How did we get to be ‘red’ and ‘blue’?

Published 7:26 pm Tuesday, November 28, 2017

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Intransigent political positions were once defined as a “union mentality.” You’re either for me or you’re against me, all in or all out, no compromise allowed.

Back in those days, such diehard positions were considered marginal and unhealthy. Today, tragically, they’re far more widespread and far more accepted as the norm. Our “indivisible” nation is anything but. Anger drives our politics and our political leanings and decisions. There’s a “them and us” mentality. And those with strong political feelings are afraid to give an inch lest they lose ground.

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Volumes have been written about this growing divide, but I’d like to mention one element of it that came about so innocently that most of us can’t even remember how or when it began. That’s the Red State, Blue State symbolism that has come to define American politics and Americans generally.

How did we get labeled Red or Blue? Color television. It’s as simple as that.

Back when television networks (there were only three) were broadcasting to black and white television sets, graphs and maps were as “gray” as everything else on the screen. But when color was introduced, broadcast newscasters and the talented technicians who supported them began creating color graphics.

Red and blue are dramatic, and the networks began applying them to presidential election maps, though they couldn’t decide who should be red and who blue? Historically, blue is associated with conservatism and red with liberalism, but networks kept shifting colors back and forth. One network even made it a policy to shift colors every four years so there would not be any automatic label attached to voters.

Not until the controversial Bush/Gore election of 2000 did all the networks use red for states whose electoral votes went Republican and blue for those that went Democratic.

And during that emotionally intense post-election period, broadcasters began referring to Red and Blue States.

Since then, red and blue have come to symbolize the nation’s political divide. And the designation is now being used to bore down on divisions within states. During the recent Virginia gubernatorial and legislative elections, the red/blue designations were used to show just how “divided” Virginia is.

Thus, we have managed to label our nation, our states and even our counties and cities as being red or blue, conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat.

Along the way, the idea that we’re all Americans, and closer to home, all Virginians, has been largely lost.

Divisiveness plays directly into the hands of many people and organizations. Political parties benefit from angry members recruiting more angry members, all of them donating dollars to an anger-driven agenda. Special interest news networks and publications benefit by appealing to angry viewers and readers.

Candidates for office know where to look for core support — on the angry right or the angry left.

In the midst of all this, those voters longing for candidates who are problem solvers, people who understand the art of compromise, are often disappointed because the political parties have red/blue litmus tests for their candidates, and those who don’t choose to fit directly into a party’s mold need not apply because, all-too-often, they won’t be nominated.

(Both parties, to their credit, fielded moderate rather than extreme candidates for governor this year, but the campaigns devolved into “red meat” ads aimed at hardcore left and right voters that left moderate Virginians a bit nauseous.)

The red/blue designation is probably more a symptom than a cause of our divided nation, but I believe it is having a deleterious effect on us that we don’t fully comprehend at this point. I recently heard of a person who was debating a trip to the Midwest but was troubled by the idea of spending money in deeply “red” states.

And to think that this divisive designation came about because talented technicians were looking for better television graphics.