Decoding the political color scheme (or conspiracy?!!)

New Yorkers watch the election returns via color-coding. Simple enough for a kindergartner. On election night, the Empire State Building served as a gauge, taking the nation’s pulse, er, temperature in surreal time.

My grandmother, who was born in 1896 and is now deceased, once told me and my sister that the baby-boy blue and the baby-girl pink we associate with stork gender, right down to their distinguishing bow ties and bonnets, was reversed “when she was a girl.”

Not that “she was ever a boy” and had a sex change. I mean that the pastel palette you expectant parents are using to decorate your nursery is nothing but a fickle form of color brainwashing.

Before the Internet, I could never confirm Grandmommy’s little color yarn, but now:

From The New York Times in a 2006 article titled “Gender Troubles,” Daphne Merkin writes as a parenthetical:

(Although until the ’40s, blue was deemed the more “delicate” and hence more feminine color, while pink was seen as more “decided” and more suitable for boys.)

Then from The New York Times Magazine, also in 2006, an article titled “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?” by Peggy Ornstein states:

“When colors were first introduced to the nursery in the early part of the 20th century, pink was considered the more masculine hue, a pastel version of red. Blue, with its intimations of the Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness, was thought to be dainty. Why or when that switched is not clear, but as late as the 1930s a significant percentage of adults in one national survey held to that split.”

There’s also this from 2009 and the U.K. The Guardian, in an article about growing pink fatigue among foot soldiers in the fight against breast cancer, reports:

Towards the end of the great war, in June 1918, America’s most authoritative women’s magazine, the Ladies’ Home Journal (it still exists), had a few wise words of advice for fretting mothers. “There has been a great diversity of debate on the subject,” it wrote, “but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
A few years earlier, the Sunday Sentinel had been of the same opinion: “use pink for the boy and blue for the girl,” it said in March 1914, “if you are a follower of convention.” So accepted, in fact, was this convention that as late as 1927 Time magazine was observing, on the obviously disappointing birth to Princess Astrid of Belgium of a daughter rather than the infinitely preferable son, that the cradle had been “optimistically decorated in pink, the colour for boys.”

A 1901 rendering of Little Boy Blue, before his naptime.

What a relief that my grandmother was neither lying nor suffering from early-onset dementia.

But if pink was in fashion for boys in the 1930s and 1940s, why did things change? It couldn’t have had anything to do with the nursery rhyme “Little Boy Blue,” because, according to my RE-search (Google) that ditty dates to 1744. (I’ve often wondered about that little boy’s emotional range. Is  he supposed to be boo-hoo blue? Because he seems rather jubilant, with the horn and all.)

Barack Obama is definitely a triumphant “Blue” herald today, embarking on a hopeful second term. As arbitrary as the pink-blue booties scheme has proven, though, there’s equally little rhyme or reason to the political color key — why blue designates a Democratic-leaning state and red, Republican-ish.

We musn’t forget that the party labels themselves once got switched around. (It was the partisan Federalists and Republicans in1796, and I think the Republicans turned into Democrats —hoping my seventh-grade civics teacher isn’t reading.)

As a journalist, I find it hard in the days after a general election to stop seeing conservative and liberal in everything red and blue. They’re primary colors, after all —geddit? (aka political primaries) Oh, you got it. We were missing the primary color yellow until Big Bird got into the mix this year.

Back to sorting out the political color scheme. (Or is it a conspiracy?!) Red = Republican is alliterative. But blue = Democrats … no poetry there. Unless it’s the hue and cry of the Blue Dog Democrats. Definitely artistic symbolism in Blue Dog.  But is that fiscally conservative caucus bluer than regular Dems? No. Redder. Dead endsville.

Obviously, red and blue stand for U.S. flag colors. (It would feel racist to paint any swath of voters “white” — but, gee, maybe red’s a tinge racist, too.) The terms “red-blooded” and “true blue” are loaded with patriotism, yet they’re pretty parallel — not enough distinction across the aisle. Shades of meaning erupt when one considers a “red-blooded male” — randiness is implied — while the faithfulness of someone “true blue” hints of a reserved manner … are these conservative-liberal stereotypes somehow backwards? OK, NOW I’m overthinking it. (Only now?)

Rednecks and blue hairs also pop to mind … but I daren’t go there.

Meanwhile, Florida is still counting: One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish, absentee fish, provisional fish …

One could see blues clues in the polar-opposite notion of temperature — red for hot and blue for cold. Most of the states in the Deep South, where it’s balmy, do lean conservative, and the Northeast area of the Electoral College map is awash in blue and gets more snow. But the changeable USA TODAY weather map is proof that theory can’t hold water.

Ideology-wise, it seems silly, as red tends to be associated with Communism/socialism worldwide — why not give the leftists that color? Same is true for fascists, or police states — our police are the men in blue, so shouldn’t conservatives be navy hued?

A red tie with tiny blue stripes … did Tim Russert lean Republican?

Another quick Googling turns up that our red-blue colors came into use not very long ago (ugh, seems forever), during the tense 2000 presidential election. According to AlterNet and The Washington Post, the color key was devised by journalist Tim “Gotcha” Russert, R.I.P. Before his commanding, calming influence (how I miss him), blue and red were used by media types to broad-swipe the Electoral College map, but they were applied randomly, often reversed. After a particular appearance on the Today show, his red-blue voting scheme proved color-fast.

I guess Russert took the reason why to his grave in 2008; it makes me blue he missed out on the whole breaking-the-color-barrier-in-the-White-House part.

Convenient, though, that blue and red make purple. As the color commentary of politics evolves and the markers of American attitudes blur, we’ll have the positive “rainbow” color, purple — signifying tolerance — to color outside the lines with.

The future of politics

Unsure what is happening here.