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Hi there, here’s what you need to know for the week of August 19, 2022, in 10 minutes.

THIS WEEK INSIDE THE BIG TENT:


① The emergence and durability of the Dark Brandon meme can help us sort out big ongoing debates over how people form political opinions, and how the thematic content of elections takes shape.

② Material reality is important, winning is very hard if you wreck the country; but in most circumstances, public opinion is a product of social knowledge, which people receive from various media and transmit amongst themselves 

③ Democrats are already figuring out how to win in a meme-dominated information world without sacrificing their souls, but their congressional leaders are way behind—it's time for them to start asking, What Would Dark Brandon Do?

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MEME OF THE CROP

Let’s talk about Dark Brandon. 

If you haven’t heard of Dark Brandon, now might be a good time to Google an explainer, but the background you need is that Dark Brandon is a re-rendering of Joe Biden as a remorseless, supernatural force for good—a comic book hero (or villain, depending on your perspective) who vaporizes problems and crushes his political enemies. It has certain resonances with Diamond Joe, a caricature The Onion popularized during his vice presidency, but is more fundamentally an answer to the many, many, many viral renderings of Biden as regular, old Brandon—the ancient, confused, plodding fool who, until about six weeks ago, seemed destined to be remembered as a Jimmy Carter-style loser. 

If you’re already a high-information, partisan voter, Dark Brandon is mostly just good for kicks. But I do think his emergence and popularity can help us better understand some of the big epistemological questions hanging over the American political left: That is, of how people know what they know—or what they think they know—about candidates, parties, and what is or isn’t important about elections. 

① BEHIND ENEMY ONLINES

Depictions of Biden as a terrifying prince of darkness long predate the appropriation of those same images as markers of admiration and support. For many months, the cartoons that have become Dark Brandon coexisted uneasily alongside more common right-wing depictions of Biden as a senile puppet. 

But it only became possible for liberals and Democrats to lay claim to the meme when the political news environment in the U.S. became friendlier to him, after a year of constant hostility. Falling gas prices, the still-growing labor market, the long-overdue season of accountability for Donald Trump, the enactment of the Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPs Act (which entailed suckering Mitch McConnell)... all of these developments created specific, tangible hooks for telling a new, more triumphant story about Biden.

But yoinking Dark Brandon, and transforming it into a viral sensation, is—I think—less important than what the existence and durability of a pro-Biden meme says about how political ideas form and spread. And it’s something I think Democratic Party leaders and strategists should think hard about as voters migrate away from traditional sources of information toward new, more dubious ones. 

② THE PARTY’S REBRANDONING

There are two big schools of thinking about how political opinions form and change. 

In one school, material reality competes against (and ultimately can overpower) propaganda, tribal loyalty, and mass hysteria. This is the follow-the-polls school. The “good policy is good politics” school. In this school, the truth will out. Politicians who pander to consensus, who fill their platforms with popular ideas, and then govern well, optimize their electoral viability. Good outcomes, and promises of more to come, can generally swamp efforts to distract and mislead individuals from their material interests and moral values.

In the other school, humans are mostly social creatures who form their opinions based on whatever ideas happen to be ambient among their peers and in the media they consume. This is the vibes school. The post-modern school, where politics can be about anything good politicians and elite opinion makers want it to be about. Here, talking points and memes and stunts and affected displays of passion reign, because memorable things (viral moments, as the kids say) are how populations generally sort out what seems important from what doesn’t. Or at least, they play a greater role than objective reality and the rational assessment of priorities.

And here I want to stipulate a few things: First, both dynamics play a role in determining public opinion at any given moment. Second, the Dark Brandon meme would not have caught on, and would have made no sense, in, say, May, when Build Back Better was dead, IRA didn’t exist, gas prices were climbing, Trump was re-ascendent, and Democrats had no idea what to do about the right to abortion. Third, the meme itself isn’t particularly accurate. It’s an improvement over the prevailing view of Biden circa three months ago, but we’re fundamentally talking about the same Biden here. The political climate improved, and he deserves some credit for changing it, but much of it was out of his control. 

Which is to say Biden’s improving fortunes (empirical ones like his polling numbers, subjective ones like the zeitgeist) are rooted in material developments, but they have they taken on a life of their own that's rooted in silliness. Dark Brandon caught on when victories materialized to validate the concept. But we delude ourselves if we assume the arrow of information runs entirely one way. Having caught on, its purpose isn’t to confirm people’s latent knowledge about recent developments in politics—most people probably have no idea that Democrats have had a good month, or that their poll numbers have improved. Its main purpose is to change the sum of social knowledge about Biden and his presidency. Suddenly the commonly held, but seldom defended, idea that Biden is a senile oaf with a failed presidency, is contested by the similarly fanciful idea that he’s a magician from the underworld who fixes problems and punishes those who stand in his way. 

The effect is probably equivalent to spending millions of dollars on paid media to tout the Democratic Party’s record of achievement—except this option is basically free and self-perpetuating, and does more than spread discrete facts about the parties. It spreads feelings about them. It’s stupid, but it also quite clearly a better explanation for how most people form political opinions than the Enlightenment-y notion that individuals are rational actors who gather information, assess empirical reality, and reason their way from there to conclusions and (eventually) ideology.

Biden supporters can and should celebrate their party’s specific achievements, but they should also put some thought into how to change received wisdom, so that, in social contexts, having positive feelings about Biden is cool. 

③ DUNK WITH POWER

To be clear, this is not how I want things to work, and it isn’t how I thought things worked until the past few years. A world where materiality reigns, and people reward competence, is one of good incentives for politicians—it's a much less frightening place, where humans can exert substantial control over the chaotic realm of human affairs. 

But in the world we inhabit, large majorities of people can be made to believe the country’s been in a months-long recession at a time when unemployment is historically low and falling. Whole elections can turn on foreign disinformation and email servers and false panics about terrorists smuggling Ebola across the southern border. Politicians with toxically unpopular policy ideas can win elections in closely divided battlegrounds. 

That should make you reconsider how much work the quantitative side of politics does in shaping public opinion. It made me reassess it downward. 

Back in 2012, I covered policy and the 2012 election for TPM, and every first Friday, we’d be on tenterhooks waiting for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to release its monthly employment report. Why? Because though President Obama had inherited the Great Recession, it had been three years since the Recovery Act had passed, and it was widely believed that the state of the economy (which was still not great!) would determine whether or not he won re-election. It wasn’t just a hunch either, it was the consensus of political scientists, who held that economic growth in the quarters before an election correlates with incumbent performance. Slow growth might doom him. 

And so when the reports landed, I would write into the stories that the estimated top-line change to employment in the report, whether good or bad for Obama, mattered less than what it said about the underlying state of the economy; headlines about new jobs and the unemployment rate would fade, but people would know from their lived experience whether the economy was improving, stagnant or otherwise. 

Republicans, by contrast, just wanted the headlines to be bad; and if the figures didn’t support bad headlines, they’d issue statements about how high unemployment remained or how certain sectors were struggling under the yoke of Obamanomics. Their grand strategy was to hurt the economy in order to hurt Obama, but their goal on jobs day was to make as many Americans as possible hear bad news. And they really haven’t skipped a beat. Today they want inflation to remain high, but when the government’s most recent inflation report found no inflation over the month of July, Republicans angrily insisted the report was false or misleading and that inflation was actually high—all to generate earned media about controversy over the inflation report and make sure voters read and heard the word inflation on loop for another few days. 

Perhaps the laws of politics have changed in the past decade, but mainly I just think I was wrong back then about how central material indicators are to political outcomes. In 2012 I would’ve said that Obama beat Mitt Romney because the economy was growing (even if it was growing slowly) and his vision for the future was brighter and more popular than the regressive one Romney ran on. And obviously those things mattered—if the economy had re-entered recession in 2012, Obama would have lost; if Romney had a different agenda, he might’ve won. But at the time I talked myself out of the idea that the campaigns themselves were terribly important, much as I talked myself out of the idea that news coverage of the economy mattered. Looking back I think Republicans had real insight into how important shaping the theme of an election is, they were just outmatched. Obama ran a great campaign depicting Romney as Richie Rich, an awkward but heartless corporate raider who couldn’t be bothered to treat his dog well, let alone think twice about shipping your job overseas. Obama remained cool; dunking on Mitt Romney became good fun for all. That was the difference maker; the economic indicators pointing upward were table stakes.  

All of this raises the question of what Democrats can do as we drift into an information environment that responsible gatekeepers no longer shape, where huge swaths of the population can be made to think that wild conspiracy theories and bizarre nonsense (Colbert-sent reporters???) are the most important stories the Democrat-run media won't tell you about. What do liberals who hope to persuade people with facts and reason do in a world where an astonishing percentage of young voters get their popular information from social media platforms like TikTok and, also (by pure coincidence, probably) an astonishing percentage of young voters disapprove of Biden. More even than disapproved of Trump.

The answer, I think (and to coin a bunch of tedious Trump apologists) is to take Dark Brandon seriously but not literally. More specifically, it’s to realize that Democrats are already figuring out how to win in this new world without embracing the genuinely dark forces of incitement and totalitarian lying that now define GOP politics. Obama did it in 2012. John Fetterman is doing it today, pairing a high-minded substantive campaign with a meme-driven one aimed at making a mockery of his opponent. He’s crushing Dr. Oz by a greater margin than the other statewide candidates in Pennsylvania are leading their races, or Senate candidates in other battlegrounds are leading theirs.

The January 6 committee has done it in its own way, rendering a substantive and complex investigation of a huge and important scandal into headline-grabbing moments with long shelf lives.  

But the Democratic strategic class remains excessively hidebound to the material school. When House Democrats were about to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), who runs the House Democrats’ election committee, appeared on MSNBC and scolded his interviewers for asking him about the FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago, and Donald Trump’s theft of highly classified information. “Look, it’s sad and it is serious that we would be in a place where we had a former president keeping classified information in the basement,” he said. “But can I tell you something? We are on the verge of historic legislation right here. So with all due respect, I think you guys are maybe overdoing the relative importance of these two stories. My constituents care a lot more about what’s in their paychecks than what’s in Donald Trump’s basement.”

Right, when has a candidate having classified information in her basement ever changed the course of an election?

There remain too many Democrats who don’t get that these stories about Trump are opportunities to influence social knowledge about him and the GOP. Republicans don’t miss those moments. They know each Trump scandal impels them to circle wagons and treat Trump like a victim, so that as many people as possible come to see him that way; they know that when their opponents are under criminal investigation, it's good news for them. Meanwhile it’s been a week and a half since the raid and Democratic leaders have done nothing to influence how people perceive that development and, astonishingly, almost seem to wish it would disappear. 

These are moments candidates like Fetterman (and the January 6 committee and the 2012 Obama campaign and Dark Brandon) wouldn’t miss. Easy opportunities not just to go on the attack but to turn the subject matter underlying the attack into a multi-day earned-media bonanza. Like the one that would ensue if congressional Republicans had to vote on their demand to defund the FBI, or to insulate critical national-security investigations from political meddling. Fetterman has a maestro’s knack for creating online content that makes Oz look ridiculous. But his tweets don’t do the work directly. It’s that they’re funny, and people talk about them, and reporters glom on, and turn them into news stories. If Fetterman had inverted his formula and run an expensive TV ad about Dr. Oz calling vegetables “crudités,” while using his Twitter account to talk about the prescription-drug provisions of the IRA, it would've accomplished almost nothing. Instead Pennsylvania political media can’t get enough of how Oz appears to be from outer space

By the same token, Chuck Schumer could do the work of 100 paid ads by one day casually responding to a question about GOP Senate candidates with an arch line about whether the reporter was referring to the one who threatened to kill his wife, the one who actually lives in New Jersey, the one whose intellectual role models are Nazis, or the one who spent 4th of July with Putin and lies about vaccines. Republicans would get mad, and then we'd get a multi-day conversation about how insane the GOP candidates are (couched here and there as a Schumer fact check). And the fundamental vileness of the Republican field would become a piece of social knowledge people shared, irrespective of anyone's plans to address inflation. 

But it’d require using a different skill set, a willingness to wield message after message in search of the dagger that draws blood. It’d require at least some recognition that materiality and data aren’t destiny. It’d require asking, What Would Dark Brandon Do? 


Some fun news! Crooked Media has partnered with comfortable and sustainable shoe brand Cariuma, to create two awesome pairs of shoes that listeners of our shows will love. One design features an all over ‘I voted’ sticker print and one is a sleek white pair that says ‘No Steps Back’ on the side. 

You can order your pairs TODAY in the Crooked Store, and as always, a portion of the proceeds from these shoes and any item you buy in the Crooked Store goes to VoteRiders, the leading organization focused on voter ID. 

Check out both designs and claim your pair at crooked.com/kicks
 

If you liked this edition, you’ll LOVE this week’s Positively Dreadful, where I talked about this basic question of empirical vs. social knowledge with the brilliant Jaime Settle. Listen, rate, subscribe, etc. 

Haha.

Dark Brandon should fire the DHS inspector general.

Seems bad.

Trump’s CFO has pleaded guilty to a bunch of felonies and will have to testify truthfully about the criminal Trump Org. at trial.

Haha.

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