Liminal States

This is a recent column from Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, an ongoing Q&A series about the strange inner workings of U.S. culture. The column is a monthly feature in my newsletter.

Quandary 

What are “liminal states,” and do they tend to vote red or blue in elections?
~from M.C. Mallet

Anthropological Explanation 

I was tempted to just leave this one as a joke, it tickled me so. But politics is not (entirely) a laughing matter, so I thought I’d tackle this quandary from two angles:

 

  1. Liminal states as a cultural concept [the part where I ruin the joke]
  2. Liminal states as those we think of as “undecided” (aka, swing states) in the context of U.S. presidential elections [the part where I answer the question anyway]
First, liminality as a cultural concept. In anthropological circles, this concept often comes from Victor Turner’s seminal work, The Ritual Process, wherein he describes the sequential components of ritual: removal from society, liminality (where transformation occurs), and return to society. We can apply this model of ritual to anything, from the grand pageantry of a presidential inauguration to the mundane exchange of insults over social media.

It’s much more complicated, of course, but what’s important in the context of M.C.’s question is that liminality is a state of being apart from the everyday goings on that comprise life as we know it. It’s a “between” state–not quite one thing or another.

Moving along to the second part of our analysis, this means that we’re talking about purple states! Neither red nor blue, purple states exist outside even the color-spectrum of hues that represent America. Until election night, when (enfranchised) residents of these liminal states cast their ballots, it won’t be clear which “normal” color–red or blue–a purple state will transform into, bringing it back into the normative cultural structure from which it had been set apart. Whew!

Now we can talk about these liminal/purple/swing states in more detail, and address the latter half of M.C.’s question, which deals with each state’s voting history. I’m only going to go back as far as 2000 because ugh, and also that’s when I remember this whole red-state-blue-state-drunk-state-pew-state rigmarole infiltrating our political discourse.

2000: Most of us remember Florida, but there were other undecided states that election, as well, principally New Hampshire. New Hampshire swung red that year, and together with contested state Florida, decided the election for the Republican candidate.

2004: Ohio turned out to be the liminal state that would decide the election in ’04, and it swung red. Pennsylvania and Florida were also purple at the outset of the contest, eventually swinging blue and red, respectively. (Fun fact: that year, New Hampshire swung blue.)

2008: The usual suspects (Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylviania) along with often-purples (Colorado, Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina, and my god there are a lot of states in the Union…) swung every which way that year. Florida went blue! Indiana went red! By the end of the electoral ritual, nary a territory was purple. (Liminal states rarely last, folks.)

2012: According to Politico, swing states included Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. All but the final two swung Democrat that election.

2016: This year, there’s been more discussion about the “Rust Belt” swing states. These states’ economies once relied heavily on manufacturing. Because manufacturing has, thanks to globalization and other nefarious forces, moved operations elsewhere, many Rust Belt states have become economically depressed. This has led to a voter base that is unpredictable as compared with their voting record. A few months ago, politicos were calling these states for Republicans, but now they’re not so sure. The point is, past elections won’t be as reliable of a touchstone when it comes to how likely each of these states is to vote Republican or Democrat come November. Especially since this year is [insert hyperbolic, apocalyptic  phrase of choice].

In conclusion, it’s complicated and I don’t know, and everyone should read widely and consider participating in the democratic process on every level they can stomach.

Miscellany
For those of you who are politically inclined and would love a more nuanced discussion of these types of topics from someone with an actual political science degree, I highly recommend you check out WTF is America, a newsletter by the delightful and intelligent Amy Diegelman.

You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes you. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.

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