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Why Do We Use Red And Blue To Represent Our Political Leanings?

Some pundits feel today’s primaries may reveal how voters are feeling ahead of November’s midterm elections and whether some districts will remain red or blue.

Politically speaking, Arizona is a red state adhering strongly to the ideals of the Republican Party. By contrast, our neighboring state to the east, New Mexico, is traditionally blue. Much like the elephant and donkey have long-represented the Republican and Democratic parties, we tend to think the same for the colors representing them.

However, red as the representative color for Republicans and blue for Democrats hasn’t been around that long according to David Kastan, professor of  English at Yale University and author of the forthcoming book "On Color."

His interest in color and culture was inspired, in part, by his early childhood in Tucson before moving east. He also notes how we use color to code other parts of our world.  

“Whether it’s political colors or the colors of class," he said. "Rednecks. Blue bloods or the colors of race. Of course, nobody is white, black, red or yellow. Just the sort of oddities of these different ways in which colors were a part of the way we really become human.”  

Whether it’s red, blue, green or another color, Kastan said it’s useful to use colors for political parties.

“It’s necessary partly because colors are so instantly identifiable," he said. "They’re easily memorable and they’re readily adaptable for different contexts so you can put a color on a button, a banner, a flag, or something.”  

According to Kastan, colors become an interesting and easy way of identifying a complex or abstract set of ideas with something simple and visually appealing. Kastan also said our association of red with the GOP and blue with the Democrats is an interesting accident of recent media history.

“Somehow you assume this is some historical fact, maybe dating from the earliest days of the two-party system," he said. "But, then in 2000, in the disputed Gore/Bush election when finally the Supreme Court ruled out any further recount that Florida became officially a red state, and at that point I think everyone decided you can’t go back again.”

While the United States has come to associate red with right-leaning politics and blue with the left, it’s interesting to note the colors and political affiliations they represent in England and France, are reversed. Kastan said the color coded maps seen nightly during the 2000 presidential election have had the greatest influence on establishing red as the color of conservatism while blue represents the Democrats.

The colors are so firmly entrenched that as we go forward chances are you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Make America Great Again baseball cap in blue.

Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.