Pinko is a pejorative word for someone with left-wing views. Over time, the term has evolved and is now often used in a slightly comical way.
Merriam Webster says that pinko was first used in 1925 to mean “a person who holds advanced liberal or moderately radical political or economic views.”
The word “red” has a long association with extremists on the left, and especially with communists. Pink, as a diluted or lighter form of red, was a natural way to describe someone whose views were liberal but not communist.
Pinko also carries a connotation of being slightly effeminate or perhaps weak. Although pinkos may not represent a huge threat to national security, they are also (by implication) not strong enough to defend the country from attack.
The term is closely associated with anti-communist politicians like Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, who both used variations of pinko to attack their political opponents. Nixon used a pink attack with great effectiveness against Helen Gahagan Douglas, a former actress turned liberal politician.
Douglas represented California in the House of Representatives. She was a vocal opponent of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a staunch supporter of unions, and an advocate for desegregation. She ran for the Senate in 1950, which is when she ran afoul of Nixon.
As the House of Representatives’ own history page tells it:
In 1950 Representative Douglas opted to run for one of California’s U.S. Senate seats. When incumbent Senator Sheridan Downey abruptly withdrew from the race, Manchester Boddy, editor of the Democratic-leaning Los Angeles Daily News, became Douglas’s principal opponent in the Democratic primary. Despite Boddy’s attempts to smear Douglas by labeling her a communist sympathizer, or a “pink lady,” Douglas ultimately prevailed by a two-to-one margin.
The negative campaign begun by Boddy—particularly the “pink lady” epithet—resonated in the general election, as Douglas’s Republican opponent, Representative Richard M. Nixon, employed a similar strategy. Nixon’s ample campaign funds permitted him to wage a massive public relations campaign against Douglas. Nixon accused her of being “pink down to her underwear”; he distributed hundreds of thousands of pink flyers comparing Douglas’s liberal voting record with those of other congressional liberals.
Pinko also carries connotations of elitism and intellectualism. In the 1960s, Alabama governor George Wallace often lambasted what he called the “left wing pinko press” and of course, many journalists were more than happy to blast him right back.
Years later, the Canadian hockey commentator Don Cherry used the same language to attack the mainstream media in his own Canada. In 2010, Cherry spoke at the inauguration of his friend Rob Ford, who had been elected mayor of Toronto. Cherry took the opportunity to complain about journalists who had criticized him throughout his career:
You know, it’s funny in those articles, my church, I was made fun of cause I go to church, I’m easy to do it that way. And I was called maudlin for the troops because I honor the troops, this is the kind of stuff you’re going to be facing Rob with these left-wing pinkos. They scrape the bottom of the barrel.