How America Got Divided Into Red And Blue

How black and white became red and blue

I am old enough to remember when the red and blue divide happened. For most of my childhood the networks just randomly assigned colors to the parties. In 1996, the Clinton states were red on NBC. Red and blue weren't fighting colors, they were just colors. That all changed in 2000.

In that election, Bush II lost the vote and won the states. Everyone stared at the map for weeks while the election was contested in court. Republicans became red and Democrats become blue. States became red and blue.  It's easy to think of these colors as some natural phenomenon, but it's not. I remember when it happened.

The original NBC electoral map, first seen on Nov. 2, 1976. Pictured, from left, Cassie Mackin, John Chancellor, David Brinkley, and Tom Brokaw. (Indiana Historical Society / NBC)

While other political parties have colors, they're irrelevant on election night. You just look at the numbers. In America they barely report the national numbers at all. Everyone's just looking at this fucking map. America is just a TV game show in lieu of a democracy. I've seen two candidates get less votes and still win, and Americans consider this normal. It's not. The map has become the territory.

The territory also becomes the map. According to a study of 180 million voter registrations, "for both the median Democrat and the median Republican, only about 3 in 10 of their interactions in their residential environment will, on average, be with a member of the other party." They're also confused. As a 2018 Penn State survey said, "Americans not only divided, but baffled by what motivates their opponents."

Add-in social media and a pandemic and Americans are isolated, insulated, and infuriated as fuck. They're going red with anger and blue in the face. The divided map on TV has become a lived reality.

As Somerset Maugham wrote in Of Human Bondage, "the world sees nature through the eyes of the artist" or in this case the TV network. He wrote, "If we choose to surround objects with a black line, the world will see the black line, and there will be a black line; and if we paint grass red and cows blue, it’ll see them red and blue, and, by Heaven, they will be red and blue."

This isn't to say that America's electoral maps cause division or that division has caused the maps. Life is an endless ourobouros, where reality shapes thoughts which shape reality and round and round again. It's an endless feedback loop, and in this case it goes back to America's founding. The truth is that America's founders sat down with a racist hand grenade and just kicked it down the road. That's why their democracy is a board game in the first place.