What role does popular culture play in politics?

Republican presidential candidates from left, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and John Kasich take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) ORG XMIT: OHJM122

Last week, I spent the better part of a weekday evening watching the Republic debate on CNN. Moderated by CNN’s Jake Tapper, the event was the most watched show ever to air on the news network, with approximately 23 million tuning in to watch the candidates go tête à tête.

One of the questions really struck a chord with me and with all the other political and culture blogs out there. When asked which woman they would put on the $10 bill, the candidates seemed at a loss for any women, let alone an American one. Jeb Bush named Margaret Thatcher, who was Britain’s first female Prime Minister. Dr. Ben Carson named his mother. Mike Huckabee named his wife. Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, named Mother Teresa…who is definitely an icon, but not an American one. Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz and Donald Trump all named Rosa Parks, but conveniently forgot that she was a huge advocate for Planned Parenthood in her later life, an organization that they’d all like to defund.

The answers really, really sucked, and I started to realize how much the GOP is lacking in cultural knowledge and awareness. The discussion of who to put on the $10 bill has been going on since this spring! I’ve heard some great suggestions, from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Day O’Connor, from Oprah to Beyoncé. For candidates to have pop culture savvy is crucial if they want to win, and even more important if they want their supporters to stay engaged. But is it fair to expect our politicians to stay up-to-date on popular culture?

I think politicians need to care about popular culture because in an age of increasing segmentation among Americans, it binds us all together. It doesn’t matter where you live or what your political leanings are, you are constantly aware of pop culture, and when political candidates can use pop culture references in appearances before the public, the more appealing they become to voters.

President Obama has been quite skillfully using popular culture since his first presidential election. He talks about what TV he watches (House of Cards! Parks and Recreation! SportsCenter!) which the media then reports out in a “Presidents! They’re just like us!” kind of way. And where does he talk about his television preferences? On daytime and late night talk shows! We’ve all seen the president dancing with Ellen DeGeneres on her show, or reading mean tweets about himself on Jimmy Kimmel Live. The fact that the president appears frequently on these “soft” news outlets is genius because he simultaneously appeals to a targeted section of voters while avoiding hardball questions. Finally, the president is very popular with celebrities (like Jay-Z and Beyoncé), who spend a great deal of time campaigning and raising money for him.

So if the president can be culturally fluent and really appeal to mass audiences, why has the GOP struggled so much? Firstly, the shift of mainstream media has become more socially liberal, leading to a dichotomy between conservative values and what is presented on TV, movies and music. Secondly, conservative candidates who do cite popular culture are usually met with derision. Take Paul Ryan, who was on the GOP’s vice president ticket in 2012. Ryan claimed to love Rage Against the Machine, a leftist heavy metal band who has spend the better part of two decades condemning American imperialism and capitalism, all things that Paul Ryan supports. His love for Rage Against the Machine prompted Tom Morello, the band’s guitarist to write a scathing piece in Rolling Stone decrying Ryan’s vision for America. Morello writes, “Paul Ryan is clueless about his favorite band…his guiding vision of shifting revenue to the one percent is antithetical to the message of Rage.”

Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign used Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a campaign anthem. Springsteen was loath to be unwillingly involved in the campaign, being a huge supporter of unions and the little guy, but even more problematic for President Reagan was an incident where a campaign staffer was asked what other Springsteen songs the president liked and the staffer couldn’t come up with a single one.

The GOP is at a huge disadvantage in regards to pop culture, but they don’t have to be. It’s true that Hollywood is a liberal town, but there are plenty of conservative celebrities that they would align with to be more appealing (didn’t Tom Brady recently come out in support of Donald Trump?)

The 2016 election cycle will be enlightening in seeing how the GOP is using pop culture to gain votes, and I predict that the candidate who can use culture most skillfully will lead the race, waiting for the others to catch up.


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