Our Patchwork Nation

A journalist and a political scientist search out the patterns in American diversity.

Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth About the “Real” America By Dante Chinni and James Gimpel Penguin 336 pp., $26

When I was 21 and in Peru I met a Swiss man who went on at length about the virtues of his country’s direct democracy form of government. “It would solve a lot of the problems you have in the United States if people had more of a say,” he told me, and for the next few months I tramped around South America believing that he was right.

It was only later that I realized the fallacy of comparing the US to tiny Switzerland, which has barely more people than Virginia. The social cohesion of the US, our rapid highways, and our pervasive commercial culture all serve to paper over the vastness of the country. They turn the mind away from the impossibility of even beginning to imagine the 300 million Americans who live together under one constitutional roof.

In Our Patchwork Nation, journalist Dante Chinni and political scientist James Gimpel endeavor to make the diversity of American life more legible. Their project, which has been featured as an ongoing series in this newspaper for the last two years, takes the 3,141 counties that make up the US and sorts them into 12 categories that are themselves defined by a potpourri of statistical indicators like median income, racial composition, and church attendance. Many of the designations are intuitively familiar, like the “Monied ’Burbs” (Westchester County, N.Y.), “Tractor Country,” (a good chunk of Nebraska) and “Industrial Metropolis” (Philadelphia). Others, like “Service Worker Centers” (think isolated, commodity-less places like rural Maine) and “Boom Towns” (the exurbs) likely took a little more statistical sifting to uncover.

Chinni and Gimpel’s starting point is the well-worn red state/blue state dichotomy, which they view in about the same way that it’s been said we should view the genetic basis of race: That is, the diversity within the red or blue states themselves is great enough to render broad comparisons between the two tenuous and uninformative.

To press this point they combine large-scale number crunching with anecdotal reporting from counties representing each of the community types. In some cases this approach yields genuine insights and delivers a voyeuristic thrill, like when Chinni visits a deserted golf development in the emptying Boom Town of Eagle, Colo. In others, however, the reporting reads more like travel guide schlock (“High-rises populated by the wealthy run into bungalows full of white blue-collar workers...”) and the statistical conclusions appear to arise largely from an overreading of flimsy data. For example, the authors conclude that “not all ... [urban liberals] like books as much as we believe they do” from the relatively low ratio of bookstores to people in cities. This reading ignores the obvious point that a single Barnes & Noble in Times Square can serve a lot more people than one in sparsely populated Montana.

The research for “Our Patchwork Nation” was done after the American economy turned to mud, and as a result the authors focus significantly on pocketbook issues. One of the most interesting arguments they make is that while much of the country is hurting, it’s not all hurting in the same way. The state of the stock market is the principal concern in the Monied ’Burbs, while the Service Worker Centers are preoccupied with unemployment, and the Boom Towns care chiefly about depressed real estate prices.

As a result, Chinni and Gimpel make the interesting argument that national economic policy should be based more on the needs of different regions than on the circumstances of individual citizens. This would have meant that the homebuyer’s tax credit would have been available in the Boom Towns but not the Monied ’Burbs, and that extended unemployment benefits might have been offered in Minority Central communities (largely the Deep South) but not Tractor Country, which has managed to avoid epidemic joblessness.

The authors convincingly argue that economic, cultural, and political realities differ – and sometimes in surprising ways – depending on whether you live in Ann Arbor, Mich., a Campus and Careers community, or Burley, Idaho, a Mormon Outpost. A hope running through the book is that these differences might lay the foundation for a reconfigured electoral map and a less polarized country. That, alas, does not seem to be in the cards. While not all of blue America is blue and red America is red for the same reasons, the majority of voters on either side remain intractable in their allegiances. Chinni and Gimpel say that only about a third of the country – mostly in the Monied ’Burbs, Immigration Nation, and Minority Central – is up for grabs in any particular election, which about squares with the number of purple states you see on the big board every fourth November.

One goal of “Our Patchwork Nation” is to disrupt conventional ways of thinking about the breadth of community types in America, but I found that reading the book actually reinforced the casual understanding I have about who lives in America and where. The Evangelical Epicenters trace the Bible Belt, the Immigration Nation communities dot the border with Mexico, and the Monied ’Burbs mostly line the coast. That these distinctions are so firmly embedded in our cultural shorthand may not be enough to ameliorate them, but having them in plain sight might just be enough to make them manageable.

Kevin Hartnett is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.

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