A map-less map of political geography in the US

ArticleLooking at red and blue America in a chart can sometimes be more helpful than seeing it on a conventional geographic map

Garrett Dash Nelson
August 6, 2021
271 words

One of the most familiar maps of the United States today is the notorious red and blue map of political geography. It’s a visual depiction that demonstrates how the United States has become polarized along political lines, and it’s been used to reinforce stereotypes about what kinds of people live in so-called “red America” and “blue America.”

But is a map really always the best way of showing how voting matches up with other measures of social and economic identity? Maps can present major problems for visual communication: to take just one example, congressional districts in the United States are sized very differently, meaning that a vast district like Wyoming’s at-large district looks much more visually prominent on a map than a small urban district in a place like New York.

Another challenge with maps is that they can make it difficult to think about what other kinds of geographic characteristics lie “beneath” the variable being represented. Districts that are geographically far apart may in fact be very similar in terms of their demographic makeup.

That’s why a chart like the one Alasdair Rae created for UK constituences can help us see things that a map obscures. In the visualization below, we’ve taken the 435 Congressional districts in the United States and lined them up in rank order according to several different demographic variables. Try exploring it yourself:

Because this visualization is on Glitch, you can check out the code and remix it yourself. Are there any other variables that you think would tell a better story about political polarization in the United States? Tag us @bplmaps and let us know.

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