Ask a conservative about the connection between pop culture and politics and you are likely to get an explanation of the decline of Western civilization and conservatives’ failure to affect popular culture. But there is another angle to examine when it comes to popular culture and politics, which is the subject of a new book by Hudson senior fellow and former Bush administration adviser Tevi Troy, What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House. It’s a must-read for junkies and campaign operatives.
Troy, better know for his expertise on health-care policy, agreed to answer some questions about a problem that has plagued Republicans in recent years:
Why should politicians care about popular culture?
Politicians need to care about popular culture because it is one of the common bonds that tie increasingly segmented Americans together. Whether you live in a red state or a blue state, or an urban or rural environment, you are aware of popular culture. And a politician who can skillfully navigate the use of pop culture references and appearances in pop culture venues can increase his appeal to the American public. Barack Obama, for example, has been quite adept in his use of pop culture, and in three distinct ways. First, he is fluent in the language of pop culture, and makes easy references to his TV viewing habits, which the media eagerly and lovingly report. Second, he makes appearances on soft media entertainment shows, where he reaches out to targeted sections of the electorate, and also avoids pesky hardball questions. Obama had over two dozen of these soft media appearances in the 2012 campaign. Third, he uses Hollywood celebrities to campaign for him, and to raise money for him.
If the culture has gone to seed with bad language, sexuality, etc. are conservatives loath to be too culturally with it?
I would be wary of painting the entire culture with such a broad brush. There is certainly too much bad language and sexuality in the popular culture, but there are also plenty of “acceptable” shows as well. In fact, parents today are better equipped to steer problematic shows away from their children thanks to tools like the Common Sense Media Web site (http://www.commonsensemedia.org/) and app, should parents choose to do so. Politicians also have access to the same tools, and can safely interact with celebrities and shows that fit within their world view, again, should they choose to do so. Democrats certainly have more room to refer to edgier shows, but Republicans have lots of cultural fare that they can cite to their advantage.
Is there a risk of being seen as a phony by referencing pop culture?
Absolutely, and phoniness is a cardinal sin when invoking popular culture. In 1984, for example, Ronald Reagan’s campaign used Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a song bolstering their “Morning in America” reelection theme. Springsteen did not think much of Reagan, and responded that “It’s not morning in Pittsburgh.” But potentially more problematic was the fact that a Reagan aide was asked what other Springsteen songs the president liked, and the aide couldn’t come up with any, likely because there weren’t any. On the other side of the aisle, and this may be an apocryphal story, but Al Gore is supposed to have said to Courtney Love that he loves her music. Love’s response: “Oh yeah? Name one song.” Even Obama has gotten into trouble on this front, joking about Snooki at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but then telling the ladies of The View that he didn’t know who Snooki was. Without a doubt, politicians are better off not referring to pop culture if they are not aware of what they are talking about.
Are conservatives inherently wary of popular culture?
Conservatives are indeed wary of pop culture, and for good reason. Hollywood is a strongly Democratic town, and references to politics in pop culture tend to glorify Democrats and demonize Republicans. The president on the West Wing, for example, was a Democrat whom the producers intentionally created as a mix between Kennedy and Clinton, minus their unfortunate foibles. The vice president character on Homeland, in contrast, was clearly a caricature of Dick Cheney, bad heart and all. This anti-Republican tendency shows up in music, as Fleetwood Mac loves it when Clinton uses their song “Don’t Stop” as a campaign anthem, but Republicans are repeatedly criticized by musicians when they try to use popular music in their campaigns. I joke in the book that Republicans can only use songs on the campaign trail if the artists are country or dead.
Who is a Republican good at using pop culture and why?
This is a tough question since, as noted above, Republicans are at a disadvantage when it comes to pop culture. In recent years, some GOP politicians are trying to be more hip when it comes to their musical choices. Paul Ryan, who is into heavy metal, joked during the GOP convention that he was familiar with some of Mitt Romney’s favorite songs from time that he had spent in elevators. And Marco Rubio is a fan of hip hop. I think the 2016 race will be revealing when it comes to GOP use of popular culture, and it is likely that the candidate most able to use pop culture will come out on top.