Category Archives: Adam Smith

American politics, tied to the land


Give me some land, lots of land, and you’ll understand U.S. politics.

The slightly fuzzy graphic you see above shows the average votes of U.S. states in the past four elections from 1992 to 2004. Dark red are states that tipped Republican in all four presidential races; dark blue to Democrats in all four; and the rest are variations in the middle. Notice the trend?

Politics is a function of land — the more open space you have, the more conservative you tend to be. The map of voting results looks almost like one of population density; blue states are coastal or northeastern with high concentrations of urban development, and the red could be the wide open skies of Montana and Texas. Politics aside, this makes sense. Liberals tend to advocate a more active role of government, which is needed in urban areas where crowding, transportation, education, police, and health services may be more pressing. Conservatives believe in a lesser role of government, relying more on rugged individualism — which works best where scant crowding does not require cooperation and the resources of the land are abundant. Neither point is right or wrong; but the conservative-independence approach works best where you can carve your own path, while liberal-heavy-government helps manage urban density.

We like this thesis (which holds up if you dig down to county levels within states, too) because it helps explain why America often feels like a nation divided. All economic systems must deal with the creation and distribution of wealth; the father of economics, Adam Smith, after all, was the guy who invented the progressive tax. Politics is the debate over how much should be shared. Americans still haven’t figured it out; the top marginal tax rate was 91% under President Eisenhower, 70% under Nixon, 50% under Reagan, 39.6% under Clinton and 35% under Bush; while today’s structure seems like a historically fair deal, any discussion on changing it brings out heated attacks from both political parties.

As the history of our tax system shows, logic has little to do with either parties’ view; gut instinct seems to take over on whether to share more or less. Marketers might think about the collective consciousness of their target audience tied to the land they live on, and how it drives their motives for independent or cooperative response. If you are launching a campaign remotely tied to such motives in the U.S., very different messaging might work in different markets.

Well, at least we know why we sometimes disagree with the talking head on TV. She was probably born in the wrong state.