Apparently, all three of the presidential debates can be summed up by one neat phrase or image. For the first one, it was “Big Bird” (as in Romney’s promise to cut all funding for public broadcasting, since it represented a simply unaffordable .01% of the budget). The second debate gave us the unforgettable “Binders of Women,” and the foreign policy debate spawned “Horses and Bayonets.” These ideas exploded almost instantly online, inspiring dozens of Facebook groups and Tumblr posts, and hundreds of clever photos with the familiar captions in white lettering. And as soon as the memes started spreading, the pundits and commentators chimed in, complaining that people were getting too tied up in cute phrases or semantic quibbling, distracting them from the important issues.
Yes, I think real policy issues are more important than arguing over which Clinton picture was funnier (the one with Hillary on a blackberry, captioned “You still use binders? LOL,” or the picture of an eager Bill, saying “Stop the debate, I want to hear more about those binders!”). However, these memes aren’t simply the political equivalent of silly cat videos – they catch on because of how they encapsulate key issues or traits. For example, Romney’s rationale for defunding PBS made no sense when compared to the amount he would add to the deficit with his tax cuts, and it symbolized the hostility to public TV expressed by many conservatives. Likewise, “Binders full of women” was a wonderful summation of the GOP’s general disdain for women, as well as the way Romney both panders to us, in an attempt to close the huge gender gap in his support – on top of the fact that a) he apparently didn’t know a single woman he could hire?, and b) the anecdote wasn’t even true, since the group, MassGAP, approached HIM with the resumes, not the other way around. (And as for “horses and bayonets,” it’s a funny visual image, and by the third debate, we were all primed for some sort of catch phrase.)
Another reason why these memes catch on – this has been an incredibly polarized, contentious election, and we’re all hungry for a bit of levity. Instructions on making a binder costume for Halloween, or photos of Big Bird riding a horse and brandishing a bayonet , are just plain funny, and I, for one, think we need more humor as the election gets closer. I don’t think Romney would be good for women, but he’s great for women comedians . . . . (I couldn’t resist!)