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Political Symbols of the U.S. Two-Party System

In contemporary society, political symbols are often used to connote or represent a cause, a candidate, an ideology, a political organization, a regime style or a particular sovereign state, among other things. In the political realm, the use of symbols provides a simplification of what is inherently complex, associating a more tangible, concrete form to the abstract, nuanced ideals it represents.  

Within the broad system of political symbols is a circumscribed system of indexes and symbols that signify a dichotomous set of U.S. political ideological affiliations, providing a means to more simply discuss and interpret ideology. 

In this regard, political parties themselves are signifiers within this system that represent a core body of beliefs. However, symbols of these parties often represent these ideals more succinctly and concretely, providing more meaning. But more than just signifying political affiliation, these symbols may influence the way that we see our country, causing us to see it in a more dichotomous way.

A good example of the use of symbols to represent U.S. party affiliation is the donkey and elephant symbolism. The donkey symbol originated during the 1828 election in which Andrew Jackson, the first presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, was nicknamed a “jackass” by his detractors for his seemingly erratic behavior. However, the symbol was not popularized until the late 19th century when political cartoonist Thomas Nast used the donkey for Democrats and an elephant for Republicans in several cartoons. Since that point, these animals have signified the parties as well as the stereotypes associated with them.

Another sign pairing in the system that is used to represent beliefs or U.S. party affiliation is the terminology of “right” and “left,” with right referring to conservative ideals and the Republican Party, and left referring to liberal ideals and 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 they have since remained in the American political lexicon.

The use of color to connote political affiliation is also a long-established practice, despite the fact that the U.S. designation of party color is relatively recent. Throughout most of the world, color is affiliated with different ideologies as well as regimes. For example, black may represent anarchism, while red may represent communism or socialism. At the same time, conservative and liberal ideologies are branded in the contrasting colors of blue and red or blue and yellow.

Great Britain’s political history significantly influenced this use of color for liberals and conservatives. During the 19th century, the Tory Party (now the Conservative Party) branded itself blue in opposition to socialists and radical republicans who adopted a red flag in the 1848 French revolution. The color designations remained, to some extent, and many countries followed suit.

Yet despite establishing precedent, Great Britain’s regional differences and lack of standardization often resulted in varying use of colors–often quite arbitrarily–to represent parties. It was not until the rise of mass media, particularly color television, that color use became more uniform and standardized.

Indeed, it was mass media that led to the origination of the most recent U.S. political party affiliation, that of color. Prior to the 2000 election, TV news used the colors red and blue unwittingly, often differing from one election to the next or from one station to another. It was during the significantly prolonged 2000 election that journalists consistently used blue to signify the Democratic Party in elections maps and red to signify the Republican Party. During this time, both the political lexicon and the use of colors to represent ideology changed in the U.S. as the signifiers “blue” and “red” entered as a way to described political ideology and party affiliation.  


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