Over the holidays, I flew for the first time in nearly two years. I discovered en route that to travel now is to witness, in real time, a plebiscite on the proper response to the pandemic. At all three airports I visited, the same repertoire of props and performances was on display. Some travelers wore cloth masks, some the now ubiquitous blue medical mask, and others KN95s. Some layered masks to provide extra protection, others allowed theirs to droop, and still others, with masks dangling from ears or tucked under chins, disregarded the innumerable signs commanding travelers to mask up.
But I witnessed only one truly flagrant attempt to flout the rules. Moments before I stepped aboard a flight from Fort Myers, Florida, to Charlotte, North Carolina, I heard a man's voice erupt at the next gate, where I had been sitting previously and which had emptied out ten minutes earlier for a flight headed to New York’s LaGuardia. “But this is Florida! Florida is a RED STATE!” he shouted. “I live in California! California is a BLUE STATE! I know the difference! C’mon guys! Florida is a RED STATE!” I turned to see three men: two police officers, both wearing masks, and a third, our screamer, whose mask was serving as a throat-warmer. I realized I had seen him circling that gate earlier, loudly conducting a business call (mouth uncovered). He had been evicted from his seat on the flight to New York and was now trying to argue his way back on board.
The vehemence of his appeal has stayed with me even weeks after my journey. To be sure, someone who has just been pulled off a plane is surely capable of saying almost anything, but the way that he made his case was notable. It was his assumption that everyone, including the authorities, knows there are fundamental differences between red states and blue states and, accordingly, the rules of everyday life—including one’s behavior on an airplane—are different depending on which patch of ground you currently occupy. He was appealing to the power of a political map, now firmly embedded in all of our minds, on which the individual states of the United States appear as monochromatic displays of either bright scarlet or neon blue.
That map has such a strong hold on Americans’ collective political imagination that many simply take it for granted. Forgotten is the fact that it’s a graphic created by television analysts to describe the unique winner-take-all system that most states use to allocate their electoral college votes. More importantly, we forget that the current color-coding scheme—red for Republican, blue for Democrat—only became conventional during the coverage of the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. In 1976, when NBC introduced the first such illuminated map during its election night broadcast, blue states went to Republican Gerald Ford, red to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Only in the wake of the 2000 election did commentators begin to invoke “red state” and “blue state” as shorthand for states whose populations had conservative or liberal bents.
When the irate traveler screamed “Florida is a RED STATE,” he was calling on that presumed set of shared meanings. The irony is that Florida was the decisive purple state in the election responsible for making “red state” and “blue state” household words (remember the hanging chads?). Bush beat Gore by a mere 537 votes—0.009 percent the total. How quickly we forget that before President Trump won the state twice, President Obama did the same in 2008 and 2012. In 2018, Ron DeSantis, now the quintessential symbol of Florida's deep-redness, defeated Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum by 33,683 votes—0.4 percent of the 8.2 million votes cast in the election—the close margin triggering an automatic recount. Right now, moreover, eleven of “red” Florida's twenty-seven Congressional representatives are Democrats (40 percent of the state's delegation), down from thirteen (48 percent) only two years ago.
What is a “red state,” then? What defines a “blue state”? There is in fact no standard or official definition of either term. Some sources will allude to the races for the presidency or the senate—the ones that are broadcast on network TV. Most sources, though, simply wave vaguely at red or blue as the sign of a state’s voting tendencies—offering no explanation of how strong those tendencies should be. (Does a blue state go 75 percent Democrat? 65 percent? 55 percent? A simple majority? A plurality?) How long must electoral tendencies persist to count as a trend? (One election cycle? Two? Four?) How many offices need to be held by one party to cement a state’s status in the red or blue column? Paradoxically, all of this ambiguity contributes to the strength of these glowing symbols. In the absence of clear and agreed-upon criteria, we are all free to fill in the precise meanings on our own.
But the simple binary picture of the United States breaks down immediately if you look at county-level rather than state-level results in the most recent presidential elections. A more granular map reveals red counties in blue states like Connecticut and Washington and blue counties in red states like Utah and Tennessee. More illuminating still is the breakdown of congressional races. Looking at that map, you see that California sends more Republican representatives to the House (10) than Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, and Utah combined, and that Texas sends more Democratic representatives to Congress (13) than Massachusetts (9). Or consider governorships of the northeastern states: Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts all elected Republicans. The governor of Kentucky is a Democrat. Spend even five minutes with Politico’s information-rich 2020 election results database, and you will find that the red state-blue state symbolism is a gross oversimplification of our current political landscape. As a political theorist friend of mine likes to say, “All states are purple states.” In his view, the red state/blue state binary is often more marketing than analysis—a description of what we hope or fear is happening rather than a careful assessment of a place’s history and future.
Let me emphasize that I’m not trying to explain away the sharp divisions between the two major political parties in the United States or the real differences between living in, say, the South and the Northeast. My point is that our symbolic map is not helping. By erasing the complexity and variation of our political geography, that map has contributed to the toxicity of our politics.
That map need not rule. Cartographers, professional and amateur, have suggested alternative ways of displaying election night returns. In a 2020 graphic article for the New York Times, science writer Betsy Mason helpfully reviewed several proposals, including changing the color scheme (say, using green and beige), correlating states’ sizes to their populations, using more shades or blends (i.e. purples) to indicate the varying degrees of support that a candidate receives when winning a state.
Building a better map won’t by itself resolve the problem of the free-floating character of the terms “red state” and “blue state.” That problem requires a solution of a different order, including a bold determination on the part of the journalists and analysts to define their terms when they invoke the color binary. A corresponding insistence on our part that they do so would also help. We need to look at our maps more carefully. We also need to take a hard look at our words. Doing so should lead us to question the value of the “red state” and “blue state” binary, especially as a totalizing picture of the politics of any given state. But before we get there, we’ll have to stop shouting.