Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, April 19, 2024

Meme them, don't meme us: Political satire in America

All around town and all around the web, celebrities face the meme crisis. Yet, there is no riper target than the dusty old politician.

presidential debate.jpg

The 2020 Presidential Debate is pictured.

Though the digital age has certainly changed the style in which American politicians, or their communication directors, relate to younger voters, the practice of satirizing the opponent while bolstering oneself via imagery has always been a fundamental part of American politics.

Freed from colonial rule, the first American citizens bashed King George III through exaggerated depictions. Opponents of Andrew Jackson drew him up as a tyrannical monarch who ruled the nation unjustly. “King Andrew the First, Born to Command” was a surly insult in a nation recently seceded from Britain. Political prints would continue to grow in popularity in the newly formed U.S. Even by 1870, a large portion of the adult population — more than 20% — was illiterate, so these prints allowed commentators to appeal to a broader audience. Towards the latter half of the 19th century, cartoonist Thomas Nast received widespread fame for his drawings in Harper’s Weekly magazine. He commented on seven administrations and his cartoons helped sway public opinion in favor of Abraham Lincoln. Political cartoons would become a staple in American politics. From William Howard Taft to Dwight D. Eisenhower to Richard Nixon, no one was safe from the satirist’s pen.  

With the invention of the internet, memes have replaced political cartoons as the major medium for such biting and boosting political commentary. As of 2023, there are approximately 161.7 million Instagram users, 243.58 million Facebook users, 95.6 million X (formerly Twitter) users and 102.3 million TikTok users in the U.S. A recent survey on social media behavior by YPulse details that 75% of 13–36-year-olds share memes, with 55% sending every week and 30% sending them daily. A 2020 Harris Poll concluded that 55% of Americans shared at least one political meme in the previous three months. More than a third said they share them daily.

This data is dangerous. Memes affect politics. They have been linked to politician-centered frustration and conspiracy theories. They have been correlated with polarization and cynicism. Yet, memes continue to be spread. In an age of efficiency, it is easier to post an infographic or send a meme rather than explain the nuances of complex topics. Quite possibly, our political situation has become so dire that we can do nothing but laugh.

Truth be told, it is unlikely that the fly on former Vice President Mike Pence’s head swayed any former President Donald Trump voters. Leftist media had a field day though, for the fly toyed with the notion of Pence as a staunch, stiff traditionalist: “The fly was the black spot in the ointment of Mr. Pence’s image,” Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times wrote. The image became an internet hit.

Candidates themselves have increasingly understood the importance of memes. Heels became the highlight of the Nov. 8 Republican presidential primary debate, as Vivek Ramaswamy critiqued both Nikki Haley, Former UN Ambassador and South Carolina Gov., and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over their explicit, or apparent, use of said shoes. Using the meme, Ramaswamy targeted DeSantis, seemingly for being insecure in his height — or masculinity — and thus needing an extra boost. At the same time, he targeted Haley, suggesting she was a frivolous woman obsessed with her heels. Haley could not be defeated in the meme war; thus, she had to chime back, “I don't wear them unless [I] can run in them” and “they’re not for a fashion statement, they’re for ammunition.”

Even Trump and President Joe Biden are joining in on the meme action, despite their old age. Trump has been known to appeal to younger audiences by creating simple slogans that can easily be meme-ified: Crooked Hillary,” “Sleepy Joe,” “Never Surrender” and so on. Naturally, Trump’s campaign website features merchandise of his famous slogans. His team has also given out merchandise with popular phrases, such as “Let’s go Brandon,” the chant meant to implicitly say “F— Biden.” There is even a picture of Trump’s mugshot next to a “Never Surrender” caption — a clear attempt to turn Trump into a victim of the unjust left.

Although Biden is admittedly a lot less effective at energizing young voters, his young media and merchandise directors are picking up the slack. The best-selling shirt right now on the Biden-Harris campaign’s website is a laser-eyed Biden that co-opts “Let’s go Brandon,” creating a new “Dark Brandon” version of President Biden that vanquishes malarkey with ease. The Democratic Party’s official TikTok account recently posted a video in which Biden sips from a Dark Brandon mug.

Though some memes revolve around candidates’ policies, the majority are around character, and they encourage us to make quick personality-based judgements. Politicians’ personalities play an important role in voter decisions. This is practical; the character of a politician matters. At the end of the day, though, the policies enacted have the most broad and longest-lasting effects. Rhetoric is one thing; action is another. Rhetoric alone does not kill millions or detain children or repeal environmental laws. Do not get lost in the meme.