What is “Real America”.  This seems to come up often.  During the 2016 campaign, it was claimed by rural folks angry, with some justification, that the coasts consider them some sort of backwater not relevant to the nation in the modern age.  Of course, those rural folks likewise dismiss people on the coasts as not representing “Real America” because some don’t eat meat and many don’t shoot things.  Both points of view strike me as a terribly un-American way to think.

I spent the weekend cruising around rural Argentina hoping to expand my definition of what is “Real Argentina” and it, inevitably, made me think about “Real America”.

I’m an organic chemist.  I haven’t yet met an organic chemist who doesn’t enjoy drawing (often bad) analogies between organic chemistry and pretty much everything else.  Want me to explain politics?  Here is an energy diagram. Yes, we know it’s usually bogus but that makes it all the more fun.  So, here goes.

In organic chemistry we have a concept called “resonance”.  Resonance is employed to let us keep using Lewis structures to explain the behavior of molecules even though Lewis structures don’t explain the behavior of molecules.  You see, a chemical bond is made up of two (usually) electrons in something called a molecular orbital.  If you had enough high school chemistry to remember that electrons in atoms exist in atomic orbitals, you get the idea.  A molecular orbital is much the same as an atomic orbital except that it exists in a molecule and is not necessarily isolated on a particular atom.  In fact, molecular orbitals are derived by the mixing of atomic orbitals.  In Lewis structure, a chemical bond is viewed as an electron pair shared between two, and only two, atoms.  It turns out that molecular orbitals, that is “bonds”, can be shared amongst many atoms.  Hence, Lewis structures, for very many molecules, don’t work.

Take the crotyl cation.  There are two significant resonance structures that could both represent the cation.  In the first, the positive charge resides on the terminal carbon with a pi bond between C2 and C3.  In the second, the positive charge resides on C3 with a pi pond between C1 and C2.  Which is right?  Neither.  Both.  The real structure has a positive charge spread over C1, C2, and C3 with most of that charge on C1 and C3. Likewise, the two electrons that comprise the pi bond are spread over C1, C2 and C3.  The real structure is a weighted average of the two resonance structures. This is a very quick and dirty tutorial and it leaves out a fair bit.  You don’t want to read it. I don’t want to write it.  But it’s very important organic chemistry students get this very early on.


Resonance is a way of hedging Lewis theory without having to deal with molecular orbitals which, for a variety of reasons, are a pain in the ass (basically, Lewis structures are easy to come up with and understand (hey, settle down class) while molecular orbitals need to be computed and often look very strange; they are not intuitive.  If you’re looking for a practical way to consider molecules, Lewis structures are far superior to molecular orbitals in every way except that they usually aren’t completely accurate).  The idea is that you draw all the possible Lewis structures for a molecule (these are called resonance structures), gauge which are the most stable and create a weighted average where the real structure is some hybrid of all the individual Lewis structures, or resonance structures.  If you learn to do this well, it’s a very powerful shortcut to full blown molecular orbital theory. Still, there are times when only consideration of molecular orbitals will do.

The important thing to remember is that no single resonance structure explains the whole.  You have to use all of them.

Thus, I think it is with the United States (or, in fact, any country or large group of people).  Real America is not a gun-owning rancher with five kids.  Real America is not a banker in a fine suit.  Real America is not a third grade teacher endlessly teaching arithmetic to generations of students.  Real America is not an inner-city shop owner new to the country.  Real America is not a Marine in Iraq.  Real America is not a gay dancer trying to make it in New York.  Real America is not a reality TV star.

Real America is a hybrid of all those people and many, many more.  Fail to consider them all and you miss Real America and come up with some sort of distorted picture that fails to explain the behavior of the nation.


4 thoughts on “Bad Analogies and the Real America

  1. To rain on the organic parade a bit more, the general problem with Real America is that people seem to think in averages and then mis-estimate what the average is. As if an average can tell one much at all about a diverse bunch of people… It seems more appropriate to this non-organic professor that a mosaic is a better analogy. Each piece is a different shape or color and surrounded by other pieces that are unique as well, all making a larger work of art together. (It is, I fully admit, a pretty idealistic view given how much some folks object to being in the same frame together with folks who don’t look like them or think like them.) Or maybe there is a different one in organic that I cannot recall, possibly a family of molecules that are similar but different, and not well represented by an average. Like, alkanes or something, but maybe quite possibly with more explanatory power than that.


    1. I’d buy an analogy with crude oil. As I said, though, it’s not a great analogy and you illustrate why very well. I don’t think we mix nearly as well as we think. We really are a collection of united states where the states aren’t necessarily the 50 we recognize. But there are and always have been groups that don’t mix. There have been times where we got better mixing than we do today. Basically, we’ve always recognized that, no matter how much we might like the other groups, we’re stronger together. Perhaps we don’t believe that anymore.


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