There was a time when the current political style felt fresh compared to the old bombastic stump speaking that characterized politics in the nineteenth century. Even considering recent retreads where presidential candidates now claim to feel our pain, this rhetoric may belong to another generation from those people who will be voting for the first time this year. As we move into the twenty-first century, American politics may be fusing with contemporary forms of popular culture to create a new image of what democracy looks and sounds like. I am not sure we have found that voice yet. But if we look closely, we can see groups trying to re-invent political rhetoric.The Pew Foundation recently released some telling figures. Four years ago, 39 percent of respondents regularly got campaign information from network newscasts. Today, that number has fallen to 23 percent. Over the same period, the percentage of people under the age of 30 who get much of their campaign information from comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show has grown from 9 percent to 21 percent. In this context, ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos has added a segment showcasing highlights from the week’s monologues by David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Jon Stewart.
The fact that Comedy Central will offer more hours of coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions this summer than ABC, CBS, or NBC reflects both a growing civic consciousness within popular culture and a cynical abandonment of traditional journalistic responsibility. To be sure, Comedy Central won’t be giving it to us “straight,” but in previous election years, they have included interviews with political figures and considerable uninterrupted footage from the podium. MTV, Nickelodeon, Russell Simmons’s DefJam, and even World Wrestling Entertainment have launched efforts to educate, register, and rally young voters. Young people’s votes are being rocked, hip hopped, and smackdowned.
Such attempts to link politics and popular culture have been at least modestly successful. In 1992, for example, MTV’s Rock the Vote claims to have registered 350,000 young voters, a feat they have not been able to match since. Independent surveys in 1992 found that 12 percent of voters age 18 to 29 said that MTV’s coverage influenced their decision to vote. Critics such as Yale political science professor Donald Green have argued that the impact of these efforts may have been exaggerated. His research shows that young people are more apt to respond to grassroots efforts and personal contact with other citizens of their generation than to celebrity-focused broadcast campaigns.
Green’s observations would seem to apply to all forms of broadcasting-news and entertainment alike. Most of us see the value of person-to-person political communication, but the new grassroots politics need not restrict itself to old forms of canvassing. Do young voters care whether they are approached face to face, called on their cells, instant-messaged, or e-mailed-as long as the contact is personal and individualized? What if partisan politics begins to look more like viral marketing-where the entertainment value of popular culture is coupled with some form of direct communication between voters? MTV and the other get-out-the-vote campaigns are deploying various forms of digital media to construct online communities or tap participants to spread the word, yet at the end of the day, their primary emphasis is on using television to capture our attention rather than get us out into the streets. TrueMajority’s video about Trump firing Bush suggests a sweet spot between the broadcast and grassroots models. Its content is created top-down, but the group depends on person-to-person electronic communication to spread its message.
There is also a possibility that a politics based on parody is more apt to provoke cynicism than to provide the cultural context for democratic participation. Yet, there is a double message here: let’s have a good laugh at the powers that be, and let’s work together to make America a better place. Such tactics may be preaching to the converted-but that’s the idea. This election will probably be close, with victory going to whichever party can better mobilize its core supporters to get to the polls. No one really thinks these digital spoofs will change many people’s opinion on the issues, but they may get the attention of younger voters who otherwise might tune out the election altogether.
The Photoshop manipulations and fan-made videos take this one step further. Citizens are taking media into their own hands, producing new works made up of fragments of political and popular culture. And people are circulating them well beyond their immediate circle of friends as a way to both share a good laugh and exchange thoughts about pressing issues.
Surely, participatory democracy demands more of us than hitting the send key. Yet, maybe, for some, passing along a funny parody can be the first step toward a deeper engagement with political life.