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You’ve seen the clips from Bad Lip Reading, the YouTube channel that’s emerged as the undisputed winner from this election’s presidential debate by matching the candidates’ exchanges with perfectly synced gibberish.
‘The hot tub is cool now,’ says Mitt Romney in the BLR version of the first clash, clapping Obama on the back.
‘But they poisoned it,’ Obama replies, cheerily.
The dadaesque dialogue fits their gestures with eerie precision. But, really, that’s not the joke. The humour comes from the growing realisation that the candidates perform just as well if not better when liberated from an imperative to make sense.
‘Dude, I don’t have a jet ski!’ Mitt explains, with the robotic earnestness he customarily deploys opining about the economy or Iran.
Likewise, when Obama duly declares, ‘I see a purple idiot who speaks German with a big spunky Irish labradoodle puppy’, it’s his familiar professorial persona recognisably on display, even though he’s babbling like a Bedlamite.
The recent death of Gore Vidal spurred the circulation of clips from the political chat shows on which he featured so regularly during the 50s and the 60s. They seem now both ludicrously slow and impossibly highbrow: encounters between various bookish gentlemen enunciating perfect sentences and illustrating their arguments with the occasional languid flick of a cigarette. Of course, the mainstream political discourse was just as elitist back then (you don’t see too many blacks or women in those videos) but it also possessed at least a pretence of the seriousness lacking from the inanity we now take for granted.
If the presidential debates generate more memes than light, it’s because the cynicism of social media marries perfectly with the profound silliness of the process: here’s the candidates, microphones in hand, stalking each other across the stage like Rabbit and Papa Doc in 8 Mile; there’s the Very Serious Journalists pretending there’s nothing peculiar about the most powerful nation in human history selecting its leaders according to their aptitude with rehearsed zingers.
The remarkable weightlessness of contemporary politics might seem to stem inexorably from the blinding speed of the twenty-first century media cycle. But that’s putting the cart before the horse (or the binder before the bayonet, if you prefer). The 2012 election follows decades of bipartisan free market reforms that have legitimised the once-radical doctrines of neoliberalism. The normalization of inequality is part of that legacy. In years gone by, leftists illustrated the class nature of American politics via references to Mr Fat, the traditional top-hatted and waist-coated caricature of the capitalist exploiter. In 2012, that’s entirely superfluous, given that today’s aspirants openly compete to be identified with Mr Oil, Mr Gas, Mr Coal and the rest of Fat’s plutocratic friends.
Just as importantly, marketization has been accompanied by the systematic hollowing out of political parties and trade unions, institutions that once provided a certain heft to public debates, ensuring a modicum of accountability. The organisations that remain have been to a greater or lesser degree re-invented in neoliberal terms, less collective structures and more aggregations of atomized individuals. The resulting erosion of the old public sphere means that politicians relate to voters not as citizens but as consumers, wooed using the traditional methods of corporate PR.
The resemblance, then, between the frivolity of political campaigning and the superficiality of commercial television is not accidental, since both work according to the same logic and using the same tools.
What does this mean for the Left?
More than anything, we need to shift the frame totally, so as to offer something more than social media snark.
These days, even Beltway journalists report presidential politics through multiple levels of irony, winkingly acknowledging the performances as artifice even as they scrutinize them minutely for nuance. It’s a process
that neatly illustrates Zizek’s point about ideological cynicism – that what matters is not what we know but what we do. You can live blog the election with a conscious cynicism but, hipster attitude or not, you’re still placing the ludicrous spectacle at the centre of political life.
To put it another way, social media operates in two key modes, with corrosive sarcasm alternating with maudlin sentimentality, a relationship expressed in twitter’s simultaneous enthusiasm for trolling alongside pictures of kittehs. It’s a hop, skip and jump from cool detachment to squalling hysteria, as will become clear from the liberal response should President Obama lose in November.
God knows, the Left needs humour, and it would be idiotic to ignore the radical potential of online communication. Yet it’s hard not to conclude that the widespread LOLing at each new electoral meme corresponds to an increasing despair at our inability to challenge the social conditions that produce such an inane polity. Yes, the planet might be burning – but, hey, we’re doing funny things with Photoshop.
The most important arguments the Left can make before this poll all relate to the real struggles that lie outside the contest between corporate party A and corporate party B. Europe, for instance, faces right now a genuine Nazi threat in Greece, on the one hand, and, on the other, a determined resistance to austerity manifested in strikes across the continent. How these clashes play out matters a great deal – more, dare we say it, than any election result or the memes that accompany it.
As Marx or someone once explained, the philosophers have hitherto only trolled the world, in various amusing ways; the point, even today, is to change it.
Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland magazine and the author of “Money Shot: A Journey into Porn and Censorship.“