2012: The Year of the Political Meme

Dec. 14, 2012, 6:41 a.m.

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.