Pop Culture: Politics by Another Means

The Trump years have contributed to an already large body of literature on the politically-segregated social lives of Americans. Unmoored by the recent, decades-long decline of religious, civic, and even athletic institutions, Americans no longer conceive of political parties as convenient means of organizing votes, but as sources of identity and moral clarity. In a time of deep-rooted political divisions, it no longer feels like we live in a shared reality. Any recent, county-level U.S. electoral map more closely resembles a country in civil war than “one nation, indivisible.”

Before Facebook finally cracked down on the conspiracy in October, QAnon had transported millions of the platform’s users into an alternate universe. Even if, as some argue, the “media bubble” phenomenon is exaggerated, the marketplace of ideas appears to have died in some Silicon Valley boardroom. Instead of a fresh farmers’ market, Americans’ online experiences mimic a fast food chain, encouraging users to gorge ourselves on the cherry-picked facts, stories, and daily outrages that reinforce one’s worldview.

For all the excitement about Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders’s abilities to connect with Fox News audiences, Democratic candidates largely failed to convert strong townhall appearances into won votes. After a relentless four-year campaign of op-eds, advertisements, rallies and TV segments by progressives, centrists and Republican Voters Against Trump, the coalition against Trump could only convince some seven to eight percent of Republicans to vote for Biden. That number is significant, but only about two percentage points larger than the share of Republicans who voted for the more polarizing Hillary Clinton. In short, this endless stream of political arguments changed the minds of a mere handful of Americans. Meanwhile, Trump gained 11 million more voters than he had in 2016.

This is perhaps intuitive. Studies suggest that increased exposure to opposing viewpoints can further entrench partisan biases. As politics becomes increasingly integral to Americans’ identities, policy debates feel less like a discussion of ideas, and more like a battleground where one’s identity is at stake. This is, of course, dangerous. If democracy is a national conversation, how can it long endure when its participants no longer talk to each other but instead shout past each other?

As our national discourse remolds into a cul-de-sac (everyone exiting conversations in the same partisan direction from which they entered), perhaps the most effective political messaging of the young decade will come not from the floor speeches of elected officials, but the songs and films of artists who use pop culture to make a subtle, politically-motivated argument.

Every election cycle, celebrities star in campaign ads, deliver fiery speeches and rile up voters at rallies. Although these appearances energize partisans, our pop culture artists might more effectively leverage their platforms by embedding their arguments in seemingly apolitical works. Because good art often wakes its viewers from their insular worlds and builds bridges of shared humanity, it is an especially effective medium through which to expose people to previously unconsidered viewpoints. Living under feudal patronage systems, despotic tyrants, or imperial regimes, artists throughout history have not only made effective political arguments in seemingly uncontroversial, popular media, but have also produced moving works of art.

The Greek slave Aesop inserted implicit political messages into his childrens’ tales. For example, the fable “The Horse, the Hunter, and the Stag” tells the story of a horse who enlists the aid of a powerful hunter to take down his enemy, the stag. The hunter agrees to assist the horse on the condition that he may first saddle him. Unfortunately, in giving the levers of power to a tyrant to solve an immediate problem, the horse finds itself subjugated: the hunter refuses to let him go. At a moment when populist tyrants were preying on political instability to establish personal fiefdoms all across the Greek Mediterranean, Aesop warned against trusting wolves in sheeps’ clothing.

The Latin poet Virgil, who wrote the Roman national epic Aeneid under the patronage of the Emperor Augustus, inserted ambiguities into his text that subtly questioned the political structures of his day. For example, the famous “statesman” passage in Book I, which compares the sea-god Neptune calming a storm to a statesman calming a raging mob through the force of his soothing words, was long interpreted as propaganda lionizing Augustus. Classicists like Yale professor David Quint, however, have pointed out that the passage is in fact an implicit rebuke of the Emperor’s hypocrisy. Neptune does not calm the storm with words (words in fact fail him in his divine rage), but with the authority of his trident. Likewise, Augustus did not bring peace to Rome with speeches in the Senate, but with the terrible, swift sword.

Like other artists throughout history, Aesop and Virgil offered nuanced political critiques in ostensibly apolitical works. In a day and age when any negative article, speech, or argument against a politician or party is quickly dismissed as fake news or propaganda, perhaps the way out of a post-truth politics is through subtle messaging in popular media. In fact, in order to reach potential voters living in information bubbles, political actors must tell stories in the most popular media: movies and TV shows, not books or poetry.

Putatively apolitical art can and often does make a political argument, even in our own times. The most revolutionary moment in television, after all, was a kiss on Star Trek. Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 single “Born in the USA” may be the most famous modern example of a storyteller using his gifts to lower his audience’s partisan blinders. In fact, the song was so seemingly unprovocative that Ronald Reagan used it in his campaign rallies––until Springsteen asked the President to listen to the lyrics.

Even works that advertise themselves as aggressively apolitical can still make an effective political argument. For example, the Transformers saga is not merely a “mecha” story about robots and big explosions—it is also a work of political advocacy against the American surveillance state, for the War on Terror (logical contradictions be damned) and for vigilante justice. Director Michael Bay depicts a meddling and inefficient bureaucracy that does nothing but hinder the ability of good vigilantes to fight evil. In the sequel, Revenge of the Fallen, Seymour Simmons, a federal agent tasked with capturing the “Autobots,” gives up on the ability of the government to fight terrorism by itself and joins the Autobots’ cause. Simmons adopts the Randian motto: “One man, alone, betrayed by the country he lives.” Transformers teaches its intended audience —teenage boys who like cars and guns—that the government is impotent and tyrannical, and that good agents must often act outside the law to achieve good ends.

Today, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, one of the most effective arguments to adhere to public safety measures did not come from Gavin Newsom or Bill de Blasio, but from Taylor Swift. In the single “Epiphany” off her 2020 surprise album Folklore, Swift opens by sharing the story of how her grandfather, a World War II veteran, cradled a dying comrade on the beaches of Guadalcanal. She then juxtaposes the heroism and loss of that moment with the story of a frontline worker holding the hand of a dying patient in a COVID ward. At a time when armed militias decked in camouflage were marching on state capitals to protest COVID-19 restrictions, Swift redirected the admiration her partisan counterparts felt for America’s veterans toward the quiet heroism of this nation’s front-line workers, who have been waging a veritable war against the novel coronavirus.

As America’s national discourse devolves into a shouting match, political argumentation will convince an increasingly small number of voters. In fact, if artists use their work to tell compelling stories with a subtle political message, they might prove more capable than anyone in Washington of winning over the heart and mind of a partisan body politic.

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