One Fate, Two Fates, Red States, Blue States

One fate, two fates, red states, blue states—have red and blue replaced red white and blue as our national colors?

We refer to the red states and the blue states so regularly now that the association seems long established. But only the 2000 presidential election established the linkage of blue with Democrats and red with Republicans. In earlier years, the television networks and magazine maps had reversed the association. In 1984 rival networks associated red with Democrats and blue with Republicans. The Reagan sweep of that year was called "Lake Reagan" in one context.

In many ways the link goes against tradition. Red has long stood for the left and one has to suspect that the first usage of it to represent Republicans was inspired by an effort to seem non prejudicial.


The end of the cold war made red baiting and pinko artifacts of a time past; the critical mark of the change may have come when the old red baiter, Richard Nixon, visited “Red” China.

On the other hand, blue was the color of the Union army uniforms, by contrast to gray, and has a historical link to the party of Lincoln. But in the Revolutionary war blue was the color of the Continental army uniform: red that of the British, of course.

Wrapping the candidate in the flag is the hoariest cliché of bumper stickers and posters. Post 9/11, with every politician in the land sporting a flag lapel pin, even clothing seemed to aspire to flagdom: red tie, white shirt, blue suit became common.

The colors of the flag are more than ever the staples of campaign graphics. (And despite Nader in 2000, who today could imagine that Jimmy Carter in 1976 adopted green, a hue that these days is as likely to evoke Islam as environmentalism?) But this year’s campaign graphics seem to have lost the traditional white of the trio. John Kerry’s stickers show a hopeful sea of Democratic blue, with flailing strip/stripes of red and a single tiny white star. They recall the Bank of America’s recent abbreviated flag logo.

It is as if in all the flag waving of the last few years the white in the red, white and blue had vanished. The blue-red opposition has come to stand for a wider sense of political and cultural polarization—between cultures, incomes and classes. Has white vanished out of fear of suggesting surrender? Does it mean all hope of truce or compromise has vanished?

Red and blue joins red and green—stop and go—and even Stendhal’s red and black as a basic binary.

Each color has its associations. Blue is cool and dispassionate, red heated. But it is neither the red or blue alone where the meaning lies, it is in the combination.

It is a pairing with overtones of alarm. Light bars atop police cars strobe warnings in red and blue. Not long ago activists protesting gang violence in Irvington, New Jersey marched with mock coffins, alternately covered with red and blue representing the Bloods and Crips gangs.

Is our division into red and blue a new national emblem in itself, like Swedish blue and yellow? Usually it takes three colors to make a national color scheme: French tricolore, German black red and yellow, Jamaican green yellow black. Red and blue meet white in the Russian flag. Red and blue were the colors of Paris joined with the white of the King of France in the tricolor.

Any melding of blue and red suggests an impossible purple—the color of royalty, rich as the vain dream of national union hoped for by nation builders who bring shabby deposed kings back to conflicted nations—an early scenario for Afghanistan. But purple has also occasionally been used to indicate “toss up” states on this year’s electoral map: the overtones of bruise are appropriate.

At best, red and blue might inspire a contemplative Rothko glow, a study of a wider and more profound opposition. The pairing was seen differently by the great blues singer Robert Johnson, who in his song “Love in Vain” considered a departing rail car and the loss it meant, rolling out of the station “with two lights on behind. The blue light was my blues and the red light was my mind.”

About the Author: Phil Patton is the author of many books, including Autodesign International, Made in USA, Open Road and Dreamland. He writes regularly on automobile design for The New York Times and has been a contributing editor to I.D., Wired and Esquire. He teaches in the MFA Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts and has served as a curator for several museum shows, among them the Museum of Modern Art’s “Different Roads: Automobiles for a New Century.”