The Two Nations of America
E pluribus numquam: We were never really meant to be one nation.
In his 2004 Democratic Convention speech, Barack Obama famously said:
The pundits like to slice and dice our country into Red states and Blue states – Red states for Republicans, Blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red states. We coach Little League in the Blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red states.
Almost 20 years later, it’s clear that Obama had the second part right. As the reaction to Dobbs reminds us, we are much less divided as people than the universally accepted polarization literature would have us believe.
But he was dead wrong about the first part. There are Red states, and there are Blue states. And the difference between living in a Red state or a Blue state is the difference between living in two countries with dramatically different value systems and standards of living.
Today, when we think about America, we make the essential error of imagining it as a single nation, a marbled mix of Red and Blue people. But America has never been one nation. We are a federated republic of two nations: Red Nation and Blue Nation.
This is not a metaphor; it is a geographic and historical reality. America’s states have never been united by the same set of fundamental beliefs about what makes governments legitimate, which social hierarchies are just, or what constitutes a good life. For the last 250 years, Blue Nation has aspired to the Declaration of Independence’s creed that all men are created equal and that government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed.1 And for the last 250 years, Red Nation has insisted upon an essentially theocratic worldview, in which popular sovereignty was secondary to enforcing the already-revealed, eternal values of white Christian nationalism and rigid social stratification. See the Appendix for an explanation of how I define the two nations, as pictured in the map above.
This should not be surprising. The original colonies were settled by very different peoples, who came to the “New World” for very different reasons and sought to accomplish very different things. Forced together by the exigencies of external threats and continental opportunities, they wrote a federalist constitution that defended each region’s capacity to preserve its own way of life. It soon became clear that this choice created pathways for regional factions to hijack our political system and further entrench those differences.
The exigencies of a Depression followed by a World War and a Cold War were enough to again make it seem that out of many, America was becoming one. But in historical terms, that period of progress was short-lived. While median household income in the Jim Crow states in 1928 was only 30 percent of what it was in the rest of the country, by 2008, it was a bit more than 90 percent. As late as 1940, 70 percent of households in the Jim Crow states didn’t have indoor plumbing compared to about 40 percent who lacked it in the rest of the country; of course, by 2008 nearly everyone everywhere had it.2
I chose 2008, because although progress had already stalled a few decades before, the combination of the financial crash and subsequent Great Recession, combined with the election of the first Black president, created the opportunity for MAGA to become one of the most successful political movements in American history. It has already managed to roll back civil rights and curtail prosperity for roughly half of Americans, and has aspirations to do the same for all.
This post is divided into three parts:
The Defining Divides - In this section, we'll look at the defining, enduring divides between Blue and Red Nations – urbanicity, economic resources, labor relations, religion, education and demographics.
Sectional Politics Reborn - In this section, we’ll look at how voting in federal elections once again reflects the old regional divides in American politics.
Two Ways of Life - In this section, we’ll look at the state policy differences between the “nations,” and how those differences have led to two sharply different standards of living and ways of life.
First, here are some of the highlights (or lowlights, for Red Nation) of just how divergent the policies and life outcomes in the two nations have become. This is something that Ron Brownstein wrote about today in The Atlantic, citing my research in this post.3
This first chart looks at the key differences in policy actions taken. Note that in both charts, the percentages refer to the percentage of people in each region to whom the metric applies, not the percentage of states. (For instance, in the second chart, only 4 blue states passed restrictive election laws, but 27% of Blue Nation people live in those states.) In the first chart, we see the dramatic difference between Red and Blue Nation on policies that affect democracy, reproductive rights, gun violence, education, and economic security.
This second chart looks at the key differences in life outcomes. Note that the Red state maternal mortality rate of 28.5 per 100,000 births would place it 42nd out of 48 OECD nations, between China and Argentina.4
Part III contains more data on all of these indicators, as well as more information on methodology and data sources. While you may think this or that indicator may not be the ideal one, or have issues with any of them, don’t lose sight of the forest. In every category, the Weekend Reading research team and I could have picked others that are all directionally the same. We are awash in government statistics. But, to my knowledge, I have not chosen any indicators about which the Red vs Blue directionality would be reversed by picking a different indicator.
Nations ≠ People
An important caveat before we dive in: It is all too easy and common to associate the policy being enacted by Red state legislatures as reflective of the will of the people living in Red states. In fact, in almost all instances, what is distinctive about the MAGA Era is that those policies are far to the right of voters in Red states.
Consider that after Dobbs, major state by state surveys showed that there wasn’t a single state in which a majority of voters supported the repeal of Roe. For example, a 50 state survey conducted by PRRI reconfirmed what has been the case for quite a while – that not only does a majority of Americans oppose the overturning of Roe vs Wade, a majority of voters in every state does as well. In the PRRI survey, only 38 percent of those in Red States approved overturning Roe, ranging from 33 percent in North Carolina to 48 percent in Arkansas. Yet, in every state where the Christian nationalist movement has hacked the primaries, state legislatures have enacted even more draconian restrictions. Indeed, 98 percent of people living in Red states face pre-viability abortion bans. Similarly, ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage or accept Medicaid funding consistently win in Red states.
Part I: The Defining Divides
In this section, I’m going to go through the fundamental divides between the nations and show how those divides express themselves in partisan outcomes.
The Urban/Rural Divide
Although most of us know that Blue states are more urban than Red states, few realize that the difference is so large as to make Blue America an urban nation, and Red America a rural nation. The number of people living in cities with more than 1 million residents in the Blue Nation is five times the number of people living in non-metropolitan areas. In the Red Nation, the opposite is true, as this visualization makes clear. In most of the Blue states, urbanization has reached the point that urban cores and their high density suburbs account for nearly two thirds of the population.
Putting aside upper New England, all but one of the 21 most rural states in the country are Red states, and the exception is Wisconsin.
Some of you may be objecting that the urban-rural divide is even wider within states than the difference between states that I’m calling attention to. While it is true that the partisan urban-rural gap was greater within each nation than it was between them, it is also true that Biden did considerably better in Blue Nation’s most rural counties (-6) than he did in all of Red Nation (-12).
The Religious Divide
One of the most consequential differences between the nations is the prevalence and power of white Evangelical churches5 in Red Nation. (For much more on this subject, see “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Sources of MAGA Madness and Congressional Kakistocracy.”) Red America is still a white Christian nation. Indeed, of the 87 congressional districts with the greatest concentration of white Evangelicals, only four are in Blue Nation and 81 are in Red Nation. Likewise, 41 percent of Red Nation attends services at least once a month, compared to only 32 percent in Blue Nation.
But that census doesn’t begin to capture the extent to which Christian nationalism is an organized force that dominates the Red Nation, and is nearly absent in the Blue Nation. Recently, PRRI conducted an extensive study of Christian nationalism, asking respondents how much they agree or disagree with statements like “U.S. laws should be based on Christian values” and “Being Christian is an important part of being truly American.” PRRI created four categories with respect to Christian nationalism – adherents, sympathizers, skeptics and rejecters, in order of how much they agreed with the Christian nationalist statements. Adherents are more than twice the share of Red Nation as Blue Nation, and more than a third of those in Red Nation are classified as adherents or sympathizers.
The Economic Divide
When most people think of the differences between Red and Blue America, they are almost certainly going to think about it in terms of “social” issues. The differences in terms of economic issues are at least as great, and probably have at least as much to do with the persistence of the differences. From the founding, the Red Nation economy has been based on maintaining a low-wage economy, in which working people have minimal rights. (Of course, before the Civil War, it wasn’t low wage at all, as the plantation economy was based on enslaving people.) Accordingly, the economy has been centered on extractive industries, first cotton, then oil, gas, and mining.
In contrast, the Blue Nation has long centered on commerce and finance. Although at first Blue state industrialists were even more violent in their efforts to suppress working people in the early stages of industrialization, since the 1930’s working people in Blue Nation have had far more rights and higher incomes than those in Red Nation. Its cornerstone industries include finance, tech, and communications.
The very different regional economics are clearly reflected in this visualization, which shows the partisan leaning of federal campaign contributions since 1996, categorized by the major economic sectors that the donors are associated with. As you can see, for the last three decades, the financial base of the Republican Party has been agribusiness, energy and natural resources, construction, and transportation. On the other hand, Democrats’ strongest financial backers have been communications and electronics (tech). And, especially in the MAGA Era, industries that had tilted toward Republicans – finance/insurance/real estate, health, and miscellaneous – are now tilting towards Democrats, and the defense industry is growing less red.
In the next subsections, I point to two factors – labor relations and education/innovation – that help explain why the Blue states have seen more dynamic growth and higher incomes and standards of living, as well as more small-d democratic politics and greater respect for civil and human rights.
But, it’s important to keep in mind that while Blue outshines Red across the board on these and other indicators, in most instances Blue Nation is not better than, and often lags behind, most developed Western democracies in the OECD. In Europe, stronger unions were successful in establishing greater constraints on capital, greater investment in public goods, and much more generous health and welfare benefits. And, while Blue Nation incomes and wealth are significantly greater than Red Nation’s, they are still much less equally distributed than in the rest of the OECD. Returning to the earlier comparison of maternal mortality rates, which showed Red states to be in 42 place out of 48, it’s important to recognize that the rate in Blue states would place 37th. (30 OECD nations have rates lower than 10 per 100,000 births.)
Labor Relations and Working People
It is no coincidence that not one state in Blue Nation has right to work laws (which make it extremely difficult to organize unions), while only 12 percent of working people in Red Nation are free of such laws. The following table shows how that has translated in terms of both policy and better economic outcomes for Blue Nation’s working people.
The Educational and Innovation Divide
As Weekend Reading readers know, I have been very critical of what I call education essentialists – those who see educational attainment as the dividing line in American politics because Democrats with diplomas insist on foisting their cosmopolitan values on the rest of the country. As I showed in “Congressional “Class Inversion” or Sectional Reversion?,” according to Nationscape and other 2020 surveys, white voters without a degree in Blue states were more likely to support Biden than white voters with a degree in Red states. And there were no differences between those groups in terms of net favorability to Black Lives Matter or “undocumented immigrants.”
However, there is a different but very important way in which Blue states’ greater investment in education, from pre-K to research universities, undergirds the basic economic divides between the regions.
The 7-point difference in college education, shown in the chart above, actually understates a more important difference in educational attainment between the two nations. This next chart approaches this difference from the perspective of the kinds of communities that people live in. More than half of those in Blue Nation live in a county where at least 40 percent of residents have a college degree, while half of those in Red Nation live in a county that is substantially more high-school-or-less than college-graduate-or-more.
Given Blue states’ greater commitment to education, it shouldn’t be surprising that Blue Nation is the engine of American innovation. One way innovation is frequently measured is by the number of patents. This chart shows the share of patents in 2020.
The Demographic Divide
Red Nation claims nearly half of the United States population, while 39 percent of Americans reside in Blue Nation. Blue Nation is much more diverse than Red Nation, with nearly as many people of color as whites. However, Black people make up a larger share of Red Nation than Blue. One fifth of the Blue Nation is Latino, and 11 percent is AAPI.
Part II: Sectional Politics Return
American politics has long been defined by a sectional (or regional) divide, which of course came to a head with the Civil War. For several decades in the mid-20th century, we had something approaching convergence in regional partisanship. This is no longer the case. The old sectional divide has reasserted itself with a vengeance. We will look at the resurgence of Red Nation vs. Blue Nation politics in three ways:
Presidential elections have become regional landslides, as they were before 1932. We think of the last three presidential elections as extraordinarily close, reflecting a nation evenly divided.6 But, if we think of ourselves as living in two nations, Red and Blue, the last three elections were landslides.
The parties’ caucuses in the House and Senate are as regionally sorted as they were before 1932. One reason Congress is so dysfunctional now is that those elected to serve are there to defend and advance their factional interests rather than the nation’s interests.
Those serving in the House and Senate are more ideologically sorted along those regional lines than ever. And this polarization has not been symmetric. The MAGA Era Republican is more extreme than either party has been since the Civil War.
Presidential Votes are Regional Landslides
Let’s create a metric to describe this phenomenon – “presidential partisan spread.” In 2020, the presidential partisan spread was 34 points (Biden +22 in Blue States, Trump +12 in Red States).
The following chart shows presidential partisan spread since the first election after the Civil War.7 Election years without bars indicate the winner received a majority in both regions, or, in a few cases, lost one region by less than 5 points.
Blue state readers: Sit with this: The voters in the 27 states in the Red Nation preferred Mitt Romney and Donald Trump (twice) to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden by a greater margin than any president in our lifetime has won by, other than Reagan, Nixon and Eisenhower.
Red state readers: Sit with this: The voters in the 17 states in the Blue Nation preferred Obama, Clinton and Biden by a greater margin than any president has received since Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.
Every reader: Why is anyone surprised when the representatives in Congress elected by voters who voted for Biden by 22 have irreconcilable differences with the representatives whose voters chose Trump by 12?
This next chart shows the percentage of Americans living in either a Red or Blue state that went for the losing presidential candidate by more than 10 points – in other words, the states whose voters were poorly represented by the final choice. The horizontal bars indicate the average for each time period. In every election beginning with Bush v Gore, a greater share of Americans have lived in a state that voted for the loser by more than 10 points than in any election but one since the Civil War.
Two Nations, One Congress
The book Southern Nation: Congress and White Supremacy after Reconstruction8 describes in detail how the representatives and senators from the South self-consciously organized themselves to control their party caucuses and used the seniority that came with representing a region with no partisan competition to advance the region's interests. That addition of urban Northern Democrats beginning with the New Deal diluted the extreme regional sorting, but has rebounded since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which we clearly see first in the dramatic changes to the regional composition of the caucuses (the next set of graphs) and then in the ideological extremism later in this subsection.
In Congressional “Class Inversion” or Sectional Reversion? I showed how since the end of the Cold War, and accelerating in the MAGA Era, the House party caucuses are as regionally sorted as they were before the New Deal.
The following chart shows how campaign contributions reenforce the allegiances of each party’s caucuses to Blue and Red regional interests.
In “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Sources of MAGA Madness and Congressional Kakistocracy” I showed how, in the MAGA Era, not only has regional sorting taken place, the Religious Right has also hijacked the Republican Party by successfully challenging establishment “RINOs.”
In “To the Supreme Court, the 20th Century Was Wrongly Decided,” I laid out the way in which decisions by the Federalist Society majority opened the door to MAGA turning their 2010 victories into a restoration of the Jim Crow era’s one-party control of the legislatures in the states in which half of America lives. Not surprisingly, the decisions that repaved the way were those that gutted or eliminated the laws and court rulings that had been dismantling the electoral framework for Jim Crow regimes. And the MAGA capture of the Republican party made Republican majorities in Blue states unachievable.9
Red State Republicans Race Right
The left panel shows the widely used average first dimension Nominate scores (which measure ideology) for the Democratic and Republican Parties from the end of the Reconstruction.10 11 As we would expect, the Republicans are consistently more conservative than Democrats, with a slight convergence in the mid-Twentieth Century. And as Lee Drutman elaborates on in his Substack, the MAGA Era Republican is more extreme than either party has been since the Civil War. (Note that there is a separate second dimension Nominate score for racial issues, which explains why the Jim-Crow-era Democrats still score as liberal here.)
But now, look at the panel on the right. Here we see the average Nominate scores for representatives from the Blue and Red states over the same period. At a high level we can see three distinct phases:
The Capitalist Divide - until the Depression. In this period, northern capitalists dominated what are now Blue states, while the Red states (the Confederacy) were dominated by anti-northern elites.
Unified by Adversity - until the end of the Cold War. We see almost no difference for the three plus decades from the beginning of the Depression until the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, and, even in the wake of that, only a slight divergence by historical standards.
Sectionally Divided Again - from the end of the Cold War. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, representatives from each region sharply diverge again. It’s important to note that in this entire period, representatives from Blue states are only 0.03 points more liberal than they were in the Early VRA Era, while representatives from the Red states are 0.33 points more conservative!
There is much to say about the transition that is beyond the scope of this post. For an excellent analysis of how the dynamics of the Cold War encouraged the suppression of extreme partisanship, see Gary Gerstle’s The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order.
Part III: Two Ways of Life
As we saw in the previous section, unified state legislative control has characterized both regions for the last dozen or so years. In that time, those legislatures have aggressively passed policies that have added up to two very different ways of life, and very different living standards and life outcomes. In this part, with little narration, we’ll go through those policies and life outcomes.
As in the chart at the top of the post, in each subsection, percentages refer to the percentage of people in each region to whom the metric applies. In most other analyses, these indicators are usually reported in terms of, for example, how many states have enacted a particular kind of legislation. That makes it very difficult to grasp the extent of the coverage of those laws. By combining the states into a single region, these charts can show how many people in my “nations” are covered by those laws. For example, the first row of the democracy chart shows us that no one living in a Blue state is subject to election subversion legislation enacted since 2020, while 88 percent of those living in Red states are. In the same spirit, figures like average median household income are an average of the people in each “nation,” not an average of the median in each state in the region. In other words, they are the averages of the people in the region, as if no state boundaries existed, not the average of the averages in each state.
Democracy and Voting
Let’s begin with the differences in how Red and Blue state trifectas have redefined voting rules and democracy. Over the last dozen years, Red states have enacted laws to make it more difficult to vote – with the intended result that Black turnout rates have declined.
Health and Quality of Life
Red Nation citizens can expect to live 2.5 fewer years than people in the Blue Nation, and have a higher incidence of death from cancer, heart disease, and lung disease. Red Nation’s refusal to invest in its citizens’ health (such as by refusing Medicaid expansion) likely contributes to its poorer health outcomes.
Reproductive Rights/Maternal and Infant Health
Once again we see dramatically poorer health outcomes in the Red Nation, including much higher infant and maternal mortality rates, accompanied by draconian policies that are known to make these outcomes worse.
Crime, Incarceration and Guns
Red Nation has far fewer restrictions on guns, and almost twice as many firearm deaths per capita than in Blue Nation. Red Nation also incarcerates many more of its citizens per capita.
Blue Nation invests more in education, doesn’t have curriculum censorship laws, and has better education outcomes across the board.
Living in the Red Nation means living in communities with more deaths of despair, more murders, and more deaths from COVID.
Perhaps we should forgive Obama for his unrealized optimism. His generation was reared with the belief that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, and the belief in the inevitability of progress generally. Let’s go back to that same electric peroration in 2004, when he said:
I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible. Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation … [which] is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
For most of the following 250 years, the Constitution – which the authors of the Declaration’s soaring aspirations had to accept in order to form our nation – erected barriers to realizing those hopes that once again seem insurmountable.
(Special thanks to Andrea Evans, who found and wrangled most of the data in the Red states vs Blue states tables.)
Appendix: Defining the Two Nations
My criteria for classifying a state as being part of Red Nation or Blue Nation is the extent to which the state continues to fully reflect those founding differences. (See the map at the top of the post for which states belong to which nation.) Since the Republican and Democratic Parties have become less national parties than regional advocates for those different economic interests and ways of life, it shouldn’t surprise us that those state governments have been firmly in the control of one or the other party for most or all of what I am calling the MAGA Era (after 2008). The rest are commonly labeled “purple” because neither political party has a grip on state lawmaking. In this post, I’m putting those states to the side.
For the purposes of this analysis, the colors Blue and Red designate geographic regions, not political parties. Thus, before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, “Red” designates the Confederate states even though the Democratic Party dominated the politics in that region. The geographic boundaries of each nation have remained nearly constant throughout history; the foundation of the Red Nation remains the Confederate States.
The borders of the Confederacy and my Red Nation don’t line up perfectly. The differences underscore a central point I’m trying to make – that the interplay of exogenous events, policy decisions, and demographics have created large openings for the MAGA movement to expand beyond the old Confederacy.
In broad terms:
Red “loses” Virginia to Purple after 2008 because of the explosive economic and population growth in Northern Virginia.
Red “gains” the rust belt (Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia) – areas that were never committed to liberal institutions to the same extent as the core of Blue Nation was, but which were competitive when there was a strong union movement.
Red “gains” Kentucky and Missouri, which were always more Red than Blue but were not technically part of the Confederacy.
Red “gains” mostly rural (Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah), extractive (Alaska, Oklahoma, Wyoming) and farm (Iowa, Kansas) states after 2008. Most of those states have not fully recovered from the Great Recession.
Some formerly Union states, like Pennsylvania or Michigan, are considered Purple, because control of state government remains very much contested. States like Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina are considered “Red” even though Democrats are competitive in statewide elections, because the Republican grip on the legislatures in those states, reinforced by gerrymandered district lines, prevents the possibility of meaningful changes in the direction of the state. Virginia is usually thought of as a “blue state” for the margins it now provides Democratic presidential candidates. However, Republicans have been able to use their power in the state legislature to prevent us thinking of it as “blue” in terms of governing. Although Cooper was re-elected, North Carolina remains a Red state because of the state legislature.
For a few decades in the 20th century, following the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, America’s sectional divide no longer mapped neatly to the original Union vs. Confederate boundaries. But by the beginning of the 21st Century, the one-party Democratic South was becoming the one-party Republican South, with the exception of Virginia, where the expansion of the federal government's impact on Northern Virginia changed the balance of power.
“Aspired” is of course the key word here; we still haven’t reached the full promise of that ideal.
Please let us know if we missed anything in proofing - there are hundreds of numbers here!
After Argentina comes Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Columbia, India and South Africa
For ease of writing, I’m counting Mormans in this reference.
It might seem strange to call the 2020 election close, since Biden won by over 7 million votes and 74 electoral votes. But he won the critical swing states by razor-thin margins.
Before 1932, Red and Blue indicate Jim Crow and Union states.
David Bateman, Ira Katznelson and John Lapinski
Here are the definitions of the Eras in the chart
Early Jim Crow - 1878 to 1890
Jim Crow - 1892 to 1930
New Deal - 1932 to 1940
World War II - 1942 to 1948
Cold War - 1950 to 1966
Early VRA (Voting Rights Act) - 1968 to 1978
Reagan - 1980 to 1992
Gingrich - 1994 to 2008
MAGA - 2010 to present
For much more on the generation and use of Nominate scores, especially in the context I’m using them, see, for example, Nolan McCarty’s Polarization: What Everyone Needs to Know.
See footnote 9 for era definitions.