Teams of the Red and the Blue

Red States Blue States  Red Republican Red Scare

As the USA enters another electoral cycle of primaries, donkeys and Electoral College shenanigans, we can anticipate an extended soap opera dominating media coverage. Unfortunately, this feeding frenzy is not limited to American TV. Each political season in the US sucks disproportionate quantities of journalistic oxygen from news content in the rest of the Anglosphere, thanks to the hegemony of America’s global commentariat.

While a few US citizens may be aware that their date system format is at variance with the rest of humanity, do they realise just how weird their political team colours have become?

Across the rest of the world, blue is the colour of conservatism while red belongs to progressive movements, associated with loyalist and radical traditions respectively. Less common political colours have a varied and sometimes ideologically conflicted history. Green can be Irish nationalist, Hellenic socialist, anti-apartheid, pro-environmentalist or pan-Islamic. Black has connections with fascism, with African-American civil rights and more recently with ISIS. Orange may indicate an Ulster loyalist, a Christian Democrat, a social democrat, a conservative Afrikaner or a Netherlands patriot. But red for conservatism? Only the Americans have achieved that, and for dumb-down reasons.

Until the 2000 election, when George W Bush was controversially declared the winner, political parties in the US stuck with the traditional blue-red bifurcation. In the 1950s, Republican Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunt was also known as the Red Scare. While the Cold War lasted, ‘reds’ were the bad guys (an updated version of the bad guy in a black hat from cowboy movies). But during later years of the Cold War, television networks in the US began to experiment with election-night graphics and candidate swatches. Why? Because bright colours rated well: content-lite and nuance-free. Networks could have used secondary hues like purple or orange but instead they preferred to stick with a long-standing British tradition of Tory blue and Labour red, imported decades before colour television. In the age of wall-to-wall TV coverage, Republicans and Democrats were equally happy to be red-white-and-blue but neither team wanted to be associated with just red, the commie colour. In practice this meant that networks often assigned red to the ‘other’ party, the one they weren’t backing. So in 1976 the NBC election broadcast used red for Ford and blue for Carter. Then in 1980, the same network used red for Carter and blue for Reagan. Most networks in that election stuck with traditional colour associations from Europe.

There are various theories for why the Republican Party has embraced red. One is based on alliteration, that it was a convenient mnemonic device for TV technicians. Another explanation is that because the 2000 election non-result dragged on for so long, with hanging and pregnant chads in Florida, those TV graphics using red for Republican and blue for Democrat became institutionalised. To this writer both theories sound rather glib, and dumb, which makes them equally likely to be true. In this version of Gresham’s Law, bad logic drives out good. Anyhow, we all know the real winner of the 2000 election was Fox News, who called the result for Bush, holding that dogged line until other networks capitulated. Fox became the nation’s red team, challenging its then orthodoxy. Ultimately red triumphed. Ignorance became strength. Anyone who didn’t like it was an enemy of freedom. Red was the new blue.

Today there are still conservatives in the US unhappy about this colour of choice, though not for post-Soviet connotations. They claim that red is a hot-headed irrational colour for fanatics. By contrast, blue suggests more dispassionate and managerial qualities. There might even be some substance to this. The way that Obama’s administration has played out does fit a cool blue mood, in contrast to the red-blooded hotheadedness of the Bush era. In any case, logic has long deserted the colour palette. For a decade and a half, US election coverage has adopted a discourse of ‘red’ versus ‘blue’ states, and this is now part of the politico-media lexicon. When colour association in language reaches this level of usage it’s hard to undo, despite examples to the contrary everywhere else in the world.

America is welcome to its political colour-blindness. The rest of us don’t need to follow.

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