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Red state, blue state: Using color as a political symbol

Ask any Americans prior to the U.S. presidential election of 2000 what the colors red and blue mean and they would probably say that they are simply patriotic colors. Ask in late 2000 after the presidential election, however, and they would probably remark that the colors symbolize U.S. political party affiliation. Since that election, the connotations of red and blue have expanded to include not only political party affiliation and the party platform, but also political ideological affiliation and the policies, stereotypes, and values associated with it. The rapidness with which the media and the public have embraced the dichotomous symbolism and terminology of red and blue reflects a shift in American culture to an increasingly polarized, partisan political atmosphere. In this atmosphere, party and ideological affiliation are ingrained in perceptions of self, and Americans perceive their country as not only politically divided, but also culturally divided. 

I. The System of Political Symbols

While the colors red and blue are relatively recent symbols to emerge in U.S. politics, the use of symbols to signify political meaning is nothing new. Symbols have long been used to represent political positions, providing a means to more simply discuss or comment on them. In this sense, then, political parties themselves can be considered symbols as they represent, or signify, political values. However, these parties are also represented by visual symbols, the donkey and the elephant. The donkey symbol, which represents the Democratic Party, was birthed during the 1828 U.S. presidential election when Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Jackson was nicknamed a “jackass” by his detractors. At the time, the visual symbol of a donkey related to the meaning it signified, so the symbol was technically an “index.” However, it was not until later in the 19th century when the “jackass” and Andrew Jackson connotation had faded that the symbol became a prominent symbol of the party. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast was the one to popularize it as he used it in his cartoons. Nast also originated and popularized the use of an elephant to represent the Republican Party, though his reason for using an elephant is unclear.

This famous political cartoon by Thomas Nast depicting an anti-Civil War faction is what permanently branded the donkey as the Democratic Party and the elephant as the Republican Party.

Nast and others have found these animals symbols useful for political commentary because they have been able to emphasize and exaggerate characteristics of the animals or personify them to convey meaning. For instance, many cartoons, as shown below, use the animals to portray emotions or attributes of the party. In many cases, the two are used together to demonstrate the dynamics of a political moment. However, their use has primarily been limited to those who are capable of effectively rendering them in visual form. Thus, they are not symbols that most American have been able to easily use, but simply to understand.

Another pair of political symbols is found in the terminology of “right” and “left,” with right connoting conservative ideals (and often the Republican Party), and left connoting liberal ideals (and often the Democratic Party). These terms supposedly originated during the French Revolution of 1789 when the king and monarchical supporters sat at the king’s right while revolutionaries sat at his left. Much later, political scientists adopted the terms to reference a political spectrum of ideology ranging from far left to far right, and the terms have since remained in the political lexicon. The signifiers of “right” and “left” have proven helpful to describe large segments of people who affiliate ideologically in the same way, such as “the right” or “the left.” The terms can also be used to characterize one’s beliefs more precisely along the ideological spectrum, such as “far right” or “left center.” Unlike the donkey and elephant symbols, which apply specifically to parties, the left/right terminology generally applies more broadly to political ideology and can be more easily employed by Americans to make political commentary than can the donkey and elephant symbols. A third type of signifier of political affiliation is the use of color. Using color as a symbol, as opposed to a specific image, makes it possible to more easily incorporate political connotations into everyday life by using them on such things as apparel, flags and maps. Thus, although the U.S. designation of party color is relatively recent, using colors to connote political affiliation of various kinds is a long-established practice.  For instance, red is often used to represent communism or socialism, and the contrasting colors of blue and red are often used to represent conservative and liberal political parties, respectively, a tradition arising from Great Britain’s political history.

II. Red and Blue in the Election of 2000

The Emergence of Political Party Color Association Thus, when the colors red and blue emerged to signify political party affiliation, they were largely unprecedented symbols in the sense that they lacked an undergirding historical connotation; in fact, they contradicted the general worldwide association of conservative parties with blue and liberal parties with red. Instead, these symbols arose in a largely arbitrary manner as journalists began consistently using red to signify the Republican Party and blue to signify the Democratic Party on elections maps during election night and the subsequent recount period of the 2000 presidential election. 

The New York Times published this map developed by Archie Tse of the popular vote shortly after election night. Tse said he used red for Republican because they both started with “r,” evidencing that the color designations were largely arbitrary.

  Connotations of Red and Blue in 2000 Because the colors had essentially no previous political connotations in the United States, they represented, at first, simply what the media said: political party affiliation. However, the context in which these colors were used—on a U.S. map representing electoral votes—also added to the colors’ connotations. The colors on the map did not merely represent party affiliation, but victories for the respective parties. And, depending on one’s hopes for the election outcome, the colors became stark representations of victory and loss in a zero-sum game.

The colors red and blue took on connotations of victory and loss in a zero-sum game.

Of course, as symbols of political parties, the colors were also loaded with political connotations. For instance, each red state connoted an embrace of policies outlined in the 2000 Republican Party platform, including proposed tax cuts for everyone, local participation in education reform, and new options for investing Social Security. The color blue in 2000 likewise took on the connotation of embracing policies in the 2000 Democratic Party platform, such as improving public schools, addressing environmental concerns, and reforming campaign finance. Because the color association with party was new in 2000, these policy connotations were not very strong or significant on election night. However, due to the prolonged period of election reporting that resulted from the Florida recount, these policy connotations intensified, and the colors became more representative of the party platforms, not just the candidates. The colors also began to represent the stereotypes of party members, many of which were perpetuated in the media. For instance, in the days following Election Day, Paul Begala, counselor to President Clinton, penned an editorial in which he wrote the following:

“You see the state where James Byrd was lynch-dragged behind a pickup truck until his body came apart–it’s red. You see the state where Matthew Shepard was crucified on a split-rail fence for the crime of being gay–it’s red. You see the state where right-wing extremists blew up a federal office building and murdered scores of federal employees–it’s red. The state where an Army private who was thought to be gay was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat, at the state where neo-Nazi skinheads murdered two African-Americans because of their skin color, and the state where Bob Jones University spews its anti-Catholic bigotry: they’re all red too.”

While this may have been the first and one of the most severe pieces of rhetoric associating red or blue with stereotypes, it certainly was not the last. As the demographic information about who voted for each candidate came to light, it expanded the connotations of red and blue. For example, red included stereotypes of married people, homemakers, frequent churchgoers, white Christians, residents of rural areas and college graduates. Blue included stereotypes of single people, working women, nonbelievers, Jews, residents of large cities, high school dropouts and union members. As red and blue took on these connotations of party member stereotypes, the colors also began to represent the values of those people. For example, the Republican Party platform advocated values of “family, faith, personal responsibility, and a belief in the dignity of every human life,” while the Democratic Party platform advocated “hard work, community, embracing diversity, faith, family, and personal responsibility.” Although many of the values were supposedly the same, the nuance between the ordering of these values demonstrates some clear distinctions between the priorities of the two groups. But the values associated with the parties were not limited merely to what the parties said they were. Party values were also painted by the statements of candidates, advertisements for and against the candidates, media analysis and commentary, and, most importantly, the party members themselves. For example, many who voted for Bush held strong religious beliefs and strongly valued traditional families, while many who voted for Gore held feminist and environmental values. Thus, the colors red and blue took on the connotations of these values as well.

III. Shifting Connotations: Red and Blue in 2016

Since the emergence of red and blue as political symbols in the 2000 presidential election, the colors have shifted from simply being used on election maps to an oft-referenced terminology in the political lexicon. The policies for which the political parties have advocated and enacted in the time since the 2000 election have modified the meanings of the political parties, in turn modifying the meanings of the colors. Every presidential election has played a particular role in evolving these perceptions of party because the campaign seasons have provided party candidates unparalleled opportunities to advocate their positions to an audience that is rarely so attentive. Thus, the colors have proved to be quite fluid in connotation, connoting the most recent issues and positions of the parties’ candidates.   Ideological Signification But while party platforms and policies have shifted, altering the connotations of red and blue, more has changed in the color connotations than simply changes in political party perception. Since the 2000 election, the terms “red” and “blue” have come to symbolize not merely party affiliation, but often ideological affiliation. This shift is evidenced most commonly in journalism and political commentary. The two terms are often used almost synonymously, as if a red state implies all conservative ideals. For example, upon visiting the popular website, visitors are inviting to subscribe “to get the latest conservative news and commentary–” not the latest Republican news, but  conservative news. And on, a far less comprehensive news aggregate but a liberal news source nonetheless, the top of the site features no references to the Democratic Party, but rather a definition of the word “liberal.” While using these terms interchangeably might seem normal in 2016, this strict, close relationship between party and ideology was not always so. In previous decades, Republicans and Democrats leaned right and left, respectively, but were hardly so ideologically exclusive as they are today. Using blue and red to symbolize ideology and not just party reflects the growing partisanship that is emerging in American culture. The use of these contrasting colors to represent ideology contributes to an increased sense of ideological exclusiveness, which may contribute to the lack of compromise in today’s political atmosphere. In addition, using two solid colors to contrast with each other results in a perception that ideology is clear-cut and unvarying in its philosophy, minimizing the role of using the political spectrum (“far left” to “far right”) to describe one’s political alignment. This, in turn, can lead to a distrust and subsequent disdain for views of “the other side” as the solid color seems to connote a solidness in philosophy that is uncompromising. Thus, the color red is now associated with conservative tenets such as limited government, large military, states’ rights and American exceptionalism. The color blue is likewise ideologically connotative, emphasizing government’s role in providing education, alleviating poverty, purusing social justice and ensuring rights for minority groups.   Party Signification However, the election of 2016 saw a distinct shift in the colors, a return to more strictly connoting political party, political platform, and political candidate. This was in large part due to the candidates that each party selected. Donald Trump in particular shifted the connotation toward party and away from ideology as he advocated for many policies that were not inherently or traditionally part of the conservative agenda.   Red States: Donald Trump and the Republican Party

Donald Trump speaks at an event as the 2016 Republican Party presidential candidate.

As the Republican Party nominee, Donald Trump emphasized promises to build a wall to fix illegal immigration, to put Americans back to work by penalizing outsourcing, and to re-negotiate trade deals to put America first. None of these policies ring “conservative.” Though not necessarily highly contradictory of conservative principles and ideals, this agenda demonstrated that Donald Trump was not a typical conservative candidate. Many conservatives opposed at least some of his policies, and even more opposed his rhetoric and moral character. Thus, throughout his presidential campaign, particularly after receiving the Republican nomination, Donald Trump starkly shifted the connotation of the color red in a new direction. No longer did it represent a significant focus on states’ rights or implementing socially and economically conservative policies,  but instead it took on a connotation of American-first policies, whatever they might include. Because of this agenda, the color red shifted back toward party connotation and away from ideological connotation as conservatives, the ideological base of the Republican Party, questioned how to reconcile their beliefs with the Trump agenda that sometimes contradicted or overlooked their policy goals and values. As some conservatives withdrew support for the GOP, the party seemed less concerned with conservative ideals, requiring the connotation of red to also shift away from these ideals because the color’s primary function necessitates that it be a representation of the party more than the ideological base. As in 2000, those who supported the Republican candidate also became part of the color red connotation. The demographic breakdown of Trump support revealed that he carried the majority of the white vote, the majority of those who had some college education or less, and the majority of those 45 and older. Beyond that characterization, however, his supporters were frequently stereotyped in the media (and by Hillary Clinton herself) as white supremacist, redneck, middle-class, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, sexist, bigoted, close-minded Christians. Thus, when Americans looked at the electoral map in the days following the election, many saw the mostly-red middle of America as these very things. To many Trump supporters, however, they saw instead a coalition of Americans disgruntled by the establishment, Americans who wanted their interests–not the political system’s–recognized, valued and put first.

Donald Trump supporters were stereotyped in many ways, including the stereotype of being white males.

Blue States: Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party

Hillary Clinton, 2016 Democratic Party presidential candidate, speaks at a campaign event.

Just as Donald Trump’s Republican nomination altered the connotation of red, so too Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her supporters altered the connotation of blue. While in this case the connotation shift was far less extreme–likely as a result of less inflammatory rhetoric compared to Trump–subtle connotation shifts did occur. To begin with, the selection of a female candidate and the party’s emphasis of that fact added to a growing perception that the Democratic Party is the party of feminism, the party that cares about and champions rights and opportunities for women. In addition to women, Clinton claimed to be the champion for other minorities, including blacks, Hispanics, and LGBTQ persons. While in some regards this is nothing new–the party, after all, claimed that “embracing diversity” was one of its core values in the 2000 election–Clinton’s open support for marriage in the LGBTQ community was nearly unprecedented, as Obama had not supported it when he first ran in 2008. This added to the notion that the Democratic Party was the party concerned with fighting for “social justice” in its many forms. However, Clinton herself carried many negative connotations. Some considered her power-hungry, angry and cold-hearted. Many also viewed her as untrustworthy, in large part because of her email scandal. Unlike Trump, however, Clinton’s supporters were not painted as condoners of her sins, nor were her perceived flaws attributed to her followers as Trump’s were to his. Rather, Democratic supporters were generally stereotyped in typical demographic ways–they were often millennials, minorities and from urban areas. Republican supporters, of course, often saw them in a more negative light–lacking moral values, patronizing others, viciously attacking the beliefs of those with whom they did not agree. Thus, the color blue took on all these connotations, although, just like the color red, the connotations often varied based on the political ideology of the one perceiving them.

Hillary Clinton supporters were often stereotyped as being minorities.

IV. What the Embrace of Red and Blue Says About American Culture and Politics

The fact that the colors red and blue have been embraced, not only as consistent colors on electoral maps, but as a dichotomous terminology in our political lexicon, demonstrates several important characteristics and trends in American society. Generalization of Affiliation First, it shows a propensity to view states as being monolithic in culture, in values, in ideology, and so forth. For example, if a person is from California or New York, some would automatically assume that this person is a feminist and environmentalist who lives in an urban area. While these assumptions may be true in some cases, they may also be entirely false in others. In any given state, there are a wide range of opinions and backgrounds. People can also change their values and opinions over time, and thus state color designations are not as static as they seem. Yet, when states are painted red or blue, it contributes to a growing sense of state identification as political identification. It can incite animosity by individuals and groups toward entire states or all individuals in a state, especially when a state has many electoral votes and the state consistently votes for an opposing political party. Thus, many Republicans feel animosity toward California, while many Democrats feel animosity toward Texas. Increased Sense of Partisanship Second, while states are often viewed as monolithic in culture as well as party and ideological identification, the use of red and blue can cause Americans to look at the country in a dichotomously divided way. It can seem that every state, and thus everyone, must be one or the other–Democrat or Republican. These kind of black and white perceptions of political views coincide with the shift of political parties toward increasing ideological consistency. 2014 study by the Pew Research Center provides evidence of this shift. While just 5 percent of Democrats held consistently liberal positions in 1994, 23 percent held consistently liberal positions in 2014. Among Republicans, 13 percent were consistently conservative in 1994, while 20 percent were consistently conservative in 2014. The study also shows that, in 1994, 23 percent of Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat, while only 4 percent were in 2014. Among Democrats, 17 percent were more conservative than the median Republican in 1994, but in 2014 the number had to decline to just 5 percent. Thus, the country’s ideological divide is reinforced by the contrasting colors of red and blue on the map, which, like a new black and white, cause citizens to see the two parties’ objectives and methods as mutually exclusive with little to no room for compromise. The visual below represents this increased polarization. The use of red and blue on the map may also influence the way that Americans perceive the distribution of the country’s citizens. Looking at an electoral map, one would suppose that the coasts are primarily full of Democrats while the heartland is almost entirely Republican. While this is mostly true in terms of how the majority of people affiliate in these areas, it does not provide an accurate representation of the breakdown of the American population. The geographical size of middle America may create a perception that overall America is largely Republican, while in reality it is just that the geographical area of the states which contain predominantly Republican opinions is greater. The societal propensity to think of America in this way represents that the culture has shifted toward increasing partisanship and a skewed sense of who the country’s citizens are. Political Affiliation as a Vital Perception of Self The fact that the terms red and blue have come to symbolize not merely party affiliation but also ideological affiliation, stereotypes, and values demonstrates that American culture has changed so that ideological affiliation is a vital aspect of many Americans’ identities of self. While perhaps political party identification has always been an important trait of self-identification, it is now a trait of significant importance to people in deciding with whom they will associate. A 2014 report by the Pew Research Center found that the “ideological echo chamber” is increasing, with consistent liberals and consistent conservatives both seeking to have friends who share their political views and often avoiding those who differ. In addition, many Americans associate ideological belief with cultural stereotypes, and the contrasting colors of red and blue reinforce these perceived difference between Republicans and Democrats. Importance of Taking the “Right” Stance Moreover, the sense that political identification is a vital part of self demonstrates that American culture is concerned with being on the “right side” of the issues–right as in the supposedly correct and tolerant, not necessarily right-leaning. This concern extends not only to individuals but to businesses and organizations. For example, throughout much of America this month, businesses are displaying or incorporating the LGBTQ rainbow to demonstrate participation in and support for “pride month.” More than just advocating support, individuals and organizations are demonstrating an alliance with political ideology. While an individual or business could certainly take measures to take an alternative stance, doing so would surely be met with severe antipathy, for American culture would be quick to pass judgment and say that this action is wrong for its intolerance. In this regard, then, there is a clear shift in American culture to act as if one political ideology is acceptable while another is not. Ironically, such ideological policing is completed under the guise of tolerance.  A Culture of Uncompromising Ideology–Sort of The fact that colors, as opposed to images, are the new symbols of political and ideological affiliation is also significant in what it says about American culture. The use of color provides a sense of consistency and solidness in every way that it is used. For instance, while the logos of the donkey and the elephant could, in theory, be used as keys on an election map, they fail to provide the visual completeness that color provides. Solid color seen on a map is precise, thorough, complete and all-encompassing; thus, it seems to connote a firmness in belief, untainted or influenced by anything else. As a result, the use of these colors reflects the increasing partisanship, ideological firmness, and lack of compromise in American politics today. Yet, despite this sense of firmness in ideology, the election of 2016 demonstrated that commitment to ideology can be overcome if political promises resonate deeply and personally enough. Trump’s ability to capture so many votes, even when going against the grain of conservative values, provides evidence that ideological conviction may be more perceived than real. When it comes down to making political decisions, most Americans are, as Aristotle postulated, self-interested. Thus, party platforms and values are unlikely to ever stay completely the same, for they must always appeal in at least some personal, meaningful ways to the people whose votes they are trying to capture. The connotations of red and blue will continue to change as new challenges, issues, policies, and candidates enter the political arena. If one thing is sure in a political atmosphere full of rapid change, it’s that red and blue are not static connotations, and “we the people” will play a role in shaping their future.

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