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Counting the Counties
on August 16, 2012
Books such as "Our Patchwork Nation" delve into more detailed information about the diversity of US Americans and why they do what they do. They go beyond the examination of the red and blue States model used to explain the political preferences of US voters, beyond the regional differences which define many of our preferences, beyond the ethnic diversity which we often used to do the same. Chinni and Gimpel provide a new model that examines the USA, county by county, largely in terms of the economic and political behavior of each. This gives us a far more granular and complex, but also more insightful view of US demographics.
The book is both timely and contextual. It gives us a picture of the cultures of the USA in what the authors describe as " The Great Recession," in the lead up to the presidential elections later this year. If we understand culture as the survival and success discourse which people in a particular group create, share, and perpetuate, this is a book about culture despite its heavy emphasis on economics and politics. The down side is that its data will quickly become dated; on the other hand, the assemblage of such data can provide a launching pad and a comparative baseline for future research and observation.
Every model requires some reductionism, simplification to a certain degree, of the complexity with which reality confronts us. A model is a way of looking at and understanding things that inevitably walks the tightrope between fragmentation and oversimplification. The menu is not the meal, but by reading it and glancing about to see what the diners at other tables are being served, and consulting our own tastes, we are able to make a somewhat informed choice about what to order. Such guides as this book are necessarily imperfect but yet useful tools for our understanding of the cultures of an area and determining what kind of investment we will make in order to live there, in order to work or sell there, or in order to receive the endorsement of its electorate.
Chinni and Gimpel draw on substantial amounts of research data in order to define the counties of the USA in some recognizable and potentially useful way. They come up with 12 types of counties whose names give you some sense of the kind of people that predominantly inhabit them:
Boom Towns Immigration Nation Monied Burbs
Campus & Careers Industrial Metropolis Mormon Outposts
Emptying Nests Military Bastions Service Worker Centers
Evangelical Epicenters Minority Central Tractor Country
They then identify a typical representative County for each of the types and dedicate a chapter to exploring its demographics, economics, operational environment, and political propensities. The authors spent two and a half years both researching, and making on the ground visits to the counties that were chosen to represent each of the types, meeting its everyday folk, interviewing its spokespersons. They admit their ambivalence with the complexity, and yet are able to hazard useful interpretations of what is going on. On one hand, the nation has changed and is changing, and the vast majority of US Americans have been badly hurt by the financial crisis. On the other hand, bad times have brought about a resurgence of the almost mythical US "can do" attitude in the majority of individuals. It is also resulting in a renewed determination to come out on top as communities, whether we are speaking of inner-city minorities in a devastated Detroit or about the threatened farmers of Iowa. I found it particularly interesting how the book defines the impact of the current financial crisis on each.
We now know that stress reinforces the primitive cultural discourse for survival that we have learned and carry within us. At the same time it stimulates the need for fresh decisions and changes of course. This connection was an eye-opener for me. I had been long accustomed to seeing retrenchment and change as polar opposites rather than as parts of a single dynamic, driving human individuals and communities to remaster and draw sustenance from their environment. In addition, since each of these twelve identified environments differs in terms of the origin, education, religion, forms of industry, occupation and lifestyle, people within the different kinds of communities, though inhabitants of the same nation, may be headed in different directions and inclined to make different choices. This may involve conflicts of interest between them, alliances formed on certain common needs that do not necessarily resolve or engender compromise on other differences. The authors insightfully choose the metaphor of tectonics to describe how different types of communities, though split and separate in many ways, develop, rub against each other, causing significant upheavals, as well as settling into fresh albeit impermanent new configurations.
Not surprisingly, professionals who earn their bread by understanding the behaviors of people in various US settings, namely marketers, have long tended to segment the country by looking through similar local prisms in order to successfully promote products and situate commercial outlets. The authors frequently cite market research and note the frequency and positioning of Starbucks and Wal-Mart stores as economic and cultural indicators of a specific county's economic and social preferences.
Following these descriptive chapters, are three larger ones, addressing respectively the economy, politics, and culture. Clearly the US economy needs to be fixed, and fixing most likely involves a significant shift that must take place despite the entropy that has kept it stagnating in its current directions. There is no such thing as "the American economy", rather there are the economies of particular communities and the different problems that each experiences as a result of the same crisis. Hardship is defined differently, depending on the community that you are part of. Differing needs may require differing solutions from upper levels of government as well as local initiatives. Not surprisingly then there is rancor about such things as taxation and assistance programs.
Economics naturally bridges us into the realm of politics. It should've been obvious at the beginning that the change promised by Obama would not be a freeway to the future, but a delivery stuck in traffic. The authors pay particular attention in this section to emerging discontent and resistance. They examine the arrival on the scene of the Tea Party, its meaning, its direction, and its makeup, a new voice in the political debate, substantially fragmenting the Republican right. The authors foresee the possibility of more forms of resistance. However, the timing of the publication of the book did not allow them to identify and discuss the Occupy movements. Both of these recent manifestations of discontent are still lacking in concrete platforms for specific forms of change. Currently they are being overshadowed by the noise of the presidential campaigns, which would like to harness their energies, but seem ham-handed when it comes to integrating them with the interests of other constituencies that the candidates represent.
When discussing culture, the authors open with the question of whether in fact "geography is history." Internet and social networking are moving us in that direction. Yet, flesh and blood lives in places of lumber, bricks and mortar, however much we may network digitally. Local cultures may in fact be reinforcing themselves rather than breaking down in the torrent of Internet bits. Here there is further discussion of the Starbucks and Wal-Mart phenomena and how our identity may be affected by what we can buy and where we can buy it. Culture is about the choices that different kinds of communities make and why they tend to make them. Do they buy guns or books? What movies are they likely to see? What kind of talk radio are they prone to listen to? What is their commitment to and frequency of usage of social networking? What are the levels of church going, and how does religion affect choices of entertainment, involvement in politics, and stands on such issues as gay marriage?
The concluding chapter is a very brief summary, which again highlights the many possible directions the future might take. Then what amounts to roughly the final third of the book is dedicated to describing the theoretical and methodological background of the authors' research and summarizing the data in useful maps and charts. Here you can actually look up each US county, see its population fluctuations over a period of six years, and see its primary and secondary classification according to the twelve types mentioned above.
If what I have described above makes you want to read this book, read it now, as it is highly relevant to understanding the dynamics of the economic state of the US, will help you deconstruct the discourse of the current political campaign. Some wag once said that, "If you were to lay the country's economists end to end, they still won't reach a conclusion." That may well be true, but at least this text helps us to feel the current economic crisis in the experiences of a large variety of other people, as well as our own, and, in this context it sharpens our awareness of what is involved in political strategy and decision-making.