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2012: The Year of the Political Meme 2012: The Year of the Political Meme

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Politics / POLITICS

2012: The Year of the Political Meme

photo of Brian Resnick
December 14, 2012

Clint Eastwood, the surprise guest at the 2012 Republican National Convention, walks on stage and begins addressing an empty chair, pretending President Obama is sitting in it. The speech is off-the-cuff, off-kilter, and a decidedly "huh" moment amid an otherwise cut-and-dry convention.

Wait for it ... wait for it … And nearly instantly #eastwooding is born on the Internet.

Within two hours, there were 78,272 tweets about the moment. Nineteen minutes after Eastwood started talking, the Twitter account @InvisibleObama was created (it still has 64,000 followers). Thousands of people tweeted out pictures of themselves pointing toward empty chairs. Halfway through the next day, the number of #Eastwooding tweets reached over 25,000. And this happened.

Sen. Marco Rubio spoke directly after Eastwood at the convention. Does anyone remember what he said? Had the evening been hijacked?

It was a part of the political show this election season: Watch a debate or a convention, and have your social media open and ready for the instant memes. Any gaffe would sure to erupt into Internet madness—and that was part of the fun. We watched for the substance, but also waited for the instant satire to emerge on the Web.  

"For some, political memes represent an epic win for crowd-sourced democracy," Whitney Phillips, a Ph.D. Internet culture researcher (yup, that exists) writes at the Awl. "For others, they are a sign of the intellectual apocalypse!"

There's the rub: Memes are good for political discussion because they get people engaged, but they're bad for political discussion because they oversimplify and ridicule important issues.

But their importance shouldn't be understated as trivial. This was the year the social Web became a major facilitator of political messaging and get-out-the-vote. As Megan Garber at The Atlantic surmises, memes "both despite and because of their smallness, represent a significant shift in participatory politics."

Here's one reason why that shift is important: Whereas in previous eras, candidates needed to avoid being quoted out of context, in 2012 a greater concern was getting memed out of context. A good case-in-point: Obama's "You didn't build that" gaffe. Taken in context, the president was saying that business owners didn't build the infrastructure that allows their enterprises to function in the economy. Republicans took the line (and took the meme, which had already taken hold on social sites such as Reddit) to propagate the idea that Obama doesn't believe in individual success. Heck, they even created a whole convention based around it.

Likewise, Romney's "binders full of women" comment became a way for his opponents to underscore a "war on women." However, it seemed clear Romney intended the line to mean the opposite.

But other memes are more frivolous, not pushing any policy or idea. They aren't created to make a point; they exist to be irreverent. Like "Texts from Hillary", or McKayla Maroney's "not impressed" face. They're funny, but don't make too much of them.

Below, we share the most pervasive political memes of the year.

Texts from Hillary Clinton grew so large that the creators decided to stop it when the secretary of State herself got in on the joke. On their farewell post, the creators wrote "As far as memes go — it has gone as far as it can go." We agree.(

Eastwooding and Invisible Obama It was the most talked about moment of the Republican National Convention. It was the least substantive moment of the Republican National Convention.(Twitter via Buzzfeed)

"You Didn't Build That" Suddenly, the provenance of every object in America came into question.(Via


Binders Full of Women An oddly worded remark about gender equality in the workplace quickly went viral, spawning a Tumblr, Halloween costumes, and fact-checks of Romney's history of hiring women.(

The 47 Percent Riffing off an established meme (the 99 percent), Romney's closed-door remarks about nearly half the electorate provided both meme fodder and noisy kickback.(

Horses and Bayonets A serious debate on military appropriations is sidetracked into silliness.(Via


Fired Big Bird On the Internet, there were two main takeaways from the first debate: Obama blew it, and Romney would not fund PBS with federal money. Consequently, Big Bird became one of the most popular Halloween costumes of the year. The company that holds the license to make them completely sold out of the fluffy yellow suits.(Via

Biden's Bunch of Malarkey Seriously, everything the vice president touches turns to meme. Talk to bikers? Meme. Go to Costco? Meme. Say a funny word during a debate? Meme. He's just funny like that. Fun fact: After the debate, Malarkey became one of the most searched words on Merriam-Webster this year.()

Hey Girl, it's Paul Ryan The editors of TIME knew they were sitting on a social-media goldmine when they heard Paul Ryan was chosen to run with Romney. When they were released, these photos were everywhere.(TIME)


RomCom2012 The premise of RomCom2012 was simple and sweet: Place Mitt Romney in a romantic-comedy movie poster. Laugh. Repeat.(

What we learned from the second debate: Don't mess with Josh Romney.(Quick Meme)

CNN's Dewey Defeats Truman Moment When CNN misinterpreted the Supreme Court's ruling on the Affordable Care Act, graphic artist Gary He nailed it with this instant-meme analysis.(via @garyhe)


Etch A Sketch Mitt Romney After Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's communications director, said the candidate could shake off comments he made in the primaries heading into the general election, the meme took off, spawning Romney Etch A Sketch generators and providing fodder for the Obama campaign.(

President Obama resurrects a months-old meme with one wry look toward the camera.(White House / Pete Souza)

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