Mapping American Social Attitudes

28 03 2012

I’ve found maps fascinating ever since I was a wee lad. I remember getting a globe for my birthday in 1986 and an atlas for Christmas in 1991, and getting new maps and globes over the years to watch the changes in national boundaries. I was shitty at math but adored maps. Maps say so much in pictures  about people, politics, migratory patterns, industry, the environment, natural resources, social attitudes, and loads of other hot, steamy, bloggable stuff. Looking at different maps of the United States, we can see a stark divide in political and social attitudes about race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Here I want you to take a look at some maps of the U.S. to see where different attitudes are concentrated. It’s amazing to see the clear patterning of regional differences, which in turn shows us where we have our work cut out for us in terms of achieving social equity.

We can start this work by looking at the political attitudes, which frequently overlap with social ones. Consider the following maps of the 2008 U.S. presidential election. The first map shows states with red, Republican majorities, and those with blue, Democratic majorities; the second one shows this same information, but with a focus on population density.

As we can see, Republican voters were clustered in the south, the Great Plains, and the interior west, while Democratic voters were clustered in the northeast, Great Lakes, and west coast. As it so happens, the red areas also generally reflect sparsely populated areas, and the blue areas, more densely populated areas, revealing a correlation between cities and Democratic values.

But does the Republican-Democrat divide reflect something more than just urban versus rural? If we look at the following Gallup maps from 2011 and 2010, respectively, we get a better idea how conservatives and liberals are distributed across the country.

Not only are the northeast and northwest regions predominantly Democratic and urban, but they are also decidedly more liberal than the south and the midland. (The midland tends to be a grey area, as we shall see.) The ideological divide along geographical lines begins to deepen. Urbanity, Democratic politics, and liberalism begin to characterize the northeast and west coast while rurality, Republican politics, and conservatism begin to characterize the hinterland.

The regional difference comes into even sharper focus when we look at education and religiosity in America. Below is a 2009 Gallup map showing the most religious and most secular states in the country as well as a 2000 Census Bureau map showing educational attainment.

As the first map suggests, the south is much more religious than average, while Cascadia and New England are much more secular than average. The second map shows the inverse for education: the more secular areas tend to have better-educated people, and the more religious areas tend to have less-educated people, especially when we compare Washington state and Massachusetts with Mississippi. What this seems to show is that religiosity and lower educational attainment pattern together in the south, while secularism and higher educational attainment pattern together in New England and Cascadia (anchored by the cultural and educational centers of Boston and Seattle, respectively).

This ideological divide becomes particularly important when we look at the history of black civil rights in the United States. Consider these maps on slavery and anti-miscegenation laws:

It’s probably no surprise that the south consisted almost entirely of slave states, and the north and west almost entirely of free states and territories. Nor is it surprising that the map of anti-miscegenation laws so closely follows this pattern, with the south resisting the repeal of racist marriage laws until 1967, over one hundred years after slavery was abolished. The south wasn’t always overwhelmingly Republican, though: the region was full of “Dixiecrats” when the liberal Democrat and conservative Republican binary was not as stark as it is today.

But this general pattern of a blue, liberal region wrapping around a red, conservative hinterland doesn’t end with race; it also shows up in opinions about women, women’s rights, and sex differences, as illustrated in the following maps of women’s suffrage laws and attitudes about abortion.

In the suffrage laws map, the divide between a conservative south and a liberal north and west is slightly blurred. Large parts of the northeast joined with the south in resistance to suffrage, but vast parts of the west and northwest remained progressive on this issue, in stark contrast with the south. The north-south binary reappears, however, in the 2006 abortion map, which shows a northeast and west coast far friendlier toward reproductive rights than the south.

The south’s apparent concern for unborn babies seems incompatible with its poor record on child welfare. We see another stark regional difference looking at maps of state-by-state child poverty rates and overall child welfare across the United States.

On the 2008 child welfare map, children are better off in the lighter-shaded areas, which include Washington state, Utah, the Upper Midwest, and New England, but they are worse off in the south–the same part of the country where women’s rights, black civil rights, and post-secondary educational attainment tend to lag behind, and where religiosity tends to flourish. A very similar pattern holds for child poverty rates, with a dark band of impoverished children in the south and a lighter strip of well-off children in the west, north, and northeast.

No discussion of American social attitudes would be complete without mention of gay rights, which seems to be the social justice zeitgeist of our time. It’s everywhere in the news, at least in the United States, where everything is controversial. Once again, the general pattern we have been seeing holds true when we look at the maps below showing the advance of gay rights in the United States.

The first map shows the northeast, Midwest, and west coast taking the lead in knocking down old laws banning sodomy between consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes. Most of the south (as well as Mormon country) had to be forced by a 2003 Supreme Court ruling to catch up with the rest of the country. And, in typical fashion, the northeast, Midwest (Iowa), and northwest (Washington state) shine bright blue as the beacons in the gay marriage movement, while the south and Great Plains are steeped in a mostly dark blood red. We must take care not to lump the entire south into the category of “retrogressive”, however: one former slave state–Maryland–is now a gay marriage state. Now, that’s a remarkable transformation. How many states can say that they used to have slaves, but they will soon have legally married gay couples if all goes according to plan?

Certainly, looking at a few maps gives only a rough depiction of social attitudes in America, and much more investigation is required to yield a truly refined and nuanced portrait of the issue, but we can still get a general idea where American attitudes lie with respect to the rights of women, minorities, children, poor people, etc., by looking at maps. Cascadia and New England generally represent more liberal, educated, healthy people while the south generally represents the opposite. We can use this kind of knowledge to focus our efforts on helping those who have been targeted for oppression. It isn’t about judging ignorant rubes–it’s about demonstrating compassion for the underprivileged. With further research, and with the facts in mind, we can reach out to disenfranchised minorities, abused children, poor people who don’t have money for rent, young pregnant women with no access to reproductive health-care, bullied gay youth with nowhere to go, and the lonely, ostracised atheist or Muslim, with the goal of creating equity for all. This is the purpose of looking at social attitudes in America.

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Gay Marriage, Majority Rule, and Minority Rights

19 01 2012

As the Washington state legislature mulls a bill that would legalise gay marriage, conservatives are crawling out of the woodwork to stop its passage or to punish Republicans who vote in favour of it by attempting to end their political careers. (The National Organisation of Marriage is trying to do this.) Some of these individuals and groups also want to put the decision up to a public vote. The argument they use to justify this kind of move is that majority opinion reigns supreme in a true democracy. I will argue here that majority opinion does not necessarily reign supreme in a true democracy, and I will show why this is so in four ways: democracy is not just defined as “majority rule”, but also as “equality”; the majority have no right to speak on issues which do not affect them; courts must adjudicate the law impartially; and legislators are not obliged to represent the views of their majority constituents on issues which do not affect their majority constituents.

I want to let you know that I am not telling you how the law actually works; I am simply telling you how it should work according to the principles of ethical reasoning.

With respect to the first point, the issue of gay marriage centres around the definition of democracy. Many conservatives will argue that gay marriage should be put up to a public vote because, in a democracy, the majority opinion rules. However, the definition of democracy does not begin and end with majority rule; it also involves the concept of equality. According to the Random House Dictionary, democracy has the following senses: government by the people, a state having such a form of government, a state of society characterised by formal equality of rights and privileges, political or social equality, and commoners as distinct from the privileged class. The definition of democracy encompasses the concepts of both self-representation and equality, so any gay marriage opponent who invokes democracy on the basis of the former, while ignoring the latter, is giving us a skewed, incomplete understanding of democracy. This hardly helps validate their opposition to gay marriage on democratic grounds.

This biased preoccupation with self-representation is closely linked to the notion of majority rule, which is consistently invoked by gay marriage opponents. Gay marriage opponents constantly argue that the quintessential democracy is defined by the reign of the majority opinion. But this is not necessarily so. A lot of issues should be decided by the majority, because those issues affect the majority, but not all issues do. If we treat democracy as “self-representation”, then the majority have the right to rule on issues which affect the majority, but they do not have the right to rule on issues which only affect the minority. Gay marriage only affects the minority, not the majority, therefore the majority have no right to rule on gay marriage. Thus, the conservative argument that the majority should rule on gay rights on the basis of “majority rule” is debunked.

Immediately gay marriage opponents will point out that this argument is not sound because, when a panel of judges rule on such an issue, a majority of votes still matters. It is true that a majority of votes matters when a court of law rules on gay marriage, but there is an important distinction to make: while the public vote on the basis of their personal prejudices, judges are obliged to adjudicate the law. While popular opinion is based on popular prejudice, legal opinion is based on interpretation of the law. It is not exactly fair to compare majority rule on the basis of personal prejudices with the majority rule of judges who are obliged impartially to fulfil the law. Therefore, it is invalid to compare majority rule through a public referendum with majority rule through a court of law, and, hence, it is invalid to say that judges should be doing the same thing as the public with regard to minority rights.

But, of course, gay marriage opponents will argue that judges are only adjudicating laws which are passed by elected representatives of the people. So, now the question is, whose interests do those elected representatives actually represent? Gay marriage opponents would argue that they represent the majority opinion of their constituency. This is not necessarily so. If we accept that the majority should rule only on issues which affect the majority, and not those which affect only the minority, then elected representatives are not obliged to represent the views of their majority constituents on issues which affect only the minority. Instead, they are obliged to defend minority interests. And whose majority vote determines that, you may ask? None, because the vote would be a unanimous decision based on reason, logic, and fairness. Reason, logic, and fairness are the ultimate arbiter, not popular opinion.

Of course, not all legislators are rational, hence not all laws they pass will be based on reason. This does not, however, mean that it is right that they pass the laws that they do. It only means that they fail to acknowledge reason. In some sense, the greatest intellectual burden lies on their shoulders.

In summary, I haven’t tried to create the perfect defense of gay marriage in modern-day democracies; I’ve merely tried to challenge how we alienate minorities using “majority rule” as an excuse, even when the majority have no justifiable interest in the lives of the minority. In principle, democracy should be about how we satisfy our personal interests, not how we control the lives of others. And when there is any question about how an issue affects us, it should be boiled down to whom it affects, and this is determined by reason.

That said, if you live in Washington state, and you live in one of the six constituencies led by undecided Washington state senators, I implore you to contact your senator and ask them to vote “yes” on the bill legalising gay marriage. We are just two senators’ votes away from marriage equality. Just two! It is good for gay people and for everybody else.