Trafficking in Politics: It's Bumper-to-Bumper
Sunday, August 28, 2005
Nearly 10 months after it supposedly ended, the bellicose 2004 election campaign rages on, in the streets. Bumper and window stickers on cars beseech you, even now, to vote for George W. Bush or John Kerry.
People on both sides aren't scratching off their stickers or covering them with new issues or slogans. And laziness doesn't seem to explain it; our bumpers are simply stuck in a moot debate.
"Nothing like it before, and I've been doing this 12 years," says Roi Wright, manager of Mr. Wash car wash on 13th Street NW, who sees plenty of cars that are still in campaign mode. "I don't know why. I think it's like a subliminal message, because we all wanted him to win."
Which "him"? Doesn't seem to matter. We wanted him to win, or him. And he did, or didn't. That's done. We're still arguing, though, through the bumpers that time forgot. They're either in a state of heartsick denial or prolonged flaunting.
We prowled parking lots, leaving notes on cars that sported George Bush or John Kerry stickers, asking the owners to call us and explain why. Many were eager to share, and simple lassitude was seldom the explanation.
"I'm a sore loser," District resident Thomas Street, who turns 89 next week, says of his beloved Kerry decal.
"I still feel I'm fighting. I'm not embarrassed to say I'm glad he won," Kerri Polce, 24, an executive assistant in Washington, says about the "W '04" on her bumper.
Jim Ippoliti, a 61-year-old McLean hairstylist, says of his Bush stickers: "I got three liberal kids in New York -- I put 'em on the car so they'd get irritated."
The argument continues, circling the Beltway like a tourist who missed his exit in 2004. It's aggressive, it's sound-bitey, it's yesterday's politics. It's about tribes whose only common ground apparently is the road. It's about disagreeing to disagree. It's about the individual voice being heard, and another individual voice saying, "You're wrong. Still."
What does it mean that we continue to play this game? "It's a useless thing to do, but it's a condition of our times," says Marshall Blonsky, a professor of semiotics at New York's Parsons School of Design. Blonsky has been interpreting signs for a living for more than 30 years.
"It's a brand name," he says, "just as pathetic as wearing your Gap label on the outside." But it's understandable, he adds, in a dehumanized world: "We are individuals, and we are not individuals." Personal identity is growing increasingly weak, Blonsky argues, and a political label "turbocharges" a weak identity -- as with any team membership (and endless rivalries). With our stickers still up, our war paint is still on -- and, truth be told, the war's not over because the war's not over. "John Kerry" on your car might make a stronger statement against the war than the man himself ever made.