July 07, 2010

Liberal, conservative and the Kansas surprise

Liberal or conservative?

To any critical thinker, such a question should seem reductionist. And, well, it is. But since it's incredibly hard (nee impossible!) to map an entire world worth of possibilities, we should just embrace the nature of the map and all of its reductionist tendencies and get on with it.

When comparing and visualizing virtual references to "conservative" and "liberal" in the Google Maps database, one ends up with a map like the one seen above. But what does it mean? What do "conservative" and "liberal" even mean?

The short answer is, well, a lot of things. For one, contrasting these terms is extremely problematic because it excludes such a wide range of alternative political views that lie either between or outside of this dyad. Second, the question of locality is important, as the political meanings of liberal and conservative are often subject to place-specific interpretations, not to mention the projection of personal preference. Indeed, it could be easily argued that many 'conservatives' in the western world actually adhere to liberal political philosophy, broadly writ. And we don't even need to start with the debate that what most Americans call liberal would be considered right-of-center in many parts of the world.

Even assigning the colors red or blue to each term is problematic, as each color is interpreted differently in different countries. For instance, in the USA, red is associated with the conservative Republican party while blue is the color of the more liberal Democratic party. In the UK, however, red is the color of the left-of-center Labour party and blue the color of the Conservative party. And don't forget the reason "red" is also a noun.

The contrast between the U.S. and Europe is striking. With the exception of the UK and Italy, Europe contains many more references to liberal than conservative in its geoweb. Standard linguistic and spellings issues apply for non-English speaking countries but nevertheless the differences are intriguing and correspond to expectations, i.e., on the whole Europe has a more "liberal" political bent the U.S.

What is unexpected is the big blog of "liberal" references right in the middle of the U.S. Taking a close look, this cluster conforms perfectly the the border of the state of Kansas, a state known for its conservative shift over the past decades. Color us confused. We're hard pressed to come up with a solid hypothesis as to what's going on here so we'll suggest a couple more off the wall ones.
  • Kansas is the liberal equivalent to Dick Cheney's "secure location";
  • In Kansas slang, political terms are used interchangably with the name of drinks and other bar food, e.g., Hey Bartender, give me a glass of liberal (beer) with a Jacobite (whiskey) chaser and a bowl of socio-anarchism (peanuts);
  • Kansas just happens to have a particularly fervent desire to use the word liberal in as derogatory a way as possible in Google Maps;
  • There is a big conspiracy to virtually colonize the political cyberscape of Kansas.
Where's Glenn Beck with all of his ridiculous charts when you actually need him?


  1. This is interesting... but can you tell us a little more about the methodology and data source for the map?

    One thing I've noticed in observing vernacular political references in things like op-eds, Twitter feeds, and Facebook feeds is that certain words and uses of them are flags for a political viewpoint. For instance, "liberals" seem to most often refer to themselves as "progressives," while they are called "liberals" by republicans or conservatives.

    Each issue may have buzzwords to identify the side of the debate. I noticed during the healthcare debate that the derogatory term "obamacare" was used in many conservative-leaning memes, blog posts, and status updates. While I haven't dug too deep myself, I'm sure you can find similar words in the immigration debate--like focus on born or birth?

    Great map though, and definitely interesting to speculate on Kansas. We'd have to be able to drill down into some of those references to figure out what's really going on.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. @Jon: Thanks for commenting! You're definitely right to point out some more potential complications with language use.

    If you'd like an in-depth explanation of our methodology for collecting this data, I'd suggest taking a look at some of our earliest posts or the FAQ. We've sort of gotten out of the habit of explaining it anew with each post.

    In short, however, we use a special software program that queries the Google Maps database for a certain keyword at ~260,000 points on the earth's surface, and then records the number of hits for that keyword at that location. For a map like this, we simply compare the number of hits for one keyword to another. So where you see blue dots on the map above, the number of hits for the keyword "liberal" is greater than the number of hits for the keyword "conservative", and the reverse is true for the red dots.

    Thanks again!

  3. Awesome. Since this is a map tracking the uses of the words 'conservative' or 'liberal', could this data be a measuring stick for the use of political propaganda, and who's getting most of the mentions because of it?

  4. @Ghosty: Great question... it's certainly a possibility that some of the mentions of liberal or conservative (or any other political position) could be related to some virtual propagandizing - but we don't really have any way of knowing that for sure or analyzing it in a systematic way. It's probably safest just to consider it one of many possibilities for how these terms are being used in Google Maps.

  5. re: Kansas. Maybe it's because there is a city in SW Kansas named Liberal?

  6. @Eclipse: thanks for pointing that out. Although that would certainly make sense for a cluster of southwest Kansas, I'm not sure it explains why the entire state has more references to liberal than conservative.

  7. Um... could you please stop colouring conservatives red? Everybody else in the world associates red with the left and blue with conservatives, except for the US!

  8. Zardoz; I never knew that until reading this blog post just now. Interestingly, the USA only picked up the red/blue jargon a few years back. I remember reading about how "red/blue states" was considered the phrase of the year, by an organization dedicating itself to tracking language usage. How ironic that we got it backwards.

  9. As a longtime resident of Lawrence, Kansas (and having grown up in SW KS), I do find these results interesting. While from the outside it may seem as if Kansas is a monolithic block of conservatism, Kansas is an active battleground between liberal and conservative politics. As 'What's wrong with Kansas' pointed out, the shift to the right in recent decades has been accompanied by a fracturing of the right along a religious v. fiscal conservative fault line. This has created some strange political bedfellows and the migration of moderate republicans to the democratic party. The current political situation adds to the long history of Kansas being a battleground state, as demonstrated by Bloody Kansas, John Brown, Carrie Nation, Brown v. Board of Education, the building of new coal-fired power plants.

    As to why this may affect the spatial pattern in the map, I think Eclipse454's point about the city of Liberal explains the density in SW KS, and the associated SW trending streak into OK and TX. Or it could be former Gov. Sibelius' decision to not allow new power-plant construction in Holcomb. The density in NE KS is a different situation and could be due to several factors: mapping the historical factors listed above, the increased density of democratic voters in NE KS, proximity to the state capital, Topeka, and discussions of the relative 'liberal-ness' of cross-over republicans.

  10. I'm with you on this one:

    > Kansas just happens to have a particularly fervent desire to use the word liberal in as derogatory a way as possible in Google Maps;

    If you give a label to your opponent, painting him as radical political stance, while not giving your kind a label infers that you're part of the majority of "normal" mainstream people.

    "Those damn liberals want to do X, Y and Z. But we need to return to commonsense and do A, B, C"


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