A hate crime or an elaborate hoax involving a fading TV star. Tupac, Snoop Dogg and getting high. In the past week, these talking points have become de rigueur discourse for presidential campaigns — because, apparently, engaging with pop culture is the new baby kissing.
Pop culture and politicians have always been a dicey pair of dance partners. One prefers the quickstep; the other, the waltz. But that hasn’t stopped senators and newly minted presidential candidates Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — youngish politicos trying to appeal to even younger voters — from recently wading into the murky waters of cultural commentary, with similarly mixed results.
“Folks running for president in the digital age are controlled by memes and discourse that takes place online — it’s faster,” explains VaNatta Ford, an assistant professor of Africana studies at Williams College in Massachusetts. “They’re really trying to engage with millennials and Gen Z, and in order to do that they have to be hip to what’s happening.”
That’s how Harris and Booker (among other politicians) ended up becoming part of the Jussie Smollett saga. Smollett alleged that on Jan. 29 he was beaten in Chicago by two men yelling racial and homophobic slurs. Both senators described the attack in the very same way on social media: “a modern-day lynching.” Apparently a noose was involved. But there’s just one problem: Smollett’s case has been unraveling, according to Chicago police, who say the hoax was somehow tied to the actor’s salary on the Fox drama “Empire.” He was arrested on Feb. 21 and charged with felony disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report. Booker and Harris have now had to tamp down their Twitter fire. Investigations need to happen, said Harris. No further comment until all the facts are in, said Booker.
Was this a misstep for the presidential aspirants? Ford says no, in part because this was more serious — and more political — territory than your average viral story. “To get out in front of it when it happened, that’s one thing politicians should be doing, calling out racism,” says Ford. “When it comes to standing up for the black LGBT community, being fast is never a bad thing. You can never go wrong with that.”
So when can you go wrong? Perhaps when politicking crosses into pandering. Take Booker’s and Harris’s dueling appearances on “The Breakfast Club,” a popular radio show, to announce, among other things, how down they are. The New Jersey politician, known for saying he has a “PhD from the streets,” admitted to having a “boo.” That would likely be rumored girlfriend Rosario Dawson, who he never mentions by name. Insert eye roll here.
Harris’s deep dives into colloquialisms also came off as shallow. First, she gave a distinct nod to marijuana use. “Half my family is from Jamaica, are you kidding me?” Harris said. “And I did inhale,” she added, paying homage to Bill Clinton.
Then things got really confusing. When asked by hosts what she was listening to in general and what she was listening to while getting high in college, the senator said, “Oh, yeah, definitely Snoop. Tupac, for sure.” Thing is, Harris graduated from Howard University in 1986. Neither Tupac nor Snoop had albums out then. To some, the jumbled answer — which could have been a more general response to her musical tastes — seemed like pandering to particular audiences: young people, black people, hip-hop heads, stoners, the cool kids. Add to that the recent video her staff tweeted of the senator doing speech prep while listening to pop darling Cardi B, and we have a trend.
Is this the new diner drop in? Name-dropping hip-hop artists and praising the benefits of marijuana?
“They’re doing what politicians always do. The difference is they’re both black, and they’re both a little bit younger,” says Ford, who researches African American rhetorical traditions and hip-hop.
While it might appear that Booker and Harris are doing something new by appearing on “urban” radio and rapidly engaging with the news of the day on Twitter — much like social media and millennial superstar Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — they are in fact following the same old playbook that has politicians eating ribs, sipping beer and heading to the county fair.
So there’s nothing wrong with the general idea of what Booker and Harris did — but the trick is to do it like a normal person and not someone’s imaginary hip best friend. Ford has some advice that every politician should heed. “One of the things they have to do a better job at is authenticity,” she says. Put another way: It’s best to leave the lingo to the millennials.
Helena Andrews-Dyer is co-author of The Post’s Reliable Source column.