Even if you think you’re above such distinctions, we all have a rough idea of what someone means when they say “red state” or “blue state.” A red-stater stops at Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee on the way to Wal-Mart and listens to Rush Limbaugh for entertainment; her blue counterpart is downing a $3 Starbucks macchiato, cranking NPR and, of course, heading to Whole Foods on an arugula run. There may be kernels of truth to these caricatures, but they don’t tell the whole story. Who are we, really?
Journalist Dante Chinni and political geographer James Gimpel spent two years crossing and re-crossing the country to answer that question, and the result is Our Patchwork Nation. Their collaboration focused on the 3,141 counties in the U.S. and found 12 community types with enough demographic common ground to categorize. Military Bastions, for example, are located near military bases, generate mid-range pay and are full of soldiers, vets and their families. Their financial stability is threatened by our current cycle of long deployments; no soldiers means fewer patrons at local businesses, from the gas pump to the strip club, and the families left behind tend to spend conservatively. Evangelical Epicenters are full of young families who are very active in church life; their income tends to be less than the national average, but they’re not as concerned about keeping up with the Joneses as with home and family. Service Worker centers rely on tourist dollars to stay afloat; employees live paycheck to paycheck and tend to be uninsured. A slow season or personal emergency can quickly throw residents into chaos.
The surprises revealed by this analysis are numerous: Evangelical Epicenters have some of the best schools around, but the schools have very little religious influence because the range of different sects jockeying for social position tend to cancel each other out. Military Bastions, which lean to the right politically, nevertheless prefer NPR to conservative talk radio, because NPR features international news relevant to followers of the wars. Perhaps the best news of all comes despite the many differences these 12 types have: When surveyed, all of them overwhelmingly believe that America is still a place where you will get ahead if you work hard. As Chinni puts it, “The United States is, measurably, a nation of optimists,” adding, “There are worse things to have as a foundation.” For a new, and nuanced, look at how we’re living today, Our Patchwork Nation is vital reading.