Red and Blue Weren't Always True
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It all started on Oct. 22, 2000 on NBC's now-defunct show "Sunday Today," when co-host Jodi Applegate said to her colleague Tim Russert:
"Let's take a look at the electoral map, which, ultimately, I guess, is more important than the popular vote. And it's incredibly evenly split. You see the states favoring Bush are in red, the states for Gore are in blue. There are fewer of them, but they tend to be the more populous states."
This is the first reference to what has now become the most popular and pervasive political frame of analysis in national politics. It caught on fast. Three days later, on MSNBC's Equal Time, Oliver North (of Iran-Contra fame) pulled out his own red/blue map to prove to former Clinton aide Paul Begala, that Ralph Nader posed a real threat to Al Gore:
North: Let me just look at the map of what your guy's real problem is. If you look at this map, this electoral scoreboard if you will, you've got in red the states that are going to go for Governor George W. Bush. You've got in blue the states that are going for your pal Al.
But those states that are showing white in that map are the states that are the tossups, if you will, the battleground states.... The bad news is that Ralph Nader – and Nader's Raiders – in the Green Party are pulling big votes from your buddy Al....
Ollie was right about the bad news, but setting that aside, the terms he uses – electoral scoreboard, battleground states, red, blue – are now mainstays of our contemporary political vocabulary. The cable networks and weekly news shows slap the red and blue electoral scoreboard on the screen at the slightest excuse. It also makes for convenient shorthand in those rapid, high-decibel exchanges on TV talk-fests like Hardball and Crossfire. Editors all over the country luhvve using red and blue for their political headlines. What's more, it encourages publications such as Slate to focus exclusively on the states up for grabs while studiously avoiding coverage of the "boring" dark red and blue ones – that's at least 27 states that are apparently not worthy of attention. And this kind of coverage reveals and implies much more than just a desire to have a color-coded approach to understanding our electoral politics.
The red state/blue state dichotomy exemplifies the Washington elite and major media outlets' desire to explain America's national politics for the rest of us. And the simplicity of the red/blue approach blends seamlessly with their propensity to see things in a David Brooksian analytical world of soft thought and misleading categorizations – soccer moms, NASCAR dads, etc. The time spent writing and discussing these fictitious voter blocs, the redness or blueness of states, or the electoral scoreboard has turned our national elections into horse races. The fun, gossip, and ease of election coverage are in the "process stories" about who's leading where, and the states that the candidates must win if they are to have a chance. But this kind of stuff does little to inform us about the issues – or the politicians themselves.
The horse race approach to looking at politics is also what kills a lot of candidacies before they have a chance to get off the ground. Concepts such as an "electoral scoreboard" produce bizarre notions of electability, and are the source of what ended up defining Dennis Kucinich as "fringe." Kucinich was right to fume at their marginalizing questions like, "How could a guy whose political support comes from pot smokers and vegans win in the red states?"
"In the red states." Nowadays, that's shorthand for a lot more than "a majority population that typically votes for the Republicans in presidential elections." The reductive thinking and political whitewash of it all creates false notions of conformity that extend beyond the political; saying "red states" means – and is meant to – conjure up notions of devout Christianity, country music, and pickup trucks. The effect fosters imagined geographies of contrasts as stark as the Union vs. the Confederacy.
Politicians and columnists are beginning to recognize that the frame of red states and blue states is a misleading way to think about the country's politics. E.J. Dionne's August 19 column in The Washington Post , "Divides that Aren't," drives the point home:
"What's misleading is to assume that the dividing lines etched on the map of the United States in 2000 are permanent facts of American life. The states that the television networks colored red for Bush are not destined to be Republican bastions any more than the states colored blue for Al Gore are permanent Democratic strongholds."
What Dionne writes applies to states like Mississippi, one of the "reddest" states out there. Bush leads Kerry in the polls at roughly 60% to 30%. That's a huge lead, but it would by folly to write off Kerry's 30%. That's a significant part of Mississippi's population – almost one million people saying that they aren't voting for George W. Bush, much less indicating what kind of car they drive. Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama summed it up in his keynote speech at the Democratic convention recently:
"The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats.... We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States."
Obama's right, but until a more appealing way of looking at America's political landscape – and the country – appears for the short attention spans out there that purvey and consume opinion, red and blue states are here to stay on our news pages and our airwaves. The red state/blue state mentality fits too well with America's current predilection for a binary understanding of things. We owe it to ourselves to remember that red and blue states are merely constructs in a soundbyte-filled political era, and that these divisions will become real only if we continue to use them.