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How we got from the red menace to red state pride a mystery [commentary]

When I think about it, one of the most dramatic shifts in American politics in my lifetime has been the meaning of the word red.

When I was a kid, to be red was political poison. Born into the meat of the Cold War, I remember when the evening news routinely used the term Red China to refer to the mainland portion of the most populous country on earth. Taiwan, or the island of Formosa, was referred to as Nationalist China. A quote from a piece by Allen Ginsberg sums up how the communist Reds under Mao Tse-tung took over most of China after a decades-long civil war and the losing nationalists, led by Chiang Kai Shek, were chased off to an island: "In nineteen hundred forty-nine/China was won by Mao Tse-tung/Chiang Kai Shek's army ran away..."

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These days, though, no one refers to Red China anymore, even though the political heirs to Mao remain firmly in control of not only the territory they won in 1949, but also of the former British colony of Hong Kong, as well as Formosa, the former Nationalist China.

The other great communist power of my youth, the Soviet Union, was able to be dominated after the turmoil of the Russian Revolution thanks to the ruthless leadership Leon Trotsky exercised over the Red Army. The name Red Army remained the name of the Soviet military until the collapse of the communist state around 1989.

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Which brings up a point as to why red became the color of the communists. There are a variety of reasons, the one most popularly tossed about is that red, being the color of blood, is also the color of revolution. Revolution is a key component of communist ideology and communist revolution theory was as hotly debated as communist economic theories – which were actually supposed to have been the foundation of communism. Not necessarily so well known in these parts is that the Russian word for red and the Russian word for Russian, which is Rus, are derived from the same source word. Similarly, red has long been a prominent color of celebration in Chinese culture.

Regardless of how red came to be associated with communism, the partnership was well established by the time I was a kid. Heck, to even be a little bit sympathetic to communists, politically speaking, was so bad it had its own name: pinko – pink being a color that is just a little bit red.

Then, in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, TV news broadcasters started using red, white and blue maps – the United States has a long national association with red, which seems to have been forgotten by some of the so-called red baiters of the Cold War days – when telling the stories of especially presidential elections.

I'm not sure how, but the Republican party was assigned red, and the Democrats got blue. I have long suspected, but never have been able to find out for sure, that Democrats weren't assigned Red because they were usually the party accused of being weak on communism, or a little bit pink. One reason for this is because, going back to that Allen Ginsberg poem, China went red when a Democrat, Harry S. Truman, was occupying the office of the president.

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It may also have had something to do with a political fashion phenomenon of the final years of the Cold War. Republican Ronald Reagan was fond of wearing red ties. Power ties became a popular turn of phrase, and before long, red ties were all the rage among politicos in the know. It's worth noting that this would expand in women's political fashion circles to also include power outfits in red. Locally, Nancy Jacobs became something of a local political legend for her roadside campaigning while wearing a red women's suit.

So as firmly as red was once the color used to discredit people on one side of the political spectrum, it is now equally firmly in place as a descriptor of those on the other end of the spectrum. Strangely, as far as I can tell, while there are plenty of stories, there's no solid logic behind red in politics being good or bad.

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