A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Nation’s divisions not as stark as assumed

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., March 25, 26 or 27

The differences and divisions of the country are more subtle than conventional wisdom or what right-wing broadcasting blowhards would have you believe. U.S. society is not as deeply divided and political labels are far less accurate than categories that take into account other kinds of personal preferences.

For example, there’s not such a huge gap between rural and urban America, according to a compelling map created by Mark Newman from the Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan. His visual construction is more nuanced than the more familiar – but misleading – maps media often use.

For instance, there’s the Electoral College map broken down by state, showing blue (Democrat) or red (Republican) after votes are tallied. That makes it seem like a handful of Upper Midwest, Northeast and Northwest states joined with areas of sizable Hispanic populations to steamroll the nation.

Alternately, maps with county-by-county breakdowns also seem to reinforce the paranoid notion that a few blue states are imposing their will on a huge number of red states.

“We know that's not the case, but that's what the maps convey because we associate area and volume with importance,” write Jesus Diaz on the news site.

A slightly more truthful representation mixes blue and red based on popular vote percentage instead of showing a binary, either/or, representation.

“There's no huge area of red,” Diaz comments. “There is a gradient. A lot of ‘purple.’ That's the accurate map that reflects the actual result of the election. It also shows that the divide between the cities and the countryside is not that huge. There are differences of opinion everywhere.”

Newman’s map is the best, most precise, representation of reality. It factors in population density, showing the importance of every county based on the population – the number of citizens. The lighter the color, the less populated and, therefore, the less influence in the election. The more saturated it is, the more populated and more weight it shows.

Another analysis of the variety of Americans comes from a journalism effort called Patchwork Nation, which instead of voting patterns uses demographic, economic and social data to break the nation’s 3,100-plus counties into 12 types: Boom Towns, Campus and Careers, Emptying Nests, Evangelical Epicenters, Immigration Nation, Industrial Metropolis, Military Bastions, Minority Central, Monied 'Burbs, Mormon Outposts, Service Worker Centers, and Tractor Country.

“Programs and messages that appeal to voters in different places are necessarily going to be different,” says Dante Chinni, who heads up Patchwork Nation. “This has always been true on social issues, but it is increasingly true on economic ones – that’s why divisions will likely grow. In August, the national unemployment rate was 8.1 percent [but] it was only 4.7 percent in Tractor Country counties; it was 9.4 percent in Industrial Metropolis counties.”

Patchwork Nation’s analysis of 12 west-central Illinois counties shows each as falling into one of four categories –
* Campus and Careers (cities and towns with young, educated populations; more secular and Democratic than other American communities): McDonough and Peoria Counties;
* Emptying Nests (home to many retirees and aging Baby Boomer populations; less diverse than the nation at large): Henry, Livingston and Mercer;
* Monied 'Burbs (wealthier, highly educated communities with a median household income of $15,000 above the national county average): Tazewell and Woodford; and
* Service Worker Centers (midsize and small towns with economies fueled by hotels, stores and restaurants and lower-than-average median household income by county): Fulton, Henderson, Knox, Stark and Warren.

Like Newman’s fact-based illustration, Patchwork’s “quilt” appropriate makes you feel warm about the country.

Newman’s and other maps are pictured. They can be seen online at
Details on Patchwork Nation are online at

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