Sunday, July 8, 2018

Parade Raises Question—Why Red States, Blue States?

A panaramic view of the more than 100 marchers in the Democratic Party contingent in the Crystal Lake Fourth of July Parade.  Photo by Missy Funk.

Yesterday, July 7, I marched with McHenry County Democrats and Progressives in the what Crystal Lake, Illinois continues to call the July 4th Parade.   I have been in these parades almost every year since 1984 with one contingent or another.  It has become part of the rhythm of summer.  In recent years I have walked with other members of Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry with our friends and allies from the fight for marriage equality and L/G/B/T rights PFLAG switching to the Democrats in election years.
Over one hundred candidates and volunteers marched far out numbering the Republicans who marched in red and Make America Great Again Caps.  The Republicrats did have more vehicles including a large hay wagon covered with campaign signs and no fewer than four floats or trucks with elephants.  They do love their elephants.  So many, however, may have reminded parade viewers of the circus they have made of government on all levels.  The only thing missing was a clown car for their candidates to come spilling out of in red noses, floppy shoes, fright wigs, and Alt-right approved marching togs.  

McHenry County Republicans with one of four elephants.  Mounted Trump flag bearer not shown.  Photo by Cal Skinner, McHenry County Blog.
Their contingent was led by a mounted rider in a cowboy hat and large Trump banner, indelibly identifying the local party with the deeply unpopular and widely loathed Mussolini wannabe.  Folks watching the parade reported that the rider was greeted by far more than a smattering of boos and cheers for the Republicans were muted, at best.
Democrat parade volunteers are always advised to wear blue to represent the Party unless we are decked out in t-shirts for individual candidates.  I have been wearing a blue “Proud to be a McHenry County Democrat” t-shirt in every parade with Party since 2008.  That shirt is probably the sole survivor of scores that were made for parade marchers ten years ago.  This year the unit included a small float decorated on its sides with a wave motif and the slogan “Ride the Blue Wave.”
Democrats assemble with their candidates--from left to right front,  Loren Underwood, Suzanne Ness, Carlos Acosta, Nancy Zettler, Mary Mahady, Kelli Wegener. Seond row Drew Georgi in campaign hat behind Ness, and Tom Geoges behind Zettler.
Our highly enthusiastic group was led by the charismatic Lauren Underwood, candidate for Congress from the 14th District who drew an enthusiastic welcome.  Other candidates in the parade included Nancy Zettler, Mary Mahady, and Tom Georges for 33rd District, 32nd, and 26th Illinois State Senate seats; Trisha Zubert for State Representative in District 64;  Andrew “Drew” Georgi for County Clerk; and County Board contenders Suzanne Ness in District 2, Kelli Wegener in District 3, and Carlos Acosta in District 5.  Also on hand were County Chair Kristina Zahorik, members of the Executive Board, precinct committee person, and loads of volunteers of all ages.
The marchers of the two parties raised a question—how did blue become the color of Democrats and red for Republican?  Why do we talk of red states like Alabama or Arizona and blue states like New York and (mostly) Illinois?  After all, neither party ever proclaimed nor official color, although come to think of it neither officially adopted elephants and donkeys as mascots, even though they have embraced them and worked them into un-official logos.
The color coding has the feel of long tradition.  Red state and blue states are identifying terms bandied about by pundits, talking heads on TV, and water cooler debaters alike.  Everyone knows what is meant with no need of explanation.  But contra intuitively it turns out the designations practically new.
Amateur etymologists have postulated that Democrats got blue for The Bonney Blue Flag, a Scottish Jacobean song which rivaled Dixie as a popular anthem among Confederate troops in the early years of the Civil War.  The same faux experts say red comes from the blood of Union soldiers and the Reconstruction Era campaign tactic of Waving the Bloody Shirt to ensure a massive turn-out for Republicans from members of the Grand Army of the Republic in the North.  All very logical sounding but total poppycock. 
In fact, neither party called dibs on color and both felt free to use either in posters and campaign materials.  Both parties, in the North at least, relied heavily on the Red, While, and Blue of the national flag than on any component part separately.
With a handful of exceptions, American political parties did not much use color coding.  In the very early Republic Federalists often wore black rosettes on their coats, reminiscent of the decoration on Continental Army officers’ military hats.  Democratic-Republicans often wore Tri-color cockades in their hats representative not of the American Flag, but the Revolutionary French Tri-color.  These usages disappeared in the first decade of the 19th Century and were not passed on to those parties’ descendants, the Whigs and Jacksonian Democrats.
Green was quite logically used by both the 19th Century Greenbacks and contemporary Green Party.  Socialists and Communists embraced the Red Flag, the traditional banner of European revolutionaries and the labor movement since at least 1848.
During the post-World War II Red Scare and McCarthy Era, Republicans tried hard to pin red on squirming Democrats to associate them with alien Communism.  Remember how Richard Nixon got his political start printing phony flyers for his incumbent opponent Helen Gahagan Douglas on pink paper.  Democrats naturally shied away from using red and most often printed their posters and yard signs in blue, purple, or green if the candidate was Irish or wanted to be mistaken for Irish.  Republicans used whatever they damn wanted. 
It took the advent of television news, and more specifically color TV to set in motion the events that eventually led to the current assignments.

The original illuminated election map in 1976 with the NBC election central set, John  Chancellor, David Brinkley, and Tom Browcaw.
In 1976 John Chancellor, the anchorman for NBC Nightly News, had network engineers build a large illuminated map for the election-night news studio. If Jimmy Carter, the won a state, it would light up in red; if Gerald Ford, the incumbent Republican president, carried a state, it would light up in blue. The feature proved to be so popular that, four years later, all three major television networks used colors to designate the states won by the presidential candidates on Election Night, though not all using the same color scheme. NBC continued to use the color scheme employed in 1976 for several years. NBC newsman David Brinkley famously referred to the 1980 election map outcome showing Republican Ronald Reagan’s 44-state landslide as resembling a “suburban swimming pool.”
To avoid charges of bias some networks alternated color assignment from Presidential election to Presidential election.  Then in 1984, presumably to differentiate themselves from rival NBC, CBS began using blue for Democrats and red for Republicans.  Then NBC decided to use blue to represent the incumbent party.  Which was why the two dominant news networks both represented Democratic states in blue during the disputed election of 2000 between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush.  

The 2000 NBC election map during the brief period the network called Florida for Democrat Al Gore.  All three networks used blue for Democrats that year.
As the results of the election hung in the balance for weeks stretching to months while legal wrangling over disputed Florida ballots wound its way to the Supreme Court, viewers got used to nightly images of blue state/red state election maps.  Commentators began to casually talk about red states and blue states.  By the time it was all over, it was commonplace.
By the 2004 election the designations were virtually universal.  They have persisted as the nation became increasingly polarized. 
Lately it has become increasingly common for the so called mainstream media to openly discuss a red/blue civil war, speculation on which was once confined to partisans of the left and right.  Some seem to think it might be as neat and sectional as the split in the original Civil War, ignoring the sizable blue cities in the deepest red states and wide rural red swaths in blue strongholds as well as a growing split in suburbia with White men and White women tending in opposite directions.  Any new Civil War will be very messy indeed.
Civil War aside, it is astonishing to realize that if the red state/blue state code was human it would just this year be eligible to vote.

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