Color the Nation’s Political Map Purple

July 30, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Tampa Tribune on July 30, 2008.

The 2000 and 2004 presidential elections were two of the closest in U.S. history, and produced nearly identical electoral maps — only Iowa, New Hampshire, and New Mexico switched parties. This result set begat the rigid pundit orthodoxy that America has become a “50–50 nation” — about half “blue” (Democrat), about half “red” (Republican), with the handful of “purple states” (the Ohios, Michigans and Floridas) that have become the critical and deciding battlegrounds.

This analysis misses the forest for the trees. While some combination of the purple states may well decide who will be the next president, it is not the states themselves that “swing,” but their voters.

The real Purple America is not a place but an idea, a confluence of values from Red America and tastes from Blue America. It combines a strong belief in personal responsibility, ordered liberty, and civil society with a passion for independent film, Belgian ale and salsa dancing. It also could spring for a good ball game (though preferably on grass and without the designated hitter).

Purple Americans are, to offer a gross oversimplification, a sober blend of Ricky Bobby and Jean Girard (the reference to Will Ferrell’s farcical Talladega Nights is fitting here; this demographic skews young and irreverent.) They are an imagined community of conservative cosmopolitans, libertarians, classical liberals, hipublicans, South Park conservatives, Crunchy Cons and, especially, those who defy established labels — and thus are distrusted by both coastal elites and heartland populists.

These purple people do not derive their coloring so much from picking policies in a sort of cross‐​partisan smorgasbord, as from possessing seemingly incongruous cultural and political affinities. And they live all over the country, not just in whichever states may be considered purple in a given election cycle.

While the electorate may remain evenly divided, we are finally starting to transcend the color lines. Purple Americans defy stereotypes and confound the accepted wisdom of the media.

They are infiltrating the metropolitan bastions of liberalism as iconoclastic Smurfs: They appear to be blue while roller‐​blading to Whole Foods, but the blood coursing through their veins is decidedly red. They drink bottled water while watching “Monday Night Football,” and read both The Economist and Sports Illustrated.

Purple America demands independent creativity grounded in a solid moral core, as well as an inevitably thick skin; its inhabitants are attacked for both “hedonism” and “insensitivity.” Purple America enjoys fireworks and barbecue on the Fourth of July and will relish the playing of the Star Spangled Banner at the Beijing Olympics in August. It welcomes diversity, but not the false diversity that sees a black lawyer’s kid from the suburbs as more worthy than the son of an Appalachian coal miner or Vietnamese fisherman.

So, as Senators John McCain and Barack Obama crisscross the country, record YouTube clips and hold town hall meetings, they had best remember that there is more to winning an election in this country than appealing to Reagan Democrats and Sam’s Club Republicans. There are plenty of people disgusted with both parties’ destructive behavior and with ideological orthodoxies that don’t fit a modern, globalized, post‐​9/​11 world.

McCain and Obama will have to do more than pander to these voters. Being seen watching Wimbledon will not gain a single convert — and may in fact backfire more than John Kerry’s windsurfing. They will also have to go beyond pretty words and offer policy prescriptions that neither evoke the tired solutions of the 1960s nor are worse than the problems they purport to fix.

The presidential aspirants — and even more so, their successors as party standard‐​bearers in ’12, ’16 and beyond — will have to color outside the lines to win over Purple Americans and thereby make it into the White House.

About the Author
Ilya Shapiro

Ilya Shapiro is a vice president of the Cato Institute, director of the Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies, and publisher of the Cato Supreme Court Review.