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The Uses and Misuses of Culture in Presidential Politics

December 16th, 2010

The following is a guest post from Waylon Fairbanks. Waylon writes on international politics and modern culture. If you are interested in guest posting at Geek Politics, check out the guidelines here.

As President Obama’s sweep to power in 2008 has proven, attracting non-voters to the polls is perhaps just as effective of a strategy as appealing to the active voter. The youth demographic is the statistically least likely major demographic to vote, and yet since the Baby Boomer generation, has become a formidable presence in the electoral process. In either case, the activity or inactivity of the youth vote plays out significantly in presidential elections. So then, how must these cheeky politicians sell themselves for sweet electoral glory? Appealing to the youth vote is not quite as simple as it sounds, and thus they must work through the central institution of the young popular culture.

Pop culture is largely an apolitical institution that encompasses cultural, artistic and technological trends pervading the youth. How well a politician can enter this superficial world and achieve status, as a cultural icon is a large determinant in their political ambitions. For the older class, to which many prominent politicians belong, youth culture is a simplistic and rotten world of immorality and indulgence. However, much nuance exists in this world and the degree with which this nuance can be grasped and controlled largely dictates appeal within the youth culture.

A fierce election can turn the noblest of men into an indignant and pathetic political prostitute. This phenomenon occurs largely as a result of catering to the youth culture. When John McCain, one of the most preeminent political figures of the twentieth century, dove into the world of pop culture, one sees clearly how sad this effort can be. Writing to Snooki, a television personality and notable philistine, Mr. McCain, via twitter feed, wrote “u r right, I would never tax your tanning bed! Pres Obama’s tax/spend policy is quite The Situation. But I do rec wearing sunscreen!” Ah, the depths to which one will swim! You cannot make this stuff up. Regardless of one’s politics, seeing such a man of dignity swoop to these levels is a painful experience.

Yet in light of McCain’s cultural gaffs, his vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, proved to be an extremely shrewd character in the realm of popular culture. Mrs. Palin, in spite of no national reputation nor foreign policy experience, quickly developed a dynamic persona that polarized the country. Either you love her or you hate her, and either way, you have an opinion. That’s the point. Mrs. Palin proves to be a rare exception in the political world: she not only exploited political culture for political aspirations, but she in fact left office and formal political life to write books, endorse candidates, give speeches and even host her own television show. Palin has transcended the distinction between a cultural and political figure, to exploit both and thus become a preeminent American icon.

The success of then Senator Obama to harness and exploit both popular culture and the youth vote is a case study in presidential campaigning. Mr. Obama directly engaged the youth vote by utilizing social media and text messaging to compile the greatest following to appear in the modern political sphere. Moreover, Obama used “movement” politics and emotive appeal to enfranchise uneducated and nonpolitical youth voters, who can only be reached through pop culture. President Obama’s recent decline in popularity is likely in part due his inability to appeal using popular culture, as popular culture often is apathetic to a bona fide authority figure. This is the paradox of a promising political and cultural icon attempting to govern.

As popular culture emerges as a stronger force in the political election process due to social networking and mass media, the triumphs and tribulations of the candidates will become both more shrewd and profound, and ironically more laughable and indignant. Let the circus begin.

Author: Derek Clark Categories: General Politics Tags: