vis rather scarily reveals, as it invites and allows one to explore in even more fine-grained from over the lower forty eight.  The blanked-out regions of lightly hued regions reflect areas aggrieved areas by the absence of a diversity of local newspapers–institutions long identified with reflection on local political institutions and practices.  They are, in other words, afflicted with the absence of a plurality of avenues for the shaping of public opinion and political debate, and bound to rely one less active political debate.

 

Carto-News Deserts

 

The striking thinning out in many regions of Appalachia as well as the south of so-called “news deserts” is not a longstanding historical divide–the death of the local newspaper is

 

Appalachia News Deserts multipleAmerica’s Growing News Deserts/Columbia Journalism Review (2017)

 

–in which limited investigative reporting on local issues, discussion generated by print, and indeed informed local political decisions and checks on local power seems to create a vacuum into which rushes a new tribalism of largely symbolic issues.

 

 

The difference between these regions is not necessarily so continuous, or suggestive of nations, despite the startling continuity in “news deserts” and areas of the low level of occupational employment of journalists or correspondents that is its correlate.  Deep divides of terrifying continuity are at basis economically driven, and seem impossible to reduce only to cultural divides–or reduced to existing historical divides, so much as an erosion of local institutions designed to foster reflection on political institutions and discourse.

The increasing gaps in sites where only one newspaper–or no local news–exists will be made up for in new ways, but the growth of News Deserts from 2016 marks a change in the information economy, and a change in which the role of newspapers in constituting and encouraging the community long existed.  The rise of digital news outlets that have taken up the nourishing role traditionally and long played by journalism is promising, but the attack on the few remaining news sources that exist and on which folks rely stands as a new challenge, with the number of reporters covering local news having dropped in half since 2004, and some 1,800 newspapers–many venerable institutions in communities that helped make new communities–having folded in the same time, leaving all the tanned out regions with one newspaper, and the burnt siena dots counties with no local newspaper at all–areas reliant on other news sources and online information, according to Penelope Muse Abernathy of UNC’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, which points more deeply at the need for a new business model for local news, but also the increasing vulnerability of many counties–and many individuals–to the older, less educated, and poorer, farther from metropolitan areas in parts of Texas, the Dakotas, Alabama, Florida and Georgia, where our democracy may fracture.

 

Abernathy, 2018

 

The problems of an engaged citizenship through newspapers is not, of course, the only line of fracturing in the social body.

The increased divergence of the age at which women have a first child in different regions of the United States suggests a huge difference in life-perspective–or “life style”–which is clearly identified with those areas of denser presence of reporters, correspondents, and news reporting, suggesting a huge difference–and deep divergence–among the priorities, and negotiation of labor markets.  Although the different preferences for childbirth in the United States’ regions are not a big surprise for many women, the strikingly different age of women at birth maps onto the “regionalism” and regions of the United States in striking ways, unsurprising in an era when birth control and abortion are seen as the “issues” that define political divides–both around appointments to the Supreme Court and around what makes up privacy, personhood, and rights.  The pronounced oscillation around the age of a mother at her first birth is striking, not only in its divergence but the large span of the nation where birth is defined at twenty-four years of age, and what this mans for families and women’s work–and of female experience at the same time as the first female candidate became nominated by a major party–and the huge gaps this created.

 

Motehrs age at birth

 

New York Times: Birth Age Gap in the USA (2016)New York Times: Birth Age Gap in the USA (2016)

 

Does the puzzle fit together better now, looking at the relative number of reporters and correspondents employed and stationed in areas of the United States, and the remove of many regions–either apparent or real–from the media markets that exist, and the sense of alienation and remove of those areas  from actualities reported in the “news”?

Woodward’s “map”–updating or revisiting the divisions he had in fact foretold in 2013, just after President Obama’s second election as President, reprised for readers always hungry for a good data vis, that distilled confusion to stark lines of a 2-D paper map, called less “nations” (as he previously had) than “regions” which transmitted through the ages the spirits of their respective colonizers, in a complete revision of the image of the nation as a melting pot, economic integration and disparities of wealth be damned.

Rather than a melting pot having ever existed, the oracle of Freeport has it, distinctions between a Puritan legacy with assimilates others by championing a common good, the multicultural materialism of Dutch founders, the manorial society of the British gentry, quakers and pluralistic protestants of the midlands, and rigorous independence of the Scots Appalachians abut slave-holding southerners from the Barbados and Spanish-American periphery, shaping the nation’s fractured political present:  aside from some limited intersection of these realms, the melting pot not only never existed, but “deep cultural” values provided an optic that refracted every political event of the twentieth and twenty-first century, as if a deep memory of the mind that we will not escape.  The rigorous and purposive historical flatness of Woodward’s “map” seems a point of pride.

The schematic map recalls a study sheet for  high school U.S. history, claiming to reveal a landscape that lets scales fall from its viewers’ eyes.  Such radical essentialism–or deeply conservatory if not reactionary cartography–reminds us with considerable offhand pluck that we’re in fact far less mobile than we would like to think.  Rather than dig into the data in any depth, the map “shows” that we remain dominated by almost essential cultures that have been perpetuated by local institutions for all our championing of free will; we are, yes, really cultures, but cultures that no person can actually make.  Indeed, Woodward had originally cast the divides as separate “nations” that were both in evidence “today,” but revealed a deep geography of eleven nations in a 2013 map first published in the fall of 2013 as a guide to the “deep differences” into who he argued people in the nation sort themselves, as if into political preferences.  If a degree of self-determination surely remains, geography has the commanding upper hand, Woodward seeks to let us know, but his argument verges on an environmental conditioning by which the continent’s settlement runs against the idea of any  easy arrival at consensus:  indeed, “to understand violence or practically any other divisive issue, you need to understand historical settlement patterns” that defined the matrix.

 

Washington Post/Colin Woodward (2013)

 

Woodward responded to the stark fragmentation of the electoral map in 2012, to be sure, but has reprised his divisions again to explain the Trump phenomenon, and effectively raise questions about the midterm elections as if to suggest that no real deviation from a foretold story will occur.  And it is no surprise that the area of Greater Appalachia he has mapped, colored bright red in the image of 2013, which consciously riffed on the red state/blue state divide, without mentioning it.  Indeed, those “eleven nations” break into what look like voting blocks,–even if they are meant to remind readers that “lasting cultural fissures” were established by  “Euro-American cultures [that] developed in isolation from one another,” reflecting how “the American colonies were [first] settled by people from distinct regions of the British Isles” who we shouldn’t confuse.  Woodward presented his map as evidence of deep roots for the sectarianism we think of as modern, and “there has never been an America, but rather several Americas,” even if we all share one legal code.  Deadlock is natural on gun control or other issues,–but to appreciate that you “need to understand history” that political debate cannot alter.

When Woodward revived the twelve nations as divides as tools to explain a sense of regional divides to replace the truism of thinking about America in a rural/urban dichotomy, he wanted to go deeper than the big data of a district-by-district map and its information overload.  But leaving aside that his geographic divisions handily capture some of the largest cities and urban areas in the “Left Coast” and “New Netherland” region, the map seems deeply flawed in its use of voting preferences in an era when voter turnout is notoriously low–voter turn-out was not substantially lower than in other years, but hovered about 58%–and the areas where Trump surprisingly outperformed the previous Republican Presidential candidate in a majority of states–

 

image.png

 

The divisions map most precisely on regions that perceived their economic remove from the coastal elites with whom the Democrats have been wrongly identified.  Indeed, it is not surprising that the Greater Appalachia region that Woodward’s original 2013 map cast as bright red assumes a pretty monochrome hue when chopped out of the elegant Mapbox visualization, suggesting that that region played a large outsized role in the last election, or as much as Purple America, and occupies the heart of the area where Trump outperformed Romney in the 2016 election, reconfiguring the red-blue divide.  The deep crimson area, with scattered islands of blue to the east and north, where Greater Appalachia ends, suggests less a new nation than a remoteness,

 

Greater Appalachia.pngArea roughly corresponding to Greater Appalachia/Mapbox/New York Times

 

not only removed from broadband or access to health care, but relative per capita income rates in relation to the United States average, completion of high school, ethnic diversity, and women in the workforce and unemployment among young men–in short, a nation apart from the nation, less exposed to racial diversity and who the federal government had let down in its priorities.

 

Women in Worksplace, below average in tan.png

New York Times (2015), tan counties from below average; violet (above average)t

 

 

This was just the sort of area where Hillary Clinton would have the hardest time with her message, and possessed striking insularity.

 

 

Minority presence Appalachian Avg 2010U.S. Census Chartbook, 2010 (2011)

 

The trap of thinking in states may distort the above map, but the increased number of votes  seem rooted in “Yankeedom,” as well as “Greater Appalachia” and “Midlands,” than the logic of Woodard’s map would have us believe.  Of course, Woodward’s map might be more convincingly read not as a divide between rural and urban, but a heightening of the local, and a collapse of cross-regional collectives that once animated our politics and were known as parties, or groups that bargained for collective interests as unions.

For it surely takes into account the deep crisis in our democracy of a disconnect that many feel compelled to seek affective ties that are deeper than the remove they feel from Washington, and hard to find in a map.  It is saying something that even a year and a half from Trump’s inauguration as President, we continue to return, as if to find more information, to even more detailed parsings of the political map that might allow us to explore and, more importantly, come to terms with the extent of fracturing in our political landscape, where urban “voter islands” in Denver, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, Washington DC, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and New York are so strikingly pronounced–and try to understand what that heightened insularity can mean.

 

Ryne Rhola/Mapbox (2018)

 

We are asked to use the map to avoid being in a “political bubble,” and to explore the area that you “know”–no doubt where you reside, where everyone first turns in a map–as if to measure what you expected that you knew against the “extremely detailed map” of our political divisions, courtesy of Mapbox, where even the divisions in a reliably “blue state”–as where I live, California–can be parsed in greater detail, as if to gain intelligence of the political lay of the land, in time for the mid-terms, and to learn what districts you might to go to canvas or contribute to a political campaign, as possible on many partisan apps,

 

California.pngRyne Rhola/Mapbox (2018), 2016 US Presidential Election

 

The divisions in political or electoral preference seems hardly surprising, but the divides show up as stubbornly sharp in the Bay Area, whose insularity is long supposed and often championed, but where the directive to “explore” an area you “know” to see if you live in a political bubble seems all too apt.

 

Bay area

 

east bay alone with Danville

 

For the “areas you know” still seem ones that you can’t quite get your head around, too much like bubbles than regions, where fault lines of political opposition are located a bit more inland, but seem sadly inscribed on the land.

 


 

The maps remind us that, rather than live in nations, we seem to live in tribes.

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