TCS Daily


Stuck in Purple America

By Ilya Shapiro - May 25, 2004 12:00 AM

SAN FRANCISCO -- As I walk around Fisherman's Wharf and Chinatown and North Beach -- oh, especially North Beach -- I can't help but reflect on all that one misses out on by living in Red America. The City by the Bay, like any city worth the appellation, is home to eclectic architecture, experimental live theater, eccentric bohemians, and emigrants from across America and around the world. Where I live, on the other hand, the architecture ranges from classical church to church nouveau, the (occasional) theater from the sophomoric to the soporific, the bohemians... well, I think I've met both of them... and nobody really moves here (and most of the interesting, ambitious people leave). You can tell which I prefer.

Yet when I go to vote, my preferences couldn't be farther from those of San Franciscans, or Manhattanites, Angelenos, Bostonians, and the rest of my Blue American kin -- or closer to those with whom I share little apart from a zip code.

From my experience writing for and reading TCS, I gather that I am not alone in sensing a certain disconnect between my cultural and political affinities. That is, I am a cosmopolitan conservative, residing in that nebulous region distrusted by both coastal elites and the populist sages of the heartland, Purple America.

Purple America is not so much a place as an idea, or more precisely a confluence of values from Red America with tastes from Blue America. It believes in personal responsibility, discipline, civil society, spontaneous order, ordered liberty, and that the best thing government can do is not get in the way. Yet it craves independent films, fine cigars, Belgian ales, and South American fĂștbol -- along with a good baseball game (preferably without the designated hitter).

The terms Red and Blue America originate from politics, of course, as representations of states and, more revealingly, counties that vote Republican and Democratic, respectively -- though the colors have flip-flopped more than John Kerry doing the high jump. Indeed, Red and Blue originate from the same institution as Left and Right, the British Parliament.


At Westminster, the government (historically the conservative Tory party) sits to the right of the Speaker, and the opposition (first the Liberals and Socialists, later Labor) to the left. Similarly, those who identified with tradition and the monarchy were royal blue, while the rabble-rousing reformers waved the red flag; left-wing parties still identify with that traditional color of socialism. That we switched this convention here in the United States is more a function of fluke designations by the TV media than anything else.

In the wake of the 2000 presidential election, one of the most bitter, close, and bizarrely concluded votes in American history, the colors became an important part of socio-political discourse in this "50-50 nation." Yet we are finally starting to transcend them. Purple Americans, among others, defy political and cultural stereotypes, and thus confound the conventional wisdom of the media, pollsters, and pundits.

Purple America gets a tear in its eye during small-town 4th of July parades, but also a smirk on its face when the Star Spangled Banner plays down the Champs-Elysées after Lance wins another Tour. It couldn't care less who sleeps with whom where, just that its tax dollars aren't used to subsidize or photograph the event. And it welcomes diversity, so long as that term is not used as a euphemism for judging people on anything but the content of their character -- though not that false diversity of multi-colored liberals.

Purple America demands independent creativity grounded in a solid moral core, and its inhabitants develop an inevitably thick skin, being attacked for its Godless "hedonism" on one side and its politically incorrect "insensitivity" on the other. If I had a nickel for every time an urbane acquaintance marveled at how someone so "nice," so "cultured" could sympathize with those ghastly and crude Republicans, I'd be able to build that bridge to the 21st century. Conversely, a cobblestone for every time a good ol' boy sneered at my choice of drink (wine or imported beer), car (Japanese sedan or German sports car, never a truck or SUV), or clothing (mostly Italian, except my favorite Seersucker) would lead me to that shining city upon a hill.

But do not be confused: We Purple Americans are decidedly not metrosexuals. I couldn't imagine getting a manicure, waxing my chest, or using skin products, and while I want to look good, I hate the shopping that you have to do to get there. I may like my Perrier, but I'll drink it with my Monday Night Football, thank you very much. I read the Economist and Atlantic Monthly, but also Sports Illustrated and Maxim.

Returning to the city where I just discovered the best pizza I've ever had on this continent (no exaggeration; North Beach is a Little Italy that actually has real Italians), I realize that much as I enjoy hanging around the epicenters of Blue America, I'm not sure I could live there. Limousine liberals running everything, permanent minority status ideologically -- to the point where I have to remain in a different sort of closet while promenading through Chelsea or the Castro District -- and a contempt for most of the greatest country on earth (not to mention a self-loathing disagreement with the whole idea that it's the greatest country on earth)...

So where does that leave Purple Americans? Those physically located in Red America can reside in the imagined communities of the blogosphere and the alternative media, keeping busy and interested via constant travel and immersion in work. Those in Blue America can take a virtual leap into Galt's Gulch, divorcing themselves from all cocktail party discussions of political philosophy and public policy (as in Ayn Rand's world, this is easier to do if you care about nothing beyond your own immediate interests). I'll be trying a third route by moving to our nation's capital, which arguably contains the highest proportion of Purple Americans.

After all, a place where the only gauche political stand is not to have one, the city with northern charm and southern efficiency -- to hat-tip that original supply-sider with style, John F. Kennedy -- seems like just the place for us conflicted souls.

Ilya Shapiro last wrote for TCS about the socio-political significance of Friends.


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