The campaigns and pop culture

Steven Stark

September 04, 1992|By Steven Stark

IN MANY ways an election is a part of American popular culture. In the media age, the presidential campaign is brought to us largely by television, which means that it tends to become a regularly running show, just like everything else on television.

Moreover, because successful candidates try to tie their campaigns to the culture of what's popular, their themes often reflect the current rage in popular culture -- movies, television shows or records. It would not be much of a stretch to say that, in the media age, the presidential candidate who links his campaign most effectively to emerging pop cultural trends wins. Take 1976. An astute student of popular culture in the mid-'70s knew about the possible rise of an outsider from the South long before anyone had heard of Jimmy Carter. From the movies "Network" and "Nashville" (with the portrait of an unknown populist Southerner who rails against lawyers) to the rise of Southern rock (popularized by the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker bands that gave concerts for Mr. Carter) the Carter campaign caught a cultural wave.

Or take the last campaign. In that election cycle, the "immigrant saga" was trendy -- as marked by the Statue of Liberty centennial, "Moonstruck" and Eddie Murphy's "Coming to America." So the Dukakis campaign cleverly used a Neil Diamond song and a new image to repackage their candidate to fit the public mood.

On the other side, the Bush campaign in '88 recognized the rise of "trash TV" -- as symbolized by the popularity of Mort Downey and a spate of new "realistic" crime docudramas -- and made the tabloidesque Willie Horton issue the centerpiece of its attacks. Not surprisingly, the ploy worked.

And this year? In one sense, the Clinton campaign has seemed curiously acultural. From the popularity of country music -- headquartered in the heart of Clinton-Gore country -- to the rise of the female "buddy movie" -- exemplified by "A League of Our Own" -- there are a number of pop culture trends that seem to be moving in Clinton's favor.

Yet whenever this campaign chooses to invoke a cultural symbol, it picks an odd one from the past -- a bus trip, a '70s Fleetwood Mac song ("Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow") or an evocation of Elvis. In pop culture terms, this campaign seems locked in nostalgia -- for the '50s (Bill Clinton in shades playing the sax!), '60s (Mr. Clinton meets JFK!), even the '70s (a middle-aged Elvis on tour!). In an age of nostalgic reruns, the subtle pop culture message is that any recent decade was better than the Reagan-Bush era.

In contrast, the Republicans have tied their campaign into another cultural trend -- the tabloidization of the media. By running on a message of fear, their campaign dovetails nicely with the overriding message of a continuing wave of "realistic" docudramas that show a United States about to be overrun by crime and disorder.

Moreover, the most significant development in pop culture over the last four years has been technological -- the rise of "narrowcasting." In a 60-channel cable universe, it is far harder than in the days of mass-audience, network TV to reach everyone with one message. Viewers have been conditioned to watch their individual channel -- whether it's A&E, MTV or C-SPAN -- and ignore the other channels.

Recognizing that development, the GOP is running a new "1,000 points of lies" campaign, with a different message of fear for every conceivable audience. Contrast that atomized approach with the Democratic strategy, which continues to be heavily reliant on the old, broadcasting model that a single message of unity (this ticket even travels together!) can bring the nation together.

Still, the Democratic model subtly plays to the collapse of broadcasting, too. In the current culture of cable that has become the United States, there is a longing for the good old days of mass, unified culture, when everyone sat around the TV set and watched the same networks and shared similar experiences. In both message and tone, the Democratic campaign is attempting to tap into that nostalgia.

As Ronald Reagan proved, nostalgia can be a potent campaign theme. But in their symbolic attempts to re-establish the notion of a mass culture, the Democrats have to run amid an emerging diffuse culture that contradicts the things they're saying. If the Democrats have a message of unity, the Republicans understand why unity -- and thus centralized action -- may be so difficult to attain in the cable age of atomization. McLuhan lives: The approach of the two parties to the medium is, in fact, a key part of their message.

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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