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Photoshop for Democracy

In New Media and Old, groups are using parody to try to mobilize young voters to participate more actively in the 2004 elections.

This is the story of how “The Donald” (Trump, that is) fired George W. Bush and made the world safe for democracy. Of course, it is a fantasy-the kind of fantasy that sustains political activism in an era where the roles of fan, consumer, and citizen are intertwined.

A friend recently e-mailed me, without comment, a short video, edited together out of footage from newscasts and Trump’s hit TV show, The Apprentice. As I watched it, my first impression was that it was a fan-made spoof of reality television. Then, I watched more. Framed as a mock preview for The Apprentice, the narrator explains, “George W. Bush is assigned the task of being president. He drives the economy into the ground, uses lies to justify war, spends way over budget, and almost gets away with it until the Donald finds out.” The video cuts to a boardroom, where Trump is demanding to know “who chose this stupid concept” and then telling George W. that he’s fired. Donald’s disapproving look is crosscut with Bush shaking his head in disbelief and then disappointment.

An announcer then intones: “Unfortunately, ‘The Donald’ can’t fire Bush for us. But we can do it ourselves. Join us at TrueMajority Action. We’ll fire Bush together, and have some fun along the way.” Just like those videos of that clumsy and overweight kid pretending to be a Jedi now making their way around the Web, or the “wassup” parodies that we all got a year or so ago, this is so funny you have to pass it on.

TrueMajority is a grassroots organization, founded by Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream). Its goals are to increase voter participation in the 2004 election and to rally support behind a progressive agenda. According to its website, the group has attracted more than 300,000 supporters, who receive regular alerts and participate in letter-writing campaigns.

And, oh yeah, the site also includes a game where you can spank Bush’s bare bottom with a raw fish, a video where Ben the “Ice Cream Man” reduces the federal budget to stacks of Oreo cookies and shows how shuffling just a few cookies can allow us to take care of a range of pressing problems, and other examples of what the group calls “serious fun.”

The right has been every bit as busy making fun of Democratic hopefuls. Rush Limbaugh is a master at manipulating political sound bytes for comic effect. One website links to more than 300 spoofs of Howard Dean’s self-destructive “I have a scream” speech, including images of him howling as he gropes Janet Jackson, shouting at a kitten, and simply exploding from too much pent-up passion. Using the latest tools for image manipulation, playful conservatives have morphed John Kerry’s picture so that he looks like Stan Laurel or Herman Munster.

All of this hit home the other week when I stumbled on two manipulations of the same portrait of the Three Stooges-one showing Dean, Kerry, and former candidate John Edwards; the other depicting Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. We are all drawing on the same image banks from popular culture to make our political points.

Call it Photoshop for democracy-where participatory culture becomes participatory government.

In his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argued that the ability to mass-produce and mass-circulate images was going to have a profoundly democratic impact on our culture. His most famous claim was that mechanical reproduction erodes the “aura” surrounding works of high art and dethrones reigning cultural authorities. He also argued that a new form of popular expertise would emerge that would empower people to speak out since they felt more authorized to offer judgment on sports teams or Hollywood movies than on the works that were cloistered in museums.

For many young people, the rhetoric and style of contemporary politics feels equally cloistered. Although politicians in recent years have adopted a more folksy or empathetic style, many young people still complain that most political leaders don’t speak, act, or dress like anyone they encounter in the world around them. These disenchanted citizens are responding by turning off television news in favor of comedy programming, skipping political rallies to spend more time on the Internet, and walking past newspaper boxes to pick up more lifestyle-oriented tabloids.

Does making politics into a kind of popular culture allow consumers to apply the kind of expertise they exercise as fans to more civic responsibilities? Can digital reproduction strip away the “aura” that surrounds national politicians?

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. 

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