Politics as Identity: A Conversation with Tobias Carroll




THE 2020 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION is over, but its visual detritus lingers on. The swing-state landscape is still dotted with Trump signs and flags. They come in all varieties — handmade signs painted on the sides of crumbling barns, old 2016 Trump-Pence signs stuck in the window of a house, a strange Trump-as-Rambo flag billowing near a mansion on top of a hill, an enormous billboard on the side of the road reading “Trump: Keep America Great!” with “2024” defensively painted in at the bottom.

The day after the election, a neighbor on my street erected an enormous plywood sign on his front lawn. Every week or so since then, he comes out with a bucket of paint and, in big letters, writes obscure messages about voter fraud, a stolen election, and conspiracy theories proven right. These messages are presumably addressed to the other neighbors on the street, most of whom had had Biden signs in their lawns. 

There is no dialogue in this silent duel of yard signs that assert two incompatible political positions, unyielding as the jeers in a major football rivalry. The political signs of 2020 are a testament to the country’s paralysis. What story about our personal identities do political signs tell, and how do we read it correctly?

I spoke to writer Tobias Carroll about his latest book, Political Sign (2020), an entry in the Bloomsbury Object Lessons series. Political Sign is a page-turner of cultural analysis and shrewd observation. As Carroll notes, “You can read a place through the signs you see there. You can find evidence of political beliefs or challenge conventional wisdom. You can see protests in action, see truth spoken to power.” Our conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.

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OANA GODEANU-KENWORTHY: I moved to the US as an adult, and decoding the American political sign universe was a fascinating experience for me. In the beginning, all those signs were just incomprehensible messages on the side of the road: “Yes on 4!” “Vote no on 5! It will not raise your taxes!” I had no idea what they meant. It took a lot of conscious effort before I was able to understand what was behind the words on the signs. How did you get inspired to write the book about political signs?

TOBIAS CARROLL: One thing that was challenging in writing the book was deciding how much to write about the current political landscape of 2020 because I didn’t want to write something that would be effectively obsolete immediately upon Election Day. I grew up in a Republican-leaning, fairly Catholic part of New Jersey, and, for the longest time, political signs just registered as noise; they almost seemed interchangeable. I came of age in the ’80s, but now the internet has made it a lot easier to research something about a ballot measure that appears on a sign. Back then, there were mainly a lot of political bumper stickers — for nuclear disarmament, a lot of anti-abortion bumper stickers, etc. — and this was the kind of political signage that I first became aware of in a car culture, which translated quite easily into a political sign culture.

In the book, you comment on the assumptions that people make about the owner of a car that has an abortion bumper sticker or a 2008 Obama-Biden sticker on it. At the same time, you point out that whoever displays those bumper stickers on their car must want others to make those assumptions about them. You say, “Why talk when you can just glower at the assumed persona of the driver in front of you, waiting for the light to change?” Does this mean that you think that political signs contribute to a lack of dialogue across ideological lines in the United States?

It’s like the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. If someone puts up a Trump sign, or a Biden sign, they are not inviting others to engage in respectful and cordial dialogue with them. Rather, the signs function as shorthand for a much larger set of political positions. In reality, political signage predates the intense polarization we have in the United States. I addressed precisely this question in my book through the references to Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 and to the article about the novel by cultural critic Frank Rich. I wanted these two references in the book because they show that very hostile, very partisan political signs already existed in the ’60s. It is true that in the last five or 10 years there has been an escalation of rhetoric, but another perspective on the issue is that the escalation of rhetoric has been around for much longer.

I live in a rural part of the Midwest, and political yard signs are everywhere. At the same time, there is no real dialogue between neighbors; political yard signs function like Twitter feeds for lawns, each shouting their respective message with no personal engagement. I always assumed this was a recent trend, but your book suggests that this polarization precedes the present moment. How did this happen?

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, we lost the type of national solidarity that had allowed us to say, “I don’t like this member of the other party, but at least we’re all on the same side, against the Soviets.” Since then, these tensions have built up more and have been allowed to develop. Next, the evolution of Fox News and rightwing talk radio eroded the idea of any objective truth; I remember watching George Clooney’s film Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) and thinking about that moment when Edward R. Murrow stood up to Joseph McCarthy and brought his career down. There is no public figure like that anymore, no one who, by sheer dint of their own displeasure at one particular political figure, could sway public opinion against them.

I was reading a piece in The Atlantic earlier this year, talking about how management consultants shifted American corporate structures beginning with the late 1960s and early 1970s, eventually transforming the old type of American capitalism, a system in which you could work your whole life in one job, move up in the company, and then retire with a good pension. Instead, we have seen the rise of an expert class of people who kept fine-tuning things in pursuit of efficiency in all areas. This is my own perception, and it is not grounded in any empirical data, but I wonder if the same trend could also be linked to the increased political partisanship we see today. There is a growing number of consultants who try to simplify the political message of the two parties; they have developed a sort of shorthand dividing people into “those guys” and “our guys,” the Soros guys and the Koch guys. And this is not only a conservative thing, I have to say; you can see it in progressive organizations that refer to the other side without even explaining what they stand for. This sort of shorthand dominates a lot of our political discourse, and I think it is ultimately harmful in the long run. It may sound melodramatic, but it sometimes feels like the “Two Minutes Hate” in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

Another thing that came up when I was writing Political Sign is that Eisenhower in 1952 was the first presidential candidate to really embrace marketing. He was the first to work with an advertising company, ultimately turning politics into a product, which, I argue, led to the increased polarization of today. After all, it is not far from Eisenhower to the 1964 election, and with Barry Goldwater you get, for lack of a better word, the birth of modern American conservatism for which Eisenhower’s campaign simply opened up the door.

Where do we go from here? Do you think we still need political signs in the future, especially now with the online environment where everybody lives in their ideological bubbles? Do you see political signs still as part of how people will mark their political identities?

Yes, for reasons good and bad. One of the things I talked about in the book is that politics-as-identity has taken on some of the qualities of sports-as-identity: I root for my team, Democratic or Republican. I’m not immune to this. I have a lot of soccer scarves back in my apartment, and if I’m going to go watch a game, I wear a scarf or an orange jersey or something. Wearing a Biden pin fulfills the same function. One of the things I found very interesting in 2020 was that both campaigns started selling their branded facemasks. In a way, it makes sense. You can buy virtually anything on a face mask, so why not “Trump 2020” or “Biden 2020”? In terms of the online environment, I hope — although I am not overly optimistic about it — that at least certain steps are taken between now and the next election to minimize the amount of disinformation out there.

When I was doing research for the book, I kept finding lots of contradictory evidence about whether political signs or yard signs actually matter or not. I read some very passionate defenses for them, and I read pieces that argued that signs do absolutely nothing, and people should not have these up on their lawns anymore. One of the things I was reading in the lead-up to this election was the concept of yard-sign gap. The polls indicated Biden ahead, but there were a lot of Trump signs, so the question was whether this yard-sign gap counterbalanced what the polls showed. So, yes, I do think that signage of the sort that we’ve seen so far is going to continue; we’re going to see political signs everywhere, although, maybe, just maybe, fewer people will get a political campaign logo tattooed on their body.

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Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy was born in Romania and has a doctorate in Canadian studies from University of Bucharest. She teaches in the Department of Global and Intercultural Studies at Miami University, Ohio.

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Banner image: “Arizona 8th district campaign signs 2006 election” by Guroadrunner is licensed under CC BY 2.5. Image has been darkened.

 

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