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Election Map Makers, Exercising Some Latitude

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2004; Page C01

Perhaps it's worse being a 51-48 nation than it was being a 50-50 one. The division, which felt like a statistical fluke when it emerged as the new political landscape four years ago, is now exacerbated by resentment on the one side, and gloating on the other. When the country was evenly divided, no one could lay full claim to the nation's soul. Now, there's talk of a vast moral refashioning of America from partisans on the right, and anguish from the left about where it fits into Republican America.

And perhaps that's why a symbol that has never had much currency in the history of American iconography -- the old, dull confines of the U.S. map -- is now giving the flag, the Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Bell a run for their money in the visual currency department. The map, that not-quite-rectangular shape with its familiar biomorphic protrusions, is now delineating the contours of our national torment. Despite a margin of less than 4 million votes, we have the 51ers talking prematurely of a mandate, and the 48ers prematurely considering the age-old dilemma of minority groups since the beginning of democracy: secede (emotionally or literally) or stay in the game and try to win it.

A map made for CBS uses skyscrapers to illustrate the candidates' relative margin of victory, a motif that carries with it powerful symbolism. (Environmental Systems Research Institute)

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Census 2000

On the Internet, the shape of the United States is being reconfigured, recolored, relabeled and even twisted, in some cases, into unrecognizability. The infamous Jesusland map, which pits the blue states and Canada against a new southern theocracy, is only the tip of the cartographical iceberg. A more sober slide show, originally produced for CBS News, walks the user through just about every conceivable demographic division, from wealth to education to race and ethnicity. It is a mesmerizing and obsessive repetition of the American silhouette, colored to capture myriad degrees of social difference. It has the unintended consequence of reducing America like an X-ray reduces a patient, reinforcing the same minutiae of demographic cynicism we deplore in major-party strategists.

And then there's a Web site, created by three researchers at the University of Michigan, that captures with an accidental artistic concision the twists and turns of the current social moment. Using "cartograms" that reconfigure the states based on their population size, these maps warp the United States into a weirdly organic form, with the middle of the country shrunk into crabbed little patches of red while the coasts take on grotesquely swollen blue proportions.

The cartogram idea, says Michael Gastner, the graduate student who wrote the program that produced the election maps, goes back about 100 years, but he and his team (physics professor Mark Newman and postdoctoral research fellow Cosma Shalizi) have adapted it for the computer era. Using mathematics developed to study complex processes, such as diffusion (how does a little stink in one part of a room eventually become equally spread throughout the whole space?), they have produced images that make America look like a flabby cartoon character stretched into blue and red spandex. And yet, perhaps because the original model for the process was diffusion, they've produced images that capture the reassuring nuance of the "purple" complexity in America -- if one looks at it closely enough.

Gastner's revisualizations are more radical but in the same spirit as another CBS map, which uses three-dimensional skyscraper figures that make the coasts tower over the rest of the country. From the University of Michigan blobs to the "Blade Runner" cityscapes seen in the CBS images, these maps offer a reading of American cultural identity that transcends their mathematical and statistical origins.

Maps have always been distortions. Europe and North America are no more "on top" of the globe than Australia, Africa and South America are on the bottom. And no two-dimensional map of the globe gets the shapes exactly right. Greenland is not the same size as Africa, though it seems that way on the Mercator projection. But every map has its purpose (the Mercator view was originally better for navigation), and the post-election reconfigurations of America are meant to have an explanatory -- or in the case of Jesusland, a demagogic -- power that the original maps lack.

The maps used by CBS, for example, were produced by a software company in California, ESRI, and the goal was to give a much more detailed, county-by-county view while the election was still in play.

"The networks decided not to be talking about exit-poll results," says ESRI project manager Kris Goodfellow. "But they still wanted to talk about some of the demographic factors in this election."

So the CBS maps, which were updated every five minutes on election night, are a reflection not just of "us" in all our demographic detail but also a reflection of the mind-set of political technocrats, journalists among them, who manage that detail down to the county level. And they gave the network all-important visuals while it diligently avoided calling the election.

Whatever the original intent of the mapmakers, the forms have taken on their own emotional meanings. The reconfigured maps are a balm to the wounded dignity of blue-state America; the old-fashioned ones, with their vast swaths of red, an affirmation of red-state ascendancy. But visual jiggering comes with unexpected consequences, and images can be read more than one way. The East Coast may tower over "flyover" America in one reading, but another reading would see that as arrogance -- towers, as in Babel. And while the cartogram makes the coasts look huge, it also makes the red states look lean and sinewy.

While maps have their uses, they are not particularly well adapted as national symbols. Through the early years of American history, the United States was growing and had no particularly clear shape. When the revolutionary-era founders wanted to express the importance of national unity, they used a serpent, with segments representing the states. The actual shape of America -- or any country, for that matter -- isn't something you sense or feel in a sensual way. A tree, or an animal, is a directly perceptible object easily associated with place; but what does a border, an arbitrary line, look like? Maps are abstractions.

But they do get at one critical issue. Maps are about boundaries, and so is much of the current cultural argument. A critical issue in the last election was the place of the United States in the larger world. One side argued for a view of nationhood that was more open, more permeable to the ideas and concerns of the world at large. Another posited a familiar view of Fortress America, fighting a war "out there," so as not to fight it back home.

And boundaries don't just define the relation to the outside, they are a line around what's inside. Though there's an argument about the degree to which wedge issues such as same-sex marriage contributed to George Bush's victory, there's no doubt about the emotional impact of 11 new marriage constitutional amendments at the state level. Gay people question whether they belong inside or outside this new America, while antigay forces celebrate a more narrow redrawing of the lines of tolerance and inclusivity. And this kind of rancor, against gays and liberals more generally, has led to a wide Internet flirtation with two ideas that represent the extremes of boundary rethinking: secession (for those who no longer feel comfortable in America) and eviction (for those who say good riddance to the losers).

In his Nov. 9 column, John Derbyshire, a right-wing polemicist for the National Review Online, made one of the many little lists of undesirables floating around cyberspace: "the academic deconstructors, the teacher-union multiculturalists, the media guilt-mongers, the love-the-world pacifists, the criminal-lovers and family-breakers, the inventors of bogus rights and destroyers of cherished traditions, the haters of normality and scoffers at restraint, the enterprise-destroying litigators and pain-feelers."

In the flurries of hate rhetoric that followed in the wake of this election, the message of this list -- you are not welcome -- is clear. As is the rancor in an essay, on Slate.com, by novelist Jane Smiley, which proclaimed "red state types" to be virtually "unteachable." The level of descriptive and demonizing detail in these screeds reflects the dark side of our collective demographic self-absorption.

All of these rants show how thoroughly we are caught up in the secessionist/expulsionist fantasy, and how painful it is to realize that perhaps the United States is nothing more than an arbitrary lumping together of people inside a shape on a map. Other national symbols have a comforting ambiguity. The map, however, says one thing, and very clearly: the only truly shared identity a diverse people has is that it lives in this place, confined within these lines. Everything else is up for grabs, and so the contest is on.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company