As I note in this piece, my students and colleagues here in Denmark are much more interested in Politics and elections than most people I know in the U.S. Of course, everyone I know is more interested in/involved in Politics now that American politics resemble the worst kind of shit show ever. At the mid-term election event, students gathered and watched the news as the ballots were counted and the results were shared and analyzed. Many stayed on campus until 5:00 in the morning! Many were waiting to see if the anticipated blue wave would arrive.
So, as the blue wave comes into power and the shit show continues, I share a slightly revised version of my talk here:
Politics with a Capital P
For most of my education and early career, I have not really been interested in Politics, at least not the kind in the category of the capital P. I think the system is broken and needs some work if it is going to both represent the American people and carry on—or more accurately, finally realize—the American traditions of democracy, liberty, justice, and freedom.
I am interested in the kind of politics that are not capitalized. Cultural politics.
As Americans we agree on the general principles, but the way we define the pursuit and definitions of these ideals varies greatly. And the divide—the false divide between Republicans and Democrats—continues to grow, in part, because our system cannot contain the realities of the spectrum of political beliefs and desired methods.
I have long been a registered Independent, and I think the system needs some major revisions if not an overhaul, but I put my efforts in the cultural and educational realms.
But, at the same time, the election of Donald Trump means that I can’t be uninterested in Politics—capitol P. None of us can. And there have been a number of good old-fashioned grassroots politics that have emerged in the era of Trump, but these stay mostly peripheral to my life and work.
So, I am fortunate to be here in Denmark with American studies students and colleagues who can remind me about the importance of capital P politics. In fact, many of my students have a much firmer grasp on political systems than I will ever have and my students and colleagues here are more interested in American elections, especially midterm elections, than just about anyone I have ever met in the U.S.
I want to offer some food for thought on a couple of related topics—women and politics, pop culture and politics, and the bigger picture of Politics. And I have to do what I do, what American studies does—you know I have to make it more complicated….
The Year of the Woman?
There are many reasons why women would opt out of politics. Who wants to be treated the way women in politics are treated?
Certainly the election of Trump provided an impetus for women to get involved and run for office in record numbers. But not all women are equally promising toward a realization of justice and equality.
Being a woman in politics means that you have had a similar experience of being belittled and even accosted. In this patriarchal structure you’ve probably been steered toward other pursuits or told that you’ll never make it in politics. Being a woman in politics means having to prove yourself every day. It means having to prove that you “have what it takes,” that you can play with the big boys, or the big guns. Because politics have been a man’s world and a boy’s game.
Simply being a woman in politics is not enough to change the structures of politics as usual, let alone the policies reflected by a particular class of people (namely: older, rich, white men). Today, many women in politics espouse similar ideas and policies as the men who have come before them. We see a few women playing pivotal roles or, in the recent case of Susan Collins, failing to play an important pivotal role.
We see every woman in politics judged for her looks first and her mind second; this is an American tradition after all. We see women like Dr. Ford (and Anita Hill before her) treated like poison and accused of being liars and opportunists. We see professors who advocate “engaged citizenship” banned from teaching with the excuse of “partisan politics” when political pressure is applied. Academic freedom is threatened; women’s right to control their bodies and speak their minds are treated as if these are optional rights.
Politics is dirty, manipulative, and short-sighted. It has been the realm of the privileged. Idealists are eaten alive.
I do hope that this is the year of the woman, and that the roles that women play in politics continue to increase at least until we find equal gender representation. This would be a start.
More so, seeing women like Stacey Abrams elected would signal a shift, but not simply because she is a woman and not simply because she is a black woman. There is nothing simple about these aspects of Abrams’s identity; but both are cultural identities that have shaped her life and her politics. This means that she offers more than just politics as usual. [And the blue wave of women entering Congress means that we might just see different politics.]
We need more of these firsts because when there are no more firsts—that would be a start. When ideologies and actions are more important than appearance and party loyalty—that would be a start.
The shift that begins with the “year of the woman”—with the increase in women serving at all levels of government—is more important symbolically than it is in terms of any immediate impact or policy-level change.
The simple presence of women does not mean anything unless social justice is what is on our agenda.
So how do we put social justice on the agenda? How do we empower the people with the most to lose and the least to win?
…How do we get people interested in running for office when we can hardly get people interested in voting?
One answer might be found in the power of popular culture—but not just the power of pop culture to entertain and excite—the power of popular culture to shape our ideologies, our consciousness, and our approaches to politics—cultural politics, or Capital P politics.
The potential of popular culture toward these ends is, ultimately, why I am in the field of education and not politics.
Pop Culture and Influence on Elections
The power of popular culture is complicated. Its power to shape political attitudes and beliefs is certainly greater than its ability to make a direct political impact when it comes to elections. This is one of the reasons why celebrities can make an impact. Celebrities represent more than just a candidate; they represent an institution.
Celebrity fan culture can hack general apathy and the—not untrue—belief that an individual’s vote does not matter. But because people’s pop culture choices are also political, pop culture and politics are intertwined. Pop culture is nuanced, while politics allows little room for complexity.
Celebrity support often unintentionally exacerbates the divided nature of the either/or aspects of the American two-party system. Their support has the appearance of partisan politics because their support is for left-leaning causes: human rights, in short. Sometimes celebrities are well-versed; sometimes they are passionate tools.
American popular culture helps to shape our understanding of politics, but basic human rights should not be polarized in the way that America’s two-party system requires.
Side note. I am not even talking about the whole “fake news” situation though news is now a part of entertainment media and overlaps pop culture. I am talking about pop culture: movies, television, music, video games, and entertainment media and practices of all kinds.
Some shows, films, music, stars, etc. cater to liberals and some cater to conservatives. None are neutral in the bigger sense of cultural politics. Thus, people’s pop culture choices reflect their ideologies and political views.
Side note: We can, perhaps most obviously, see the difference in the power of left pop culture and right pop culture in the attempts to find celebrities and entertainers willing to perform at Trump’s inauguration, which of course, made it easy for the “fake news” to mock Trump.
Most pop culture texts and agents—and the most popular ones—cater to liberals. Sometimes in dangerous ways.
For instance, Bill Maher can be just as emotional and close-minded as any conservative talk show host. When one of his guests said that when we, on the left, have conversations about “how can they think such things,” on the other side of the door, there’s a group of conservatives having the same conversation. Maher cut to the next segment as if he not just displayed this exact behavior, as if his whole show was not built on it. Maher probably lies a lot less, but he panders to his fans at least as much.
Taylor Swift’s recent voter inspiration is interesting because she does so with a more liberal message despite her pop culture image that plays well in the often conservative white world of country music. But her fans are young, and maybe they are still open-minded.
Big-name celebrities, respected celebrities, celebrities with questionable motives, celebrities with good intentions—all can inspire votes through their endorsements. But these celebrity interventions can only do so much. The hard work is something that cannot be reduced to a sound bite or secured with a check.
So, in terms of elections, celebrities can, perhaps, be of most help through sound bites and big checks. But, if we keep pandering to a populace that lacks critical thinking skills, we might need those well-informed celebrities to use their power in other ways. Maybe they already do….
Ultimately, it is not celebrity, it is conscious pop culture creations that teach us about truth, social justice, human rights, compassion, joy, and love—the stories that move people’s hearts and minds—that hold the most political potential. These are the kind of politics without a capital P, but with the potential to influence, and maybe even transform, the capital P politics.