A Republican Party website is going to try to reach young people by stealing the jokey lists and memes from BuzzFeed. While it's funny to imagine "stuffy white men" (the RNC's words!) brainstorm OMG LOL listicles, this is not cosnervatives' first attempt to tap the power of social media to make their ideas go viral. There were tons of conservative memes in the 2012 election, and Mitt Romney himself was a fan of several. One in particular — "We Are the 53%" — helped cost him the election. Instead of learning their lesson in 2012, Republicans are doubling down.
National Journal's Brian Fung reports that the National Republican Congressional Committee is redesigning NRCC.org to include BuzzFeed-style likes like "10 Easter Bunnies Straight From Hell" and "14 Photos Of George W. Bush Touching Bald Men's Heads." It's not the Fung noticed the redesign just so happens to look like BuzzFeed. The NRCC is explicitly saying it's stealing from the site. "BuzzFeed's eating everyone's lunch," NRCC spokesman Gerrit Lansing told Fung. "They're making people want to read and be cognizant of politics in a different way." The NRCC studied BuzzFeed's layout and traffic and tone, and hired 20 writers to ape it.
Republican officials have clearly been thinking hard about how to reach out to young people, who voted for President Obama over Romney by 60 percent to 36 percent. Earlier this week, the Republican National Committee hired Raffi Williams, the 24-year-old son of Fox News' Juan Williams, to run the RNC's outreach to young people and African-Americans. "You can't just Google 'young outlets' or 'youth outlets,'" Williams told BuzzFeed's Even McMorris-Santoro. "You have to go and kind figure out, well, where are they going? What are they interested in? A lot [of youth-centric media] has nothing to do with politics and doesn't cover politics."
The selection of Williams gets at why the GOP's pursuit of memes is dangerous. His dad, Juan Williams, became a hero on the right after he was fired from NPR in 2010 for saying that he got scared when people on planes were dressed in "Mulsim garb." A fixation among some conservatives is the idea that liberals falsely accuse them of racism — it was a major theme at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, for example, and Rush Limbaugh talks about it all the time. There is a segment of conservatives who do not want to be called racist but also do not want to let go of certain prejudices. They prefer the term "not P.C." Juan Williams is a conservative icon for being not P.C. and being punished by public radio for it. Raffi Williams is probably a smart, capable guy, but he's 24 years old, meaning the flashiest thing on his resume is being his dad's son.
And this is the problem with the GOP's pursuit of memes, which is that it risks playing to its base instead of attracting new people. The genius of BuzzFeed's lists is the way they play on common experience and pop culture nostalgia. Take, for example, this subgenre: "26 Signs You Grew Up In NYC In The '90s," "The Sad Saga Of '90s Inflatable Furniture," "Why The '90s Was The Golden Age Of Magazines." Lots of them are about creating a community about people who felt alienated and excluded from mainstream culture: "29 Amazing Punk Flyers From The 80s," "A Day In The Life Of A Mall Goth," "20 Status Symbols Gen Y Girls Grew Up With," "12 Signs You Were A 'Gwenabee.'"
The popular memes on the conservative Internet are the opposite — the old mainstream freaked out by change, a revulsion at pop culture — "telling it like it is" with respect to stereotypes about minorities, in Williams' case. When viral conservative memes erupt in public once a politician says them, it is rarely a positive development for the GOP. Think of Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner mocking about Michelle Obama's "fat butt." Think of Mitt Romney bashing the 47 percent — that was based on a whole Tumblr meme created by RedState editor Erick Erickson. For more extreme examples, think of the many minor local Republican officials who got in trouble for forwarding emails of Obama getting lured by watermelon or in a monkey family or dressed like a witch doctor. Nobody thinks the NRCC would post anything racist. But conservatives and young people are not nostalgic about the same things. What will go viral in one community will repel the other.