For years, politics has relied on focus-grouped sound bites made for repetition on the nightly news. Guardians of the national discourse have worried about the dumbing down of complicated policies into catchy slogans. Probably with good reason. Less nuance is rarely for the better.
But in 2012, with the most tweeted and tumblred election in history, the public dialogue has spawned a new genetic variant. The ideas now most fit to survive the daily news beast have simplified even further, only with a populist twist. This is the decade, maybe even the specific contest, where the sound bite has been superseded by the political meme.
Within moments of being broadcast, serious issues are reduced to #legitimaterape hashtags or ladybinder GIF streams. Subtle, difficult, starkly contrasting positions on the kind of future we want for our country are stripped to their core, while the world wide web of wit hustles to write the snarkiest caption or register the latest joke domain name. One could argue that we the people are no longer educating ourselves by following politics. We’re just cheering for winners and laughing at losers, picking sides in a popularity contest — an American Idol that swaps sequins and songs for suits and speeches.
In this case, I have to disagree with the reductive view. Certainly there are some who see a political meme or hashtag and either misinterpret or gloss over it completely. “Ugh, political stuff.” But if there’s one thing people hate, it’s not being in on the joke; nothing feels worse than not “getting it”. In a rapid-fire internet culture, the table stakes for getting it are to be relatively current and well-informed, otherwise the jokes go right over your head. To be a part of the culture, you have to educate yourself.
It’s part of the same phenomenon that causes viewers of The Daily Show to score above average (and even above other news outlets) in terms of being well-informed. It’s more fun if you’re paying attention.
I wouldn’t dare to suggest that political memes are a sufficient replacement for reading solid news journalism, or that googling “47 percent” is the same as having a real understanding of American tax policy and its effects on income inequality. Nuance is still important as ever. If we’re being honest though, it’s probably true that most people don’t have the time to read newspapers cover to cover every day, or at least the desire to do that instead of watch sports or tv shows (two other cultural conversations that take some diligence to stay on top of). And honestly, who’s to say paying attention to one over the other will drastically improve one’s quality of life?
However, under this be-informed-to-be-in-on-the-joke principle that drives political memes, people who aren’t active news readers at least brush up against big ideas they might otherwise miss entirely. The “binders full of women” meme only makes sense once you realize that equal pay for women is an issue, which doesn’t normally get the attention it deserves (beyond the women feeling its effects, unfortunately). Obama’s zinger about horses and bayonets was a pretty snappy line, intentionally designed to be meme-ified, I’m sure. What made it so satisfying and smart, in addition to being witty, was how it put a spotlight on the way we think about today’s military — a budget-draining behemoth comprised of expensive jets and battleships that’s probably just as ill-suited for today’s wars as a charging cavalry.
Equally important, these memes aren’t focus-grouped and party-approved. The reason these moments become memes are because they strike a chord with the public, who seizes on them as an opportunity to elevate an issue that really is worth talking about. Memes aren’t born from lines like “I love teachers,” or “Middle class jobs,” the canned truisms that litter the campaign trail. Political memes come from the off-guard, off-script moments — which are usually the few moments of honest insight into the otherwise hyper-managed candidates. In this model, we the people get to choose what we take away from the campaign, not the election handlers getting paid to keep these very things from happening.
Sure, a month from now there will be a lot of Big Bird twitter accounts left idle and some long-since abandoned tumblr blogs documenting jokes we’ll soon forget. But I’m convinced long-term, today’s political memes will have done their duty and deserve to retire with dignity, while the memes of tomorrow prepare to educate the youth of today to do the jobs of the future — leaving them better off than the generation that came before.