On Patreon, we ask supporters to occasionally toss questions over to us that they want answered that are a little bit harder to get an answer to than something you might ask on Quora. For this, the third piece in our new series You Asked, we’re tackling the long and confusing history of political party colors.
Hell yeah it’s true brother
Here’s the logo of the British Conservative Party.
Here’s the party flag of the German Left.
Here’s Taiwain’s right-wing Kuomintang.
Here’s the Canadian Liberal Party.
And here are the Republican Party and Democratic Party of the United States.
How did this happen? Well, the very short answer is that in 2000, news directors decided to color Gore’s states as blue because they didn’t like the idea that Al Gore’s victory would be represented by a map covered in red states since that evoked the idea of a communist invasion. Colors weren’t standardized at the time, but as the 2000 election dragged on it became an easy shorthand to call Bush’s states “red states” and Gore’s states “blue states.“
This quickly entered the common parlance and it hasn’t left. States are even often still referred to based on how they broke in the 2000 election. For example, in 1996, Clinton won New Hampshire, but in 2000 it went to Bush. Beginning in 2004, New Hampshire was won by the Democratic nominee every single year, but because it swung in 2000 it is commonly described as a swing state. Virginia was a “red state” until 2008 but hasn’t been since. It wasn’t until Clinton won it in 2016 that pundits began commonly describing it as a “swing state” and until 2020 that it began to get labeled as a “blue state.” Some “blue states” like Michigan and Pennsylvania – which went for Trump in 2016 – have Republican legislatures.
The association of the colors with the political parties creates this unusual situation where red is simultaneously associated with conservatism and communism in the United States.
Why is red the color of communism?
For centuries, Europeans associated a red flag with defiance, often with a willingness to fight to the death to defend something. Red flags were an omen of a long and bloody fight – the flags themselves represented blood in many cases. This was most true in the French Revolution. Prior to the revolution, France had flown a pure white flag, which symbolized the wealth, power, and divinity of the French monarchy. Blue and red were Parisian symbols but came to be associated with the struggles against tyranny, represented in a painting by Léon Cogniet in 1830.
Cogniet’s painting came after the July Revolution, one of the rebellions that followed the earlier French Revolution. The July Revolution was a more overtly socialist one, although it transitioned the country from monarchy to different monarchy, and the idea of a red flag as a blood-stained flag spread around Europe. The Bolsheviks adopted it in the October Revolution and from thereafter red flags became firmly associated with socialism.
Why is blue the color of not-communism?
Because it isn’t red!
No, really. British Conservatives adopted blue because Britain’s three national colors are red, white, and blue; white is associated both with France and surrender – for different reasons, you edgy mid-2000s South Park fans – and red was associated with Britain’s (previously much more) socialist Labour Party. Blue was kind of the only option.
Other former British realms adopted similar color schemes, as did other conservative movements across western Europe.
Are we the only backwards country?
Nope! South Korea, whose politics are heavily influenced by American politics, assign red to the conservative People Power Party and blue to the liberal Democratic Party. Canada’s Liberal Party uses red while the New Democratic Party uses orange; that might not seem backwards, but yellow/orange is the color mostly associated with liberalism while the New Democratic Party is a socialist party – but because the Liberal Party was the dominant left-wing party in Canada for so long it uses red.
In Taiwan, the left-wing party uses green rather than red; this is because Taiwan is extremely complicated to explain but has a certain association with the color red. In Japan, the right-wing party uses green and the left-wing party uses blue; Japan has an active communist party that uses red. And a socialist party that uses blue. And a centrist party that uses fuchsia because why not?
And, of course, national identity can trump the red/blue scheme. The Scottish National Party uses yellow because, although Scotland’s national colors are blue and white, these are associated with the United Kingdom (as a result of the union of Scotland and England) and with the Conservatives in particular. But over time, yellow has become a kind of de facto national color in Scotland because of its use by the SNP. The socialist Sinn Féin in Ireland uses green because it is first and foremost an Irish nationalist party, and green is the national color of Ireland (well, again, it’s blue, but, again, because blue is associated with Britain you gotta pick a new color).
Will the American parties ever switch to the international color scheme?
Look, if you’re asking Americans to get on board with what the rest of the world is doing, why don’t you ask the metric system or universal health care or the Paris Climate Agreement how that goes?
That said, the Democratic Socialists of America are trying to reclaim red as a color of the left and its worth noting that Republicans often use a blue-dominant color scheme in their advertising materials. It isn’t impossible to imagine a future where the colors switch, but it’s also easy to see why the Democratic Party in particular is in no rush to make that happen. After all, articles like “Is Texas Turning Blue?” are not nearly as scary for Fox News viewers as “Is Texas Turning Red?” would be – if red was associated with those dastardly Wall Street socialists in the Democratic Party.