Monday, November 5, 2012

Red State Blues

Tuesday—yikes, that’s tomorrow!—is Election Day.  That evening, TV viewers will be anxiously watching maps of the United States brightly colored red and blue. As everyone will know, red will indicate the states carried by Republicans and blue the states going Democratic. Given the historical association of red with liberal causes and blue with more conservative parties, one might think the map-makers are color-blind.
The etymologies of the words red and blue are of little help in sorting out today’s symbolism.  Red is derived from the Sanskrit rudhirá, which means “blood.”  From this meaning, the color red came to be associated with violence, revolution, lust, anger, fire, guilt, sex, sin, love, courage, and sacrifice.

Blue traveled a circuitous etymological path, from proto-Indo-European bhel (“light-colored, yellow, burnt”), Old Norse bla (“livid, or black-and-blue”), Old French blo (“pale, discolored, gray”), North Icelandic blamaur (“swarthy black”), Middle High German bla (“yellow’), and Germanic blau (originally, “black”).  Apparently blue could denote any color you wanted, as long as it wasn’t red. Even today some languages have no word to distinguish blue from green.

The symbolic meaning of blue has varied as widely as its etymology. It has been associated with happiness, optimism, peace, serenity, and loyalty.  Goethe thought blue was cold, gloomy, and melancholy (as opposed to red’s gravity, dignity, and grace). In politics blue somewhat arbitrarily came to stand for conservative opposition to both liberalism (red) and anarchy (black).
But why do red and blue mean what they do today in American politics?  Blame it on the election of 2000.

TV networks had first used colors on electronic election maps in 1976, when NBC pioneered with a map showing Gerald Ford in blue and Jimmy Carter in red. In 1984, NBC News showed Ronald Reagan’s landslide of 44 states as a “sea of blue.”  Apparently not wanting to be thought a copycat, CBS used the opposite colors—red for Republicans and blue for Democrats. At ABC blue and yellow were the choices.

During this period the three major networks informally agreed on a uniform red-blue scheme that would alternate every four years, being assigned according to who were the incumbents (blue) and who were the challengers (red).

By 2000 all the broadcast and cable networks used this system, and it was the incumbent Democrats’ turn to be blue.  Because of the prolonged controversy over the election, coverage dragged on for weeks, and commentators began to refer to a state as “red” or “blue,” according to which party had carried it.  From that time on, the red-state, blue-state dichotomy became ingrained in American political dialogue.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is also ingrained—but it’s better not to ask in what.  Today, like most days, he has the blues.

            Oh, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues,
            Surrounded by a crowd with wing-nut views,
            Politicians like Rick Perry,
            Who think their job’s hereditary,
            As long as they’re more right-wing than Ted Cruz.

            Oh, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues,
            I’m in a land where folks believe Fox News,
            And the ghost of Molly Ivins
            Is the one thing that enlivens
            All the Democrats who know they’re bound to lose.

            When I’m resting in my arbor, Oh
            How I dream of old Ralph Yarborough,
            I’d bring back Barbara Jordan, if I only could.
            Ann Richards, Henry Gonzalez,
            They were really hot tamales—
            And right now even Lyndon Johnson’s looking good!

            O, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues,
            A feeling that goes right down to my shoes,
            ‘Twould be a feat herculean
            If Texas turned cerulean,
            Yes, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues.

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