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.
To Ricki Kanter, 49, vice president of a D.C. nonprofit, "John Kerry" means a lot of things. "It's anti-president, antiwar, anti-Republican," she says. "It's a declaration against our existing president, for getting us into this war and not getting us out." For Ippoliti, a Bush sticker is a matter of unwavering pride. "I like to display I voted for a winner," he says. "I'm all for the war, I'm proud of [the stickers], I'm proud of what we're doing."
Americans have historically taken their bumper stickers seriously. In 1976, the courts upheld that a juvenile court could prohibit its employees from showing political partisanship, in this case banning a bumper sticker for George McGovern on a social worker's car. A 1995 case similarly allowed an Air Force base in Georgia to prohibit bumper stickers that "embarrass or disparage" a sitting president, even on civilian cars.
Even now, a disturbing trend of bumper sticker violence menaces our society. On Aug. 10, an Air Force colonel was charged with felony criminal mischief for allegedly "keying" (scratching the paint of) pro-Bush cars, obscuring Bush bumper stickers with spray paint and writing obscene messages on 12 cars over a six-month period at Denver International Airport. Police caught him through a sting using a Bush'd car as bait.
In November, a 63-year-old man told a liquor store clerk in Santa Fe, N.M., that he had removed another driver's "George Bush is a serial killer" sticker without the driver's consent, because the sticker constituted sedition. Another patron disagreed, citing freedom of speech. The disagreement became threatening, according to news reports, and the threats became a rumble and the rumble became a lawsuit.
In March, a man in Tampa followed, harassed and threatened a woman as she drove her two young children to baseball practice, trying to run her off the road and holding up an antiwar sign. He has been charged with aggravated stalking -- aggravated, apparently, not just by her Bush bumper sticker but also by her obscene hand gesture.
Usually, the conflict is more subtle. How you voted in the past election might no longer matter, but in traffic you can really express your political will. Kerri Polce will let you cut in front of her more readily if you have a Bush sticker.
Jim Ippoliti says he likes to pull in front of people whose cars are marked "Kerry."
Thomas Street sees a Kerry sticker and thinks, "Good! Yay!"
It's about . . . relationships. Will we ever break up with 2004?
Ippoliti had three Bush stickers. Taking off the first one left unsightly marks, so the other two remain.
Polce's original "W'04" was damaged in an accident. She's replaced it with "Bush: He led, terrorists are dead."
Ricki Kanter sold her car that had a Kerry sticker on it. When driving her new car, she says, "I miss the fact that it's making a statement. I may yet put a John Kerry sticker up."
A 2004 election sticker on a 2005-model car?
In a gridlocked nation, of course, we're stuck.