Is Red Blue and Blue Red?

Hubert Murray
5 min readNov 5, 2020

As I write this the situation is still unclear. According to CNN Biden has 253 votes in the Electoral College, Trump 213. But even as a snapshot of the moment, these data are contested. The score according to The Guardian is 264 to 214. But pick a number, any number, and it will be contested in court over the coming weeks. Trump has already set his lawyers in motion. And the numbers will be fought in the streets over the coming months and years — the President is already whipping up the crowds. Even with a Democratic president it appears we shall still have a Republican Senate and a Democratic House.

We can leave the electoral count to psephologists and the contests to the courts and the streets but we already know that this so-called United States is a two-word oxymoron. Actual policy and its execution take a hind seat to the fracas playing out on our screens. In the course of this distraction Israel has demolished an entire Palestinian village in the Jordan Valley, China is stepping up a trade war with Australia, Covid cases in the US have reached 9.6 million and deaths at ¼ million. As Sean O’Casey put it “the whole worl’ is in a terrible state of chassis”[1].

There are others who can text and tweet and generally expound on income inequality, homelessness, racism, the ravages of a fast changing economy, the opportunities afforded in addressing climate change and so many other issues that are being ignored in this struggle for the ascendancy.

I want to talk about color. Specifically, I want to talk about red and blue, the value of symbolism, the importance of history, and the confusion that has contributed to the crisis in which we find ourselves.

In 2000 graphic designers on the New York Times and USA Today, apparently independently, thought up the idea of coloring the electoral maps Red for Republican (easy to remember) and Blue for Democrat (no mnemonic there, but who cares?). This color legend was adopted throughout the media apparently without question and has been in use ever since. As someone who has had a life and a memory that stretches back a few years into the previous millennium I have found this a confusing decision and I suspect, subconsciously, many Americans do too. I would even go so far as to suggest that it may well have affected policy and political philosophy, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle. Here’s why.

Let’s start with the American parents and grandparents of the current generation. They lived through a period in American politics in which the Red Scare was a major influence on US foreign policy and internal investigation. The Reds were the Russians; civics classes debated whether it was better to be Dead than Red; the FBI under Hoover sought for Reds under the beds; and the children of social activists were defamed as “Red diaper babies”, genetically cursed.

It was not only Americans who subscribed to this color connotation. The Russians and the Chinese, not to mention the Cubans and others, each had a Red Army or Red Guards and in the case of China under Mao, the East was Red. The British Labour Party anthem, written by an Irishman in 1889, contains the words “So raise the scarlet standard high / Beneath its shade we’ll live and die / Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer / We’ll keep the red flag flying here”.[2] And if that is not early enough as a reference, let’s invoke Garibaldi and his Redshirts (Camicie Rosse) operating as an anti-imperialist guerilla army first in Uruguay, later in the unification of Italy.

Which aspect of this illustrious history of red as the color of revolution is it that Republicans find particularly attractive?

Blue does not have such a strong historical provenance as red but is nevertheless indicative. In Britain, “true blue” conservatism was personified by Margaret Thatcher in her sartorial choice of suits, hats and handbags. In France blue represents moderate conservatism; in Venezuela the coalition of reactionaries chose blue to distinguish themselves from the ruling socialists’ red. In other Latin American countries blue represents anti-feminist and, in particular, anti-abortion policies. In United States culture, apparently blue is the most popular color in art[3]and the most used color in digital screen presentation[4]. From this short survey the inference can reasonably be drawn that in the United States and elsewhere blue connotes safe, centrist, conservative thinking.

So allowing for the not unreasonable observation that graphic artists on top and bottom newspapers (The Grey Lady and the Tramp?) may not have had the political or historical background to inform their choice of color, the real question is why Republicans allowed their party to be represented by the color of revolution and why Democrats acceded to having their progressive clothing replaced by Margaret Thatcher’s favorite hue. This is not a trivial question because it does well reflect the recent history of each party.

Ronald Reagan, fueled by Friedmanism, was as radical in his embrace of neo-liberalism as Thatcher was in Britain. Another radical, Newt Gingrich, ploughed the field and seeded the furrows from which the Tea Party grew and from which we are still reaping the harvest in judicial nominations. Trump is the latest in a line of Republican leaders fueling faux-populism, the most radical movement in the last generation of American politics. These racist, xenophobic oligarchs are the real revolutionaries and they have stolen the people’s color.

Democrats on the other hand, from Clinton onwards have been triangulating to the middle, embracing policies framed by Republicans. Obama, on the surface the most radical choice for president in 2008 — on the basis of his skin color — in substance followed Clintonian conservatism with pro-capital, anti-worker, anti-immigrant policies. Basically practicing Republicanism with grace and style.

So here we are in 2020. If it looks like the Democrats have been robbed of their values, this could be said to have started when they were divested of the progressive color in broad daylight with barely a squeak of protest from the hierarchy. For a party that has conspicuously ignored rural poverty, that has failed the urban unemployed, has flim-flammed the many communities of color with fine words and feeble action, that has groveled to Israeli settler colonialism and continues to feed the military industrial complex, maybe blue is the right color. But that doesn’t mean red goes to the Republicans. It is the job of progressives to restore red to where it belongs.

Hubert Murray is an architect in Cambridge Massachusetts

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juno_and_the_Paycock

[2] It could be argued that the Labour Party is no longer a socialist organization but the historical correlation is there.

[3] https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-komar-melamid-americans-painting-thought-wanted

[4] https://www.wired.com/2016/09/popular-color-internet/

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Hubert Murray

Hubert Murray is an architect based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.