Every election season is fraught with silly attempts to make people care about things that they find boring, and this one is no different. Nowhere is this more evident than in the emails I receive daily from the Barack Obama reelection campaign. In case, unlike me, you did not make the mistake of signing Michelle Obama’s mother’s day card and regretting it every day since, now you can finally learn what you are missing. These daily emails are mind-numbingly stupid but also fascinating, because it’s difficult to imagine the person they would actually appeal to—some sort of person who frequently reads Perez Hilton but also gets very riled up about income inequality. So it was that I found myself compulsively refreshing my email as I sat in lecture last Thursday, waiting for my daily message.
The subject lines range from the brief and vague (“For all,” from Jessica Alba) to the accommodating (“Where you’ll be seated” from Julianna Smoot, campaign manager), to something vaguely like an awkward boy trying to coerce his reluctant girlfriend into a new sex act (“Just give it a shot…” from Joe Biden; and “This will be quick,” from Smoot). But the content is always the same: an incongruous mix of attempting to convince the recipient he or she is an important, worthy participant in celebrity culture, and trying to demonize the very wealth that attracts so strongly to that culture.
In other words, the e-mails emblematize a broader problem. We want to have our cake and eat it too, and also have our children eat cake, and our parents, and we want to have the best cake around, and also we want to stop having to borrow sugar and eggs from China. Preferably we would like to steal our cake from billionaires who live in cake houses and fly in cake planes like big assholes. Except there’s not enough cake.
But let’s return to lecture for a second.
What will it be today? I wondered. An invitation to the movies with Obama and Jay Z? Maybe Michelle wants to get her nails done with me? But only if I donate $23 to defeat Sheldon Adelson and other billionaires who use hundred dollar bills for toilet paper?
Instead of these, I was greeted by an abrasive message from some Ann Marie Habershaw, with the subject line: “I don’t care if it’s you, Filipa.” It was a marked shift from a pattern of emails that were built, until that moment, around the Obama reelection campaign trying to convince me that they did care, that they cared desperately that I, Filipa Ioannou, would be the one to enter their contests, to win their contests, and, eventually, to vote to reelect Barack Obama. Not just any old college democrat, but me. And then, with just seven words, Ann Marie Habershaw shattered my dreams.
I guess I knew this was coming. The seduction couldn’t last long—Barack singing Al Green at press conferences, the cajoling emails from Joe Biden. Eventually it had to come to this, to negging.
If you go to college and have a vagina, you are probably familiar with negging, the centuries-old practice of sort-of insulting a girl so that she will have insecurity-fueled sex with the negging instigator. Evidently this works sometimes, because it has a tenuous grip on the mind of twenty year-old men. And, apparently, the Barack Obama campaign.
The most irritating part of Habershaw’s email is her tone, which suggests there is an illusion being shattered here—as though I am supposed to react, aghast: what are you saying, Ann Marie Habershaw? That Beyonce doesn’t really want to go to dinner with me at Nobu? That I’m not actually invited to an intimate cocktail party at Sarah Jessica Parker’s house? That Anna Wintour doesn’t look forward to meeting me at her Upper East Side soiree to talk about the future of America, and also maybe those weird leather leggings that are very popular right now?
Of course, Ann Marie Habershaw, the Chief Operating Officer of Obama for America, doesn’t care about who wins a dinner date with Barack Obama; it says something about the way this campaign has been managed that this even needs to be said at all.
Once the stage is set with Habershaw’s negging, the email ends: “So there you have it. Enter this cool contest, and help President Obama win the much bigger one coming up in just 47 days” [emphasis mine]. The notion that this election is, in fact, just a bigger version of a contest to meet a celebrity, the notion that it is a contest in that sense at all, is profoundly alienating. We’ve created a sort of arms race to cultural relevance that throws the real, awkward, messy business of problem solving under the bus. During this election cycle, it has been noted by many that in catering to undecided voters both candidates have avoided addressing substantive issues, having already made the assumption that if voters are still undecided at this point, it’s because not really sure what the issues are. Instead of trying to tell them, the candidates have chosen the safer strategy of tempting them with the prospect of meeting Beyonce, or, in the case of good ol’ Mitters, aggressively tanning so that Latinos would see him as one of their own, even though he would probably like to deport them.
This phenomenon is easy to laugh off. The absurdity of these attempts to make individuals feel significant, from Obama informing me that “I’m Saving a Seat for You” to Beyonce beginning one recent address with the disclaimer “I don’t usually email you”—as though we are chums who usually BBM instead—is so obvious that it doesn’t need to be highlighted. But it is alarming when attempts are made to reduce substantive issues into these kinds of flat, celebrity-infused, word-limited contexts. It is nothing new that politics often regresses to pitting us versus them, as Mitt Romney disturbingly illustrated by recently decrying the 47% of Americans who, he alleged, don’t pay taxes. This is the politics of what we have triumphing over the politics of what we think, the question of whom to blame for the problem over how it should be solved. It’s uncomfortable to know that just by virtue of the fact that I am reading Habershaw’s email in a lecture hall at an elite university, my place in this kind of politics is defined— and it is a place distinctly separated from the Real America.
This kind of reductionist class warfare rhetoric erodes bipartisanship, and, in turn, hurts sincere efforts at problem solving. And then there’s no choice but a shift to this kind of campaigning, from “I can be better” to “You could do worse”— what is, essentially, negging. But, as in the context of college, I already know that I can do worse—all I have to do is look across the room at the guy showing off his Texas flag butt tattoo to remember that. At the end of the night, I’d rather just go home alone— it’s too bad America doesn’t have the luxury of that option.