America Has Always Been Obsessed with State Rankings

Also, Massachusetts has always been at the top of the lists.


From 1931’s “The American Mercury”

Surf the internet, and you’ll find Americans ranking cities and states based on any and all criteria—best state to own a pet, most porn-obsessed state, America’s drunkest city. (That’d be us.) These slideshows feel like a particular byproduct of the insatiable internet age, but in fact, Americans were obsessed with state rankings long before the invention of the web slideshow.

In 1931, H.L. Mencken and his co-editor Charles Angoff ran a three-part series in The American Mercury searching for “The Worst American State.” (Click-bait headlines also predate the internet age, apparently.) Mencken and Angoff began, improbably, by raising philosophical issues with the whole idea of ranking states against one another:

“Just what such words as progress and civilization mean is often disputed, but no one doubts that the things themselves exist,” they wrote. “It is when concrete criteria are set up that dispute begins, for every man tries to measure the level of a given culture by his own yardstick.”

Put otherwise: we’re ranking states based on our region’s particular ways of seeing the world. This is especially complicated when you attempt rankings of ill-defined things like “livability.” A Californian might argue that warm weather is the most important measure of such a thing. A New Hampshire guy might argue that tax burdens should figure heavily in the calculation. So you see the problem.

And yet, Mencken and Angoff decided that there are many factors that we can all agree matter: crime rates, death rates, and educational opportunities, for instance. What follows, then, are hundreds of tables ranking states on hundreds of criteria. (Let’s just say it: Mencken would have loved the internet.) Often the editors are guilty of the very flaws they criticize in their intro. They include church attendance rates in their figures as well as lynchings. Regions would have differed in 1940 on how largely either measure should factor in the end result. Nevertheless, the editors worked their way to a conclusion. Mississippi, they said, is without a doubt, the worst American state.

And though it wasn’t their goal, it was a necessary byproduct that they settle on the best American states, too. Here, we take no issue with their conclusions, for they write, “We think it safe to say that they show Connecticut and Massachusetts to be the most fortunate American States.” *

We mention all this because Politico Magazine has come out with, yes, its own ranking this week, modeled in spirit (if not in methodology) on The American Mercury‘s effort. Here, we don’t fare quite so well. Massachusetts ranks fifth. New Hampshire takes the top spot. Mississippi still loses. Politico‘s Margy Slattery (who is, full disclosure, a friend) admits that, like Mencken’s, Politico’s approach “isn’t scientific or comprehensive.”

And therein lies the problem with these meta-lists. It seems that there are two kinds of state rankings. Those that simply lay out research or data without comment. (Think: “The states with the highest rates of pet ownership.” Or “state with the most beer sales per capita.”) And there are those that attempt a value judgement based on summarizing those previous kinds of data. (“Best states to own a pet,” or “America’s drunkest states.”) The latter inherently involve some exercise of judgement from a magazine or website editor—which data to include, how to weight it, etc.—and when you’re doing something so fraught with controversy as to tell each state how it measures up, you open yourself to differences in opinion. Those latter rankings are fun, and if done by someone with good judgement who lays their method out for all to see, they can be useful.

But by now, Americans seem to know not to pay too much attention to the latest state ranking to come across their newsfeed. Mencken and Angoff had to know when they undertook the exercise, too, that they would never find a method that made their list the universally accepted study on the subject. America’s opinions are too diverse. “Here in the United States the criteria of progress are often hotly debated, and there is visible a wide difference over them. The people who live in cities commonly regard the dwellers in smaller places as barbarians, and not infrequently the rural folk think of the city hordes as savages.”

That’s a chasm that no listicle can overcome, which is probably why, in the 83 years since the study, we’ve seen thousands more attempt to rank America’s cities and states. Politico Magazine is just the latest of them.

But hey, we’ll take top 5.


* They added: “These results will probably surprise no one. Most Americans, asked to name the most generally civilized American State, would probably name Massachusetts at once, and nine out of ten would probably nominate Mississippi as the most backward.”