A Short Essay on Political Color: How to Understand the Pros and Cons of Using Political Colors
In modern history political factions have often been represented by a color, we look at political color to understand color politics. Whether its Russian Reds and Whites, or American Blue-state and Red-state, the phenomena of nations banding together into “red-team and blue-team” to duke out political battles merits examination.
When we consider that the whole red-state blue-state thing started in 2000 during the Bush election, and our nation has since become increasingly polarized (although this is hardly the first polarization in history, see Historical Presidential Elections), a deeper look only becomes more important.
Why red means Republican and blue means Democrat.
TIP: Colors symbolize different political leanings in general, but exact meanings change by country. In general, red is liberal and blue and white are conservative. However, in America, this was switched (in America “blue” is used to denote the “socially liberal” “left” Democratic Party and “red” is used to denote the “socially conservative” Republican Party. Political color in this sense is interesting, but it isn’t the main topic of the page, see the video below for more on that discussion.
Color and Politics.
Political Factions as Naturally Occurring Social Systems
The first thing to know is that cooperation and competition are natural facets of the human condition. In practice, people tend to divide themselves into teams naturally, and this typically results in two opposing groups in political situations where a majority is required to win an argument. This is where political parties come from.
In America, where states are won by majority, and thus Presidencies and seats in Congress are won by majority, we get a “two-party culture despite not having an official two-party system.” This system is then further reinforced by the two large groups who rally around it. It can and has resulted in two major factions dominating American politics to the point where a third party win is nearly impossible for the highest offices. So for example Red-team and Blue-team have a political duopoly, while Green team has a hard time winning majorities despite its popularity.
This doesn’t just happen in America; it happens throughout history and all over the world. Likewise, this doesn’t just happen in politics; it happens in boardrooms, on the playground, in gangs, and even in sports. However, our main concern here is American politics, so let’s keep our focus on that.
In this sense, political color is the same as party name (like Democrats or Republicans) or political ideology (like Left and right or Liberal and Conservative). In all cases, it describes a group who loosely share a political agenda and form an official or unofficial coalition around a symbol.
This naturally occurring system is an advent of not only the practicality of forming a majority but of liberty and the human condition. As Jefferson says, “Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties… In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves.”
Jefferson was kind, as even though Lenin and his Reds weren’t exactly free to declare themselves in Tsarist Russia, they did so anyway.
In any environment that isn’t so utterly tyrannical and despotic that people can’t act freely even in the shadows, one can expect two teams to form and compete and then factions to form within teams who both compete and cooperate.
Russian Revolt: The Reds, The Whites, and The Bolsheviks. As we can see, sometimes splitting apart into our-team and the other-team is a slippery slope. Such as is the case with the Russian Civil War and the related World Wars. Any good intentions of rebels and radicals tend to be offset by the effects of war and the cycle the divisive and destructive environment perpetuates.
TIP: If you want to ensure an opposing group divides itself into warring factions for your benefit, you could use one of two tactics. You could try to explain how checks and balances work and encourage them to be “stronger together” or you could encourage them to divide themselves. People who disagree are drawn to divide into factions and use arbitrary, powerful names and color symbols to fight against each other thereby doing your job for you. If you would take the latter choice, then you should consider “what it means to be a useful idiot” and Montesquieu’s Separation of Powers principle on which America was founded.
The True Character of Opposing Views
Opposing views are natural, and groups aren’t meant to destroy each other. This is true for factions within a state or international relations between states. Although culture and environment matter, it is largely men’s constitutions, not their skin color or nation which creates the teams. Team-A is unlikely to be able to destroy team-B; attempting to do so is arguably a fool’s errand.
We can see many bitter splits between factions. For example, the Confederacy and Union, the Optimates and Populares, the Conservative French Royals and the liberal Jacobins and Girondins, the Tsarist Conservatives and the Radical Socialists of the October Revolution, Cromwell’s faction and the King and Kingsmen, Northern Irish and Southern Irish, Northern Korean and Southern Korean or Vietnamese, etc. Even between the Axis and the Allies, we are typically talking about opposing views within the same sphere and not, in most cases, complete opposites or natural and pure enemies.
When we view this under the best light, we don’t see bitter irreconcilable differences. We see two different viewpoints on the same subject meant to balance each other. Democrats and Republicans argue about how to best structure a Republic and uphold the principles of Liberalism and Federalism, not whether or not we should be Communists. Bolsheviks and Mensheviks weren’t arguing over whether or not they should have Kings, but over what type of socialism they wanted. Even Hitler’s national socialists and the Democratic Socialist opposition agreed they didn’t want capitalism.
Although we can find complete opposites in extreme cases, we are often looking at two different views on the same subject. The views are meant to work together to find consensus and Union, not meant to wage war. When we think about this, we realize that this split fills our stories and history books, repeating in different forms ad nauseam.
The True Purpose of Opposing Views
It is as easy to become divisive over political color as over sports teams. It gives people a way to divide into “us and them” and enjoy “playing games.” It feeds the competition itch; it feeds the cooperation itch. It gives us something bigger than ourselves, a symbol out of which to create a Civic Religion.
But remember, we don’t have a red flag or a blue flag, we have a red, white, and blue flag that represents a union of diverse powers and interests.
Both the red team and the blue team of our nation, and any nation have merit. It is the recognition of opposing merit which allows one group to oppose another without losing respect for them. The same is, of course, true no matter how much diversity of color we are discussing.
The true danger isn’t in debate or free expression; it comes when one faction seeks to crush another completely. If we forget the other team contains our brothers and sisters, forget all humans have natural rights, and forget the art of compromise, we get tyrants, the reigns of terror, and civil wars.
Sometimes the line between a revolution and civil war can be blurred. Sometimes a stand needs to be taken against the most radical of factions and individuals. However, most of the time, we are better advised to think of political color as analogous to baseball. “We may prefer the Yankees to the Rangers, and both teams are well advised to do what it takes within the bounds of the game to win, but after the game you pat the other team on the behind and share a drink over the love of the sport.”
When things get really atrocious, like during the 1850’s and 1860’s in America, holding the concept of Unity together and respecting principles becomes even more important.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.” – Abraham Lincoln
The Spirit of Democracy and Checks and Balances
Taking Montesquieu’s theory at face value, we can say the spirit of Republics and Democracies is one of discourse and debate. Meanwhile, the spirit of despotic governments is one of fear and a will to crush an opponent completely.
America is a republic with democratic values which stands against despotism and tyranny. Upholding the liberal values encapsulated in our Amended Constitution. It requires a system of checks, balances, virtues, and a healthy respect for dissenting viewpoints, despite party politics, as such is the point of the Union of Republican states.
FLVS Civics: Foundations – Checks and Balances. People don’t tend to agree; sure this caused countless wars, but it was also why our enlightened ancestors spent their lives coming up with a system that would allow powers to specialize and to check and balance each other. When we represent both Northern and Souther interests, while at the same time avoiding violating the non-aggression principle (especially with hot-button issues), then we have much more power. When we try to use force rather than debate, and when we see our brothers as our enemy, we get the seeds of oppression. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for what is right, but it does mean we should practice restraint and moderation and pick our battles wisely.
“WHEN the savages of Louisiana are desirous of fruit, they cut the tree to the root, and gather the fruit. This is an emblem of despotic government.” – Montesquieu expressing the idea that destroying something completely for temporary self-interest is rarely the right answer and often self-defeating.