How a new propaganda genre has reshaped politics (or not)
As you may have heard, former Vice President Joe Biden jumped into the 2020 presidential race toward the end of April, ending what felt like several years of his not-very-suspenseful superannuated Prince Hamlet act. Biden’s official announcement came in the form of a deeply strange video, only slightly less awkward than the earlier one in which he promised not to get quite so snuggly with women he didn’t know, while stopping well short of admitting he’d ever done anything wrong. (It’s already clear this will be the inspiring theme of Biden 2020: Let’s leave the past behind us! Except for the part about that ex-president you guys were into! Who is totally returning my calls BTW!)
This raises the fascinating question (well, fascinating to me anyway) of the campaign announcement video, which is not exactly not a new genre but in previous electoral cycles has generally overlapped with the related but separate phenomenon of “first campaign commercial.” Biden’s strategic deployment of the form, along with widely differing examples from Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and meme-worthy pseudo-candidate Mike Gravel, suggests that the CAV is coming into its own this time around.
That said, the CAV is not ubiquitous and apparently not required: Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders produced more traditional campaign ads and chose to deliver their announcement speeches before live audiences, counting on YouTube and the news networks to do the rest. Pete Buttigieg’s campaign split the difference in highly characteristic fashion, producing an official version of his “proud son of South Bend” speech that is just amateurish enough to feel homemade and just professional enough to feel calculated. That’s honestly not meant as a diss! Mayor Pete’s entire campaign is a self-diss, but that’s another matter.
I suspect the CAV is both a top-down and bottom-up phenomenon: Almost every Democrat running against a Republican incumbent for a House seat last fall had some version of a video on her or his website (“Suzanne speaks to the Tri-County Region!”) It’s a safe bet that every single genius consultant at every presidential campaign longs to create a viral video moment, but there’s no clear consensus on whether such a thing can be cannily constructed in advance or must emerge organically (or at least must appear to do so).
Much as I’m tempted to pursue a long-form exegesis of the formal, stylistic and semiotic elements of the CAV, or to explore its prehistory — well, I won’t, because who cares? Superficial capsule reviews may bring us closer to the spirit of this baffling and deeply unnecessary form, product of a contradictory age of maximal cynicism and maximal hunger for authenticity.
Joe Biden: The “aberrant moment” might last forever
I can’t figure out whether Team Biden didn’t know that this ahistorical jumble of miscellaneous images, disastrous typography and immediately-forgettable oratory would be greeted with widespread internet derision, or simply didn’t care. Quite plausibly it’s the latter, since Biden is conspicuously ignoring the leftist snipe-hunt of ProgressoTwitter and, in effect, arguing that Democrats can just skip the whole primary campaign since we all know he’s the guy who can beat Donald Trump and we don’t have to like it as long as we’re buckled in.
I think this video is almost inexplicably terrible — it’s trying to deliberately revel in squareness and whiteness but can’t even get those signals right. Its “artistic” decisions were evidently made by malicious computer code: Biden himself, once upon a time a handsome, balding man in a sketchy, loan-sharky vein, here appears bleached or sandblasted, with a thin blitz of white synthetic material affixed to his head. It’s as if someone had decided it was necessary to make him look as artificial as Donald Trump. His Oxford shirt appears to have just come off the rack at the Brooks Brothers outlet store in Rehoboth Beach, possibly with the straight pins and bits of stiff cardboard still attached.
Biden’s mush-mouthed mid-Atlantic delivery is unconvincing in the extreme, perhaps because his message is one that even his most ardent fans only pretend to believe: The Trump presidency is “an aberrant moment in time,” a bizarre detour from the inspiring upward trajectory of American history and our shared belief in a society where “everyone is treated with dignity,” bigotry has “no safe harbor” and “there’s nothing you can’t achieve if you work at it.” Make platitudes great again! George Orwell would actually shoot himself in the face (if he were alive, and had a gun). This is not just nonsense but dangerous and insulting nonsense, or it would be if we were meant to take it seriously.
Rendered into plain English, the message of this video is clear enough: Yeah, I might be further to the right than any Democratic nominee since the utterly reprehensible West Virginia segregationist John W. Davis in 1924, and that’s pretty freakin’ perverse given where we supposedly are right now. But I’m not batshit insane or a criminal or a pathological liar and here I am, so you woke-ass snowflakes can suck it. I mean, maybe I’m being too harsh and Biden is just a clueless old guy who has run for president six times before and been terrible at it, and now sees his moment when everyone is too demoralized to treat this whole process with dignity. It could be that too.
Cory Booker: "Morning in America," but so much more woken
Booker’s relentlessly upbeat announcement video, like his entire campaign, appears rooted in a semi-plausible stealth strategy. He’ll raise just enough money to stay on the debate stages and avoid falling into the Gillibrand-Hickenlooper Death Zone in the polls, and at some point we’ll notice him again, notionally more “progressive” than Biden or Buttigieg but not nearly as scary to the rich folks as Sanders or Warren.
Sounds OK! But I’m curious about the thinking behind what is unquestionably the slickest and most overproduced video of this cycle so far: Let’s push back hard against enforced authenticity? Let’s make a version of Ronald Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” commercial, except for liberals? There’s a heartwarming cast of multicultural characters! (Having the main white guy be an older man who’s doing something unidentifiable but artisanal — making sandals, perhaps? — is, let’s face it, genius.) There’s a scene in a black barbershop in Newark and photos of teenage Cory with his (otherwise all-white) high school football team! There’s a dance number featuring Rosario Dawson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt! (No, actually there isn’t, but I feel like I saw it even though it does not exist.)
There’s literally nothing about Booker’s ideology or policy proposals in here; this is pretty much the Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” video with a different protagonist. I’m not arguing that’s a misstep, exactly: It’s clearly true that most voters make decisions based on snap judgments about a candidate’s general vibe, not on what they say about Yemen or health care or the Federal Reserve. Booker’s message is almost identical to Biden’s — I’m not that guy who sucks and is mean to people — and the experience is a lot less like having lunch at an uncomfortable beach resort with a grumpy retiree.
This video, like everything about Booker’s campaign, seems calibrated to a slightly different universe, as if he’s trying to stage a cosplay version of the 2008 race starring himself as the “post-racial,” hopey-changey messenger. That seems dumb, and doomed to fail. But way dumber ideas than that have succeeded in politics.
Pete Buttigieg: Young doesn't have to be scary
Seriously, I think a fair amount of Buttigieg’s surge in polling and donations is attributable to the many online incarnations of his announcement video, which plays to his considerable strengths as a public speaker while conveying the (largely false) impression that he has an army of wholesome but idealistic young folks behind him, clamoring for change but not quite for legal weed or free college or taxing the rich. Staged in some sort of former industrial building in Buttigieg’s modest Midwestern city, it conveys the flavor of “rebirth of the Rust Belt” without getting too granular about it. The crowd’s enthusiasm seems un-faked, and Buttigieg has a nice debating-society style that isn’t quite Ivy League pretentious and isn’t quite pseudo-folksy, but has a little of each.
I’m not shilling for the guy; he’s clearly a flavor-of-the-month somewhere in the John Anderson zoneand will be toast before Thanksgiving. (Buttigieg is too young to remember Anderson, but I bet he knows who he was.) I absolutely have the paternalistic response of “Son, could you maybe run for Congress or something first?” But I do see why people have responded to him, and this speech (and video) captures that perfectly.
Buttigieg plays to Democrats’ ingrained Jack Kennedy fantasies: an inspiring young leader who has “new ideas” that sound reassuring and patriotic rather than radical or scary, and who suggests that we can engineer our way back to normalcy in the surprisingly comfortable hybrid vehicle of his design. The odd part is that Mayor Pete semiotically appears to be competing for Bernie Sanders’ voters, but is of course really competing for Biden’s — Buttigieg’s core support is among white voters over 65, and it’s no accident that his polling surge flattened out the instant Biden joined the race.
Mike Gravel: The 2020 Democratic campaign, punk’d
Gravel, who was in the Senate so long ago that a left-wing Democrat could get elected in Alaska, is 88 years old and not a serious candidate for president. Which is more or less the point. He got talked into running one more time by a trio of New York college kids, who presumably encountered a semi-legendary video segment from the 2008 campaign when Gravel berated Biden, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as a pack of soulless warmongers and they just stood there grinning like patronizing buffoons: Look at Commie Grandpa going off about "peace" again! LOL!
That's included in this remarkable "plague on all your houses" video, which is obviously the work of Gravel’s internet-weaned teen acolytes. But as they might say, he’s got the receipts: As you’ll see, Gravel read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record in 1971, risking expulsion from the Senate but thereby releasing the full text to the public. His new campaign video — a reboot or remake of his baffling but addictive "rock video" from 2008 — is not meant to convince people to vote for him (since he has no interest in winning). It's intended to shame Biden and Harris and Beto O'Rourke (a favorite target of the Gravelanche) for positions they’d rather not talk about that are, shall we say, not fully aligned with the energies of the so-called progressive base.
Of course it won’t make any difference, but it’s a daring piece of Situationist-style political intervention. I feel about the Gravel campaign roughly the same way your mother-in-law feels about Pete Buttigieg: It’s so lovely that these nice young men are doing this, and wouldn’t it be a better world if this actually worked?
Kamala Harris: Presidential campaign, or prime-time soap?
Harris has released a TV ad that sort of doubles as her official CAV, but as with Buttigieg that got totally overshadowed by various video clips from her 35-minute announcement address, delivered before a boisterous, multiracial and multigenerational crowd in Oakland (her hometown and mine) in late January. Outsourcing the CAV that way makes sense for the two best orators in the field, and Harris is a poised and compelling speaker even when she's not saying much of anything, which is most of the time.
Vox's Aaron Rupar has observed that Harris begins every speech by announcing that she’s going to speak some hard truths, and follows that up with a list of things virtually all Democratic voters agree about. In any case, her announcement video has a nice "live event" feel, shot in vastly sunnier conditions than those of South Bend, and it adroitly avoids the trying-way-too-hard trap that Cory Booker leapt into with both feet.
Harris’ campaign also produced a perky teaser video urging her supporters to join her in Oakland for the big day. It’s definitely not dreadful, but combined with her “Kamala Harris: For the People” slogan makes her seem more than ever like the likable, morally conflicted, slightly ruthless protagonist of a "Law & Order" spinoff franchise or a new Shonda Rhimes series. The tough-as-nails prosecutor with a shrewd, long-game strategy who will do damn near anything to win but beneath it all has good intentions. Which is, you know, probably just about right.
Bernie Sanders: Nostalgia for what never was
Depending on how you score these things, Bernie either didn’t make a CAV or made two of them, in completely different registers. The first of those is an entirely familiar if highly capable TV ad, which makes the walkin'-the-walk point that Sanders' core issues — Medicare for All, the $15 minimum wage, the grotesque social costs of economic inequality — have now entered the mainstream, while seeking to emphasize that his support isn’t limited to a bunch of bro-tastic white millennials. (Latinx voters, interestingly, are probably Sanders’ strongest ethnic constituency. Unfortunately for him, they remain a small proportion of the electorate outside California and the Southwest.)
I'm running for president. I am asking you to join me today as part of an unprecedented and historic grassroots cam… https://t.co/pEh6Bike46— Bernie Sanders (@Bernie Sanders) 1550577775.0
Sanders’ other main campaign video, however, is the single most boring artifact produced by the 2020 campaign so far, which is a high bar indeed when Eric Swalwell, Steve Bullock and John Hickenlooper are among your notional opponents. I guess that too is on-brand, in a way? It’s just Bernie sitting in front of one of those not-really-a-bookshelf scrims, telling his supporters how important the upcoming round of fundraising house parties will be.
There’s nothing wrong with delivering a Henry V speech to the troops, just as there’s nothing wrong with Sanders' main campaign ad. But there's no way around the fact that the entire Bernie 2020 effort has a vague aroma of last week's dinner reheated. Because his 2016 campaign, at certain moments, really did feel magical, inspiring and maybe even revolutionary, and there's no way to make that happen twice.
Elizabeth Warren: "Likable" as all heck!
Who the hell thinks Liz Warren isn’t “likable”? There are various issues with Warren's CAV: It's slightly too long, comes at you with slightly too much information in this video and works a bit too hard to overcome her perceived weaknesses. But likable? The woman in this video is pretty freakin’ lovable, if you ask me.
The coded message behind that kind of “analysis,” of course, is that Warren doesn't quite conform to gender norms — not by the standards of actual human beings, but by the ludicrous standards of politics. Don’t misread me here; I’m not saying anything about Warren herself, an entirely lovely in her late 60s, seen here goofing around with her husband in the kitchen of their suburban house in a manner that can only be described as adorable.
Amid the onslaught of policy after policy in this video (virtually all of them really good ideas, unattainable for bad reasons) it also tries to push every emotional button a consultant could dream of in terms of making it relatable and telling a life story that connects to ordinary people and all the rest of that crap. But what Warren doesn’t do — which women in politics pretty much still have to do — is to perform a recognizable gender archetype.
Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all do that, in wildly different directions. (I’m not arguing any of them is faking it.) Even Hillary Clinton, much as her frosted-WASP demeanor drives right-wingers crazy, is a highly identifiable type: the female executive or administrator. I suspect Clinton reminded some men too much of the bank manager who turned down their loan application or the vice principal who told them they were off the football team unless they could somehow drag up that Geometry grade.
Warren is harder to read, in those terms. She is what she is, a hardass teacher, a public-interest lawyer, a zealous, ambitious reformer — and a slightly odd duck. It's not that she's androgynous or "reads as gay" or any of those things, exactly. People, at first, can't quite figure her out, and because politics is stupid and driven by gut feeling, that's more important than the fact that she's full of ideas and energy and seems cooler and funnier the more you pay attention to her. I am not endorsing that fact. It is more evidence that we suck as a nation and deserve everything that has befallen us.
Extra credit: Klobuchar, Moulton, Gillibrand
Sen. Amy Klobuchar went the Harris-Buttigieg route, delivering her announcement speech in a driving Minnesota blizzard. It was a great look, but that was all. She seemed to have trouble mouthing her words correctly after the first few minutes. What is she saying about her grandfather? He was an "R&R miner"?
Rep. Seth Moulton, a square-jawed congressman from suburban Boston, is a pugnacious Marine combat veteran hoping to compete as only the 10th or 11th white guy in the coveted Biden-Buttigieg lane. He released an artful and compelling video that ought to make him a major contender. Oh, wait, you mean in this universe? No, it will be totally ignored. In an alternate-universe version of the 2004 or perhaps 1988 campaign, he's gold.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand actually made her official announcement during an appearance on Stephen Colbert's late-night show. That sounds, in theory, like an ingenious plan. But this effort to rebrand herself as friendly and funny was doomed, like everything else about Gillibrand's campaign, by the lingering bad feelings around her role in driving Al Franken from the Senate. (Is that fair? No. Politics is not fair.) She'll be the first of the so-called major contenders to drop out.