On Wednesday, Rep. Darrell Issa posted to his official House website an article titled, "8 Cats Who Called 1-800-ObamaCare but Still Couldn't Get Healthcare." To which we say simply: Stop. Stop stop stop. The on-going push by politicians to meme their way into electoral success is as baffling as the jokes they use to do so.
To be clear from the outset: Politicians are almost never funny. (Al Franken is pretty funny, but, then, he was a professional comedian.) Congressional staffers are slightly funnier, but not excessively so. Everyone tries to be funny, everyone has funny moments. But we must recommend against trying to rely on humor to sway political opinion.
So this Issa post, which presumably the congressman himself didn't write. This post is not only not funny, it also only has seven cats despite the headline's promise of eight. It runs along in the by-now-familiar BuzzFeed-pablum style: "funny" caption, cute cat with "funny" or "ironic" text superimposed. One of the jokes is at right. "Ugh [sic] oh," the caption says, representing the cat, apparently, "I lost reception going through a tunnel." Issa, look. That joke is straight Jay-Leno-1997, and even Jay-Leno-2013 is some crappy humor. "8 Cats that Can't Program VCRs Because Obama."
Issa's not really trying to be funny. He is in the sense that your grandmother will do something that she thinks is humorous, some old corny joke or whatever, and which you find cute because it's your grandma. What Issa's trying to do is that: be endearing. He is trying to endear himself to young people by talking about cats, just like you see on the web. He's been trying to do this for a long time; the conservative Washington Examiner praised him for "winning the Internets," which is also the sort of thing that old people say because they think young people say it. Why is Issa "winning the Internets?" (Saying "internets," incidentally, is actually a dis on George W. Bush.) Because he tweets "wacky" nonsense. Like the one below, from last Friday.
(What does that even mean?! And again: The spelling of "piggeh" and, from the post, "kitteh," are again efforts to be "hip." So many "words" in "quotes"!)
In the wake of Mitt Romney's defeat, the Republican Party paid consultants to assess how to do better in 2016. Among the findings: be down with young people and do better at internet outreach. So Republicans and Republican groups dutifully punched those things into Bing and tried their best.
BuzzFeed, because it is popular and its posts are (shall we say) not difficult to ape, seems to be the go-to framework (though Sen. David Vitter took a more Late Show approach earlier this month). This Issa cat thing on Wednesday was a low-rent BuzzFeed listicle, down to the lack of image source attribution. The National Republican Congressional Committee explicitly moved to BuzzFeed-ify its website. (Trending article: "Here’s 14 Pictures Of A Sleeping Baby Squirrel While You Wait for ObamaCare to Work." It has zero likes.) The Heritage Foundation went to BuzzFeed.com directly, creating a post that used GIFs to obliquely insult Obamacare. (It fooled Ted Cruz into thinking BuzzFeed itself was against the bill.) Then there was the pro-life group that made a BuzzFeed listicle so controversial that the site pulled it, and revised its rules about community posts. (The group that created that listicle, PersonhoodUSA, is still dutifully posting away.)
But none of those posts are particularly funny, few are endearing, none are terribly convincing. They all come off a little bit like your grandfather saying "twerk" or like Poochie. They are rhetoric in different clothes.
Studies have been done to evaluate whether or not Republicans are less funny than Democrats. Wired looked at one shortly before last year's election. In its article, Shippensburg University professor Alison Dagnes offers that one challenge is that conservatism is, by definition, not terribly subversive.
Conservatives are associated with traditional values, established institutions and time-honored conventions — not the sort of stuff that’s associated with great comedy.
“When satire works, it’s always anti-establishment,” she says. “And that’s not very conservative.”
"Even if satire is theoretically rooted in liberal concepts," the article continues, "that doesn’t mean the American satire industry is rife with liberal bias." That is reflected in the recent shift in tone at The Daily Show. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza suggests (rather melodramatically) that Jon Stewart is now Obama's biggest problem. "Who cares what a late night comedian/talk show host thinks?" Cillizza asks. "President Obama should if viewership details on Stewart’s show are right." Young people flock to Stewart, many of them citing his and Stephen Colbert's shows as one of their primary sources of news. Now, the news isn't good for the president.
Notice, though, how the system here is structured. Stewart, an obviously liberal person, puts humor first, picking up topics that he thinks he can turn into good jokes. He has to be topical, of course, but the jokes come before the politics. Politicians can't work that way. The politics have to be shoe-horned into jokes or into listicles or into whatever. And that does. Not. Work.
Republicans were elected to state and national office for years prior to the invention of the image macro. The problem Republicans are having in appealing to young people lies with the policy positions, not the lulz. We understand, though, that funny cat pictures are easier to switch.