Romnesia and Binders Full of Women: How Political Memes Distract Us From the Issues


They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but did “they” ever mention what the going rate for a word is?  At a time when we are bombarded with ads, memes, and Ann Coulter, it seems there is no shelter to be had on the internet this election cycle. 

Political cartoons have always served to advertise, influence, and provoke thought.  But while the rise of our internet culture has been something of a blessing, it has also been a bit of a curse as well.  In a world where millions of people will follow a thought no bigger than 140 characters, it’s important to take a deeper look at why the internet memes of recent memory have been so prevalent in our national politics.  With everyone looking for the next big gaffe that can go viral, we may not be paying attention to whether or not our hustlers ... er politicians, are saying anything of substance.  

Political memes are not new.  In 1754, over two decades before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin created what would be an exceedingly powerful symbol for the American Revolution.  While it was originally designed as a call to action during the French and Indian War, it would later be reused as one of the first examples of a viral political meme calling for the colonies to unite in common cause against British rule.  This meme went instantly viral, and by instantly I mean it took months for it to reach everywhere.

But while “Join or Die” was a positive call to action for a meaningful purpose, political advertising as of late seems to be anything but.  Quite a lot of this stems from the fact that the new, rapid pace environment in which we live creates an overabundance of content for us to look at.  We can’t hope to see it all.  This means two things for those who want to get a message across, political or otherwise. 

First, it must be quick.  Every second wasted on memes is one not wisely spent on Farmville.  Second, it has to be funny.  If it’s not, it will be drowned out by the meme that is, which creates a kind of political comedy arms race, where the ammunition is a non-scarce good that costs nothing to distribute and reproduce.  

Add to that our current societal cynicism, and the recipe for talking over one another is complete, which leads us to the heart of the matter.  The memes by themselves are not a problem.  But a culture that is no longer interested in an exchange of ideas is.  Why go over your opponent’s position when Willy Wonka can provide a bemused, parental smile instead?  Why learn what can be done, when Boromir can explain in one sentence what one simply cannot?  Are your binders full of enough women?  Let’s find out.

This kind of “bumper sticker mentality” can keep us from honestly searching out all opinions on a subject, by instead eliciting an emotional response that keeps us from moving outside our own comfort zones.

 Worse yet, politicians absolutely adore our meme culture, because it allows them to avoid focusing on those pesky policy issues, where it seems clear to all but the 10% of America who still think Congress is doing a great job that our officials are more interested in keeping special interest groups happy than defending our liberties.

Neither Mitt “WWIII” Romney nor Barack “Drone-‘em-if-you’ve-got-‘em” Obama (say, that would make a great meme!) would ever discuss the merits of a non-interventionist policy.  Neither would ever consider quoting Thomas Jefferson when he said:  “Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto.”  Why do that, when instead they can have their aides watch the debates, looking to create the next big meme to help their side?  In a race this close, it's safer for both of them to focus on the emotions of those who are still undecided in this race.  

Viral internet memes can be both funny and informative.  But if we are to steer our nation back to the path where real political discourse can happen, then we need to be aware of how they might affect us.  

Perhaps the easiest solution is to silence our inner cynics from time to time.  In what is easily Stephen Colbert’s greatest quote:   “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying yes begins things. Saying yes is how things grow. Saying yes leads to knowledge. "Yes" is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say yes.”

Our current, heavy use of the internet is a double-edged sword.  We now have nearly unlimited access to everything a politician has said and can fact check them.  The Ron Paul Revolution was birthed on the internet.  That's a beautiful thing. 

But we also have to live with the constant “noise” that now bombards us.  For every meaningful piece of information out there, there is a tidal wave full of distractions, ready to keep us off from learning anything new .  We need to be prudent in challenging the ideas within our own political bias, while educating ourselves on why others disagree.  If we merely seek comfort in allowing internet memes to be the anchor of our modern political discourse, we’ll get swept up in an ideological current that may take us to places we never wished to go.