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More Than Blue and Red in America’s National Quilt

Midterm elections are just around the corner, but don’t get distracted by big maps of blue states and red states. The United States of America is a lot more complex than that.

That’s the premise of “Our Patchwork Nation,” a new book that doubles as a sociological experiment, by journalist Dante Chinni and James Gimpel, a University of Maryland political science professor.

The title gives readers a good idea of what they’re in for: The authors suggest that this country cannot be easily defined by splitting people up into neat categories such as Republican and Democrat or rich and poor. Instead, communities all over the country share certain traits — income level, racial makeup, religious character or dozens of other characteristics — and the combination of those traits gives a place, and its people, its identity.

Chinni and Gimpel have created 12 different identities, which they call “community types,” and fit every county in the United States into one of those categories based on a fairly complex statistical calculation using sociocultural characteristics. The community types include “Monied Burbs,” “Military Bastions,” “Service Worker Centers” and “Campus and Careers,” among others.

Readers could probably come up with a place they’ve lived or visited that qualify as each of those, and that’s part of the point; the other part is recognizing that there are other places all over the country — maybe in a neighboring county, or maybe 1,500 miles away — that are similar.

The book provides a look into one city that exemplifies each of those 12 community types. For example, Philadelphia serves as the authors’ “Industrial Metropolis,” and El Mirage, Ariz., fits the bill as an “Immigration Nation” locale.

The 12 places Chinni and Gimpel have chosen certainly have political identities. Some vote Democratic, some vote Republican, and the rest are up for grabs every two years. But there’s a lot more to those communities than just party affiliation, and this book — which, let’s not forget, was written by two politically minded individuals — is refreshingly free of partisan talk.

Chinni said in an interview that the book started out as an election-season project with the Christian Science Monitor, and it’s no coincidence that the 12 communities described in the book are mostly in competitive electoral states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Colorado. Still, Chinni was struck by the nuances of each place he visited, and the connections he made in those towns are evident in the book.

When you travel and experience a town firsthand, Chinni said, “you’re overwhelmed by the vastness and the diversity of the country. ... You don’t get that in Washington. And it’s not just a ‘being inside the Beltway’ thing. Even when you get outside the Beltway, a lot of the time what you’re doing is traveling between metropolitan areas. You get to the airport here and you say, ‘Oh, there’s the Starbucks, the Pottery Barn, the malls with stores X, Y and Z in it.’ And when you get out, you see there’s a lot more out there.”

Readers are able to grasp that depth because of the diversity of voices in each chapter. In the El Mirage section, for instance, the authors quote a local restaurant owner, a seamstress, a member of the city council and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the national face of Arizona’s anti-illegal-immigration effort. Notably, all those interviewed other than Arpaio are Latino, and that’s representative of the population in El Mirage, allowing readers unfamiliar with the town to get an accurate snapshot of life there.

Reading about each community type is enlightening, whether it’s a community you identify with — District residents would probably relate best to the “Monied Burbs” or “Industrial Metropolis” categories, or perhaps the “Minority Central” tag — or one you know nothing about, which might be the “Tractor Country” of the Dakotas and Montana. The authors provide their entire data set in the appendix so readers can see which category their own county falls into.

“Our Patchwork Nation” represents a unique way of understanding this country, and it is eye-opening in 2010. Yet Chinni thinks that in a decade, the United States will be a whole new kind of patchwork nation.

“We say in the beginning of the book that the country is changing a lot — a lot — and it’s going to look dramatically different in 10 years,” Chinni said. “We have a front-row seat for something that’s going to be a little scary at times, but [for us] as reporters, just very interesting to behold.”

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