Passive Politics: Have Memes Desensitized Us In Terms Of The Election Process?

Time to dissect how humor may have hindered our logical judgment

As a nation, we’ve become passive about politics, desensitized from the audacious things that many politicians have said and done recently during election season thanks to memes. How we interact with and consume social media content correlates with our desensitization and passiveness to many things, not just politics. Memes have also always existed, but how they’ve become more sophisticated over the last decade has molded and emboldened the sense of humor of many people. As Americans, we thoroughly enjoy ‘making fun’ of things. With our new generation of young adults raised on social media as well, do we really take much of anything seriously anymore? 

No politician has been more controversial than the one who promised to ‘Make America Great Again’ with red baseball caps that have become infamous iconographic symbols of his campaigns in the past eight years. Donald Trump is the quintessential example of a political cartoon with his satirical antics — yet without a script or concept, it seems. The former president and reality television star has transformed the presidential podium into a comedic stage with what appears to be impromptu skits — captivating and entertaining some while disturbing others. Yet keeping all of America engaged nonetheless with idiosyncrasies, mannerisms, emphatic expressions and one-liners. Undoubtedly, he’s the most meme’d president of all time.

Reflecting on the concept of life primarily imitating art it’s now the opposite. With art imitating life more than ever editorial cartoonists are now overwhelmed with inspiration to utilize for visual storytelling. The jokes are literally writing themselves these days, and caricatures depicted in political cartoons are becoming closer to the real thing.

“Political memes teach us basic political lessons in everyday language. They make politics accessible to working people. They do have the side effect of lowering the stakes so a reader may not get the full risk at play.” says Dr. Nicholas Powers, Gen X’er and literature professor at SUNY Old Westbury. “Past elections seemed at the time an existential threat but in hindsight I was naive. The 2024 election is a referendum on democracy.”

As a self-proclaimed meme historian, I unlocked the political digital dossier, wishing to commemorate a meme that turns 20 years old this month and actually has aged well. Despite the criticism it faced during the time, Howard Dean, a Democratic candidate from the 2004 election, gave a speech while exuberantly reciting approximately 12 states in a row, short of breath with a very evident crack in his voice. He concludes this enthusiastic segment of his speech with a boisterous shriek, shouting, ‘Yeahhhh!’ accompanied by a jolting arm swing. This event is one that many have rightfully dubbed as the ‘I Have A Scream Speech.’ The original YouTube video of this meme-worthy moment has accumulated nearly 5 million views since it was uploaded in July 2013.

Why exactly did this playful, wholesome scream ruin this man’s whole career? Well, it was unusual behavior for the era. You could say Dean was ahead of his time in the charisma category. Though, it wasn’t the only factor that disqualified him from the presidential primaries. 

According to History, Dean was already underperforming in previous states before the primaries, so it’s impossible to conclude that he lost the primaries solely because of his enthusiastic outburst, however it did contribute to damaging his image. His popularity in the beginning of the race began to dwindle and lose its momentum, and in February 2004, two weeks post-scream, Dean dropped out of the race. He was replaced by Democratic candidate John Kerry, who would win the primaries but lose the general election to George W. Bush who began serving his second term in January 2005.

Fast forward 11 years, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are in the running for the 2016 election. One video complication on YouTube showcases some of the wildest things Trump says during that campaign. Boasting over seven million views, in this video he declares, “It’s like I can stand in front of 5th Ave and shoot someone and people would still vote for me, incredible!” Not only would people still vote for him, but he may even gain exponentially more support from this. Yet Howard Dean gets highly criticized for an innocent scream? We definitely owe that man an apology.

“The access we have to political leaders has completely shifted since the 2004 election. We are no longer just watching and learning about them from syndicated news. We are seeing them freely speak their minds through apps like Twitter (or X) and TikTok in real time. In an era of overconsumption of social media content, realness and genuineness matter a lot,” says Ayanna Boyd, Gen Z’er and social media manager at Apartment Therapy. “Apps like Twitter and TikTok have allowed political leaders to freely express their political views and their authentic personalities, which is something that the 2004 elections could have never produced.”

Read ‘Beyond The Ballot: Everything To Know About The 2024 Election Season’

As we know, Trump also makes history as the first president to be impeached twice, the 2nd time after being accused of inciting the infamous riot at the Capitol building on January 6th. 2021. He’s also the first president to be banned from X yet posting on the app after a hiatus with a frowning mugshot, accompanied by text stating ‘Election Interference’ and ‘Never Surrender’ –  this post following numerous indictments and felony charges he was hit within 2023.

“Trump has pleaded not guilty in his criminal cases: plotting to overturn the 2020 election in Washington, retaining national defense information and obstructing justice in Florida, conspiring to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia, and paying hush money to an adult film star in New York,” According to The Guardian. There are also many delays and his court appearances in 2024 are reportedly being pushed back by months, which may actually grant him more facetime during the campaign.

According to BBC, Trump has also been criminally indicted four times and may not be eligible to run in the state of Colorado during the primaries this upcoming March and potentially the presidential election depending upon the outcome of a future preceding. “The Colorado Supreme Court declared Mr. Trump ineligible for the presidency under the US Constitution’s insurrection clause – Section 3 of the 14th Amendment – which disqualifies anyone who engages in insurrection from holding office,” BBC states.

With the litigation logistics of his four criminal cases and 91 felony charges still being finalized, there’s no telling whether Trump will be legally fit and eligible to run in all 50 states. However, if he is, will he win the coveted presidential title back from Biden? Or will he become a convicted felon, trade in his sartorial suit for an orange onesie, and give the editorial cartoonists even more content inspo? We’ll see.

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