How The Media Is Turning Red vs. Blue America Into Reality TV
Treating red voters and blue voters like alien species isn’t just a case of the media’s statistical illiteracy, it’s actually harming any chance at developing common ground in the future.
According to conservative media, those living in blue states and cities are raised under the watchful eye of Marxist teachers, handed over to even more socialist professors, major in postmodern art criticism, and live in cozy cocoons on a steady diet of fake news and government handouts. They don’t know anything about the world outside their blue enclaves, and treat those from red states much like anthropologists would treat an uncontacted tribe, with no clue what anyone even slightly right of Lenin’s ghost believes.
The liberal media bubble is the current flavor of the month media trope not just on the right, it rears its ugly head in the endless torrent of elbow-biting, self-flagellating op-eds bemoaning how coastal urbanites have lost their way and must drop everything to reach out to the rest of the nation. And like all media tropes, it’s based on the media’s Ouroboros news cycle rather than an observation in any way tethered to reality. While there are certainly bubbles and echo chambers, Americans haven’t stopped talking to each other, and a lot of them don’t live where they were born and raised either.
Much has been made of liberals and conservatives being more separated by physical distance on top of an ideological one. Studies have harped on the fact that those who move to new zip codes tended to be even further down the spectrum than its natives, explaining why people moving from a more expensive blue area aren’t turning their new homes blue as well. Follow up studies found that people tended to move where they thought they would belong based on their political views, reenforcing previous surveys. But all these studies looked at moving based only on ideology, without accounting for jobs, family, or other any reasons to uproot yourself.
Isolating one variable makes perfect sense for a study on political attitudes but it doesn’t quite work in the real world. For example, for years, many a right wing outlet was salivating at data showing outflows from blue states, interpreting it to mean that people were fed up with the horrors of living in a blue area, converting to conservatism, and enjoying the red life. However, that hasn’t been the case as these people have been settling in blue areas of red states and narrowing the GOP’s margin of victory.
This is why there are such bursts of gerrymandering in states seeing influxes of blue residents. In their insistence on living in cities, the newcomers were swiftly packed or cracked to contain their effect on the state. It’s not exactly a stretch to assume that people who can’t afford to live in an expensive blue state or need to move to a red state to be closer to family will pick one of its bluer areas not to feel like complete outsiders who will be subject to verbal hostilities at worst, and public cold shoulders at best.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a study accounting for other reasons why people move, while also tracking the political affiliations of the subjects and the areas in question. This means that we need to start looking at other statistics and some personal experience regarding political divisions within communities and families. Even in deepest red or blue areas, a third of the population or so will be on the other side of the political spectrum. So while the media paints red and blue areas as isolated absolutes, they omit that it’s impossible to live in a blue area without encountering Republicans or a deep red county without dealing with Democrats.
For example, in one of the poster children for partisan isolation, LA, Clinton won nearly 73% of the vote. The question left unasked when it was pilloried for its supposed complicity in political self-segregation, is what about those 25% who went for Trump? That’s 1 in 4 people, enough to account for many parents, uncles, siblings, and cousins with who all those blue voters have to interact on a regular basis. According to the media, the only liberals with a clue as to what Trump voters might think are economic migrants from a red state fresh off an annual visit for the holidays. But as we can see with some very basic numbers, there’s absolutely no way this can happen.
When blue voters talk about Trumpists being boorish, or saying racist things and indulging in conspiracy theories, or calling everyone who doesn’t agree with them losers, brushing off any attempt at a factual debate, yelling “you won’t change my mind, Trump that bitch, build that wall!” they are not just trying to come up with a simplistic, demonized red voter stereotype, they’re talking about their uncle Jerry, or aunt Mary, or cousin Emily, or even their own parents who did that at the dinner table, gloating about the election in the middle of some racist or self-indulgent tirade about how “it’s time to put those libtards and [insert choice of slur here] back in their place!”
Even a few years ago, those relatives and friends would’ve never said those things. Maybe they were bigots or leaning towards bigotry for some reason, be it economic anxiety and fear of cultural change, or because they listened to way too much fear-mongering from right wing talk radio and deliberate cherry-picking of the worst sort of self-indulgent identity politics born from obsessive post-modernist navel-gazing. (That should be enough hyphenated words for now.) But now, with Trump as the avatar of the Republican party with wide support among people who look like them, they decided to say “fuck it” to all social decorum and let it all fly in public.
From a purely academic standpoint we could argue that this is actually a net positive. Instead of just guessing how many bigots, racists, and xenophobes our society has secretly skulking in the shadows, we have a headcount. But at the same time, this sudden normalization of the bigotry we thought we left behind is jarring, and the fact that an aggrieved minority who thinks it was victimized by others gaining rights, voices, and economic strength is now out on a malicious quest to reestablish its dominance believes it has a popular mandate to do so, lying about why it lost the popular vote, means we’re in for some very rough times. And the media isn’t helping.
Without an evident shred of critical thought on the subject, the pundits will pretend that America’s winner-takes-all electoral contests are were voted on by all the people who live in a particular county or state unanimously; that everyone voted only for Democrats or only Republicans. They will go on to talk about them as if they share a hive mind radically different from a hive mind in nearby areas that went in the other direction. And they bemoan a complete failure on the part of the polls, exacerbating the attitude that the experts have failed us and there’s no one we can trust while in reality, their statistical illiteracy is the problem, not the polls.
When you account for the popular vote, the polls actually predicted Clinton winning well within their margin of error when aggregated by statisticians and experts. This generally goes unremarked not to upset their the experts-have-failed-us narrative. Likewise, with the Electoral College system which stands between the popular vote and picking a president factored in, most poll aggregators gave Trump a 1 in 3 chance of winning the election. To the media this became “pollsters said it was impossible for him to win” which is a line that Trump and his followers giddily picked up.
But if you have a 1 in 3 chance to win something, you would definitely take that chance and wouldn’t be too stunned if you actually walked away with the prize. The odds you beat weren’t that dire. And keep in mind that the grand electoral victory which has Trump taking a victory lap whenever the presidency has him feeling down and missing his old life in a gilded New York tower, hinged on where a small fraction of 1% of voters actually cast their ballots. No poll able to predict voting this minute could possibly exist with anyone short of Laplace’s Demon conducting it.
Had these voters been just a little bit more spread out, the media would be praising pollsters for getting it right on election night and busy itself with reviewing the first 100 days of the other Clinton presidency. But ignoring a clear signal that Trump had a shot in electoral votes thanks to how voters were distributed around the nation, they’ve decided that his victory meant they must educate that devastated mythical blue national hive mind about red voters who they must have known nothing about.
Consider this when yet another longform paean to vanishing, angry, small town life is spread across social media with a subtitle that talks about how we must understand red voters. We’re being told that we have no clue how people who are our family and friends think despite dealing with them on a very regular basis because the media doesn’t know how to do math and can’t seem to understand that red voters also live in blue areas. Then, instead of actually trying to find out how they think, they send reporters to what they refer to as “flyover country” and stereotype all of them as older, white, blue collar workers who barely finished high school and can’t find work.
Where are the archetypes of engineers, business people working in Fortune 500 companies, or cozy upper middle class suburbanites who voted not out of desperation but because they agreed with his bigotry, or thought he was just a big joke “playing small town yokels for votes” and would never do any of the crazy things he said on the campaign trail, or were just hoping for tax cuts and denying another Clinton the presidency? Think pieces on them are seen once in a blue moon because the media has decided that Trump voters must be shorthand for small town blue collar whites.
Rather than helping us understand Trump voters as they supposedly made their grand mission, they’ve instead stereotyped them into a convenient and ready to exploit narrative niche, stripping the societal conflicts exposed by a troubling campaign and indigestion-inducing presidency down to formulas found in reality TV. (Though that’s rather fitting when it comes to Trump.) Without listening to what blue voters do and do not know, and why or how they know it, they brushed aside anything too nuanced not to smack them in the face and doubled down on their cliches in the name of “balance” even if that balance simply discredits their ability to fact check themselves.
And as long as the media hitches itself to false balance and handy fill-in-the-blanks stereotypes they believe capture the fading of classic rural Americana in poetic tones, but are really just fawning over cliches so old and tired they practically reek of mothballs, they’ll be doing the nation a disservice. If they truly believe there are two sides to every story, they should actually listen to both sides, not rush to put them in boxes prearranged to support the story they wanted to tell. The first step breaking that habit is to drop the charade that Trump voters are some sort of enigma to blue voters, instead of family and friends they’ve known for many years and with whom they’ll fight on social media or the dinner table later today.