Oh, Florida It's resistant to diagnosis

Studying public opinion across the country over time, I have become convinced that some states have high self-esteem and others low.

My theory doesn’t necessarily mean that the individuals in these states have high or low self-esteem, but rather that the collective consciousness of a state falls into one of these two categories.Studying public opinion across the country over time, I have become convinced that some states have high self-esteem and others low.

My theory doesn’t necessarily mean that the individuals in these states have high or low self-esteem, but rather that the collective consciousness of a state falls into one of these two categories.

High self-esteem states have a sense of pride and security about their status in the nation. They are also likely to feel more secure about their short- and long-term economic prospects. High self-esteem states also foster a sense of belonging and camaraderie of the citizenry. There is typically less ugly racism. High self-esteem states also feel competent about their ability to compete with other states for scarce political and economic resources.

Texas is obviously a high self-esteem state by most all these measures. California is another.

Colorado and Alabama, though very different demographically, geographically and historically, are two states I classify as being low in self-esteem because of several shared deficiencies on the criteria outlined above.

The state where I have done the most work during my career — Florida — is the most resistant to placement in this typology of self-esteem. Florida manages to combine high and low self-esteem in a volatile schizophrenic state psyche.

Floridians are bipolar in so many ways. At times, they can be some of the most optimistic people on the face of the planet. And moments later, they are world-class pessimists. One moment they can be unified for a cause such as hurricane recovery, and the next they are at one another’s throats.

This is, for example, the only state ever in which I have had focus-group respondents spontaneously and seriously discuss the need to separate the state into two states. As one North Florida-hating Broward County resident reasoned earlier this year, “There’s a North Dakota and a South Dakota, and a North Carolina and a South Carolina, so why cannot there be a North Florida and a South Florida?” Rather than seeing this as a ridiculous assertion, other members of the group began discussing where the dividing line would be placed.

But it’s not just geography that splits Florida. Clashing cultures are a factor, too. The East Coast is a polyglot of ethnic and racial groups, mixing Jews and Cubans with waspish Long Islanders and Central Americans.

Other parts of Florida are becoming more diverse, too. Central Florida has a growing Puerto Rican population, and North Florida has experienced an influx of — egad — Yankees, no less. And West Florida has seen the ranks of its mostly Midwestern state retirees infiltrated by Easterners, Hispanics and others never before attracted to Tampa or St. Petersburg.

These divisions create tensions that lower collective self-esteem about the state’s potential.

But mostly, I have always suspected that Floridians’ collective self-esteem problems grow out of a discrepancy between the hype about Florida and the reality.

For most Americans, Florida is desired paradise. They work hard to be able to retire there. They save all year to vacation there. They play football or baseball all season long so that they’ll be able to shout at the end of it all that “I’m going to Disney World.”

But once you get to the Sunshine State, you discover that the rain falls on the just and the unjust in Florida just as it does everywhere else. You learn that paradise has its little disappointments just like everywhere else. And you get mad, and you get ugly.

After the 2000 election, Florida and its voting-challenged citizens became the butt of comedians everywhere, driving the state’s mind-set deeper into angry and confused low self-esteem.

Yet once again in 2004, Florida is in the spotlight, basking in its national importance. But if today’s election is close and there are problems with voting, it will get uglier this time. For the sake of Florida’s psyche, let’s hope that things go better today.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.