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.


Sticker shock: Block the vote vs. rock the vote

So here’s a political stumper. I’m driving behind this guy, befuddled by his bumper sticker. It’s in Romney blue, using the serif font I associate with the GOP presidential ticket, only it says “Obama for CHANGE.” I get a little closer to examine. Whoa, too close, sorry. … Yep. That’s exactly what it says. But it’s creating some left-lobe dissonance. There’s something not quite right about the “C” and the “G.”

Not quite right because it’s left, As in Communist left. The “G” is a hammer and sickle and the “C” has a menacing star tucked in.

Ah, I get what’s happening, a little reverse psychology attempt. Clever.

More and more I’m seeing bumper stickers with blurry messages, and I doubt it’s just my vision.

Not sure I totally get the thinking behind co-opting an opponent’s slogan and twisting it — aside from the pure capitalist gain of selling more bumper stickers. We Americans definitely do buy into a joke like nobody’s business. Exhibit A: the T-shirt industry. We will pay $22.95 to rent a jokey T-shirt that we can, basically, wear once, because after that, everyone’s heard that one.

What was in this particular motorist’s mind? Maybe he’s not a committed voter, still making up his mind, and wants to engage in some dialectics, have it both ways. Doubtful. No undecideds buy bumper stickers. Bumper stickers take commitment, because they don’t always scrub off.

It could be an attempt to cut down on road rage while getting one’s point across in election season. The blood pressure doesn’t go up as high when you see a “friend” vs. “foe” jettisoning past illegally on the right.

Supposing it’s just the old bait-and-switch game: You lure people in, then spring a trap, like a jack-in-the-box – gotcha! A little political playfulness, no harm, no foul.

’Cept sometimes the messages are definitely out of line. A few that stopped me:

 It seems to be saying: “We’re all Americans first.” A nice positive message. Yet I dunno, somehow seems racist. Are the “birthers” putting this one out?

That one is DEFINITELY the birthers, but who’s the idiot? The bumper sticker writer. At least they got the “its” correct.

Does this mean Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are a couple of squares? Or mathematicians?

Again, I can’t tell if that’s a positive or negative thing, like “He’s bad, unh, so bad, unh, you know it.”

Along the same lines, I’m fairly certain this is an anti-Obama sticker, but it could also mean, yay, stimulus, job creation! 

This is old, but nonetheless confusing. Is Obama supposed to be God? The was a campaign button, so it’s not as if someone could be mad he won and wear this, after the fact. The “GD” could be used in the sense of, “Wow! You go girl, America.” That would require a comma, though, so beats me.

You get the drift. No doubt you’re familiar with the hope-change/forward-backward stuff. Not gonna post that because I don’t want to come down on either side. And there’s SO much of it being shoveled.

Increasingly, only tricky, defensive politics is at play, and not just among politicians and their clever messengers. How long have you been hearing neighbors say, “I’m just gonna pick the lesser [or better] of two evils” or “Well, I don’t like my guy, but I gotta vote against the other guy.” Forever, right? When’s the last time you felt honestly good about voting?

Everyone says do your duty, vote, vote your conscience. But I get why people sit it out: A negative vote, intended just to cancel out someone else’s, nurses negative feelings. Doesn’t feel so good. Hurts your pride.

People say: “We need a third party. They’re both corrupt.” Yet voting your conscience to boost a third-party candidate or even just to mix it up a little for the majors can be a losing strategy if you later feel your vote was wasted, or you helped the team you didn’t want to win.

Then, if the game goes into overtime, as it did in 2000, you are less likely to vote your conscience next time up. It happened to my husband; he writes about his Nader eclipse here. (Views expressed in his blog are not necessarily views shared by me. He just really needs the page views.)

So, non-voters: I hear ya. Still, you oughta rally. This here is your locker-room pep talk. The guilt of gumming things up because you voted your conscience can’t be any worse than the guilt you feel sitting on the bench all season and still collecting a “participant” trophy. You gotta play to win.

The gummed-up bumper stickers, though, just add to the confusion. They may score points for cleverness, but not votes; no one following you in traffic is gonna follow your lead at the polls.

They’re only gonna laugh.


‘Needless to say’ … but I’ll say it, anyway

You can fill in your speech bubble with your own communication crutches.

People tell me I’m a good listener.

At least, that’s what I hear.

Been noticing many of us have pet phrases punctuating our speech, like a vocal signature. Some are assaults on the ears, such as those who pepper narratives with, “Do you know what I mean?”

I am convinced those overusing this phrase are convinced no one else could remotely rise to their level of understanding. To be fair, maybe they’re just super-hungry for feedback. Take pity on them and answer. “You must mean — you’re superior to me.”

Another one I get a lot: “Is that right?”  This countrified tic is not so much a request for proof or sources but a friendly affirmation, like its hipster cousin: “I know, right?” They both say: “I hear you.” As that soulful Seventies expression “Tell it like it is” meant “Your word is gospel.”

Or today’s shorthand: “Word.”

Communication is a two-way street, so a listener’s interjections are vital proof they’re listening. But when your responses are repetitive and knee-jerky, what else might they be saying about you?

I’ve analyzed my own speech and writing for communication crutches and their subtext.

My top tics:

“Needless to say …” I may be giving my listeners the benefit of the doubt here, assuming they already know something (a compliment to their intelligence); or admitting I’m hardly original (self-deprecation); or pussy-footing around what they desperately need to hear (diplomacy).

“At this point …” Leaves open the prerogative to change my mind; says I’m receptive to change.

“Actually” Acknowledges the listener’s skepticism .. or my need to confess. Or maybe it’s a sign I’m lying. Could that actually be?

“Seriously” Means: “The previous material was humor, and copyrighted.” Or reveals a fear that no one ever takes me seriously. Similar to actually, actually.

“One thing …” I love to count, bah-ha-ha!!!! Such a tease, though, as the second thing rarely comes, or gets derailed by the first, which is usually the best.

Other talking tics and what they might say about you*:

(*’Course, I’m no psychologist, but anyone can try this at home)

“Wouldn’t be surprised if … / It wouldn’t surprise me …” You’re jaded.

“Wow.” You’re speechless.

“That’s great …” You’re jealous.

“You’re kidding!” You’re not as incredulous as seeking elaboration or gossip.

“Let’s …” You’re either faux polite or delegating to me.

“Sorry …” If used outside the context of an actual apology — when you mean “Excuse me” or “Sorry I said sorry again, didn’t I?” — you tell the world that you regret your very existence. Smacks of low self-esteem. This used to be one of my tics, until my daughters started beating it out of me (thanks, girls).

“Yeah, yeah, right, right.” Save your breath, I’m way ahead of you. (Alternatively: You have a nagging partner at home.)


Not to make anyone self-conscious. My pseudo-definitions don’t apply to the occasional utterance. I’m talking heavy repetition. Say, if you had a parrot and it picks up on your speech because it’s drilled into its little bird brain, along with your cuss words (like that ad for The Washington Post where the fake parrot voice-over says: “Can’t take this. Not another day,” etc.)

When speech matters most, though — like during a job interview or something — paying attention to what you say could truly pay. Even when seeking the No. 1 job in America.

A ‘look’ at the presidential debates

When Barack Obama came on the scene, I fixated on his “Look …” crutch. He inserted it everywhere, in press briefings, on TV interviews — as if it bought him time to think. And he’s a pretty slow talker to begin with, I know, right?

Look, Ma. I’m on TV! (How do I look?)

“Look” is technically pedantic and means “pay attention,” but to my ears it can make a speaker sound defensive. Like a plea from someone who’s been bullied a lot — subtext is “Gimme a break” or “Whaddya mean?” Playground stuff. Or threatening, like Jimmy Cagney (hear the sneer): “Look, it’s like dis, ya see …”

Lately, during the year-long-plus campaigns, Obama’s “looks” have sounded dismissive, like a vocal shrug, an excuse.

Someone else must have noticed, too. Whoever debate-prepped the president effectively knocked out this word from his lexicon.

In the first debate Oct. 3, he used initial word “Look” only once.

1. OBAMA:  “Look, the genius of America is the free enterprise system and freedom ,,,”

Compared with FOUR TIMES for challenger Mitt Romney.

1. ROMNEY: “… with regards to that tax cut, look, I’m not looking to cut massive taxes …”

2. ROMNEY: “Look, I’ve got five boys. …”

3. ROMNEY: “Look, we have to have regulation on Wall Street. …”

4. ROMNEY: “Look, the right course for America’s government, …”

Remember “Look” magazine? Remember magazines?

In debate No. 2 on Oct. 16, the “looks” were neck and neck, 2-2 (not counting all the times Romney told Obama to look at his pension):

1. OBAMA: “Look, the cost of lowering rates for everybody across the board, 20 percent.”

2. OBAMA: “Look, when we think about immigration, we have to understand there are folks all around the world who still see America as the land of promise.”

1. ROMNEY: “Look, I want to make sure we use our oil, our coal, our gas, our nuclear, our renewables.”

2. ROMNEY: “…Look, there’s no question but the people recognize …”

For all of you out there looking for a drinking-game prompt for these job-seekers’ third and final presidential debate tonight, “look” might not be what you’re looking for. Not if you want to get effectively drunk.

One thing, though: Mom was right.

Thinking before we speak could make the difference between our words ringing hollow and ringing true.