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Color Wars

Geoffrey Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary, May 18, 2005

Color names are the most elemental labels you can give to opposing sides -- they suggest deep and irreconcilable divisions that go deeper than differences over politics. You think of the whites and reds of the War of the Roses or of the Russian Revolution, or of the blues and whites of the Vendée rebellion against the French republican government in 1793 (well, okay, maybe not everybody thinks of that one). Or of the blues and greens of Constantinople, who began as the supporters of different chariot racing teams at the circus and grew into warring factions that pervaded the life of the Byzantine Empire.

By those standards, America's decision to divide itself into blue and red cultures is a pretty genteel affair, more on the order of a summer camp color war. But it's odd the way this has come on us so suddenly. The terms themselves go back a few election cycles. According to Grant Barrett's recent political dictionary Hatchet Jobs and Hardball, they first appeared during the 1992 presidential election,  when the networks decided to coordinate their electoral graphics using blue for the Democrats and red for the Republicans.

But words are like fashions -- they can lie around on the shelf for a long time before somebody suddenly decides to make a statement with them. Until recently, "blue state" and "red state" were rarely used -- as late as 2000, the terms only appeared about a dozen times in major newspapers, always in stories about the presidential election itself. Over the last year, by contrast, they've appeared over 2500 times, and they show no signs of tailing off even as people put the 2004 election behind them.

The terms aren't exclusively political anymore -- there's no aspect of American life that hasn't been given a place on the national color wheel. A recent article in Brandweek reports that Scotts is introducing a new fertilizer aimed at the blue-state market. The Cincinnati Reds' pitcher Joe Valentine, who was raised by lesbian parents, describes himself as a "blue state guy playing in a red state sport." And The New York Times quotes the program director of a Los Angeles radio station disparaging some competitors who play what he calls "red-state rock." That phrase pretty much sums up the sociopolitical theory behind the blue-red distinction: if you liked Lynyrd Skynyrd, you'll love George Bush.

That may explain why the phrases "red state" and "blue state" reverse the traditional political associations of the colors. Until recently, red connoted the revolutionary left -- the Red Army, the Little Red Book, "a bunch of reds." That connection was first made in the 1830's from the color of either a flag or party badge -- there are different stories about this.[1] But it caught on because red evokes passion, violence, and the forbidden. If those flags or badges had been colored yellowish brown, nobody would have been tempted to describe John Reed, Emma Goldman, and the rest as a bunch of ochres. And once red was in place for the left, it led to the spin-offs "pink" and "pinko" as derisive labels for bourgeois radical wannabes -- a color that manages to suggest both pallid conviction and effeminacy at the same time.

Blue, on the other hand, evokes fixity, coolness and reserve, which is why it's historically associated with conservatism and propriety. You think of bluebloods and blue-noses, not to mention blue chips, blue laws, and the blue book that lists the names of socially prominent families. Blue is the traditional color of the Conservative Party in the UK, and in Canada, the Blue Tories are the conservative wing of the party. It's no wonder foreigners sometimes feel that we Americans have gotten our chromatic wires crossed.

But even if our red-blue reversal began with the arbitrary decision of some network graphic artist, there's a logic to it. After the fall of communism and the eclipse of the far left, a color that connotes wild-eyed radicals doesn't have much relevance to the media stereotype of urban liberals from Boston or San Francisco -- those effete, intellectual, bloodless… well, "bluestockings" was one way we used to say this.

And red has other associations that make it appropriate to stand in for heartland American culture. You could start with the idea of the heartland itself, and add red-blooded and red meat, with "redneck" hovering unspoken in the background.

Once you start in on this, it seems to be everywhere. Budweiser, Coca-Cola, and Campbell's Soup all use red logos; Loewenbrau, Skyy Vodka, and BMW use blue ones. Red is the color of the Cincinnati Reds, the Houston Astros, and the Atlanta Braves; blue is the color of the New York Yankees, the LA Dodgers, and the Seattle Mariners.

True, this gets leaky if you think about it too much. After all, blue also gets you the Texas Rangers and WalMart, whereas red gets you the Boston Red Sox and Target. But then the whole idea of a red-blue cultural dichotomy doesn't really bear close examination in the first place. It evaporates the moment you look at a county-by-county election map or at a list of Starbuck's locations.

By itself, that wouldn't prevent  the blue-red distinction from taking its place as a permanent fixture of the American political lexicon alongside of left and right. The media aren't exactly averse to facile oversimplifications, particularly when they come with good visuals.

But the faster the media pick up on a fashion, the more quickly they tend to  drop it when it gets shopworn. My guess is that the appeal of dividing America into color-coded cultures will fade as soon as another presidential election re-arranges the electoral quilt into something less tidy. Or as soon as "The Simple Life" goes into reruns -- whichever comes first.


1. The OED gives 1848 for the first cite of this use of red, which it describes as "Referring originally to the colour of a party badge." Alain Rey's Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française dates the first French use of the adjective rouge from 1834 and of the noun from 1841, and says merely that it arose "par métonymie de son emploie dans un contexte politique politique révolutionnaire (drapeau rouge)..." Return

Copyright © 2005 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.