August 26, 2008
McCain to Obama Supporters: "Get a Life!"

I posted this recently on my blog and thought it would likewise be of interest to C3 blog readers.

One of the most powerful tools in the Karl Rove arsenal was a form of political Judo: take your opponent's strengths and turn them into vulnerabilities. For example, coming into the 2004 convention, Democrats had seen war hero John Kerry as pretty much unassailable on issues of patriotism and they made it a central theme of their event. Within a week or two, the Swift Boat Campaign made Kerry's service record an uncomfortable topic to discuss, flipping Kerry's advantage (that he had served in Vietnam and neither George W. Bush nor Dick Cheney had done so) on its head. This added the phrase, "Swiftboating," to the language of American politics.

Coming into the Primary season, several things stood out about Barack Obama: First, he had developed a reputation as the Democrat who was most comfortable talking about his faith in the public arena; many Democrats felt that he gave them a shot at attracting some more independent-minded evangelical Christians, especially given the emergence of more progressive voices that linked Christianity to serving the poor, combating AIDS, and protecting the environment. (Indeed, we saw signs of that pitch during Obama's appearance at the Saddleback Church Forum last week, when he clearly knew and deployed evangelical language better than McCain). Yet, the circulation of the Rev. Wright videos -- not to mention the whisper campaigns charging that he is secretly Islamic -- blunted his ability to use faith as a primary part of his pitch to voters. Similarly, the Obama campaign showed an early comfort with talking about American traditions in lofty and inspirational values, so he has been confronted with attacks from reactionary talk radio questioning his patriotism.

Over the past three weeks, we've seen the McCain campaign take aim at a third of Obama's strengths -- the so-called "enthusiasm gap." Basically, pundits have been talking a good deal about the lack of enthusiasm for the Republican nominee among his rank and file in comparison with the extraordinary passion Obama has generated, especially among young and minority voters. To confront this "enthusiasm gap," the McCain campaign has clearly decided that it needs to pathologize enthusiasm itself, suggesting that emotional investments in candidates are dangerous, and thus positioning himself as the only "rational" choice. In doing so, he has tapped deeply rooted anxieties about popular culture and its fans.

This is not the old culture war rhetoric where candidates accused each other of being soft on "popular culture," a tactic which Joseph Lieberman has turned into an art form. No, this time, the attack is on politics as popular culture. Both tactics strike me as profoundly anti-democratic. After all, how do you found a democratic society on the assumption that the public is stupid and has bad judgment?

In my concluding chapters of Convergence Culture, I argue that there is an increased blurring of the lines between popular culture and civic discourse and that our experiences within participatory culture may be raising higher expectations for participatory democracy. In a new chapter I wrote for the paperback edition of the book, which is due out in late September, "Why Mitt Romney Wouldn't Debate a Snowman," I extend this argument to examine the YouTube/CNN debates last year to illustrate the many roles which popular culture -- parody video in particular -- played in establishing public perception of Obama and the other candidates.

In some cases, parody was deployed within the campaigns itself -- such as the Clinton campaign's spoof of the final moments of The Sopranos -- and in other cases, parody was deployed by outside groups who were not directly affiliated with the candidate -- as in the Obama Girl spots or the 1984 spoof. Such parodies speak to voters who are turned off by the policy wonk language of conventional politics, offering a new way of connecting with the candidate, and mobilizing their knowledge as consumers to make sense of the political process.

The recent round of McCain commercials, by contrast, uses a language of parody not simply to spoof the candidate but to discourage democratic participation, telling the many first time voters who have been excited by the Obama campaign to "get a life." Consider, for example, this spot, "Obama Fan Club."

In Textual Poachers, I examined some of the core elements of the anti-fan stereotype, one which surfaces in news articles and comedy sketches depicting science fiction conventions. It's striking how many of these same tropes surface in this particular commercial. The Obama supporters might as well be wearing Star Fleet uniforms and rubber Spock ears! Stereotypical fans:

  • Are brainless consumers who will buy anything associated with the program or its cast.

  • Devote their lives to the cultivation of worthless knowledge,

  • Place inappropriate importance on devalued cultural materials.

  • Are social misfits who have become so obsessed with the show that it forecloses other types of social experiences.

  • Are feminized and/or desexualized through their intimate engagement with mass culture.

  • Are infantile, emotionally and intellectually immature.

  • Are unable to separate fantasy from reality.

Such anti-fan depictions are often drawn towards nerdy guys and over-weight women as standing in for fandom as a whole. And metaphors of religion run through this anti-fan discourse. "Fan" is an abbreviated form of the word, "fanatic," which has its roots in the Latin word, "fanaticus." In its most literal sense, "fanaticus" simply meant "of our belonging to the temple, a temple servant, a devotee" but it quickly assumed more negative connotations, "of persons inspired by orgiastic rites and enthusiastic frenzy" (Oxford Latin Dictionary). As it evolved, the term "fanatic" moved from a reference to certain excessive forms of religious belief and worship to any "excessive and mistaken enthusiasm," often evoked in criticism to opposing political beliefs, and then, more generally, to madness "such as might result from possession by a deity or demon" (Oxford English Dictionary). Its abbreviated form, "fan," first appeared in the late 19th century in journalistic accounts depicting followers of professional sports teams (especially in baseball) at a time when the sport moved from a predominantly participant activity to a spectator event, but soon was expanded to incorporate any faithful "devotee" of sports or commercial entertainment. One of its earliest uses was in reference to women theater-goers, "Matinee Girls" who male critics claimed had come to admire the actors rather than the plays. If the term "fan" was originally evoked in somewhat playful fashion, and was often used sympathetically by sports writers, it never fully escaped its earlier connotations of religious and political zealotry, false beliefs, orgiastic excess, possession and madness, connotations that seem to be at the heart of many of the representations of fans in contemporary discourse.

In short, the word, "fan," when deployed negatively, seems to be a rhetorical tool designed to exclude some groups from participation -- in this case, from participation in the political process -- or to describe some works as unworthy of recognition -- in this case, to depict Obama as unprepared for public office.

For the most part, mainstream journalism over the past decade or so has moved away from the most extreme deployment of these anti-fan stereotypes as more and more people are entering fan communities on line and as a growing number of journalists have had first hand experience of fan culture. Yet, given how deep these stereotypes run through our culture, we should not be surprised to see that they can still be effectively deployed to express discomfort with the excitement and enthusiasm which has surrounded the Obama campaign in some sectors.

This connection between fans and "false worship" is especially potent in this spot. Speaking on the Sunday morning news shows, Joseph Leiberman, who was once a Democratic Senator and Vice Presidential candidate, defended these spots as "funny" and "playful," suggesting that you can scarcely call comparing someone to Moses an attack ad. Explicitly the spot targets Obama, who is struggling to overcome the "elitist" charge which Hillary Clinton leveled against him in the spring, and implicitly the ad targets his associations with Oprah, who coined the term, "The One." But just beneath the surface is a barely suppressed contempt for the public that has embraced this candidate with such passion as if such enthusiasm was dangerous and out of control.

The news media was quick to pick up on the analogy between Obama and Paris Hilton in the original "Celebrity" ad, which they have read as part of a longer history of racist discourse which links white women and black men. It might be more accurate to suggest that the ad reflects the reality that for much of the 20th century, African-Americans could enter the public eye primarily by becoming athletes or show business personalities and thus we are more comfortable seeing them as celebrities than as political leaders.

The Obama campaign has sought to reverse the charge, using the metaphor of "celebrity" to suggest that McCain is a Washington Insider and that like many celebrities, he re-invents himself periodically in order to remain in the public spotlight. There's also an undercurrent here suggesting that McCain may simply lack the charisma to become a true celebrity and that this may be why his campaign wants to take aim at Obama's popularity. And we might read this spot as also deploying a bit of that Rove Judo -- transforming McCain's claims to be the more "experienced" candidate into evidence that he is too entangled with the Washington establishment, not to mention linking him with the current president whose negative ratings the GOP candidate hopes to escape.

But so far, the best response has come from Paris Hilton, who seems bemused at being pulled into the political campaign, and has fun with audience expectations that she is an air head who knows nothing of public policy. In fact, this spoof suggests, all of us have a responsibility to become more politically aware, all of us should participate in the political process, and we should be open to a range of different languages through which to speak to our fellow voters.

We can see all of this anti-fan rhetoric as part of the McCain effort to deflate media coverage of Obama's trip to Europe and to anticipate the excitement which will surround his speech next week to the Democratic National Convention. Keep in mind that Obama's speech will fall on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and that Obama had opted to build on his public support by moving the acceptance speech from the convention center to a sports arena so that he could open the event to the general public. Now, for at least some viewers, the huge showing of popular support represented by that event will be tainted by anxieties about this "celebrity" and his "fan club."