Forget the red vs. blue divide! Robert McElvaine suggests a change in political party colors: grey for Republicans and blue for Democrats. Let's mix things up and add some historical accuracy!
Published:September 27, 2023
By Robert S. McElvaine
Here’s something to think about: Is the party that still calls itself “Republican” more aligned with the beliefs of Communists or of Confederates?
The time has come to change the standardized color designations of the major American political parties. The prevailing colors are arbitrary and meaningless. An alternative color coding, one that is historically accurate, is available. We should use it.
The convention of red = Republican; blue = Democratic became entrenched during the disputed Election of 2000. New York Times graphics editor Archie Tse told The Verge in 2012 that the reasoning was “red begins with r, Republican begins with r, it was a more natural association.” Perhaps so in terms of the alphabet, but the use of red for a party that, going back at least to Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy in the 1940s and 50s, railed against “Reds” (Communists) seemed odd. It still does.
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As many Americans fear a new civil war and Donald Trump riles up his followers, those around him, such as Peter Navarro, promote the threat, and MAGA extremists in Congress call for the use of force, as Matt Gaetz did recently, applying the colors of the opposing sides in the Enslavers’ Rebellion (aka Civil War), would both be more accurate and make the stakes of the current threat the MAGA movement poses to the United States more readily understood.
It is appropriate that blue has become the color associated with the Democratic Party. It was the color of the uniforms worn by those fighting to preserve the United States in the 1860s. At that time, they were called Republicans, and blue would be sensible to designate states won by Republicans, with gray denoting Democratic states, as is shown in the 1860 electoral map above. With the positions of the two major parties now reversed, the fitting color to represent the “Republican” Party is not red but gray, the color of the uniforms worn by those who rebelled against the United States in the 1860s.
If you think that is hyperbolic, consider that what once proudly called itself the Party of Lincoln is now headed by a man who says insurrectionists who attacked the Republic at its most fundamental level, the peaceful transfer of power after an election and invaded the United States Capitol carrying a Confederate battle flag and seeking to hang the Vice President and murder the Speaker of the House are heroes and patriots whom he will pardon if he regains power.
“Republicans” are assaulting the rule of law and all the basic institutions of a republic. Trump is promising that if he regains the presidency, he will commandeer all power under himself. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is asserting that his state has “sovereign authority,” a matter that was settled the other way by the Civil War, as even D.W. Griffith’s outrageously racist 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, recognized with a title card that identified Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox reading, “the end of state sovereignty.”
The Confederacy was explicitly based on opposition to the ideals put forth in the Declaration of Independence. John C. Calhoun, the leading theoretician of the beliefs that underpinned the rebellion of 1861, labelled slavery “a positive good” and demanded “minority veto power … to restrict what voters can achieve together in a democracy to what the wealthiest among them would agree to.”
In his 1861 “Cornerstone Speech,” Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens proclaimed that the Declaration’s belief in human equality is “fundamentally wrong.” The Confederacy directly rejected the 1776 definition of an America based on democracy and insisted that governments do not “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
The Confederacy was all about inequality, hierarchy, domination by some and subordination of others. In all these regards, today’s “Republican” Party has taken up the positions of the Democrats of the mid-nineteenth century. They are fully committed to what Calhoun, Stephens, et. al. believed: opposition to democracy and to government by the consent of the governed, because, as red-state—make that gray-state—referenda on such issues as women’s control of their bodies and Medicaid expansion keep demonstrating, they lose when people vote.
Much as the wealthy enslavers used race—a floor beneath which white people could not fall—to bring along poor folks to fight and die for the interests of those above them, the MAGA movement has exploited the insecurities of lower-income whites to get them to do the bidding of the superrich. Their instruction goes something like this:
Look for the causes of your problems below you, not above; we’ll keep Others—people of color and women—beneath you. Democracy gives Them power; an authoritarian Leader will protect you.
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If Trump and his devoted following wore gray MAGA hats, they wouldn’t stand out so much, but the color of the Confederate traitors would reflect the movement’s intentions far more truthfully than a hue associated with Communists does.
Apart from a protracted dispute over the outcome of the Election of 1876 that ended in a compromise, the only past time that a major fraction of a political party flatly refused to accept the result of an American election was 1860 and it produced an internal war that killed more Americans than died in all other wars the country has been involved in combined. Reminding people of that truth by using colors that accurately connect today’s parties with that terrible event would be a small step toward assuring that nothing similar happens in our time.
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