Political satire has had a substantial effect on politics. Most importantly, satire has the power to direct how the public cognizes political news and shift policy agendas and focus. Satirical mediums change along with prevalent forms of media. From lithographs, newspapers, and broadcast journalism to the Internet, political satire changes the political landscape and informs voter perception on presidential candidates as people, and their policy platforms.
Until digital media took center stage as the way most people consume news, the political cartoon reigned supreme as the primary source of political satire. Political cartoons are designed to discredit authority and highlight flaws, both personal and political, of candidates or political parties. Prior to the widespread use of broadcast media in the 1960’s, print journalism was the only way for the general public to get news about political goings-on.
Political cartoons and satire were, and are, primary sources of political information for many people. Even after the popularization of periodicals and newspapers, cartoon caricatures were the only visual representation of presidents and candidates for president that most people had access to. The impact these images made on public opinion inspired increase use of the medium during the Gilded Age of politics (1870-1900). Political campaigns were framed in the context of cartoon satire, with public opinion swaying depending on which political figure had the caricature most offensive to their sensibilities. In 1884, the race between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine was awash in satirical comics, which acted as a tipping point between two controversial candidates. The Cleveland campaign benefitted from relentless mockery of lavish dinners with donors held by Blaine, the most potent of which was titled “The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings”. The imagery of opulent wealth drew the ire from voters, but also positioned political issues in a way that many could understand – in biblical reference. In the Book of Daniel, King Belshazzar held a lavish dinner wherein “writing on the wall” appeared foretelling the fall of Babylon. This potent combination of ideology, both political and religious, was enough to counteract the effects of cartoons lambasting Cleveland for fathering an illegitimate child.
Once photography became available in print journalism in the 1920’s, the impact of the political cartoon began to fade. Though cartoonists and the public alike enjoyed mocking the easily satirized appearance and disposition of Nixon, satire did not prevent him from winning in both 1968 and 1972. As media changes, so must the medium where satire can be most pointed and “draw blood”.
Broadcast journalism and media provided a new avenue for pundits and satirists to critique and poke fun at politicians, taking particular advantage of the chaos around presidential races. The most notable examples of influential satire in TV journalism are Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. As the influence of print media waned, broadcast media bore a greater burden in educating casual voters. Both The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live could boast high viewership, and reached diverse audiences who responded to and were influenced by their messages. These non-traditional news sources hold persuasive power (whether the satirist wants that power or not) even compared with traditional, or “hard” news precisely because when information is conveyed in a way that makes one laugh, they are more receptive to persuasion because they are in a better mood and can process information with greater ease.
In Morris’s 2009 study, they examined the impact The Daily Show’s “Indecision 2004” coverage had on the Kerry-Bush election. Strong partisans’ beliefs were not strongly affected by the coverage. Kerry and other democrats were most often mocked for physical or personality oddities or one-off gaffs. Bush and other republicans had more pointed policy-related jokes and universal criticism by Jon Stewart and his correspondents. Amongst viewers who did not have strong partisan inclinations, Bush was more reviled after watching “Indecision 2004”. Conservative policies were mercilessly portrayed as acts of callous buffoonery, and created a perceptible shift in the tone of discussion about the “war on terror” and other conservative talking points at the time. In a media landscape where voters are able to filter their content based on their preexisting political preference, the most salient purpose of political satire in presidential races is to “bundle” ideas and policy issues and help voters determine what is important to them. In this way, satire in broadcast media can be a powerful tool for influencing public opinion and driving the narrative around elections.
Saturday Night Live created a palpable shift in the 2008 election when Tina Fey re-joined the cast to satirize then vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Her physical resemblance to the Alaskan governor helped launch the message behind her characterization into the forefront of public discourse. Fey portrayed Palin as inept, inexperienced, silly, and “unpresidential”. The performance was so convincing and salient that the line from her skit “I can see Russia from my house” is often mistakenly attributed to Palin herself, most notably in Politico where the misattribution caused some embarrassment for the well-respected news magazine. From that point forward, election coverage for the republican ticket was driven by discussion of Sarah Palin’s perceived lack of intelligence or whether McCain had made a mistake in choosing her. Because the skit on Saturday Night Live was the turning point, the actual focus of the election mirrored the satire performed on that show for entertainment value and likely had an impact on the election results in some way.
After the 2008 presidential election, the media landscape made another significant shift. The prevalence of people getting their news from social media and online sources has created a cascading effect wherein people are largely consuming information that aligns with their worldview with the help of algorithms and an unprecedented level of consumer choice of media platforms. Voters from all demographics are using social media and the Internet with more regularity to check news, with an aggregate 10-20% increase amongst all demographics from 2013-2015. Much of consumed information and reporting is user generated, rather than from professional journalists or pundits. As the medium for getting and receiving news changes, so does the medium for political satire – and the “information age” is no exception. Much of the political satire affecting the 2016 presidential race comes in the form of “memes”, or replicating units of culture. Usually, memes are crude images or graphical representations, and are often used for pure entertainment and not for social commentary, though this is changing. Humor makes news and ideology more palatable and easily shared, and thus the political meme has taken its place in the arsenal for pointed commentary.
Political memes build off of impressions or criticisms of political ideas or candidates, and use hyperbole and satire to create one meme which can be altered and replicated by many people the world over, reflecting varied perspectives and ideas about a topic. This also presents new and creative ways to engage in “viral” political satire. In the 2016 election, a desirable result for any meme created is to leave the Internet spaces and become integrated into the campaign coverage as a representation of legitimate political criticism. There are many criticisms from both Democrats and Republicans against Ted Cruz, centering on perceived untrustworthiness, lack of reliability, religious zealotry, and unpleasant personality. Early in the Republican primary, a twitter user posted a fabricated quote: “Ted Cruz Shocking Deathbed Confession: “I am The Zodiac Killer.” This tweet was very popular, and resulted in twitter users flooding Google with related searches during a CBS debate so that the live Google analytics would be forced to display this search query to all debate viewers. Thousands of related images, graphics, and conspiracy theories cropped up online and was eventually picked up by more mainstream political outlets for its sheer absurdity. Though, was it so absurd? Public Policy Polling, a major polling outfit known for their more liberal leanings, decided to ask Florida voters the question “Is it possible that Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer?” To which they found: “Finally we find that 38% of Florida voters think it’s possible that Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer. 10% say he for sure is, and another 28% say that they are just not sure. Cruz is exonerated from being a toddler serial killer by 62% of the Sunshine State populace.” A major polling firm participated in a viral political meme, mutating the satire to something almost resembling performance art.
Despite the absurdity of the claim and general non-seriousness of the claim that Ted Cruz is, or was, a toddler serial killer is the result of underlying feelings of distrust. More than other candidates, people find Ted Cruz to be “creepy” or “unsettling”. Moreover, this meme has led to an upsurge in discussion about how presidential Cruz is, and how his interpersonal relations with members of congress and the media may be a liability in the race and in the event he becomes president (which is irrelevant now, as he has suspended his campaign as of May 4th, 2016). Whether the “Zodiac Killer” meme will have a substantial effect on the 2016 primary contest remains to be seen (Update: Apparently so).
The reach of political satire is limited. Not all satire has the effect Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression had in directing public discourse, and not all memes virally infect political polling questions and aid in the toppling of a presidential candidate. Behind the laughter at political cartoons and pithy comedic punditry are the real fears, concerns, and opinions of the American voter. The ability to share ideas and information quickly and accessibly is both a dilution of very complex ideas and an important democratic function. Political satire is a media tradition essential to any presidential candidacy or term in office – for a society with free association and freedom of press, our ability to address important issues must be as varied as the polity itself.