The Rise of Purple Punditry

On TV, political talking heads choose a color that suggests neutrality between red and blue

As political observers and analysts continue to sift through the rubble of the recently completed midterm elections, one aspect of Election Day has gone largely overlooked — the ascendancy of the purple-clad pundit.

Here’s the deal: As the prevailing shorthand of America being divided up into diametrically opposed “red states” and “blue states” has become increasingly entrenched over the past dozen years or so, TV reporters who cover the political scene on Election Night have chosen to wear purple, which supposedly represents an objective, nonpartisan middle ground between the Democrats and Republicans. (The reality, of course, is that there’s no such thing as truly objective journalism, but that’s a topic for another day.) The most common manifestation of this trope is the purple necktie, but anyone channel-surfing on Election Night can also see plenty of purple shirts, purple sweaters, purple dresses, purple shoes, and so on. If this doesn’t quite add up to a uniform, it certainly qualifies as a team color.

Purple punditry has been with us for several election cycles now (I first noticed it in 2004), but it was taken to a new level during the recent midterms. In the past, Election Night reporters wore purple without acknowledging why they were doing so, creating a stealth movement whose subtext was quickly decoded by political junkies. This time around, however, several reporters proudly tweeted their purple attire early in the day, making the phenomenon feel like a hashtag-driven parlor game. That impression was reinforced later in the evening when Newt Gingrich — nobody’s idea of an objective or nonpartisan observer—appeared on CNN wearing a purple necktie. The message was clear: Purple attire on Election Night has now become a sort of wink-wink membership card, a sign that you’re part of the media club, a way of showing you’re hip to the game.

Newt Gingrich, CNN

There’s something very disappointing about this. Part of it is the silly bandwagon factor (“Hey, look, I’m wearing purple too!”), and another part is the way the political media machine turns everything it touches into a form of pop culture. But the bigger problem is that purple punditry is based on and thereby reinforces the false narrative of the binary red/blue system — a narrative that ignores independents and the moderate middle (to say nothing of outlier parties and radicals). It treats each state as a monolithic and undifferentiated whole (the reality is that most states are more liberal in the cities and more conservative elsewhere), and glosses over the inconvenient fact that most of the population isn’t even politically engaged enough to vote in the first place.

How did we end up with this red/blue system? Accounts of the backstory differ (there’s a good overview here), but most sources agree that the current format entered the media lexicon in 2000. At the time, I remember thinking how odd it was that red, the color traditionally associated with socialism, had been assigned to the Republicans. Some graphic designer at one of the networks must have done it that way as a joke, I thought, certain it wouldn’t last. Unfortunately, the red/blue lexicon has spread far beyond the media world is now used even by the major political parties themselves, so we appear to be stuck with it — and, by extension, its purple midpoint — for the foreseeable future.

A woman dips her finger in purple ink after casting her vote in the Iraq elections, Friday, March 5, 2010

Interestingly, the advent of purple punditry was accompanied by another use of purple in an electoral context. After the American invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein led to free elections in 2005, Iraqi voters had their fingers marked with indelible purple ink as they cast their ballots. The images of Iraqis extending their purple-stained fingers for the camera after casting their ballots went viral and became symbols of democracy in action. (One sector of the American media even dubbed it the Purple Revolution, although that term didn’t catch on.) Similar images circulated when purple ink was used to mark voters’ fingers in the 2009 presidential election in Afghanistan.

There appears to have been no direct connection between America’s red/blue system and the use of purple ink in these elections, but the sight of all those purple fingers may have further reinforced and validated the use of purple as the midpoint of the political color spectrum, or even as the de facto color of democracy in the post-Sept. 11 world. As symbols go, this one seems badly flawed (not unlike the current state of our democracy itself), but for now it’s the one we have to live with. I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more Election Night purple in the years to come.