Book Reviews / Non-Fiction / Reading

Book Note: Our Patchwork Nation by Dante Chinni and James Gimpel

Our Patchwork Nation by Dante Chinni and James Gimpel was probably good reading when it first came out in 2010. In light of the recent election in the United States it is utterly fascinating. In an effort to dig beneath the red-state/blue-state analysis that cycles around during election seasons (with varying degrees of success and accuracy) Chinni and Gimpel break the 3,141 counties in the United States into twelve different community types. Then they pick a “representative community” (one of the counties that falls into each type) to delve into for their discussion and analysis. That’s the first half of the book, and it’s interesting. The blending of quantitative metrics and personal anecdotes surrounding the events of the recent recession captures provocative insights.

In the second half of Our Patchwork Nation Chinni and Gimpel take their research and look at the twelve communities in relation to the economy, politics, and culture. In The Economy they put the twelve communities up against unemployment, home foreclosures, the stock market and credit card debt to demonstrate how “the economy” translates differently in the various sectors. The range of concerns was evident in the recession because these different areas felt the effects of it at different times and in different ways. So: fixing “it” is a lot harder than fixing one problem.

In Politics, things get spooky, if only from the perspective of hindsight.

“The cultural and socioeconomic circumstances of each of the twelve community types are what really decide most votes on Election Day, not a candidate’s speech making or a strategist’s planning. Truly changing voting patterns in the Patchwork Nation requires something far more epic than a serious but temporary recession…Indeed, one can see in the broader economic restructuring the seeds of political upheaval. Long-term instability in the coming decade could transform the American electorate even without some cataclysmic event. Gradually, economic stresses could prompt more locales to go shopping. Prolonged trouble in the housing market could seriously impact the Boom Towns. Slow economic growth could leave the Service Worker Centers in a perpetual state of recession. And those things combined with slow wage growth affect the mobility of people in the Monied Burbs to save for college or retirement…Those problems compounded over time might be enough to bump the various community types out of their historical patterns.”

Indeed.

This lead into a discussion of the rise of the Tea Party and generated additional prescient insight:

“All of that uncertainty and debate, combined with new communication technologies that allow for the easier organization of large numbers of people, create an atmosphere in which populist ideas and movements could flourish.

This is where any understanding of the future of American politics gets very messy. Populism makes for some strange bedfellows. It’s key motivators–distrust of the powerful, distrust of outsiders–can manifest themselves in very different ways in different places. But they could also ally some unlikely combinations of community types…

What does all of that mean? A larger upsurge of populism, bigger than the Tea Party groups, would probably bring what it always does: a big dose of anger from “the middle,” however one chooses to define it, directed at the forces above and below.”

Finally, in the Culture chapter, the authors analyze the distinctions and similarities through and between the twelve communities using gun shops versus bookstore metrics, and Wal-Mart versus Starbucks, and who uses social media, who listens to NPR and who listens to conservative radio hosts, and where does religion fit in it all. The answers are messy. And most of them buck whatever the current convention is on the topic.

The Appendices are the back third of the book and offer a more detailed look at how the author’s reached their conclusions. It is also interesting to look at counties of personal interest to see where they fall. 

All in all, an intriguing read. I would love for a revisit of these communities and a follow-up book. The authors acknowledge that there are a lot of  ways to splice the country’s electorate, but as one effort to get beyond the red/blue division this one is effective in teasing out several significant inferences. Still, they ultimately left the main part of the book with a hopeful conclusion: despite such an array of differences, the twelve communities they profiled held to a basic and fundamental optimism about the future. The can-do spirit and sense of better-days-ahead (albeit different from the one’s before) is still present and operating-throughout the over 3,000 counties they examined. Wonder what the twelve would think today?

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