November 13, 2005

AMERICA'S SECRET (via Mike Daley):

Travel 2,500 miles in any direction and see if you can find two more similar cities (Niall Ferguson, 13/11/2005, Daily Telegraph)

One of the most puzzling things to a newcomer to the USA is how very alike these allegedly divided Americans appear to be. Fly the 2,588 miles from San Francisco to Miami, and the thing that most strikes you is how similar the two places are. By that I don't mean they're both by the sea; I mean that they are unmistakably in the same country. The people look more or less the same. They sound much the same, too. And the Starbucks, SUVs and sports pages - need I go on? - are all, essentially, the same.

As far as I can see, the only significant differences between the 50 states are climatic. And even then, the range is relatively narrow by global standards. To prove my point, ask yourself where you would end up if you flew the same distance - around 2,500 miles - eastwards from London. The answer is Baku. How about flying the same distance from Zurich? You'd be in Khartoum.

If an Australian flew 2,500 miles north from Perth, he'd be just short of Kuala Lumpur. Consider the immense cultural differences that separate these places and you realise that the most amazing thing of all about the United States is not its polarisation, but its homogeneity.

That's also borne out by serious scrutiny of American public opinion. In their fascinating new book, Culture War: The Myth of a Polarised America, Morris Fiorina, Sam Abrams and Jeremy Pope comprehensively debunk the notion that American society is deeply divided. On a whole range of issues, which don't get debated because consensus is taken for granted, Americans have strikingly similar views. Even on the issues about which the political class gets excited - abortion, homosexuality and religion - it's remarkable how much common ground there is.

"On the whole," the authors conclude, "the views of the American citizenry look moderate, centrist, nuanced, ambivalent… rather than extreme, polarised, unconditional [and] dogmatic."

This makes sense for two reasons. First, the real electoral map bears it out. That's the map that breaks down last year's presidential election by county, weights each county by population and offers intermediate colours where the party votes were pretty close. When you look at that map, there are only a very few parts of the US that are bright red or true blue. Most of America is what you get when you mix the two colours together: a soggy purple.

The other proof is to compare American liberals with their European counterparts. On everything from taxation to religion, the former are significantly more conservative.

In fact, the reason we are so successful at assimilating immigrants is precisely because we are the most conformist society on Earth. The differences between Red and Blue matter, but are comparatively minimal.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 13, 2005 9:26 AM

N.F.'s observations seem limited to urban centers. Travel 30 to 50 miles, short distances for the USA, out from the urban centers and you'll likely find that differences emerge. True, the differences have softened with the growth of MSM's influence on opinion, but the very maps he cites clearly illustrate the political differences, and the cultural baggage they carry, if separated closely enough; thus the generaliztion that there are largely no red or blue states, just blue urban centers and red counties beyond the pale of population concentrations.

That said, our casually observed cultural differences are largely disappearing not only in the USA, but a deaf person dropped into much of London might initially wonder which country she was in.

Posted by: Genecis at November 13, 2005 11:25 AM

One of the things that's decried about the homogenity of today's American culture is what to a great extent bonds the nation together, a trend that has grown even more with the growth of telecommuincations, product shipping on rails and Interstates and the standardization of popular products/franchises/systems and other ideas nationwide.

Folks who decry a Wal-Mart in every suburb or a Starbucks (or two or three) in every city neighborhood are also the same ones who see no problem with a Michael Moore film debuting simultaneiously on 1,000 screens at multiplexes across the country, never comprehending (or deliberately ignoring) that they're part of the same phenominon. And while a Red State or a Blue State person can surf the Internet for hours on political sites and never find a contrasting view if they don't want to, when it comes to buying items on line, paying bills, doing data searches, etc., even that is now fairly standardized (and in this case, crosses international boundaries, which is part of the reason why the countries are pushing U.N. to seize the Internet away from American control).

Posted by: John at November 13, 2005 11:50 AM

In the summer of 1971 we piled our three kids into the station wagon and took off on a month long tent camping trip from Connecticut south and west ending up at Malibu Beach where we camped in the Leo Carrillo State Park, a more beautiful place would be hard to find. I just googled to make sure I had the spelling right, and learned they just installed wireless internet service. Talk about gilding the lily. From there up to San Francisco, Yosemite, my all time favorite place in the universe and back through the middle of the country. The following summer we reprised the trip taking the northern route to Yellowstone.

The point of all this is at that time there were plenty of regional differences. If you were camping on the Kansas prairie, you darn well knew you werenít in Memphis or Salt Lake. People really had different accents, the restaurants were local and served what might be called regional American cuisine. No Chinese, no Italian, not even Thai. When we were in Flagstaff, the kids wanted pizza and we searched but nobody had even heard of it.

I imagine that today only the license plates on their cars would identify where the people in the campgrounds were from and the panoply of franchised fast food restaurants would repeat themselves endlessly as the road stretched out in every direction.

Things change, not for the better or the worse, just different. Iím so glad we had an opportunity to show the kids what a wonderful country we have while they were young enough not to act bored.

Posted by: erp at November 13, 2005 12:53 PM

The electoral map shows few bright red spots, that's true. But there are many very blue spots, the cities. The Dems get either 90 % or they lose, but rarely more than 40-60.

Posted by: Peter at November 13, 2005 1:00 PM

"The most conformist society on Earth"?? Not even close. Just one example: when a group of Americans eat out, they often talk about who's going to order what, and usually people make an effort to avoid ordering the same dish. In Japan, they do all that pre-ordering talk so that everybody can agree on ordering the same dish. That's a conformist society!

Posted by: PapayaSF at November 13, 2005 9:45 PM

Yes, they conform on things that don't matter, the surface stuff. We conform on ideals.

Posted by: oj at November 13, 2005 10:00 PM

Much of this article is bull and I see very little difference between hardcore US leftist, ala, and the Euro's. its all here in the big cites where Karl Marx is a hero.

Posted by: Perry at November 14, 2005 12:24 AM