Among the many events during the 2016 election, the controversy surrounding Pepe the Frog stands as the most bizarre and yet most illustrative of the current sociopolitical landscape. A harmless meme that was widely used across the Internet since 2005 was appropriated by the alt-right, leading the Clinton campaign to designate Pepe the Frog a hate symbol. The resulting mockery of Democratic presidential nominee Secretary Hillary Clinton—and the left more broadly—was swift. This incident highlights a problem with Democrats and the Left: despite having won the culture war, their image is weak.
By an ideology or a political movement’s “image” or aesthetic, I refer to the vague sense of identity given by its rhetoric, actions, symbols, culture, and particularly ideology. Consider the arguments made against President Donald Trump near the end of the election. Many of the arguments made by establishment Democrats and Republicans were that his policies were infeasible and unjust, arguments based in logic and morality. Yet, these arguments were cliched pleas to policies and values, which voters viewed as broken, and which they philosophically and culturally rejected.
Trump and the alt-right, by contrast, had more compelling aesthetics. The Trump movement projected the image of a patriotic strongman, someone who would “Make America Great Again,” and whose vulgarity and no-compromise attitude displayed confidence and competence. The alt-right considered themselves “dangerous” tricksters who rebelled against political correctness. For lack of a better phrase, both of these movements seemed to be having fun, enjoying and taking pride in their movements against the “elites” rather than viewing them as a serious mission.
Although the Obamas once significantly influenced the left’s image through pop culture, there is no longer anything to the movement except some vague ideals and a general antagonism to Trump. This has left an opportunity for others to define the left’s image by referring to more extreme positions. Consider the discussion surrounding cultural appropriation. While there may be valid concerns regarding the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes and theft from original artists and cultures, the controversies that enter the public eye are over cafeteria food and Halloween costumes. To the less politically active citizen, the left is characterized as “no-fun” at best and hysterical at worst; the aforementioned right-wing movements seem better by comparison.
This does not leave the center-left off the hook either. Although some would consider liberal, late-night talk shows to define the left’s image, for example, this argument fails on two fronts. First, they have little appeal beyond their left-leaning audience due to polarized media habits. Second, the increasingly fragmented media landscape keeps any one show from defining leftism at large like Jon Stewart did. While the far left may be seen as “hysterical” and without a central image, the center-left’s image is now considered boring at best and cringe-worthy at worst, especially given some of Clinton’s attempts to use pop culture.
The left needs a new image for today’s culture wars, beyond just re-articulating and broadening already-held values. First, the left can’t be known for its more extreme positions. While the ideals motivating those positions may be valid to the left’s base, they are not only unpersuasive to the those who do not hold them, but also tarnish the movement’s image. The left does not have to renounce these views but rather de-prioritize them––lest the movement risk losing political and popular support needed for more pressing issues. But while this will make the left less aesthetically toxic, the left must still coalesce around a compelling image.
Richard Spencer’s visit to the University of Florida serves as insightful case study. While left-leaning media and activists reacted negatively and alarmingly, Spencer coolly reveled in the commotion, laughing that his arrival was being treated like “hurricanes and invading armies and zombie apocalypses.” When students demanded that he be disinvited and tried to drown out his talk, Spencer was able to present himself yet again as the dangerous rebel and the free-speech hero. Yet, a student stunned him and tore down his carefully manufactured image as the stylish rogue by asking how could he believe in white supremacy “given how ugly all of you guys are.”
The issue with the images of Trump and the alt-right is how gaudy they are. Their patriotism manifests in childish disputes with athletes. Their rebellion manifests in saying mean words on the Internet. This doesn’t mitigate the harm from their ideologies or actions, but pointing out the hollowness of their aesthetics makes them less attractive by exposing the sheer effort in forcing their image.
Doing so requires poking fun at the bluster inherent to those ideologies without becoming smug and condescending. However, this can best be done by taking a more laissez-faire—but no less concerned—attitude. Many policies proposed by Trump and the alt-right are condemned as racist, sexist, and xenophobic, but such concerns are dismissed as leftist hysteria. A less dismissible argument is that those policies are overly concerned with the actions and existences of private citizens, an attitude which is reflected in their broader, domineering aesthetics. If they want to cast the left as hysterical, prove them wrong and cast them as overbearing.
In short, the left needs to learn how to be cool.
Hansy D. Piou ’18, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an Applied Mathematics concentrator in Quincy House.
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