One of the best things about the United States is that we are just that: United States. Obviously, we are a nation, with a national government charged with tasks it makes the most sense for that government to do (and many that don’t make sense . . . but more on that at another time). The rest, at least theoretically, is done by the states, and governments within those states — i.e., where people actually live, and where they engage in the vast majority of their personal, social, civic, and cultural lives. As a result, the states are not merely administrative units of the federal government, but loci of political and cultural heft in their own right, of which their residents tend to be proud.
That is one takeaway of a new poll released yesterday by YouGov that attempted to rank which states were the best (or at least the most well-liked). Its metric for the rankings was as follows:
We asked people to choose the better of two states in a series of head-to-head matchups. States are rated based on their “win percentage”, that is: how often that state won the head-to-head matchup when it was one of the two states shown.
Based on this, the most well-liked states were Hawaii, Colorado, Virginia, Nevada, and North Carolina. The least well-liked states were Arkansas, New Jersey, Mississippi, and Alabama, with non-state Washington, D.C., coming in last.
The rankings are interesting to me. I don’t know how it is possible to answer this question with exhaustive, ironclad objectivity. In fact, I would guess that two factors played large roles in this survey, even if they were not the dominant factors. First, perception, or generalization: In part based on reality, Hawaii, Colorado, and Nevada have good national auras. Hawaii is the tropical state; Colorado is the mountains (and weed) state; Nevada is the gambling state. And conversely, Mississippi and Alabama are perceived, unfairly, solely as rural southern backwaters. Many people probably think these things of these places despite never having been to them. You might think that regional neighbors would favor each other and thus boost one another in the rankings, but I could see a narcissism of small differences compel Alabamans to deprecate Mississippi, or Michiganders to disdain Ohio (the latter of which I am from; Michigan outranks it in this survey).
A second factor might be population. Many of the most popular states are also the most populous states; they simply might have more fans than the comparatively lower-ranked locales. YouGov says that “Americans chose their home state 77% of the time it was shown, virtually the same as how often they selected their current state of residence (79%).” So this could be factor. But this is not an exhaustive explanation; my native Ohio has the seventh-largest population of U.S. states and yet ranks at No. 33 in this list, far below where I think it belongs. I think this could derive from Ohio’s unfair perception as a boring, bland place, and from some of the aforementioned regional narcissism of small differences. In my view, it, not Rhode Island, deserves to stand in as the exact average of states (at least).
But we can quibble all day about which state is best. In fact, in America, we have, for a long time. States competing with each other, people moving from state to state, residents of each arguing over respective superiority — these have long been essences of the American experience, and deserve to be. An America where people cared less about, or were unwilling to defend the merits of, the places they were from; an America where those places were harder to tell apart — that would be a more boring and less exceptional nation. Fortunately, for the time being, Americans seem sufficiently particularistic to resist the forces of cultural and political homogenization that would dilute or even erase the states that make up our Union. Indeed, one of the few consensus items in this area seems to be that Washington, D.C., the meeting place of our national government that keeps trying to draw more and more of our variegated nationwide experience into its gaping maw, deserves to be ranked last.