Color-coded map of counties by majority vote in the 2000 U.S. presidential election

What’s red and blue and all screwed up?

Every election season, I am newly confounded by those garish bi-colored maps that saturate every media outlet’s coverage of events. You know them well —those “red state, blue state” maps that so neatly divide our country’s political differences into digestible, candy-like nuggets. My confusion lies in the fact that these colors, red for Republican and blue for Democrat, are so obviously wrong. They defy the long-standing tradition, found among numerous modern countries, of red’s association with political leftism and blue’s with conservatism.

Image of a crowd of people holding tall red flags in a supposedly spontaneous demonstration after a Societ military parade in Moscow
‘Spontaneous’ demonstration after a military May Day parade (LIFE)

Red is, of course, the official color of Communist states—Soviet Russia, Red China, and the Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, to name a few examples—and it is the color for labor and social democracy. It is also the impassioned, incendiary color of revolutionary violence, seen in the likes of the Bolsheviks, or Garibaldi’s redshirts. Is it surprising that it was also Marx’s favorite color?

In his book of wide-ranging essays on the three primary colors, Alexander Theroux notes that the color red was used, when “republicanism” meant anti-monarchism, during the French Revolution, “as the symbol of terrorism by ‘Red Republicans,’ the extremist Jacobins who . . . never hesitated to steep their hands in blood in order to insure their political goals.” The contemporary leftist magazine Jacobin shamelessly flaunts this connotation with their arresting red color scheme, exacerbated by a new issue titled “Paint the Town Red.” If Jacobin’s editors truly believe in their chosen symbols, one wonders if the time they commit to aesthetics might be better spent in the ruthless butchery of their bourgeois oppressors. Or is that taking a trendy intellectual fad too far?

Are we right in thinking they made a school desk look like a guillotine?
Two recent Jacobin publications, targeting their two key audiences of ironic Occupiers and aging community college teachers. Oh wait, that’s the same audience.

On the other hand, blue is usually associated with the cold, arch, even ruthless pragmatism of conservatives everywhere. Conservative deliberation—often careful to the point of immobility—suggests the hue of the deceased rather than the lively, ruddy color of the living; or, conversely, it evokes the calm, patient assurance of the ocean. It is the color of the Conservative Party of Canada, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, Ireland’s Fine Gael, the Tory Party, and Margaret Thatcher (who often wore a blue dress). The cover of National Review, William F. Buckley’s magazine, is bordered in blue, as if to protect itself against liberal attack.

Heraldic arms of the Bourbon Restoration

Interestingly, to return to France, the coat of arms of the pre-Revolution ancien régime consisted of nearly equal parts red and blue, with shields and flags of the two colors pictured side by side, while the national emblem after the Bourbon restoration to the throne was almost all blue. The only red to be found in the latter emblem was in the ring of fiery fleurs-de-lis that encircled and pointed toward the center blue shield—perhaps to subconsciously foreshadow the ultimate end of the monarchy?

All this highlights America’s contrariness when measured against the international community. The natural colors of our political parties would appear to be red for Democrat, blue for Republican. And at one time this was true. Blue was the color of the Federalists, the Whig Party, and the Republican North during the Civil War. For the 1976 televised presidential election, NBC Nightly News produced a map illuminating Jimmy Carter’s states with red bulbs and Gerald Ford’s with blue.

Map of the 1980 presidential election by state
The 1980 presidential election

Four years later, when President Carter lost his reelection by a landslide to Ronald Reagan, Time dubbed the Republican’s blue-saturated victory map “Lake Reagan.” This scheme was not universal, though, as some publications and TV stations preferred the opposite configuration. In an effort to standardize usage, the current scheme was ratified during the 2000 presidential election by Tim Russert, according to the Washington Post. The reasons for the final decision are uncertain and arbitrary. According to the not-so-compelling logic of The New York Times’ graphics editor at the time, “both Republican and red start with the letter R.”

After some thought, however, I’ve come to see a strange compatibility between our parties and these non-traditional colors, which both parties have apparently embraced. For one thing, it is evident that our two parties no longer—if they ever did—subscribe to a simple “right-wing/left-wing” divide. Although definitions of “conservatism” are many and often conflicting, I submit that the GOP is not immediately recognizable as a true conservative party, either now or possibly at any time in American history. At best it has been an inconsistent and often poor representative of what are known as “traditionalist” conservative principles—such as those articulated by Russell Kirk, one the most important voices in post-WWII conservatism. Instead, the GOP has always been the party of moneyed interests, of business, acquisition, and corpulent capital, drawing on the classically liberal economic ideas of the Enlightenment. Part and parcel of this economic philosophy is an emphasis on radical individualism, a person’s freedom from all ties and responsibilities, a fact which is glaringly at odds with the traditional conservative regard for place, community, and limits. This schizophrenic Republican attitude is amplified in the persona of the late-twentieth century Randian neocon: grinning like a wolf among lambs, he woos the lower-middle class with assurances of “family values” while simultaneously courting the corporate, consumerist machine that is in the business of destroying those very same family values. The cutthroat tactics of many Republicans seem to fit the party’s adopted red—in fact, wasn’t the GOP’s recent slew of congressional and gubernatorial wins in the 2014 midterm election referred to by the media as a “bloodbath?” Not to mention the Tea Party’s scarlet rage! They left progressives singing the blues.

Likewise, blue may be a more fitting color for the center-left Democratic Party of the twenty-first century. Certainly the color describes the icy reserve of Hillary Clinton, as well as the halting pragmatism of President Obama. In fact, the president is nearly a Burkean in his slow, careful tactics for implementing policy (how else would Burke have changed health care?), and has been known to profess his admiration for the Father of Conservatism. Not that this has won him any support from liberals, who now see in his blue, noncommittal stance a representation of failed hopes and broken promises. All over the internet you can read the laments of disillusioned and betrayed progressives who expected Obama to bring a true revolution in American society—a true commitment to “red” values—instead of capitulating to the whims of CEOs and Republican bullies. There is a growing sense that the ideals of the left have been abandoned for the lukewarm compromises of the middle. This may be partly true; the party has neglected labor and has never been revolutionary, and so blue may now symbolize its flaccid lack of focus. But blue also stands for the sure, ironically conservative status quo of the liberal empire—one where the dubious ideologies underlying issues such as sexual ethics, identity politics, and governmental power have become so deeply entrenched that to challenge their validity is to risk ostracization. “Tolerance” has never been so coldly intolerant.

Red and blue occupy opposite ends of the visible electromagnetic spectrum. This suggests their innate incompatibility, perhaps even hostility. There could not be a more vivid symbol of our country’s fierce political polarization. When juxtaposed, red and blue cause discomfort and distaste in the viewer. So what if we tried using complementary colors instead? Adopting blue and orange (the traditional color for Christian democracy, by the way, which we could use more of) as official party colors might do a lot to encourage healthy discussion and compromise among them. Or what about red and green, in order to inject political debate with vibes of holiday festivity? In the meantime, at least we may reflect on the amusing fact that the GOP’s red matches the color of Rush Limbaugh’s jowls.

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