Our Patchwork Nation: Beyond Red States vs. Blue States

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Dante Chinni and his co-author James Gimpel do not like the red states–blue states map that pops up every four years during a presidential election. They ask, How can a nation of 300 million people be reduced to a binary so crude that it doesn't even account for all three primary colors? In Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth About the "Real" America, Chinni, a longtime journalist, and Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, set out to chart a map of America that more accurately represents its sprawling complexities. Chinni talked to TIME about the communities he discovered, the grim times that await many and what it all means for the country's future.

What is misleading about dividing America into red states and blue states?
It's not that I think red states and blue states completely miss the mark. I mean, obviously, we have two parties in this country and that's the way we keep score — and keeping score is not an unimportant thing. But it does a disservice in that [California's] Orange County is a very Republican county and so is Sioux County in Iowa and so is Christian County in Missouri, but those places have very little in common when you get right down to it, except for the fact that they vote Republican. They are all red America, but the people who live in those places shop in different kinds of stores and eat different kinds of foods. So when we start talking about red America and blue America, we can completely miss what's really going on.

Can you give me an example?
I grew up outside Detroit, and Detroit is very blue and so is Washtenaw County, where Ann Arbor is. But it's hard to think of two places that are more different than Detroit and Ann Arbor. One is educated, one is really fairly wealthy, one is young, one is white; the other is black, and it's poor and the education level isn't as high. Those two places are extremely different, but they're right next door to each other. They really live in different realities.

You broke the U.S. down into 12 community types, including categories with names like Evangelical Epicenters, Minority Central and Tractor Country. How did you come up with those 12?
We took all the demographic data we could find — everything from age to race to income to religious background to educational background, and some rudimentary consumer-data things like household income, cost of a home, cost of a car. We even have some data on alcohol purchases in there. And that was what we used to crunch them all down to the 12 communities we ended up with.

What struck you the most from your road trip to these different communities?
When you get off the beaten path, you really get a feel for how complicated the U.S. is, how difficult it is to govern and how hard it is to understand. What holds it together other than Sunday-night football? When you talk to the mayors, the church leaders, the schoolteachers in 12 different places with 12 different economies, it really gives you an appreciation for just how difficult it is to really get anything done.

Out of this patchwork, do you see a national identity?
A big part of the national identity is the belief that you control your own destiny here. I actually think that's taken a real hit in the last year and a half. Part of being an American is you come here, work hard and make your way. People really like that idea, but I think when you look at the world around us, the thing people see is that things are kind of out of sorts in America and nobody is really sure how to fix it. People may be supporting Republicans for Congress, but the party hasn't offered a plan of what they are going to do, and the Democrats aren't sure either. We need a big plan for economic restructuring and nobody seems to know what that is yet. I think that the idea that we don't know what the plan is is disheartening and it makes people think that there are forces playing with their lives that are out of their control.

What does that mean for our future as a nation?
People do still believe in America, and I think that's a wonderful thing. In terms of governing and getting things done, it means we're in for a bumpy decade. The economy has fundamentally changed and I don't know if everyone understands that yet. It's not about what happened under Bush or what happened under Clinton — it's 30 years of problems that we have to fix. That calls for a major overhaul, and a major overhaul in this country is really hard because there are so many different interests and so many different things that people in these different communities want. I don't think it's going to just fall apart, but I think it's going to take things getting really bad before people will put aside some of the differences they have and say, "O.K., I may not agree with you, but we all have to come to the table and try to figure some stuff out here."

You conclude on a positive note, though, that we are still a nation of optimists. How did you come to that conclusion?
Even in these tough times, you'll hear people say, "Things are really bad, but we think it's going to turn around." There's this idea that if you work hard, you're going to get ahead in America. And the fact is, no fewer than 60% of people in all these different community types, despite all the differences they have between them, say that's true. I think that is something you can try to build a country around. But I do wonder — and I'm not saying this to be the eternal pessimist — what those numbers are going to look like in five years because, as I said, we're in for a really difficult 10 years.