Political Colour-Coding, Past and Future

Political Colour-Coding, Past and Future.

American political reporting has lately adopted a practice confusing to the rest of the English-speaking world, by using ‘red states’ for those voting predominantly to the right, ‘blue states’ for those mainly voting to the left, the opposite of the way these colours are used elsewhere. Everyone, however, still agrees on the political meaning of ‘green’. Colour political labels sometimes cover some oddly mixed peoples and ideas, but can be instructive, especially if they are provided with historical context.

Even in the U. S., outside this recent odd classification of states on electoral maps, ‘red’ has long been the term, both approving and derisory, for radical and socialist political ideas and movements, both democratic and more hardline Marxist, pressing for ‘redistribution’, or sometimes uncompensated expropriation, of assets and income from a rather vaguely-defined ‘rich’ to an equally ill-defined larger population. ‘Blue’ can be most consistently defined as simple opposition to the notions and policies of the reds. In its mainly British and historical use, it has been more a term for conservative traditionalism than for ardent pro-capitalism; even in post-Thatcher England, blue Toryism still retains a touch of aristocratic opposition to modernism in general, capitalist as well as socialist. ‘Green’ is roughly synonymous with ‘environmentalism’, which implies considerable governmental control over private enterprises, in the energy and resource sectors especially, although it is also sometimes assumed that greenery can be compatible with a suitably regulated capitalist economy.

No matter which political colour most appeals to particular individuals, or whether, as is sometimes the case, two or three struggle with each other in their minds and hearts, it is less often realized that all of them have been permanent features of the democratic political landscape for at least a century, and that they have waxed and waned for other reasons than the enthusiasm and activism of their particular champions. Recalling just why this has been the case can provide some helpful guidance about likely political directions in the future.

Favouring blue has been something of a loser’s game for at least a century and a half. Capitalist society, industrialized or post-industrialized and heavily urbanized, is permanently revolutionary by its very nature. Constant scientific and technological innovation, and the attraction of novelty itself in a society of mass consumption, assure this endless movement. Hence conservative traditionalists, even when they have good philosophical and practical arguments, nearly always find themselves engaged in a constant struggle with the Zeitgeist, and are compelled to an ironic and stoic pessimism, somewhat relieved by amusement at the latest human follies.

But matters have seldom gone all that well for reds and greens either. Both like to assume that they are oriented to the future, and both usually get it wrong, partly due to frequent misunderstanding or outright dismissal of any lessons from the historical past. Real democratic politics, past, present, and future, is above all about priorities, and top priorities, which may not correspond to any of the colours, have a strong tendency to stifle other ones altogether. The priorities change above all due to the effects of war and peace, of prosperity or recession, of shifting population demographics or of pervasive new technologies, sometimes quickly, more often so gradually that the change may not at first be recognized at all.

There was a substantial green political movement in the early years of the 20th century, then called ‘conservationism’, with some differences in both supporters and purposes from the present environmentalist wave, but still with a lot of overlap. It had its most famous champion in President Teddy Roosevelt, and had several lasting consequences, like the creation of national parks, restrictions on hunting and fishing, and the first legislation curbing industrial pollution. Many of the favourite ideas that went with it, everything from worship of the outdoors to eugenics, endured for the next couple of decades, showing up in the platforms of everyone from Boy Scouts and nudists to Nazis. But green was still a largely declining political enthusiasm from 1914 to at least the 1960s, in some ways even up to the last years of the 20th century.

In historical retrospect, the reasons for green decline are obvious: the two World Wars, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Cold War for the half-century following World War II. Red politics had been a major factor from the start of the century, was given an additional boost by the worldwide impact of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and another one by the mass unemployment of the 1930s. But the Western world’s blues largely survived the red assault for four reasons. The first was that the Marxist-Leninist version of socialism was more and more revealed, decade after decade, to be more of a nightmare than a dream come true, frequently finding its bitterest opponents among disillusioned onetime believers; the second was that the general expansion of the welfare state in the 1930s and 1940s reduced or eliminated many of the discontents of democratic majorities; the third was that both hot war and cold war concentrated antagonisms in national, rather than class terms; and the fourth was that an increasingly consumer-oriented capitalism acquired its own powerful appeal in providing a cornucopia of new goods and services, and many years of full and well-paid employment as well.

All of these factors had already gone through large changes by the 1990s, and in a way that initially gave new impetus to green politics. The greens could absorb from the reds a great deal of youthful idealism, and of the portrayal of the future as a stark choice between apocalyptic darkness and a and better-‘designed’ future. Ironically enough, the very prosperity being provided by a now globally expanding capitalism, along with a brief respite from wars and fears of wars, provided an apparent opportunity for an expanding and intensified environmental concern, given a central focus with claims about the threat of global warming.

However, the continuing effects of ‘low level warfare’ since 9/11 and the post-2008 revelation of a weak and fragile economy, presently unable to restore full employment, both suggest that political colour-coding is probably now entering another shift. Terrorism and localized wars now appear as an unpleasant but durable feature of the new century, difficult to end with either decisive victory or diplomatic negotiation, and inescapable as central concerns of policymakers. Environmentalists, meanwhile, will resist the surprising new possibilities of vast increases in energy production through shale fracking for natural gas, but are much less likely to prevail than they might have a decade ago. Just as, in the 1930s, factory chimneys puffing black smoke were more often seen as an indicator of jobs in the offing than of deplorable pollution, shale gas offers a similar prospect now, with only secondary concern about consequent CO2 emissions.

The reds may be coming back as well, for the moment repeating the anarchist follies of almost exactly a century ago rather than rediscovering Lenin, but in any case, getting more of a hearing with calls for the redistribution of wealth than has been the case for many decades. But it is difficult to reconcile demands that capitalism spread its wealth more equitably and offer more jobs with demands that it reduce or eliminate its most promising sources of future profits altogether in the name of cleaner air. An make angry split is likely to open between green leftism and red leftism. Should this be the case, blues may continue to sleep soundly in their beds.


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