The Real Metaphor of the ‘Blue Wave’

During the midterms, a small phrase suggested a bigger problem: America still isn’t sure how to talk to itself.

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One report announced the results of the 2018 midterms like this: “Democratic ‘Blue Wave’ Washes Over House as Republicans Keep Senate.” Another shared the results like this: “Democrats Take Control of House as ‘Blue Wave’ Wipes Out Republicans.” But then there was this: “Democrats Seize U.S. House But Trump Averts ‘Blue Wave.’” And also this: “The Blue Wave Ran Into Trump’s Red Wall.” And also this: “Blue wave? What blue wave?”

The mixed messaging, and the mixed metaphors, were appropriate: “Blue wave” began, in this election cycle, as a faith-based idea—Democratic activists’ hope that voters’ resentment of Trumpism would ripple and grow into a crashing, crushing eventuality—and that is in some ways what it remained, in the long year leading up to the 2018 U.S. midterms. It became a shorthand for the notion that a surge of blue would wash over the national political landscape: a widespread repudiation of the current political regime that would be, depending on your point of view, either made inevitable or made to collide vainly against the stubborn solidity of a Republican “red wall.”

Prior to the election itself, the blue wave was a metaphor that, even in its semantic elasticity, had a fairly well-defined, and commonly understood, meaning. A Democratic surge: It was an idea whose assumptions could be argued for or against, according to that common understanding. Analysts and pundits and citizens alike could marshall the evidence and debate about whether a “blue wave” was indeed on its way. That is, it turned out, what they did. And then the election happened, and the long-running speculation was, overnight, replaced with hard data. And then something else happened in response: The talk of the “blue wave”—the thing that had been debated, with escalating urgency, for more than a year—itself receded. The aquatic disturbance in question, journalists decided with the bluntness of the ballot, was really more like a puddle. Or a ripple. Or a “feeble rivulet.” Or a splash. (But, one outlet conceded, “an important splash.”) Regardless, it was “not a tsunami.”

As the returns came in on Tuesday night, the “blue wave,” in an act of postmodern alchemy, also shifted its shade: No longer was it assured to be azure. Maybe, instead, it was red. Or purple. Or green. Or pink. Maybe a single color was too simplistic (“The ‘Pink Wave’ Was Always Blue”). Maybe it was best to think about the wave, in all its complexity, as rainbow-colored. Maybe it was best not to think about it at all. “Forget the blue wave,” a USA Today column had it on Wednesday, “and behold the purple puddle.”

Metaphors are extremely useful things. They provide a common language—an agreed-upon shorthand—for truths that can be difficult to discuss in terms that are simultaneously broad and precise. It doesn’t take a Lakoff or a Luntz to appreciate the power of shared metonyms, particularly as the country grapples with the results of an election that was a political embodiment of that well-worn Fitzgerald line: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

And this election, in particular, featured many more than two oppositional ideas. The 2018 midterms were about voter suppression, which is also to say about robbing swaths of Americans of their constitutional rights, which is also to say about structuralized inequality. They were about enfranchisement and its opposite. They were about progress. They were about backlash. They were about women winning. They were about women losing. They were about compassion empowered, and racism rewarded, and hard work realized, and cruelty weaponized, and corruption unpunished. They were about hatred. They were about love. They were about history made. They were about history ignored. They were about American exceptionalism in the best sense and—at the same time—in the worst.

How do you sum that up in a headline or a news article? How do you talk about it in neatly cable-newsed sound bites? The true answer is that you can’t, and the even truer answer is that this is why it is necessary to have a flourishing and extremely diverse media ecosystem, so that a broadly coherent picture might emerge from the individual efforts—but the more practical and immediate answer is that you can try to use metaphors to summarize the situation. You can talk about waves, with their familiarity and their liquidity and their visual power, and you can talk about the color of your notional water, and the size and shape of the swell, and you can take refuge in the fact that waves—enormous and/or puny, dangerous and/or exhilarating, beautiful and/or terrible—can be meaningful and meaningless at the same time.

As November 6 gave way to November 7, then, “blue wave” became another kind of metaphor: not necessarily for a Democratic surge, but for the profound challenges of describing a country that itself holds so many opposed ideas in the mind at the same time. The phrase, evolved and dissolved, doubled as a distillation of how much trouble Americans can have—in the age of filter bubbles and alternative facts and widespread institutional mistrust—when they try to talk among, and about, themselves. (Slate: “Did we just witness a blue wave? There is no definitive answer because there is no clear-cut question. There is simply no agreed-upon definition of what, exactly, constitutes a wave election in the first place. The term is typically used to describe an election when one party posts major gains nationally, but the lines are blurry. It’s shorthand, not science.”)

A “blue wave” that is widely decided, in the course of a day, to be neither blue nor a wave: Here is one challenge of reporting in metaphor. And here is a reminder as well that, at this particular moment in American life, metaphor might be all we have. The elections of 2016 were a chastening experience for journalists and other analysts, as polls failed and predictions flailed and a president who has found it politically expedient to attack the press as the enemy was voted into office. The elections of 2018, it would turn out, were chastening for a related reason: Polls failed once more. Conventional wisdoms were reversed. And one of the dominant organizing questions of the election itself—Would there be a blue wave?—dissolved overnight in the chaos of political reality. The blue wave gave way to a purple puddle and a rouge rivulet and a green eddy and an orange undertow, and the dissolution was a small thing that was a reminder of a big one: When it comes to understanding the national reality as it exists in 2018, Americans, in many ways, are still at sea.