Tevi Troy, former Bush administration official and pop culture aficionado, has noted in Forbes that President Barack Obama’s reference to Mad Men in his State of the Union address last week continues the president’s habit of using such symbols to connect to a broader audience–and boost sagging polls. Obama dropped the name of the AMC show to embellish (false) statistics about wage differences between men and women.
“It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode,” the president said, to warm applause from Democrats. Troy observes: “The reference generated 34,000 tweets, and is likely to be the most remembered part of the speech in the years to come. It is also part of Obama’s successful and continual use of pop culture as a political tool.” In that sense, the speech reached a wider audience than its poor ratings suggest.
Troy explores such themes in his recent book, What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House. He writes that television is a particular favorite theme for Obama, while the notoriously pop-culture savvy president is actually less knowledgeable in certain other areas. It is not easy, Troy warns, for Republican leaders to imitate Obama: pop culture is notoriously hostile to conservatives.
That’s not just because of pro-Democrat bias. It’s also because, according to Saturday Night Live‘s producer, Lorne Michaels, Republicans have a better sense of humor. Democrats take jokes at their expense personally–not only because they take themselves a bit too seriously, but because they expect loyalty from the performing arts community. That loyalty is still an obstacle to Republican attempts to compete in the pop culture terrain.
There may be one alternative–one hinted at, perhaps, in the RadioShack ad that won accolades during Super Bowl XLVIII: namely, if you’ve been defined as pop culture delinquents, embrace it. It was “hip to be square,” as Huey Lewis put it during the Reagan era, and that psuedo-ironic approach to cool is overdue for a revival. Instead of competing to be culture-savvy, perhaps conservatives should cultivate a counter-cultural cool.