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.

America has electoral maps in the first place because it has an Electoral College. Why does it have an electoral college? To keep the slave states in. As James Madison wrote in 1787:

There was one difficulty, however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.

As Madison said, if the US had elected Presidents by popular vote, they might reflect the popular will against slavery. Therefore the Southern states had to be given power over every human being in America. In America the states elect the President, not the people. The truth is that America's founders didn't leave them with a democracy. They left them with a board game and unlimited guns. It's a wonder they made it this far.

America was divided into white and black long before it was red and blue. It is that division which has merely been colorized for TV. It is that tension which plays out on American TV screens every year.

Every election is now a ritualized Civil War, each state secedes and then comes back together again. Except each time they come back a little bit less. Some day they may not come back together at all. The truth is that Americans are already quite used to seeing their country divided up. They're quite used to living divided lives. It's just a matter of time before the map becomes the territory, and America fractures completely into red and blue.