Commentary: Why Compare the 2012 Electoral Map to a Slave-State Map?

An image of the two maps spread across social media. But what does it prove?

Posted: 11/09/2012 05:40 PM EST

In the days following President Obama’s victory, a new image has been making the social media rounds to perhaps help explain what happened on Tuesday night. The image is a juxtaposition: On the top is an electoral college map of the United States showing which political party the states broke in Tuesday’s election, and on the bottom is an old map of the free states and the slave states before the Civil War.

The point? When you look at the maps side by side, you can easily see that most of the slave states went for Mitt Romney. A lot of people spread the comparison around quickly, reblogging it on Tumblr and sharing it on Facebook pages. Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time understanding what all the fuss is about.

I suppose the map comparison is interesting in the way that comparing history to the modern day is always mildly interesting. But what does it really say about the election? That slave states were in the bag for Romney? If that’s the case, then what about Florida? And Virginia, which once housed the capital of the Confederacy? Maryland and Delaware were also slave states, and yet, once again, both of them broke for Obama.

The problem with simple images with no context sometimes is that while they can get shared easily via social media, they can also be confusing.

A map comparison that might actually be worth something would be holding up the electoral-college results next to a map like the one created by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2010. In that map, the Chronicle looked at which states had the highest number of college graduates. And wouldn’t you know it: Many of the states with higher concentrations of college graduates — Iowa, Minnesota, New York, etc. — went to Obama in this year’s election.

Even that comparison doesn’t answer all the questions, of course. But it’s a better and timelier exercise than aligning the election results with slavery.

In the wake of huge events like presidential elections, people often look for simple answers — like 150-year-old slave state maps — to help them better understand what happened. That’s fun to do among your friends, I suppose. But don’t convince yourself that one image like that means too much. The hard truth is that electoral politics and democracies are far more complex than a picture.

These views do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: buzzfeed)

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