Make America Dank Again: Why Political Memes Don’t Work

Curator's Note

Whether it’s the Facebook group “Bernie Sanders Dank Meme Stash,” Donald Trump’s use of alt-right memes, Hillary for America’s “Meme Queen 2016” video, the Libertarian Party’s $30,000 investment in “internet web memes,” or Jill Stein’s promotion of “Dank Jill Memes” on Twitter – these web vignettes have become a substantial part of political discourse in this election year. And yet, they largely fall flat.

So, why do political memes fail to be “dank?”

Some regard meme culture as a form of neo-Dadaism that utilizes absurdist humor as a coping mechanism for an increasingly confusing world in which young people feel frustrated and hopeless. Memes aren’t supposed to make much sense, they don’t have a traditional punchline, and they are deliberately shoddy. This runs counter traditional political humor, which seeks to spotlight wittiness, mock opponents, and educate the public. Simply put, the rhetorical techniques and goals of meme humor are incompatible with those of political humor.

Unlike those first-generation memes with the white Impact font superimposed over funny photographs (think Lolcat), contemporary memes have mostly moved away from specific references and gag lines. They are, in fact, a form of anti-humor that celebrates carelessness and obscurity. “[T]he less people understand or invest in a meme, the danker that meme is,” the Daily Dot explains. However, this metric is antipodal to the purpose of political humor, which demands a certain level of familiarity and commitment to be effective. In other words, political humor fails if we don’t care.

Similarly, politicized memes typically flop because they desperately want our attention. This not only defies the purpose of meme humor, but also oftentimes results in painful tone-deafness. For instance, the GOP tweeted the popular “This is Fine” meme, which illustrates the common reaction of denial in the face of mounting chaos, to ridicule the Democratic National Convention. The backlash was swift and merciless, with many pointing out the irony of the GOP’s tweet given that the party is arguably on the brink of collapse thanks to their own denial of reality. Eventually, the GOP’s clumsy attempt at mockery ruined the meme.

Political memes are inherently incongruous. Moreover, those who understand them will readily dismiss them for what they are: pitiful pandering.

Comments

Richard Jermain's picture

Thanks for your excellent

Thanks for your excellent entry. I’m curious how you see the relation of political memes to more traditional agit-prop (they at least resemble the aesthetic approach); or if you see them as a different approach altogether. I think it’s an interesting observation that the “jokes” always fall flat. What is the potential for subversion? For instance, many on the alt-right/far-right seem very confident that memes have a real force (“meme magick”). Is this belief itself facetious?

Melanie Wolske's picture

Hi Richard, I just saw your

Hi Richard,

I just saw your comment! Thank you so much for your insights! Your point about the right’s use of memes is especially poignant now with the CNN/Reddit debacle. In my personal experience, political memes created by the left on Twitter and Tumblr are increasingly about coping and self-care in these trying times… a form of gallows humor, so to speak. Yet, the right seems to weaponize memes to attack what they perceive as the establishment (the media, traditional Republicans, academia, the liberal society), and in that regard, I do believe they’re subversive, although dangerously so. However, whenever those in power start to appropriate meme culture — whether on the left or the right — any potential for subversion immediately evaporates IMO. Memes are in their essence counter-culture and thus I think they don’t work when employed by the powerful. Thank you again for your response!

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