Home > Current Affairs, Hilarity, Internet, Politics > All Your Votes Are Belong To Us: The 2012 Presidential Election’s Internet Meme War

All Your Votes Are Belong To Us: The 2012 Presidential Election’s Internet Meme War

When U.S. President Barack Obama defeated his Republican challenger Mitt Romney for America’s top job last Tuesday, analysis and prognosis was offered from all media quarters and beyond. With the presidential campaign as long, as complex, and as all-saturating as it is, there were plenty of potential causes for and reasons behind the result to consider in detail. The natural electoral advantage enjoyed by any incumbent President was surely part of it, especially in the campaign’s waning days when a historic weather disaster allowed Obama to demonstrate executive authority and the cool effectiveness under pressure that has characterized his foreign policy but has not often found similar outlets domestically. The ground organization and volunteer infrastructure of Obama’s Democratic Party appears to have outflanked Romney’s as well, turning out its base in greater numbers and not suffering the disastrous technical collapse that the Republicans’ prized vote-tracking app ORCA did on Election Day.

Perhaps more fundamental was the GOP’s dogged ideological insistence on alienating every voting demographic outside of white males, alarming Hispanics with immigration-related xenophobia, women with tone-deaf comments on abortion and rape, and African-Americans with the racially-charged framing of their attacks on the first black President. One dominant note in the coverage of Obama’s win (which was, Electoral-College-wise, a bit of a landslide, it must be said) was to emphasize the demographic sea-change represented by the 2012 Election, in which a diverse coalition was brought together in opposition to the Republican Party’s Southern and Midwestern rural white bloc. Although this new multicultural reality is one that the GOP will need to come to terms with rather than continuing to aggressively reject if it is to becoming relevant as a governing party again, it’s not the entire story of this election.

The same conservative counter-revolutionary tendencies that led the GOP’s ideologues to frighten and irritate the various non-white minorites, young voters, and women (the latter, after all, constitute a majority in America) blazed a path to rejecting various important elements of American culture (Hollywood movies, public television, etc.) which hamstrung their attempts to turn the discourse in their favour. To some extent, the narrative arc of the election saw Romney’s central claim of upgrading economic competence in the Oval Office slowly evaporate as he appeared less consistent and competent as the campaign wore on (he lost the last two debates decisively after breezing past a lackadaisical President in the first one, and his surrogates from VP nominee Paul Ryan on down to Tea Party-friendly Senate candidates made poor accounts of themselves too). This was partially due to the strength of the various body blows to his temperment and views made by Obama and the Democrats (and some self-inflicted shots, too, like the infamous 47% video), but also due to the epistemic closure of the echo-chamber right wing discourse, where meanness and negativity coexisted uncomfortably with soft-focus propagandistic distortions of the American character and priorities.

An illuminating case study on this effect, or this lack of effect from the Republican perspective, can be descried in a helpfully summarized account of the internet memes of the 2012 presidential election from Know Your Meme, an organ of the I Can Has Cheezburger/FAILblog corpus that tracks and documents the ephemeral tangents of Internet culture. Both sides in the campaign attempted to purposely employ social media and its viral potential to their benefit at certain points: the Romney campaign released apps (one of which included a much-mocked typo) and appears to have artificially raised the number of followers of his Twitter account in July to ridiculous levels, while the Obama team released a much-pariodied online slideshow comparing his policies with those of his opponent and crafted the quickly-discarded catchphrase and hashtag “Romnesia” to tag the former Massachusetts Governor for his convenient finessing of past stands on the issues.

But the defining memes of the campaign were obviously not the ones curated by political consultants and campaign strategists. They were the spontaneous memes, sparked by notable occurences in the campaign and spread on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and various other internet gathering points. Sometimes these memes had ideological targets or partisan underpinnings (like the Mansplaining Paul Ryan meme or the Obama-attacking You Didn’t Build That, which was the conceptual heart of the GOP Convention), but just as often they didn’t, instead grasping at a random moment of strangeness or comedy amidst the otherwise dour policy talk of the debates in particular.

In this corner of the electoral battle, it is clear that the Democrats won a thumping victory. Witness the most memorable memes that targetted, in one way or another, Romney and the GOP when compared to those that the Republicans and their operatives and supporters used against the Democrats. There was Binders Full of Women, a meme whose perpetrators leapt on Romney’s awkward phrasing in the second debate concerning employment equality initiatives during his gubernatorial days (which turned out to be a fib anyway) to create a surreal new expression of patriarchal limitations on female employees. Fired Big Bird, arising from Romney’s pledge to cut funding to PBS in the first debate, grounded the cruelty of proposed Republican spending cuts in a commonly-adored childhood touchstone. And Horses and Bayonets emphasized a moment of powerful snark from Obama (whose presidential humour is among the sharpest of the past media-driven century) that established his foreign policy mastery over Romney in the final debate while also offering rich opportunity for comic anachronism.

Truth be told, I had never even heard of the competing conservative memes before reading through Know Your Meme’s compilation of the election’s viral fodder (perhaps as a result of my own epistemic closure). But it must be said that they are not impressive. Where the liberal-tilted memes discussed above effectively bring some objectionable policy position into sharper relief by connecting it to a comical concept, the conservative ones of note are little more than outbursts of abusive belligerence against a President and a party that they resent with primal, pre-logical fervour.

Take Laughing Joe Biden, which referenced the Vice President’s quietly devastating amusement at Paul Ryan’s earnestly libertarian expressions of policy positions during their debate. While certain image macros go for the surreal and the non-ideological (I like the one of Biden as Mortal Kombat character), most others that criticize Biden’s laughter do so from a vicious and insulting place, calling him stupid (a popular view on the right that Biden had just dispelled convincingly in front of a national audience) and making dark associations between him and the Joker (a menacing comparison that has also been infamously but ambiguously applied to Obama).

Or, alternately, one can consider the troubling Obama the Eater of Dogs meme, cooked up by the racist dog-whistling demagogues at Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller from an excerpt in Obama’s Dreams of My Father concerning the young future President eating dog with his stepfather in Indonesia. Intended as a response to the story of Romney’s former family dog being strapped in his carrier to the roof of the car for a 12-hour roadtrip, the meme fed into feverish conservative prejudice against Obama’s international origins, and pushed the far right conception of the President as somehow an inherently un-American figure. Humour of this mean and xenophobic type does not tend to go viral because it offends more than it appeals, and it is not an effective political messaging tool because it has no political message outside of the paranoid, closed-minded resentment of difference. In this way, however, these memes constitute a succinct example of the similar paucity of significant ideas at the heart of contemporary American conservatism.

It may seem frivolous to focus on something as inherent disposable as internet memes to shed light on an election result, but then political campaigns are every bit as disposable as these memes, and often enough just as frivolous as well. Simply because the final result of an election can have serious and wide-reaching consequences on governing policy and national direction does not mean that the process of winning those results does not slip into silliness and lowest-common-denominator appeals as often as not. With the campaign discourse so often conducted at this level, internet memes are not necessarily discursively dissonant. Indeed, they often contribute to the harmony of political messaging. The American conservative movement’s conscious decades-old decision to turn their collective backs on popular culture bore fruit on November 6th, in this way. And that fruit, like the Republican Party’s ideological and moral heart, was revealed to be rotten at the core. Did this decide the election? No, but any ocean of defeat is a multitude of drops, and this drop left swiftly-spreading ripples.

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  1. brianhmoll
    November 12, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    Nice. It was fun re-living all these again.

  1. September 19, 2013 at 5:56 pm

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