Culture | January 29, 2016 at 3:51 pm

A Politician’s Tool Box: Pop Culture and Unpredictability

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When you first begin to embark upon the journey of adulthood, you receive key pieces of advice from your circle of mentors—advice like not signing up for a slew of credit cards the moment you turn eighteen and staving off college pregnancies. But within the whirlwind of advice that everyone bestows upon you before you reach the legal age is something that is at once silly and of paramount importance: take heed that you are developing a respectable online presence. After all, you could be President someday.

For someone just turning eighteen, following that instruction can be difficult. The internet is a minefield of sophomoric humor. Becoming an adult presents the difficult challenge of turning your back on the rush of pop culture and instead forging a composed, professional portrait of your life for the general public to see.

Past generations did not face such a situation. They leapt into the adult world already understanding the decorum that was needed to pass as professional—and, in doing so, perpetuated an enduring professional environment that sneers at haphazard collisions between the looseness of pop culture and the sturdiness of workplace culture. For them, a professional makes an effort to keep his personal life out of the workplace. A division between professional and personal lives was taken as a given.

The surge of social media, connectivity, and alternative forms of business practice was a shock to the previous generation, and it has taken members of their ilk a long time to warm to the idea that pop culture could serve as a conduit for professional ambition.

But not that long.

Specifically, politicians are starting to take part in a new trend: turning themselves into symbols of pop culture in order to appeal to the masses of the millennial generation—a generation that has freely embraced the reality that positive fraternization between the two extremes of pop culture and professionalism can exist. Hillary Clinton has made two appearances on Saturday Night Live during her two election cycles in an effort to appear more congenial to a public that has long criticized her public interactions as too stiff. Donald Trump, a wise-cracking and often contentious man, has created a name for himself in the Twittersphere, regularly stirring up controversy with his off-the-rails attacks of fellow candidates and media outlets. Even Ben Carson, who has garnered a reputation for a solid, steady methodology to his politics, has crafted political ads that attempt to reach a “non-traditional voting market for Republicans” by featuring hip hop, a genre often criticized as being experimental and unprofessional.

The list is long and points to one conclusion: politicians are warming up to the idea of catalyzing pop culture as a platform for campaigning. But is this an effective tactic at dissolving the clearly delineated boundary between past politicians’ carefully tailored professional facades and the personal entities that pop culture demands?

On the one hand, it is extremely effective at weeding out the genuine politician from one who is fundamentally fake. The reason why millennials are so enthralled with social media – the platform for modern pop culture—is that it serves as a direct link from individuals to their personal interactions. With it, you can gauge everything from the degree to which someone interacts with their family (and, thus, their family-minded orientation) to their views on seemingly arbitrary topics like weekly trash disposal (which could ultimately shed light on their assumptions about labor-minded workers). Social media is a game of presentation and extrapolation, and in the years since politicians have entered the social media sphere, it is evident that some players are better at the game than others.

Take President Barack Obama, for example. For years, the White House has managed an official Twitter account for his presidency, where the administration disseminated neat and media-firestorm-proof tweets. The Twitter account served at once as a representative of the office and as the White House’s’ foray into legitimizing itself as an up-to-date—dare I say hip—entity. Still, the tweets were discernibly censored; with the exception of the occasional quip, the White House presented the thoughts of the administration through the cautious filter of individuals aware of how to handle the media.

When President Obama broke the mold and created his own personal Twitter account—entering the site with a personality-laden phrase: “Hello, Twitter! It’s Barack. Really! Six years in, they’re finally giving me my own account”—the internet erupted. He went on to become one of the fastest growing accounts, garnering one million followers in the first five hours of the account’s existence.

This campaign cycle has seen a slew of new attempts at pop culture-based campaigning. Hillary Clinton has arguably been the most successful politician to leverage pop culture in this election cycle. Her campaign team has been hard at work turning media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram into campaign methods. Earlier this year, she gained celebrity support from Katy Perry by sharing a selfie with her on her official Instagram feed. On Snapchat, she regularly posts updates of herself and her staff on the campaign trail.

Donald Trump tried to emulate Clinton’s success but made the mistake of trying to control the comedic spirit of Saturday Night Live in order to counter the negative press he had been receiving since his campaign’s launch. His attempt at hosting Saturday Night Live failed largely because he made the show about him—something that even regular hosts who dwell within the sphere of pop culture do not attempt.

And his failure is indicative of the reality of this new intersection. Politicians, if they want to tango with the turns of pop culture and social media, need to realize that pop culture is an inherently wild and uncontrollable thing—made even more unpredictable and uncontrollable by the fast-paced medium through which it is channeled. President Obama’s Twitter personality is proof that successful integration only occurs when a politician uses social media for what it is supposed to be: a glimpse into the character and personality of a person rather than a stage for political jockeying.

The intersection of social media and politics is, in fact, a good thing—but not for the reasons that many politicians entering the scene might believe. Its value comes from its ability to make it obvious which candidates are cut out to lead in the new age of media. It makes it clear who can handle the vicissitudes of pop culture and who has the personality that is most compatible with the medium. In an age where the voting body is dominated by an interest in the personal lives of political candidates, the age-old advice of crafting immutable professional facades is losing its appeal.

Political success is increasingly dependent on how willing these candidates are to engage in pop culture, especially considering that millennials, the generation making up the largest percentage of the available voting body, are watching the pop culture escapades of the 2016 candidates and judging them. If politicians want to tango with these turns, they need to make sure they are taking cues because social media and pop culture are capricious dance partners.

Image Credit: Flickr/Jeff Livingston

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