Tag Archives: political polarization

How to Levitate an Elephant

The emblem of the GOP has been rotated a few times in recent years, as the upward-pointing stars that dotted the back of the elephant emblem that had signified robustness of party unity since the post-Civil War era, as a pacific sort of beast, with four feet stolidly placed upon the ground—

–was altered, in an inexplicable way, circa 2000: the downshifted and inverted stars on the now right-facing elephant, prompted symbolic speculation on the possibly malevolent intent of what seemed secret society symbolism at odds with a party that had once prided straight talk.

We had never looked closely at the stars in this abstract logo that seems a sleek embodiment of the American flag, But perhaps the internet made us look more closely at photoshopped details, altering our eyes and suspicions in new ways, as minor stylistic alterations assumed significance. Online conspiracy theories about the stars’ downward rotation smelled a corruption of patriotism, or a cryptic allusion to a pentagrammic symbol of satanism, offensive to a Christian Right–or revealing devious intent–that led the rebranding of the Republican Party after the Clinton years to be scrutinized on an internet awash with rumors of the diabolic nature of the feared influence of the Sigil of Baphomet, trademark of the Church of Satan, merging of black arts and party politics–if not Neo-pagan messages squirreled into the GOP’s message by unknown Democratic operatives, or revealing the rise of a hidden semiotic system that preceded the cult of Q.

If the turning of the stars circa 2000 was tied to everything from satanism to Skull & Bones symbolism mirroring the ascendancy of George W. Bush in the party, the rebranding that followed Bush v. Gore seemed a sharp revision of the combativeness of the elephant, that had regained its tusks–

–as the rightward-advancing pachyderm in the newly trademarked logo was both more animatedly moving, as if the red-white-and-blue elephant was sufficiently capacious for the party, stars shifted or not.

The alteration of the elephant as an emblem of party understandably morphed online. But what genealogy of the elephant was engaged by the new rebranding of the Republican elephant, long an icon of Republican identity and independence, at the 2020 Republican convention, leaping into the air as a swoosh of tusked red? In an era that maps “so called Republicans” who refuse to repeal Obamacare over President Trump’s wishes, as promoted by Trump surrogates in 2016 to condemn all who doubted, the red-suited elephant matched red states’ increasing purity tests for party loyalty, and less the joyous icon of Wendell Wilkie. If Wilkie’s elephant–a memento for donors–was a joyous beast of the party unabashed of its middle-brow origins in a circus ring, extending its trunk in unbounded optimism, the red elephant is far less fun or ebullient.

1. The mutation of the elephant to a politics of triumphalism in the 2020 Republican convention had precedent. But it seemed to map the coherence of the party as an alternate body for the endangered body politic, where racial differences didn’t exist, but we were spectators of a show: was the adopting the animal an eery white-washing of race in America, taking a symbol of a large voting block to a symbol of strength, purifying the elephant of its African origins? While elephants were long associated with triumphalism, as far back as Hannibal, were elephant seemed conducive to promoting the vision of a “law and order” President as if he were crossing the Alps, riding a troop of elephants of Republican voters not to impose peace and harmony on Gaul, but channel fascist talking points on the need for more law and order in American society? Bedecked with five oddly placed stars that recall its circus heritage the advancing elephant unveiled in Charlotte, NC suggested a march of red states across the electoral map, more than a show for partisan unity.

Despite its symbolic degeneration of the elephant as a symbol of party If coded fears underlay and racialized policing were implicit in the “law and order” persona that the President invoked, the origins of the elephant in the cartooning of Thomas Nast in 1870s. The image of the Republican Party that Nast devised in 1884, however, on the front page of Harper’s Weekly, “The Sacred Elephant,” suggested the stakes of leadership of the party to which Nast belonged at what seemed a juncture of its identity. The cartoon referenced the elephant as an image of probity in the same year that the albino elephant Toung Taloung arrived in New York with much promotion from P.T. Barnum, years after the African elephant Jumbo had become the centerpiece of his show,, by bringing the elephant that was long associated with the remote Kingdom of Siam–

–to promote a variety of elephant rumored more civilized and sacred than the African species, and even enjoy more privileges at the Siamese court. While the arrival was not to be compared with the feats of strength of the African elephant Barnum had earlier shipped stateside, the agents who procured the elephant helped introduce the foreign beast to a party icon as it notoriously provoked public debates over its “so-called whiteness” and Barnum argued an inescapably racialized descriptor might be judiciously applied to the elephant’s whiteness, although they should visit the show themselves to judge, practiced as he was in exploiting race in spectacles that promoted pseudo-scientific justifications of racial hierarchy to entertain audiences by confirming their superiority–even if the skin of the elephant was long seen as grey.

The Sacred Elephant Phineas Barnum imported from Siam gain increased attraction during sunset of Reconstruction as an icon: as questions of race and the extensive of rights to former slaves were debated in America, audiences came to question the whiteness of the “white elephant” whose “whiteness” was conflated with its sacrality or sacred nature. Barnum affirmed the sacred nature of the beast argued to be venerated in Burma’s court to promote the arrival of a white elephant his agent had bought from King Thibau Min of Burma, Toung Taloung, who was in transit via the Suez Canal to New York. If Nast loved depicting animals, his latest anthropomorphic cartoon shifted the circus animal to a costumed elephant embodying principles sacred to the party, in ways that courted anxieties over racial identity that the circus impresario stirred speculation of the newest elephant he had bought–courting public fascination with the ostensibly edifying spectacle of a “a technical white elephant” by acknowledging “there is no such thing as a really pure white elephant” but encouraging audiences to judge its purity. Already illustrated in Scientific American in March, 1884, Barnum’s new elephant was shown with an attendant of color, tusks intact, as an object of curiosity for a society that was redrawing its own color line.

Drawing of Toung Taloung, after the London Graphic, Scientific American, Supplement
(New York, March 1884)

Nast tapped Barnum’s promoting skills in using a Sacred Elephant as a symbol of party purity. Barnum had peaked curiosity in white elephants, venerated in Siam, stoked wide speculation about its relation to the “black” African variety, inviting white circus audiences to judge Toung Taloung’s whiteness for themselves in a spectacle of popularized racial sciences. For by judging racial differences and the depth of epidermal identity, Barnum invited pubic audiences compare differences between the one venerated in Siam and a member of court society in Siam and its African cousin as a scientific difference echoing skin color, even displaying elephants side by side as a responsible showman, for audiences to classify by themselves. And the appeal that he made to audiences was in the air by the time that Nast used a powerful image of the Sacred Elephant to represent the Republican Party in 1884, when the “separate but equal” policies encouraged by the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws were voided in public space, sanctioning segregation as well as the abridgment of constitutional rights by October 1883, the very year that P.T. Barnum brought a white elephant to display to a paying public so that it might view its difference from the African species.

The conceit that there were two races of elephants was a curious extension of the color line that justified the restriction of civil rights in Reconstruction to the animal kingdom, and world. The voiding of civil rights believed guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment led to a century of institutions of race-based segregation, as the abolition of slavery was re-interpreted removed, as by Occam’s razor. In limiting the prohibition of enslavement from plans to segregate “Inns, public conveyances and places of public amusement,” including circuses of the sort where Toung Taloung was displayed, as the color lines that existed in times of slavery were perpetuated. As in a symbolic rehearsal of the issues at stake in questioning what race-based separations constituted a “badge of slavery or involuntary servitude . . . but at most, infringes rights,” the circumscribed liberties and Jim Crow laws rejected the belief that it was the role of a government “to mete out equal and exact justice to all, of whatever nativity, race, color, or persuasion,” that tabled civil rights in ways currently roiling the nation–a posture of legalizing segregated spaces that perhaps requires reparation, and has deep resonance. For the result was a deep remapping of public spaces across the country, which has been poorly registered in maps, in which Barnum’s choice to promote the exhibition of a Sacred Elephant as a central feature of his show came to occupy something close to center stage if it was only a circus show.

When Nash held up Barnum’s white elephant as an image of the probity of his Party, he compared the Republican’s purity to the albino elephant’s whiteness in ways that helped establish the four-legged beast as an icon of the Party. P.T. Barnum’s probity would be under public attack, in the course of 1884, as both historian Sarah Amato has argued and literary scholar Ross Bullen examined, using the characterization of the albino Toung Taloung as “white” to oppose the beast to African elephants in circus shows; the sacred nature of the pacific elephant was distinguished by its Siamese costume to highlighted its distinct skin coloration for crowds. In the wake of mixed reviews the animal shipped from Burma at great expense through the newly opened Suez Canal was exhibited in London’s Zoological Gardens, generated debate, Bullen argued, about its “whiteness” that Barnum used o attract as large an audience as possible in New York, affirming the “true whiteness” of the elephant.

The accuracy of using an adjective that during Reconstruction evoked race turned on Barnum’s willing mistranslation of the “chang puedk,” an it was known, as if he were a “racial imposter,” as the mottled flesh of the elephant Pearl of Siam led Barnum to fend off accusations of fraud and charges of deception. The exhibition of Toung Taloung intersected with fears of racial identity and authenticity in Reconstruction by provoking questions of race and truth that were struggled with daily, as the population was parsed in the official census-takers by percentages of African blood. Whereas many dismissed Barnum for the showmanship of announcing arrival of a “White Elephant” that had been briefly exhibited before being shipped to New York was not as “white” as current racial categories would imply. Were the deep anxieties about the legalization of racial barriers across much of the nation not enacted in what Bullen called the “Elephant Wars” of circus entrepreneurs? it is striking how the monochrome icon that debuted in recent years exploited similar anxieties about race and racial difference.

Barnum promoted the eagerness of audiences to judge for themselves to generate spin for the show that would be the next pachydermal act after “his mammoth predecessor” Jumbo had jointed his troupe. Front page articles heralded the arrival of the “Sacred Beast” for “the Great Moral Show” had led Barnum to rush anxiously from his inner office in Madison Square Garden to examine the elephant in New York harbor, shouting “Call a Cab! Notify the President!” as if this were an affair of state to se the certified sacred elephant “who has never shown the slightest indications of the savageness which is a characteristic of most elephants,” named “Gem of the Sky,” and not only “extremely gentle and docile” but bearing a signed certificate to be a sacred beast from the Second Minister of Royal Elephants that had been presented to the agents “of the Great Wealthy Man Barnum of America”: beside news of a contentious Republican convention, the front page headline “The Sacred Beast Here!” was accompanied by an attestation from Frank Vincent, the former Consul to Siam, that Gem of the Sky was “one of the finest specimens of the sacred white elephant I ever saw in my life.” In India, Vincent, who had a second career as an authority on the beast, had earlier attested in Harper’s, a state’s power grew the more sacred white elephants it owned, the sacred white Barnum imported may have provoked some anxiety as the promoter hadn’t yet seen the beast’s hue.

The “Sacred Elephant” Nast included prominently on the March 1884 predated ToungTaloung’s arrival on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. But it was already an image of the validity of the showman Barnum, who had shipped it via the newly opened Suez Canal to London with fanfare, and it was now on its way: the icon partisan probity appeared some three weeks before the anticipated arrival, but three months after Harper’s ran an article by the author of The Land of the White Elephant, promoting the sacred white elephant “we are told to expect in May” as not white per se, but of a “delicate shade which distinguishes the nose of a white horse” and “with a head the color of cochineal”–even if you would not know it from the cover of Vincent’s own 1882 illustrated book ignited interest.

And when the cartoonist included himself as presenting the sacred four-footed beast above the legend This animal is sure to win, if it is only kept pure and clean, and has not too heavy a load to carry,” the question of the truly sacred nature of the animal to party members affirmed its purity more than its whiteness: if the elephant, as yet unseen by Americans, was rumored to possibly be not pure white, the purity of the elephant was more at issue than its intersection with a racial phenotype, but the issue was probably unavoidably lying just beneath the surface: while religion was separate from politics, perhaps the veneration of white elephants by Buddhists was foreign enough to not be taboo: if the white elephants were guardians of Buddha, and became an emblem of state service and bravery in Thailand, was not the circus animal an apt icon of political probity? Perhaps the costumed circus animal, unlike previous anthropomorphic emblems for political parties, foregrounded the sacred tenets, emblazoned on the belt that dignified the beast as precepts to direct the Party to the gated White House by winning the popular vote.

Thomas Nast, ,”The Sacred Elephant,” Harper’s Weekly (March 8, 1884)

Nast costumed the elephant to question who might lead the Republican Party to the White House in 1884 with fit decorum before the nation. By featured the royally costumed elephant as sacred as the venerated white quadruped arriving in Barnum’s circus, readers would see its costume as befitting probity of the party.

The “father of American cartooning” himself channeled Barnum as a showman displaying the Sacred Elephant to the public as a path the right rider might guide to the White House, and maybe that he might be able to promote in newspapers by his pen. The party’s proper costuming in a fit platform would accord reverence comparable to that Siam’s court and Buddhists population accord the white elephant Barnum had recently promoted in the press. Nast displays the zoological curiosity as the best public face for the Party to raise should it wish to be led to victory.

Detail of Nast as Barnum, holding newspapers, presenting Sacred Elephant
(Harpers Weekly, March, 1884)

The icon of the elephant was immersed in print culture. When the quadruped was adopted as an icon of the Grand Old Party in the 1880s it was less as the the result of Nast’s Aesop’s fables iconography: while he had shown a raging elephant in Third Term Panic (1874), in which the overweening cries of Democratic donkey, dressed in a lion’s skin, sent an elephant charging over cliff at the idea President Grant sought a third term, or a sleeping elephant lying at a dour Lincoln’s feet before 1880, Nast caricatured collective party divisions by non-human animals: but the quadruped transcended Aesop’s animals, by embodying the very moral precepts sacred precepts to the party. Posed as Barnum, Nast promoted the promise to elevate the party’s honesty, as if vouchsafing for the whiteness of the quadruped his circus would publicly exhibit!

The all-American circus animal became a stand-bearer and proud partisan emblem by championing its almost salvific role in public politics: as the circus man transformed the pachyderm distanced from the African elephants Barnum exhibited, such as Jumbo, Barnum’s newly displayed Sacred Elephant suggested a Party that subsumed race, to be ridden by a nominee revering civic values of Civil Service Reform, more than seeking profit from political office or personal gain, to ride to the White House without demeaning the decorum of a Party in danger of not honoring the sacred compact between it and its ideals. The elephant elevated party politics from the drama of corruption sought to dignify party principles beyond intraparty dispute.

But displaying a sacred elephant as an icon of party due veneration after P.T. Barnum’s performances exploited anxieties of racial difference: without orchestrating racial stereotypes as crudely as Barnum, Nast registered horror at violence visited on slaves in the south, without investing agency as a cartoonist in African American subjects, casting the deliverance brought by emancipation in paternalist terms as an end to southern humiliation that could be shared by the emancipated family: as if an act of emancipation by constitutional amendment liberated all racial inequalities and lifted race lines by promising well-paying jobs. The divide between races, so strong in nineteenth and twentieth century culture, could not be lifted, even if Nast believed–and hoped–that it might be. Indeed, the reduction of the meaning of “emancipation” that the institution of “Separate but Equal” allowed continued a racial polarity that divided America.

The cartoonist seized on the pure-white elephant to embody Republican standards. But he bequeathed a troubled if telling icon of political purity, that the current Republican candidate for President spooky channeled, almost to the point of channeling the elephant, as he recently addressed the Republican Convention before the current “red elephant” in Charlotte, NC–as if promising he would do his best to return to former status quo.

Andrew Harnik/AP

The solemnity of address quickly provoked a spoof parody website of a party “building a country just for us,” by announcing that the party “always stood for white wealth and power,” but “just couldn’t say so out loud” before: the elephant lacked stars, but elevated “Q”‘s cryptic pronouncements to a level of dignity as had Trump’s presidency–and the entrance of the party into a new level of circus entertainment of big-tent conspiracy theories that have leaked off-line to present Trump as an embattled hero of the Truth.

Parody Website

2. The Aesopian menagerie of fabled beasts was also embedded in clear constructions of categories of race and nineteenth-century racial sciences, in which the Sacred Elephant was to be opposed to its African cousin, much as Barnum ad opposed Toung Taloung, the Burmese elephant he acquired with the certificate of Siam’s Elephant Keeper, from the variety of Arican elephants he had exhibited in the past: the history of the elephant as a radicalized emblem of party is often forgotten in the amnesiac Republican Party, whose proponents cast Dixiecrats as the most racist of governors or see Andrew Jackson as a bulwark against Civil War. Yet the white soul of the party that Nast presented to the public embodied purity, principled advocacy of a civil service, and proud American-ness in a white alternative to the elephant that most circuses displayed.

Thomas Nast, “The Sacred Elephant,” Hoper’s Weekly (March 8, 1884)

Nast adopted the middle-brow entertainment of the sacred elephant as a sort of tease, and an invitation from a newspaperman cartoonist–indeed, a viral editorialist!–inviting readers to take the high road, and enter elite culture, a promise that all middle-brow entertainments offer. Nast vouchsafed that the principle of party honesty shifted from the circus arena to a political arena in which his party might save face.

The invitation to find an able mount for the dignified white would hardly be distinguished by its sagging skin, but restore a needed dignity in a time of party corruption, promising a degree of purity eplaced by the current use of a pure-red elephant to suggest a similar sort of purity of party, if of one of openly less principled nature? Barnum had gone to great lengths to emphasize the sacred nature of the quadruped he had bought at Siam’s royal court, where elephants were fed select diets, serenaded to sleep by musicians, and entered the human world as links to the divine. Nast–a life-long Republican–had penned the raging elephant as the Republican Vote in 1874, in ways often cited as an origin of the mascot that would symbolize a large party in American political iconography as a beast. The choice of the sacred animal as able to advance to the White House should the party “keep the animal pure and clean,” consolidated the anthropomorphic image as a symbol of the party with deeper valence than many histories of cartooning or party mascots admit: the Sacred Elephant Barnum had bought and was on its way to be exhibited in the United States when Nast drew it was not only a piece of Americana, but a quadruped whose sacred character the American public would be asked to confirm.

Nast invested the Sacred Elephant with figural significance to the destiny of the Party’s value, dignifying the animal he used to depict the Republican Vote as a standard-bearer of the party’s purity especially compelling for his party to identify with and adopt in future years. The whiteness of the Sacred Elephant, even if it was qualified, would suggest not only the purity and cleanliness that Nast evoked, but the purity of its race. For the Sacred Elephant was also soon to be know for eliding race–a not so fine point implicit in the reverence it was accorded, unlike its African cousin, who seems depicted in the 1874 cartoon. Barnum was prompt to draw the distinction in displaying the new sort of elephant he would be displaying in his spectacle as a different variety of beast, much as Vincent had described the garlanding, serenading, and feeding of sacred elephants in Siam by their keepers. The diademed creature in exotic costumed was public-facing–and, like a circus animal, on view for open scrutiny and examination for evidence of its probity, unlike the deceptions and cunning showmanship P.T. Barnum generated interest in the sacred elephant Toung Taloung to the public–in ways Vincent had begun. Barnum met doubts about his own fraudulent display of Toung Taloung as white on his competitor as the elephant “Light of Asia” that revealed a uniform white on its body as if to make due on the adjective–

–depended on a chemical bleaching, a practice that Barnum’s competitor Forepaugh began with the smaller elephant obtained, pre-bleached, from a London salesman as a competitor to Toung Taloung, a process that had continued as long as he lived and was publicly exhibited as an alternate draw to Barnum’s show. (Forepaugh’s boast of the “Largest Show in the World” countered the menagerie of the “Greatest show on Earth.”)

But rather than being the true article, bleaching or painting of this small elephant killed the beast in November, 1884–Vincent or other “experts” had presumably already questioned, perhaps with Barnum’s own encouragement, by questioning “the genuineness of this elephant” as white: Barnum noted that the toes of the elephant of his Forepaugh were noted by experts to be in fact “very often found in elephants of the ordinary kind, without any pretension whatever to ‘white blood,’” even if photographs the above to document its whiteness suggested otherwise. Barnum contrasted the benefits of his own allegedly edifying popular show as an exhibit of the differences among elephants from different habitats and different “races” as if mediating the globe: he mediated racial differences as rooted in science, the display of a Sacred Elephant appeal to the authentic self-presentation of the party to an electorate. While Barnum & Bailey did not adopt an actual emblem of a globe until after World War I, or 1925, that made good on the promise to be the “Greatest Show on Earth,” it provided a quintessential middle-brow entertainment, long focussed on elephants, including Jumbo, presented as the largest Giant Elephant in the world–an African Bush elephant, born in Sudan, and first exhibited in the Garden des Plantes–that compared the prized elephant Barnum enterprisingly purchased from the London Zoo, to the skeleton of a mastodon unearthed in the American West–

–a spectacle continued, after Jumbo’s tragic death in 1885, when he was killed by a train, to the exhibit of Jumbo’s taxidermies skin and skeleton–

Display of Giant Elephant Jumbo’s Skeleton, with tusks (1888)

–in a theatrical display of popular science of edifying aims, much as the Sacred Elephant polarized racial sciences in ways that its “purity” raised fears of miscegenation that underlay a dogma of barriers of intermixing that barriers in public space, education, and social promotion were supposed to maintain, by being openly mapped onto racial differences.

The plans for Barnum to introduce a White Elephant into the menagerie that he used to entertain audiences rested on a significant financial investment, but occurred at a time when race lines were defined across American states, as the repeal of

3. The attraction of Toung Taloung rested in how the genuine” nature of the beast’s famed whiteness was deployed. The question of racial identity and purity was engaged in Barnum’s show as Toung Taloung was opposed to the African elephants that Barnum usually featured, asking the crowd to judge them to provoke racial anxieties in its evocation of a proud beast, in ways that give new meaning to the “Greatest Show on Earth” in the years after he had merged in 1881 with the Great International Circus run by his competitor, Bailey. The elephant authority Vincent had boasted the sacred elephant was accompanied by a white monkey, with “fur as white as the whitest rabbit,” underling an analogy to racial segregation migrated to the animal kingdom with striking fluidity. It would circulate as smoothly to the circus stage. Toung would be contrasted as a mulatto, to the “decidedly dark elephant,” beside the African elephant, creating the judgement of the racial identity of the mulatto animating the contemporary play, The Octoroon. Nast would know the play, premiered in 1858 to acclaim, the Sacred Elephant he depicted seemed in his mind an image of the purity of the party–although the actual White Elephant had a quite mottled hide.

Even when conceding the lack of a pure parallel to racial difference, Barnum made sure racialized categories were prominent for audiences who were predominantly white. Barnum exploited Vincent’s claim Toung Taloung was “as white as God makes ’em,” without artifice, to increased the fascination of crowds in an elephant only superficially whiter in its “light complexion;” he openly engaged his white audiences’ obsessions with racial parentage by rehearsing racial categories Vincent had staked out, comparing the White Elephant to the whiteness “of a negro’s palm,” deploying racial difference to attract audiences to a show that often amused audiences by deploying racial differences and and hierarchies, even when rehearsed with members of the animal kingdom.

While Nast did not echo performance of global racial differences, his cartoon unavoidably addressed race within the United States by the attraction of the purity of a white elephant as a sign of honesty. The interactive nature of a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t debate on race that Vincent and Barnum began caught on long after Nast’s cartoon of the Sacred Elephant, but did it underlay the Barnum’s competitors did charge him with not keeping his word on “whiteness” nonetheless, that heightened anxieties of racial differences to eat into the audience for his popular show, displaying what was announced as “scientifically verified” if probably painted or dyed whiter elephant, claimed more genuine than the “rank fraud” Barnum bought. Circus-Master Adam Forepaugh, who exhibited elephants in a competing show, featured cycling elephants, pyramidal formations of elephants, elephants in military drill and “elephant seances”–as well as a giant elephant, in his show. Forepaugh expanded a show of twenty-five by “Light of Asia,” a small elephant named Tiny, bought from an overseas English dealer painted with over fifty coats of premium paint, to compete with Barnum by its greater purity of its brilliant painted, bleached or dyed hide.

Arrival of “Light of Asia,” 1884

In response, Barnum fell back on his usually trick of comparison among elephants: he cleverly dyed one of his own elephants for exhibition beside Toung Taloung, by a process celebrated in the New York Times for the ingenious skill of skin coloring for reasons far beyond the circus ring. Barnum’s process of chemical whitening was, the newspaper judged, “of less interest to elephants than another class of our populations,” indeed, mapping the elephant to categories of race among Americans: Barnum’s process would not blacks’ appearance identical with “that of the white man,” echoing the qualifications Barnum made about Toung Taloung, but if might transform the “cleansed Ethiopian . . . of a dazzling whiteness, rivaling snow,” in nothing less than “a complete answer to Job’s question of whitening the Ethiopian” readily “applied without the slightest injury to colored people” to create a new race of “ex-colored men.” (The breadth of discussion generated by the elephant ran from how Terre Haute’s Saturday Evening Mail jested that after the arrival in town of “BARHUM’S new white elephant named Toung Toulong [sic.] the papers are already teeming with jokes about the man who asked his wife why she resembled the white elephant, etc,” suggesting how widely discussion

In an age when race defined lines of exclusion, and many whitened their skin so that they might pass, to navigate racial barriers, display of the fraudulent white elephant garnered attention as a reflection on racial ideologies. The elephant Barnum exhibited came to be known as “The Fraud” enacted the dominant acceptance of a “natural” racial hierarchy in a circus show. When Barnum charged Forepaugh of disguising his own elephants with dishonesty, he provoked latent fears of disrupting a race-based hierarchy by a disguise; the Sacred Elephant was imbricated in ideologies of race long before Barnum brought the beast through the Suez Canal to exhibit, but he magnified these connections by staging a contest of whiteness as theater. Nast did not openly gesture to the emotional intensity of intersections of the white elephant with racial sciences when using the middle-brow entertainment of a sacred elephant to dignify his own party, but in dignifying his party by a sacred elephant whose exhibition was impossible to separate from race to foreground the purity of its values, as much as tying the elephant’s prodigious memory to conservatism, the polysemy of the animal in the circus-stage performed qualities of the elephant seemed perfect for the festive atmosphere of a political convention for much of the twentieth century.

4. The red elephant prominently displayed at the Republican Convention in 2020 was also, of course, an invitation to a membership of a club, and communicated a sense of those in the know. It of course communicated purity and authenticity in its red, quite unlike the probity of the individual candidate entitled to ride the beast as nominee, and the true hue of the candidate able to mount that rearing beast, who had regained tusks since 2000, if it managed to seem far more faniciful, and less of a streamlined not to the past. The party emblem recuperated the almost conscious elision of questions of race, only just below the surface of the circus beast in 1884, when the Sacred Elephant was mapped to its sacred status in Siamese society, now mapped onto red states that less valued social justice or deep inequities of education, voting rights, or health care, and seemed an apt icon to pander to fear.

The purity of the new mascot of the party seemed arbitrary, but was invested with meanings that, perhaps because its color was now pure red, bridged surface and depth as cunningly and effectively as the Sacred Elephant P.T. Barnum had brought to America to display.

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President of Some?

Donald Trump has presented a new notion of the Presidency to the United States: the open claim to be President of only some of the nation, and to have that model of Presidential rule become the standard for political decisions. This policy was not Trump’s own decision: the retreat from any interest in bipartisan governance that had been the basis for American politics for two hundred years began in the pitched nature of pointed acrimony in the U.S. Senate that erased the decorum and respect among different interests in a model of collective action for over two centuries.

Already by 2011, the nation divided into spectral schema suggesting slight chance of local bipartisan governance, disguising often narrow margins of political victory, despite eighteen states where Republicans controlled both the legislature and governor’s mansion in 2011, some eighteen were split.

Republican States, 2011

While the pitched fervor of some of our national divisions bears the imprint of faith-based movements, they are replicated in the pointillistic logic of the electoral plans of REDMAP–a concerted attempt of regional redistricting. For the reconfiguration of electoral districts has staked out a problem of governance as a strategy of victory that would erode the project of governance, by privileging “states” as an amassing of electoral votes,– rather than positing the coherence of the interests of the nation as a whole. The concept of governance seems fragmented, bolstered by regionalism, states rights discourse, and the cruel new isolationism of go-it-aloneism. In ways recast in the 2020 election as a choice between “darkness” and “light” of truly terrifyingly Manichean proportions, evoking near-apocalyptic scenarios to recast public debate as issues of identitarian self-interest. The divide of states on the 2000 electoral map, which didn’t change much over eight years, enshrined a blue versus red state logic, dovetailing with a deeper plan of retaining electoral control. This was the map was parsed in the seventh season of The West Wing, in 2006, at a time when the television newscasters needed to remind their audience states shaded blue sent electors to vote for Democrat Matt Santos (modeled in 2004 on then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, who just delivered the nominating speech at another convention), red ones for his Republic opponent, Arnie Vinick–as Campaign Director colored a dry erase board red and blue as results were announced.

The West Wing, “Election Night” (April 2006)

Obama provided a model for Santos as a candidate not defined by race, pivoting from race to underlying unity among red and blue states, but the restate-blue state divide was militarized. And when Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, the Republican state legislators in Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio adopted the idea of ensuring Republican victories by rigging the Electoral College according to the congressional districts that they had redesigned, rather than in bulk, in the hopes to skew the distribution of electors by the congressional districts they had guaranteed would be firmly red, having designed districts that even in what were considered “blue” states had “red” legislatures. m so that districts would be assured that they would not be “outvoted” by urban metro areas would dictate a future.

This gave rise to the logic that asserted the “rural” non-metro regions should reclaim a place at the table by recrafting representational politics to give new meaning to those who increasingly feared–or felt–that their vote just didn’t count but felt that their futures on the line. By redrawing districts, legislatures magnify rural interests outside large metro areas, offering a logic magnifying their political representation through congressional districts as power bases and political divides: not by blue and red states, but by a red republic, in need of its voice. The plan to separate electoral votes from the popular vote can only work by recasting electoral districts on party-skewed lines, independent of any geographic shape save benefitting one party, at the expense of another, at violence to the republic. It was echoed in a tactic of political obstructionism that provided the logic for “red” areas to be increasingly opposed to current governmental policy in the Obama administration.

Republican-Majority Electoral Districts of America, 2013

The reduction of debate between parties may have begun on a local level, but metastasized nationally in legislative maps. The rationale of legislative bodies has shifted on local levels from a representational logic of governance to a pitched battle–as only one party wields legislative power in all but one state in the union.

The Current Partisan Power Play (2019)

The disorienting nature of an overdetermined power play means that there is not much discussion or debate in the local states, or legislative bodies, but a sectarian consolidation of demographic identity as destiny.

The division of parties cast “red” and “blue” as forms of governance that essentialize the color-choices made in news maps as almost existential terms. Indeed, the increased casting of the 2020 Presidential election as a battle between “light” and “dark” was gained distinctly pocalyptic undertones fit for the age of the Coronavirus, mapping the current elections as a referendum of the “future of American democracy” or, for President Trump, a “bright future” and “dark future” whose oppositional terms echo a religious eschatology. Was it any coincidence that the separatist blood-stained banner of the Confederacy reappeared at Trump campaign rallies in 2016, jumping the logic of a chromatic divide into opposing visions that could be understood as a nation divided in war?

Brandon Partin, of Deland, Fla., at 2016 Trump rally in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As candidates proclaim themselves to constituents as an “ally of light, not darkness,” the choice of the election has turned on the complexion of the nation’s political future in ways that concretize the removal of maps of support of political parties as an existential struggle for the nation’s soul, removed from questions of political representation. The eery blocks of political division were apparent in the long led-up to the election, as the fracture lines in the nation were only less apparent because of increasing tension as to which way the highly colored states in play would slide, and how the electoral prism would mediate the popular vote.

The notion that a specter of socialism haunts America, to be promoted by the Democratic Party, is the conclusion to a logic of deeply sectarian politics of belonging.

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The Revenge of the Infographic?

Long before Barack Obama was a candidate for President of the United States, he took time to chastise the nation about the tyranny of the infographic that divided the nation.  Obama used the occasion of his endorsement of John Kerry’s nomination at the Democratic convention in Chicago to remind the nation of the danger of presuming the divide red states from blue states by the clear chromatic fashion that already increasingly increasingly filtered electoral maps of the United States, and has since come to haunt us in the Trump victory of 2016.  And if we were energized by the notion of “swing states” that might be shifted to the Democratic column back in 2012 and 2008 that increased the involvement and political participation of many in the electoral grid, the resurgent immobility of the electoral map divided between what seem to be continuous regions parsed into “red states” and “blue states”–

 

electoral-trump

 

–as if it were permanent divide as well as a fluid choropleth that refracted the spectrum of the American flag.  Indeed, the stability of the fractured electoral divide invest a sense of permanence as an electoral landscape, as the two-color infographic seems to have crept into our unconscious:  while it may be a proxy for an urban-rural distinction that has been championed both by the Trump campaign and as a dominant gloss of the infographic, has the divide invaded our consciousness in ways we are able to gain little distance?

America was, after all, once collectively energized at the prospect of tilting against the inevitability of a red-blue divide in the nation.  If Barack Obama sought to chasten readers of infographics in order to breath life into Kerry’s 2004 nomination as Democratic candidate for the United States presidency, his words were not only energizing, but prophetic of his own candidacy.  For they articulated the possibility of transcending electoral divides as a touchstone of his campaign strategy, foreshadowing Obama’s later electoral success.  And when we hear Donald Trump’s celebration of the “heartland” as the ‘Real America’ as if it might be searched for and found on the map, somewhere far away from “coastal elites” or intellectuals, it serves to conceal Trump’s truly narrow electoral victory by articulating a “real America” with which we on the coasts lost touch.  The spate of much-publicized post-election pilgrimages into the “heartland” by Mark Zuckerberg as self-defined coastal elites sought to find”normal america” needs to be rethought:  it seems to project a creation of the very infographics we’ve long consumed to understand democracy, or as a surrogate for democratic elections, more than a real place.  For where we find “the real America” alleged in so many maps in the contiguous sea of red–

 

348px-ElectoralCollege2016.svg

 

–we have recently found that the red is both far more fractured, and even often echoes the very sort of “news deserts” that are associated with the dominance of local news in media markets dominated by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose dissemination of a right-wing agenda to the televisions of 40% of Americans seems to have increased polarization in the last election.  The decline of local press–and the absence of paper newspapers–seem in another reminder of how the end of the local reporting poses deep dangers to our democracy–and invites unpredicted sorts of vulnerabilities.

 

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Vox, using dSinclair Broadcasting Group data cross-checked with Nielsen; darker areas denote where Sinclair runs more than one station

 

The divide between red and blue masks the dominant place of far more determining sites of constituencies that are more up for grabs–and my determine the election as extra-urban areas that are demographically distinct, and difficult to cast as blue or red.  The refusal to divide the nation into red and blue states, an increasingly meaningless unit, opened the possibility for change that the dominance of infographics in mediating and reframing our democracy has militated against.

Back when Obama energized the convention by reassuring the nation as well as delegates who had assembled in Chicago that, despite the evidence of infographics, the fissures of a fractured body politic that many maps continued to project were not destined to divide the nation:  “We’re not red states and blue states; we’re all Americans,” Obama urged, “standing up together for the red, white and blue,” even if we were powerfully represented as contentious factions on electoral maps.  The reservations that Obama expressed was compelling as an alternative vision of national unity; it in a sense under-wrote the mantra of “Hope” for a new way of seeing the nation, although this division seemed to return with a vengeance in 2016, as if it haunts the nation.

 

348px-ElectoralCollege2016.svg

 

The divide was, perversely, as powerful back in 2004, back when Obama first chastised the nation so firmly for having adopted the divide as inevitable.  So rhetorically powerful was the visual image of national unity as a rebuke to the fracturing of the map to announce Obama’s oratorical eloquence to the nation.  It seemed a healing balm for a riven republic, even as the 2004 election, despite its clarity of divisions by state, trumpeted in a powerful infographic that suggested isolated bodies of blue set apart form an apparently alienated flyover country that blared bright red indignantly–

 

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USA Today/BeldarBlog

–in ways that were echoed if not accentuated in the county-by-county breakdown that USA Today issued the day after, and the way Bush dominated what have been called the “battle-ground” states–then Arkansas, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania–as he did nationwide, even if the distribution didn’t break down at all so smoothly along state “lines”–

 

Mark Newman Red:Blue ma2004countymap-final2.png

 

–to muster the bulk of electoral votes out of the hands of California, Illinois and New York and served to create a solid electoral alliance all the better able to isolate Texas.

The “real America” might well lie in the edges of the blue and red, or the “purple” counties where political debate needs to be foster and occur.  Indeed, the image of divisiveness haunted the political imaginary of the nation so much the nation may have yearned for imagining a new collectivity by 2008.  Despite the fragmenting of the electoral map that occurred in 2004, where states seemed to vote red in their entirety, it might be noted that the same map could be resolved, in a district-by-district image of magnitudes, in a far more complex picture of the deeper red areas perhaps aligning more clearly with states than the more selective distribution of the strongest Democratic voters concentrated in regions voting Democratic–the “blue”–

 

The_2004_Presidential_Election_in_the_United_States,_Results_by_Congressional_District

 

–that is echoed in the far more complex county-by-county picture of 2016, whose shadings are much more telling of political truths:  despite the image of a “heartland” or a true America that is red, many of the areas that seem deep red on the electoral map are indeed light pink or shaded, and suggest that these areas–the less polarized–might be the “real” America much more than the deep red areas, which seem in fact the most remote.

 

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The fracturing of the electoral map by manipulating media was not new to such outlets as Sinclair Broadcasting Group:  Trump turned to the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, noted Media Matters, for interviews to reach a broader demographic, using a group notorious for revealing their boosterism for conservative causes, from ordering stations in 2004 to run anti-John Kerry segments over normal programming over the country–

 

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–using 173 television stations in 81 markets along “180 program streams” in 51 markets:

image.pngGray Television Group Station Map

–as Trump sought to eat into Hillary Clinton’s midsummer lead in national polls, by speaking to voting markets in newly “purple” regions as Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Colorado, and West Virginia, to circumnavigate traditional media outlets.  We would do well to remember that, in ways that raised raised eyebrows for some, that by November 8, 2016, areas like Iowa, Ohio, North Dakota and Arizona were suddenly shifting pink–as would Florida and North Carolina, suddenly an increasingly light blue.

 

November 7 projections 538png.png

 

1. There was a time when the red state/blue state divide was not so powerful in our minds.  The power of such an image of electoral unity was already so ingrained in 2004 that its rejection provided more than a powerful rhetorical image for the man who would be elected President in 2008.  The image of a nation that departed from a fractured infographic became central, in many ways, to Obama’s campaign, and a powerful image of a new political future.  Obama recalled the problematic nature of the chromatic division in his own campaigns several times, most famously, perhaps, to rebuke the danger of returning to a chromatic divide in 2012.  In the heat of the Presidential campaign for his second term, President Obama redeployed the refrain in a tweet simply asserting that “There are no red states and blue states, just the United States,” as if to dispatch or denaturalize the splintered red state-blue geography that haunted our diet of infographics in Presidential campaigns.   When Obama penned the figure of speech in 2004, before addressing the Democratic Convention in Chicago, John Kerry so quickly recognized its rhetorical power that he asked to adopt the image in delivering his acceptance of the 2004 nomination, although we’ll always remember it as Obama’s.

State Senator Obama warned somewhat prophetically of the difficulties implicit in any national mapping that ran against national interests; the junior Senator from Illinois took pundits to task for presenting a picture of the nation that served only “to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states–red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats.”  Obama called out the two-color maps as perpetuating a harmful vision, apt to diminish voters’ sense of their ability to effect political change, and diminishing voters’ agency, by inscribing the voting patterns in a static map that fractured the nation into blocks of like-mindedness as if to portray electoral results as predetermined and not contingent.  (The notion of “swing-states” would only emerge as a way to challenge the authority of this two-color map, of course, during Obama’s own 2008 candidacy.)

But the divides that we have come to perpetuate again in the 2016 Presidential election may suggest that the divides were less starkly drawn between red and blue district than Daily Kos Elections calculations suggest, which shows the dissonance between the map of congressional districts were poor vehicles to mediate the popular vote:  for a map of districts distorts geography; the increased crowding of the population in districts that vote “blue.”  Yet can the divide in the nation in fact be best understood by continuing to contemplate this fracturing, and not attending to the sites of smaller electoral margins–where the decision occurs, or at least which create a sense of tipping points, where the truly consequential electoral decisions seem to be increasingly made?  Obama’s caution not to be seduced by slicing and dicing the country seems particularly perceptive, and suggests the danger of trusting a chromatic divide of the country.

 

districts 2014.png

Xenocrypt

 

2.  Obama’s phrase has gained a quite surprising second life in the recent unpacking of how the electoral outcome of the election was sought to be strategically manipulated through the manufacture of a clearer red-blue divide through the voting patterns of purple states.  What were words of caution have gained a new concrete sense after the indictments released by Robert S. Mueller III have revealed outside interest in sharpening contrasts in the electoral map in the 2016 Presidential race, that suggests that the infographic has indeed gained an upper hand in the electoral process in even more dangerous ways than Obama had described.

It’s indeed pretty hard to see the United States divided into “red” and “blue” states, isolated from the world, in the same way again, as if each state shaded pink, light blue or strong red and dark blue in complete autonomy, showing their political temperatures in isolation of from the outside world.  Indeed, although the 2014 House of Representative race was striking for its salmon pinkness–and the deep red of the US-Mexico border, as well as Iowa, such colors are increasingly difficult to be seen as self-contained or removed from the larger world.

 

 

2014 House of Representatives Mid-Term Election 

 

Back when Senator Barack Obama so eloquently endorsed John Kerry as a presidential candidate, his admonition–or quite gentle–scolding struck such a chord not only as an effective image of patriotic identity, and not a reality check.  But the powerful phrasing became a theme of his campaign, and it was unsurprising when Obama returned to it in his 2008 victory speech in Grant Park, and welcomed the good news of what seemed a remapping of the United States, and he took the time to congratulate American voters for having “sent a message to the world that we have never been just . . .  a collection of red states and blue states” and which confirmed that, appearances to the contrary, we “are, and will always be, the United States of America.”  The words had reverberated in many ears with a sense of freshness, from when they were first uttered, as if seeking to disabuse television audiences of the image that had haunted the nation from before the 2000 election, but which had stuck uncomfortably in the background of the nation’s cerebral cortex, creating an image of sharp divisions,–even if those divisions were far less clear on the ground even in 2004, as Obama had suggested–but full of chromatic variations, even when they appeared entrenched, with some eighteen to twenty states mapped in varied shades of purple.  The blurred nature of this dive into voting habits as much as patterns suggests a point-value to political preferences that is misleading, but as a snapshot of the body politic, it suggests diagnostic tool that was valued in altering electoral outcomes as much as the image of individual agency that Bascom Guffin worked to create, using the concept that political scientist Robert Vanderbei had in fact developed for the 2004 Presidential race.  For the map suggested the actuality of the more complicated chromatic divides that Obama had then recently described.

 

purple_nationBascom Guffin, “Purple Nation”

 

Yet the dynamic of the purple regions seems to have been increasingly changed by the emergence in many places of “news deserts”–sites of no or only one local newspaper–in a phenomenon that is increasingly internet-driven, and reinforced by the growing number of news deserts across the nation.  As mapped in interactive form on Carto to reveal the spaces afflicted by the least local news sources–counties with no or one local newspaper, zero suggested by the lightest pink or one by salmon–

 

News Deserts--light pink = zero newpapers; salmon = 1.pngColumbia Journalism review/C. Chisolm

 

–the holes within the information network of much of the nation can be observed that intersect with once purple areas in striking ways, and the hollowing out of a news community in both rural and some urban areas.  The growth of “media deserts” up to 2014 mirror the end of Obama’s second term, and the growth of an alt right movement that has gained an increasingly dominant voice in the American political landscape, where the diminution of local news sources has altered the nature of public opinion have left increasing swaths of the nation dependent on online news sources, altering the information economy in decisive ways that helped allow red/blue cleavages to grow, and polarizing news agencies to reach a larger and more decisive constituency.

 

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Even more compellingly, it suggests the end of an economy of local news over much of the nation.  huge gaping holes have widened to leave the nation like a hunk of swiss cheese, in the southwest, modest, and northwest, as the outbreak of three wobbly but hovering blobs over the nation–including the southwestern border, whose hollowing has left them increasingly susceptible and open to both greater malleability and less reporting of the local consequences of issues of national debate.  In this setting, it is no surprise, perhaps, that internet-driven concerns about immigration, crime, and terrorist threats have been stoked and enflamed with greater ease–and populations most easily subject to outside interference because they lacked the resilience of local news.  In what almost seems a free speech violation, and a difficulty of generating public debate, the growing holes of such news deserts–which, much as it would deprive epidemiologists of needed tools to measure local rates of the growth of infectious disease or influenza–create barriers to assess the local impact of issues exclusively cast in national terms?  Is a decline of local reporting indicative of a qualitative change in the nature of communities, now more likely to adopt oppositional agendas rather than articulate their own?  Or is the rise of “news deserts” congruent with the increase in broadcast news that casts both global policy and national politics in increasingly oppositional terms?

 

Public-health-and-local-media-1024x576.pngDom Smith/Stat News

 

The expansion of such “news deserts” where no or only one source of news exists, according to the American Alliance for Audited Media.  AAUM measured the number of papers that reached at least 1% of each county, and haven’t converted to an exclusively digital form, as a proxy for the decline of news publications, and the increasing reliance on non-local media; while a focus on newspapers is questionable in an era of the dominance of television and on-line news, the hope to measure and map the reduction of local media within issues about issues of national consequence suggested the distinct shift in public debate.  Indeed, shuttering many smaller news publications, both urban and suburban, deprive communities of a local voice in events that seem to spin far beyond the local in increasingly challenging ways, and place global issues–undocumented immigrants; terrorist threats; refugees–in relation to local concerns in ways both challenging and difficult to grasp.

 

one to two souresColumbia Journalism Review–light pink without local news sources; salmon with one

 

Considered another ways, the near-absnence of non-profit news sources outside of metro areas, and few sources of information were available in small towns, and indeed outside the coasts–understanding the “news desert” as an absence of non-profit news, a dearth felt nationwide save in several cities as Denver, Austin, New Orleans, Madison, and Minneapolis–and to consider the different information markets that exist in much of the nation where Trump performed so stunningly.

 

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Each graphic invites us to examine the category and meaning of the ‘news desert,’ a term by no means clearly defined in an era of online news.  Is the fear that a common concern of news media that may itself loose analytic force?   Thomas Jefferson insisted that “The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate,” but the expansion of areas without local news venues or voices, or meaningful political endorsements, suggests not only a dangerous remove from national issues, but a vulnerability to external threats in an age where most get their news online and through Facebook feeds–and the expansion of online news threatens to make it impossible for all to feel themselves able to stay informed.

 

news deserts.pngDom Smith/Stat News

 

The gaping holes in the above GIF suggests a growing eating out of public opinion.  The hugely successful appeal of Trump’s candidacy in areas of relatively low news presence is not a surprise.  Trump was himself quite acutely aware “I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you,” as he told FOX Business Network as the election approached.  Trump’s avoidance of the mainstream media was notorious, although the success with which this became a strategy blindsided many.  But the sectarian–if not almost Manichean–divisions between red states and blue have been fostered and promoted by a decline in non-partisan or non-profit news sources.  And in a new range of articles on the increasingly partisan news offices at FOX or Sinclair Broadcasting, which reaches 39 percent of households in the country before its pending merger with Tribune Media.  Sinclair’s strategy of integrating national messages with local news suggests particularly dangerous ways of masquerading as local news–and driving fear in increasingly oppositional ways, accentuating the blue/red infographic in ways that were not even on Obama’s radar, although he perceptively sensed the divide emanated from screens more than it existed on the ground.

 

3.  The increasingly oppositional divisions are not evident in a stark division of political preference and allegiance within the current national map, and enabled a targeting of the parsing of populations and festering of divides.  Indeed, the success of the Trump team may lie in the address of the purplest populations of the nation, in which the success of the Trump vote can be mapped in what seems an inverse relation to printed news subscriptions:  ‘news deserts’ provided a crucial core constituency for Trump’s success, or at least correlate strongly, if one takes the shaky database of newspaper subscriptions that has been provided by the Alliance for Audited Media–an admittedly incomplete dataset whose questionable focus on subscriptions to local newspapers–not really adequate as a proxy for “news deserts” in an age of television and national news, but perhaps suggestive of the power of the local editorial endorsement–even if the description of “traditional news outlets” remains a questionable metric for access to news information.

 

Politico Deserts.pngLimited Subscriptions to Local Newspapers in America 

 

The growth of online news seems to have removed regions of the south and northwest from the figure of the local newspaper reporter.  Such a divide echoes the rural/urban divide, and may indicate the remove of much of the polity from public opinion, and a deep-set resistance to opinions broadcast from both coasts during the election seems rooted in the erosion of news communities in ways that demand to be mapped.  The growth of venues such as Sinclair Broadcasting provided ways of growing this divide–or fissure–through a virtual stranglehold on news sources in many sites.

 

4.  Obama successfully downplayed deep differences between red states and blue states by more than powerful and affecting rhetorical device.  His bridging of a chromatic divide was not only stirring not only to those in cities, but comforting in small towns.  By 2008, Obama’s audience were happy to accept as an invitation as his own coinage, and take it as an invitation to put aside animosity across electoral divides.  But the very notion of such a blue state-red state divide–and the prominence in such a divide of the purple–has recently gained new meaning and relevance in Robert S. Mueller III’s recent indictment charging thirteen Russians of waging information wars during the election.  For the Russians who were identified as arriving from 2014 aimed to splinter existing political divides by fostering increased dissensus and distrust in the political system in the “purple” states as those where the election of 2016 could be most effectively swung.  Indeed, the very vulnerability of the political imaginary that foregrounded a red state-blue state divide for the global image of American politics made something of an unforeseen return, when it was announced that the Russian operatives who had toured several states to conduct something of a political ethnography of the abilities to create greater political divisions and distrust in the political system focussed on the sensitivity of “purple states” as sites to increase and exploit existing political divides, and create increased political tensions in the United States through the results of its elections.

Taking the occasion of the 2016 Presidential election as an occasion to increase political distrust, and for slicing and dicing the nation For the targeting of what were described as “purple states,” in an unforessen appropriation of maps of a less polarized “Purple America” made after the divisive presidential election of 2000, by political scientist Robert J. Vanderbei .  The new visualization was widely adopted by the news media as a dynamic form of infographic, using colors exclusively to communicate the political temperature of Americans.  Yet the image gained a new second life as it provided a ground-plan for planting social media interventions, Special Counsel Mueller’s indictment reveals that the figure of speech, as well as a concrete metaphor, served to target disrupting political consensus from 2014.   Indeed, “purple America” provided not only a target for winning over the electorate for both political parties, but a target for disrupting consensus evident as much from outside of the United States as from within.

If purple can come to seem a sign of vulnerability, this is in large part because of the possibilities of warping through the electoral college produces clear divides, but which indeed offers a sense of stability–affirming a sense of continuities all too easily disrupted by the dogmatic prism of a red state/blue state electoral map, with a brightest red–actually pink–in the Texas panhandle and Dakotas, but the nation is decisively mottled; even in the divisive 2004 electoral map, “red” only dominated Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho, and redness was evident in blue states, as bluenesses in reds.  Drilling down so far is not, in many cases, an adequate picture of the political process, but offers a counter-map to the electoral map, that reflects a sense of cartographical insufficiency.

 

PurpleStates.jpgEmmie Mears, “These Purples States of America”

 

Emmie Mears’ deeper dive into the data is a striking photoshop map and suggests an even greater expanse of purple.  The contiguity of purple shades that run the vast extent of the nation pointedly challenged the polarities shared by pundits, and reveals, even in the 2016 Presidential race, a widespread admixture of voting tendencies.  Although Obama’s stirring image of overcoming political divides is often retrospectively cast as pandering to patriotism, it increasingly seems an accurate prognosis of a problem waiting to happen.  While Mears’ visualization was intended to affirm the plurality of political opinions, to undo the tension of oppositional confrontation that was generated already in the nightly news, the danger of adopting such a syntax of a census–familiar from the Dustin Cable’s Racial Dot map or the American Community Survey, which show both diversity and stark lines of ethnicity, education, and income, the danger of the vesting of political preference as a question of character–and not a selection in a given time and place–of course dilutes the representational institutions, and poses the problem of whether a two-party system can ever be able to refract our political diversity.

But it also suggests the broad openings for undermining that consensus, as the recent indictment of thirteen Russians who conducted preparatory ethnography as they planned a long-term project of disrupting American political consensus that would intersect in unforeseen ways with the candidacy of Donald Trump–a long-time fringe candidate, whose ascendancy to the oval office had been represented as an unsavory alternate future in Doonesbury, but whose own deep hunger for approval, recognition, and adulation seems to have created a tenacity to court  audiences without much attention to the public good.  Whether or not Trump shared the vision of the electoral map as ripe for exploitation, although his own deep attachment to the two-color outcome of the electoral map hints at how overjoyed he was with the results, the echo chamber of social media certainly helped dilute the deep purpleness of America that political scientists had mapped.

 

5.  If it’s the case that Trump proudly selected a framed map of the distorted division of electoral votes in the White House as one of the first images to be displayed to visitors, he certainly took deep satisfaction at the outcome  which was in part the result of targeting public opinion in divisive ways, even if many of the most powerful and divisive images that announced his campaign promises to the public seem to have derived from suspiciously identified social media sources.  The gap in population density between flatland of the regions of “red America” is thrown into a relief in a prism map that offers a county-results in a tiltable 3-D electoral map between counties voting Trump from those voting Clinton, a gap evident in economic integration, education, and lifestyle, that reminds us of the gap in media coverage increasingly centered in cities; but if it corrects the distorted flatland of an electoral map,  it surely exaggerates that yawning gap, as its blue/red dichotomy erased the purple nature of so many counties where social media news feeds helped worked to fill that gap, allowing Facebook feeds to play an increased role in forming a surrogate public opinion that could effectively intensify existing political divides, so that they appear even more extreme that in previous elections with the sort of “political intensity” that indicted Russians planned to foment.  Did the extension of first amendment Free Speech laws to cover data-driven bots and platforms designed to work by keeping viewers engaged help  expand the blue/red divisions that we’ve come to accept in the electoral map?

 

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County-level Margins of Victory legend.pngBlueshift

 

Indeed, the current rash of twitterbots that issued viral memes from #ReleasetheMemo to #Guncontrolnow and #Parklandshooting that hail from Russia–if not St. Petersburg–need to be held to different standards than First amendment rights, but under if seen as speech acts, protected First amendment, although originating in foreign lands, they are able to gain a pressing reality in our politics for their consumers and followers.  The shape of such activity seems especially prominent in creating an apparent groundswell of the alt Right in the last election.  When Mueller’s indictment forced social media giant Twitter was forced to purge thousands of newly suspected automated bots posting from overseas that Twitter’s legal division had seen as protected by Free Speech, deleting 50,000 accounts linked to Russian bots created such sudden drops in the numbers of the followers of figures like white nationalist Richard Spencer or long-time Trump promoter Bill Mitchell that they were suspected as victims of a purge of followers of the alt right.  If the move provoked cries of censorship, we were reminded how much twitter shaped the election in the valleys of areas colored red, where a third of pro-Trump tweets among over a million tweets issued by automated bots, and pro-Trump rallies belying his lower standings in most polls save on Facebook, as millions of bots nudged the geography of the map from behind the scenes through an unforseen barrage of propagandistic images and texts that directed the mental attention of a Durkheimian collective.

Many images displayed by accounts suspected of originating overseas, as of the platform ‘Secured Borders,’ create a quite viscerally striking image of the very geopolitical imaginary that the Trump campaign openly promoted.  But if they echo Trump’s rhetoric, the deeply offensive images identifying migrants as vermin, as if to deny them of legal rights, derive from a right-wing imaginary already current in central Europe, as other images used in Trump’s political commercials, showing hoards of immigrants racing across border, and  betray historical roots in Nazi visual propaganda.  These images created a geographical imaginary rooted in fear, indeed, and promote a geopolitical imaginary–a divide made visibly clear in cartoonish ways in the contrast between the barren lands to one side of the wall and the green lands across it, where the suited Father Figure Donald Trump stands wearing his red tie and flag pin, in a new and creepy image of the defender of the nation–as if to protect the greenness of its grass.  (The creepy smile and richly solid comb over look so little like our supposed President, it is quite oddly designed, if replete with visual triggers, and its hortatory text lacking a comma, its limited punctuation seeming poorly proofread.)

 

 

Secured Borders: immigrant as vermin?

 

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6.  Such a reality seems to heighten not only the “political intensity” but heighten divides along what we map in red/blue terms, despite the limited explanatory power of an electoral flatland’s gaps between blue peaks of populated centers and the far redder expanses. Even after refining the flat electoral map, by adopting opacities to render margins of victory, retaining a contrast designed to foreground sharp differences fails to register the range of purple regions that turned red, driven toward an intensity of political involvement or disaffection by memes of social media still protected as “free” speech.

The issue is not only, moreover, the troll accounts that were tied to a Russian “troll factory” outside of St. Petersburg, Russia.  For the so-called ‘factories’ that mined images designed to provoke visceral responses that would trump reflection released a steady feed of fake news, based on innuendo and insinuation as well as outright slander and attack, that polluted the global media, as they were actively retweeted by the Washington Post, Jack Dorsey, CNN’s Jake Tapper, to fed an information ecosystem that was waiting to be poisoned, as some 3,000 global news outlets inadvertently included tweets originating from confirmed Kremlin-linked troll accounts in upwards of 11,000 “news” articles as the 2016 Presidential election approached, based on an analysis of over 2,700 Twitter handles confirmed to be linked by Twitter to the Internet Research Agency, a group tied to Russian intelligence–including David Duke (@DrDavidDuke), Sen. John Coryn (@JohnCornyn), Kellyanne Conway (@KellyannePolls), FOX News host Sean Hannity (@seanhannity), Brad Parscale (@parscale), Anthony Scaramucci (@Scaramucci), former White House press secretary Sean Spicer (@seanspicer), and Sen. Ted Cruz (@tedcruz)–in ways that transformed Twitter into a tool of information war.  By targeting audiences by zip-code, education, and wealth, raising the specter of those who “come to our country to change our traditions,” and increasing the fear and specter of unwanted refugees.

 

Meltwater

 

Tweets on new issues of 2016, from illegal immigration to voter fraud, circulated from Russian plants–in cringe-inducing claims such as “If Hillary wins, she will amnesty 30+ million illegal aliens and Republicans will never win an election again”, or “#VoterFraud by counting tens of thousands ineligible mail-ins for Hillary votes being reported in Broward County FL”–mirrored the fears of a “rigged” system and election that Trump had repeatedly conjured, and created a new meme in American political discourse that increased skepticism about the political process.

The overlap between many purple regions and regions with distinct patterns of consuming news in print or online media would have only magnified the divides where social media platforms spread disinformation–that infamous “fake news”–to gain a purchase as real in our political system.  Even if the possibility of infection by viral posts can’t yet be traced or measured with certainty as a map, the disinformation moved by bots or “troll factories” created a pitched battle of electoral intensity, that was staged around electoral votes or at least along fomenting clearly defined geographic/regional divides that Russians charged with visiting states in the United States to gain a sense of their ability to exploit a divided political landscape didn’t even need to travel to America to apprehend, as infographics clearly served as a readily available primer on how best to foment increased divisions.  Indeed, even by creating a distracting static whose constant beat eroded dialogue or trust, from internet accusations of the murder of Justice Antonin Scalia, deep distrust of naming a successor, and a year-long vacancy of his seat, as Mitch McConnell forced the sort of divisive deadlock only able to intensify political opposition.  (While the diffusion of the demand among Republicans began from McConnell’s quick tweet incited a sort of collective resistance, issued hours after Scalia expired in Texas, and lent broad currency to the numerous questions about conspiracies of the nature of his death that circulated online.  The  false populism in many ways echoed Trumpism, issued an hour after Scalia was confirmed as dead, and generated disruptive memes on social media–“OMG They killed Scalia” “I hope an autopsy is done to make sure Obama didn’t have him killed”– which supported an unprecedented, as Glenn Thrush and Burgess Everett reminded us, “rebuke of President Obama’s authority” and “categorical rejection of anyone Obama chose to nominate,” irrespective of their merits, to disrupted trust in political consensus during the Republican and Democratic primaries.  (Was it a surprise that McConnell, the senior senator from deep red Kentucky, playing the part of a disruptor, in late August single-handedly blocked bipartisan decisions to alert the American public to FBI reports of Russia’s unwanted involvement in the presidential election, from staging cyberattacks to ties to the campaign of Donald J. Trump?)

The entrance of this gambit within the context of the political election indeed led all Republican nominees to adopt the issue that drove a wedge between red and blue states and their respective media outlets, in what was cast as a rebuke to President Obama’s lack of respect for the institution of Congress to pursue “his personal agenda.”  A yawning gap between red and blue counties reveals the disconnect in our social fabric but of the consumption of news, and sources of opinion, about which the “troll factory” charged with launching disruptive messages into America’s Presidential election from St. Petersburg were able to play a disproportionately outsized role.  The divide was plain in this 2013 map of print news consumption, where yellow shows the swath of land getting news principally from USA Today, a year later by online outlets Huffington Post and TMZ, where the investment in social media may have had particularly pronounced leverage.  And in a period of increased attachment to divisive news sources that intensified an absence of dialogue between political parties, the expansion of divisive posts on social media platforms helped to undermine civic discourse.

 

7.  When Jared Kushner openly boasted that his father-in-law Donald was able to secure a deal with one of the largest media broadcasters in the United States–the Sinclair Broadcasting Group to ensure superior media coverage, and presumably promote attack ads, he suggested that the Trump team was on board in broadcasting their message to purple states within the political map–targeting a similar audience than that reflected in the yellow expanse below of states that were the most apt to share news stories in 2013–areas that already ran pretty red.

 

print-news-consumption-2013Media Map Showing Most Shared News in Each State (2013)

 

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The metaphorical trolling of the country that foreground the imminent threat terrorists pose to the nation, raise suspicions about Barack Obama’s or Hilary Clinton’s motivations for being President and ties to suspicious organizations, by the same Sinclair Broadcasting Group.  In ways that recall the media attack ads manufactured abroad, news segments ran on the dangers that immigration poses across the nation’s southern border from anchors of chains of local news stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, a media conglomerate which regularly issues “must-run” segments of news to its 173 affiliates, whose involvement in local news markets is now posed to enter urban areas–and making the news corporation the largest in the nation, with 233 stations.  Did the news group offer a disinformation of its own, now seemingly only poised to grow into an urban market with its acquisition of Tribune media?

Would this expand the map’s red?

 

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The splitting of news constituencies reached by the Sinclair Group along an urban/rural divide that reflects the Trump’s “heartland” has been noted, and since 2013 offered a basis for “managing” a constellation of stations that worked around FCC regulations on media consolidation that are intended to promote local news diversity.  The lack of diversity in the 38% of households that they reached–now posed to reach 72%–already offered a powerful megaphone for addressing residents in “purple” states–in the Midwest, West, and Southwest–and mirror the “gaping holes” of news deserts, where local news sources are increasingly absent.

 

sinclair1Technical.ly

 

It is not surprising to see Trump’s FCC to take steps that actively aided the expansion of Sinclair media into American households by merging with Tribune Media, by adopting a loophole that once pertains to UHF broadcasting–and is long technologically obsolete–to allow low-budget stations to grow, thereby allowing it to grow beyond the ceiling of 39% of a national audience to diffuse a fairly reactionary message if one maps its media footprint in ways that would allow it to address more than 39% of its existing market.

 

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Politico mapped existing Sinclair stations against their media footprint

 

8.  Although it was habitual to take what seems Obama’s fondness for the phrase as a sense of its particular rhetorical effectiveness, a more charitable interpretation of his attachment to the phrase might be intimations of the deeply corrosive nature of the metaphorical divide of the nation.  The image of an electoral divide perpetuated by pollsters and pundits was shown to haunt the nation not only in the 2016 Presidential election but, as we have heard in the recent expansive indictment that Mueller issued accusing Russian operatives who travelled the United States seeking strategies to sew discord “in the U.S. political system” from 2014.  Traveling in Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, they defined their mission as  oriented along that very divide.  Defendants Mssrs. Krylova, Bogacheva, and Bovda were charged with conspiracy for not disclosing the motivations of their travels in the United States posing as tourists, developed the idea of targeting “purple states” as sites to foment the greatest divisions–seeking to “create ‘political intensity through supporting radical groups” and transform fictitious personas into “leaders of ‘public opinion’ in the United States” by hundreds of social media account.  While traveling in America a “real U.S. person” advised that they

 

should focus their
activities on "purple states" like Colorado, Virginia & Florida.

 

–and the principle of “targeting ‘purple states'” returned in later months as a ground-plan to disrupt the election, and sew a deeper sense of distrust within our democracy.  Even if the term “purple states” that emerged as sites of targeting may not have been seen as sites where social media platforms could have substantially increased authority, the success of increasing divisiveness readily responded to stark divisions on the map.

The parlance learned in the United States was shaped in the media sphere to enlarge factional divides, if the notion of “Purple America” had been born to give complexity to a blue state versus red state divide.  Avatars on fictitious social media accounts used the categories of political scientists to amplify existing prejudices from troll factories in St. Petersburg, often pedaling prejudices that gained greater reality in what seemed public opinion as the election approached.  The “information warfare” waged on social media that was an odd spin on globalization, that kicked into gear with racial prejudice channeled by Russian hipsters working round the clock in twelve-hour shifts from a designated “Facebook department” in Taylorist fashion within a “troll factory”:  the surprising success of targeting voters in the United States was based on extensive mapping of political divisions, and a design to exploit them through social media.  Were the addictive apparatus of a medium that seeks to command the attention of observers part of the plan?

Such images, texts, comments, and posts designed to stoke divisions were based on ventriloquizing Americans, but pushing the envelope on the standards of address:   in a scene straight of Adam Smith’s pin-making factories, the web of disinformation that was spun from Americans’ social media fabric extended not only what seemed to the Russian who created them incredibly “believed [to be] written by their own people,” and even worked directly with the Trump campaign to coordinate rallies in purple states like Florida.  If Trump didn’t detect that the divisiveness Russian trolls devised on Facebook feeds incriminated his campaign, because Mueller did not reveal direct ties between the desire of the Internet Research Agency to sew disinformation and division was distant from his own campaign–“Obama was President up do, and beyond, the 2016 election.  So why didn’t he do something about Russian meddling?”–what Trump confidently imagined to be a wellspring of popular support for his candidacy may well only have intersect with the more successful than anticipated adoption of the Russian trolls’ stories in Facebook platforms that created the intense emotional involvement which drove an under-the-radar aspect to the campaign, from images linking Hillary Clinton to Satanism to targeted voter suppression to diffusing enthusiasm by openly promoting third-party candidates as effective protest votes.

Indeed, Facebook and Twitter did the heavy lifting of ensuring that trolling from St. Petersburg were sent out across America, and to effectively mask the diffusion of messages along various social networking platforms to create something like an inadequate surrogate for public opinion–even as Facebook was foreign to Russian social networking when the Internet Research Agency was begun in 2014.

 

world-map-social-networks-dec-2014

 

The Internet Research Agency, perhaps an acronymic pun on the Irish Republican Army, worked to foment what seemed a similar faith-based war by manipulating styled prejudices to “spread distrust” to online communities they had infiltrated, warning of misleading “hype and hatred . . . forcing Blacks to vote for Killary” to “Woke Blacks” Instagram accounts in October 2016–weeks before the election–and adding “we would surely be better off without voting AT ALL” than cast a vote for the Democratic candidate.  As well as  unleashing an unprecedented epidemic of trolling, the St. Petersburg “troll factory” staffed by 900 employees posted over thousand times each week at the height of the election from over one hundred Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, in ways that magnified the rifts in the isolated filter bubbles had previously existed in order to turn them against one another.  When Eli Pariser in 2011 coined the phrase to describe the dangers of isolating information ecosystems in selective news feeds forming virtual echo chambers of false comfort in an insulated information bubble,

 

atomization.png

 

the tools of social media sites enabled the splintering to actual communities in an almost mechanical fashion of cause and effect, as if sending ripples able to create the sort of electoral disruption in strategic ways.  In doing so, they mirror the very danger of which President Obama in his final public speech cautioned against “retreat into our own social media feeds” as rendering Americans uncritical information consumers [who] start accepting information, whether its true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on evidence that is out there.”  The warning delivered after the election of Donald Trump and delivered in Chicago saw Obama trying to move out of the bubble, and was delivered near to where his 2008 victory speech celebrating an America able to transcend its image as a nation divided between red states and blue states.  But the bubbles in which selective calls to not go to the polls or demonize the Democratic candidate were launched as narratives may have made them difficult to detect or counteract.

The sort of fragmentation that troll factories Mueller has charged were orchestrated from abroad are described as being planned after reconnaissance in the United States.  The same divides, it is important to remember, could have been as easily gleaned online.  And even if trips to the United States are described as developed by operatives traveling to the United States to discover, much the same sort of prejudice pedaled in postings crafted in St. Petersburg to disrupt the Presidential election based on a fractured public politics could have been gleaned form an infographic.  The disruptiveness of disinformation created feedback loops that only mimicked oppositional racism as much as it mimicked back prejudices observed in ethnographic study of American social media Facebook groups.

Indeed, the stories of Russian hipsters working twelve-hour days on posting divisive comments on Facebook from 2014-16 in St Petersburg, posing as Americans, and required to write an essay in English on Hillary Clinton to determine whether they were suitable for the job, suggests just how invested the foreign government was in addressing social media to purple states to influence the election’s outcome, and doing their best to dissuade blacks and other minorities from supporting Hilary Clinton, despite an overall eligible voting population that was more racially and ethnically diverse than ever, according to Pew Research, but for the first time blacks declined as a share of voters since 2004.   Black voters were not only among the “three major voter suppression operations” Trump advisors worked to lower turn-out, with white liberals and young women, but one of the most successful efforts seemingly tied to Trump’s director of data digital operation in his San Antonio headquarters, Brad Parscale, whose nightly electoral simulations seemed aimed at providing a basis for to partly its data into a new news organization, mirrors techniques of turnout suppression adopted by destabilizing social media divides.  Facebook accounts such as the “Blacktivist” page that urged that voting for Jill Stein–a candidate with close ties to Russia–was “not a wasted vote,” clearly recycled historical images of African-American nationalism and solidarity, in hopes to decrease voter turn-out in Maryland.  The use of the emblem may seek to re-engineer the energy of black voters for past Democratic Presidential victories, and to scare others who might see it.  With other accounts openly urging Muslim voters to boycott the election, the goal was to dilute and splinter the very coalitions that the Clinton campaign assembled by sowing distrust–and indeed, to exploit social media by triggering a clear emotional response, more than making an argument.

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The studies of social media patterns that began from at least 2014, which were, as if by coincidence, marked by huge Republican gains in Senate and House under a banner of the most angry national midterm elections to be directed against a sitting President, was effectively amplified with the encouragement and traction that the bitterness of 2014 elections had set across the southern states and deep south, southwestern Texas along the US-Mexico border, and in formerly ‘blue’ or ‘purple’ states–creating a particularly obstructionist House of Representatives that succeeded to obstruct so any of the policies President Obama sought to pursue in his final two years.

 

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National results of the 2014 House races, showing Republican gains in bright red

 

9.  The proliferation of robo-posts seeking to foster divisiveness upped the ante far more than Sinclair Broadcasting, but the two seem to have mutually reinforced one another–if not using strikingly similar tactics.  The divisiveness continued by injecting increasingly radicalized terms of political debate, and even fundamentalist notions of apocalypticism, that seemed foreign to American political debate, depicting Hillary Clinton as increasingly satanic and promoting open borders, promoting division and distrust around bizarre social media memes.  The offensive cartoonish images promoted by the IRA-sponsored “Secured Borders” borders account, designed to appeal to Trump’s supporters and introducing an icon of his campaign, resembled the icon of the United States Border Patrol to create an image that not only recalled its official insignia–

 

 

 

–but did so to link a specific presidential candidate to patriotism in extreme ways, celebrating the at of rejecting refugees and asylum-seekers and increasing border protection as a need for national protection, creating a false equivalence if there ever was one, and straining any logical linkages.  (The conceit of “liking” advocating political isolationism is a bizarre mashup of Facebook’s prescriptive language of immediate unconsidered emotional reaction and a political position with all too dangerous political consequences.  Was the irony of using social media to raise questions of border protection not ever perceived?  or was the idea to root the image of a tough border so deeply in one’s mind, that one didn’t think that clearly about its politics, consequences or implications?)

 

 

 

Rusian FB ad for Secrured Borders.png

 

 

Indeed, an ethnographic study of Facebook groups might target alone groups living on the southern border, Christian fundamentalists, white supremacists and Black Lives Matter as potential groups to manipulate to stoke divisiveness on partisan lines, and sow disorder on the performance of a two-party system by gaming electoral geography.  There is hope in puncturing the filter-bubbles of Facebook groups, however, by the increased calling out of the need for resolve on a true issue–gun control–too regularly and dismissively side-lined by the staged political debates that were shared in posts, and which seems, if only because of the strength of its blunt actuality, to puncture social media with an urgency that can’t be denied.

 

10.  The decision to direct a social media focus on purple states as sites where divides would stand the greatest chance to disrupt or even to tweak the electoral results reveals a bizarre recycling of what was designed as a classificatory map to increase divisions, and gave a distinctly new ideological flavor and torque to the left-wing concepts of swing states that were so successfully promoted within the 2008 Obama campaign.  By recycling attention-getting image of chromatic divides developed for television audiences, purple states emerged as targets for online spooking, and Facebook aggregation gained traction around affective ideas like casting the color red was a form of patriotism.

But the notion of pressing advantages on social media in states purple, but maybe able to be nudged Republican, provided the deepest rationale for division.  Defendants, posing as members of the group “Being Patriotic,” under the guise of that patriotism offered the idea of pressing their advantage by the notion of a wedge in purple states.  The defendants offered in emails, “we’ve got an idea.  Florida is still a purple state and we need to paint it red.  If we lose Florida, we lose America.  We can’t let it happen, right?  What about organizing a YUGE pro-Trump flash mob in every Florida town?” on August 2, 2106, and offered, “We clearly understand that the elections winner will be predestined [sic] by purple states.”  While not brilliant as strategy, as a selective basis to sew distrust and disorder in one of the most over-polled elections ever, where we watched the results of multiple daily polls as if to deliver the odds on horse races, tweaking the electoral map toward a new color combination was enough.

The “purple” region gained the most striking new sense as sites of information warfare in the United States over a period of years–in ways that might be detached from the actual campaign.  The figure of speech born of data visualizations gained a newfound torque as a form of divisiveness, and the chromatic metaphor operative force, as “focusing on purple states such as Florida” became, for the fictional identity “Josh Hamilton,” a strategy proposed by a false grassroots efforts that was communicated to Trump campaign officials.  White most tracks were concealed, a few were not.  And although the Trump campaign didn’t need to be advised, necessarily, “to focus on ‘purple’ states like Colorado, Virginia, and Florida,” the targeting of areas where there didn’t seem a clear polarity promised to create a far starker one.   But Russian use of a language of infographics served to materialize, in a starkly divided map, existing fault-lines that one needed only to exploit, push apart, and throw into relief to engineer a surprising electoral result, using images that recovered more subtly shaded areas where blue met red as tools that were able to be exploited to show the world a far more bitterly divided United States, as if even raising the specter of a deep red region could sow considerable distrust in a Democratic system, or just vacate whatever appeal its constitutional rights held in Russia and Central Europe.

 

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New York Times:  2016 United States presidential election results by county 

 

The organizing of false grassroots efforts according to the Mueller indictment not only to organize rallies that would “focus on purple states,” but to create a divide in doing so that best exploited divisions in our electoral maps.  Indeed, the notion of such a divide that had been picked up by Nate Silver and across the art of political forecasting was not something that would have had to come from any sort of special informant, being in the air of 2016 and widely broadcast on the airwaves, as the “Purple America” coined right after the divisive presidential election of 2000, by Vanderbei, as a way to come to terms with starkness of the opposition between Bush v. Gore; Vanderbei recast what seemed a polarity in the context of a variety of political opinion, leading to articles after 2004 to insist that America is not divided into sub-nations, or on the brink of a second Civil War, and continued to map the mutation of purple America in future elections.

 

11.  The conceit of Purple America rescued to some extent the simplified opposition implied by a chromatic divide between red v. blue.  Articles ran entitled “Most Americans live in Purple America, not Red or Blue America” rather than in a blue or red state, created a sense of consensus and diversity, befitting a democracy, but the yawning gaps in areas of intense redness meant that purpleness provided a language of opportunity for those seeking to grow division and craft heightened political dissensus.  Vanderbei offered the original “Purple America” to help refine a clearer statistical image of the dynamics hidden between the political polarization of a body politic, and to give greater agency to a varied range of political opinions in most states.  By embodying a red flyover zone, or a blueing of the coasts, the intention was to encourage a deeper dive into the national vote, as well as to retire the tired glossing of the electoral map:  the bridging of a division that Obama would make in his speech in support of John Kerry’s Presidential candidacy fenced the hegemony of a similar symbolic divide, and cast it as at its root dangerous to democracy.

 

 

PurpleAmerica2000

Purple America (2000)

 

But it didn’t remain there.  The migration of a language designed for a broad market of TV news infographics to a language of political operatives interested in subverting the democratic process is perhaps instructive.  The map was perhaps replayed in the media as it contained sufficient dramatic tension to foreground problems of crafting political consensus, as if social policies and political opinions were identified with an area in the country, and as if every issue in the political platform was fundamentally designed to capture a divisive issue of political debate–around abortion, social security, gun control, climate change or global warming, environmental regulation, and monetary policy or fiscal restraint–whereas the options on the table were not, in fact, that divergent.

The maps however naturalized the divisions, and, paradoxically, left them open to be exploited, perhaps not so much since we were fractured into filter bubbles as because pundits wanted to create the necessary degree of dramatic tension, and to craft and foreground the dramatic arc of an election season, as if the notion of a ground-plan and an electoral strategy could be portrayed and represented as a military as much as a political one.  The guiding metaphor of divisiveness and division that was foregrounded in this map–as if blocks of population existed with one preference, despite the subtler variations in voting, despite the blue/red divide imposed by majority victory–

Mark Newman Red:Blue ma.png

–even if such a decision, a sort of hold-over from a pre-parliamentary languages of democracy, that privileged the notion of a ruling party in a quasi-monarchical way, obscured the variations once one drilled down into voting patterns–

 

votes- red v blue, by county and interest level

 

–but obscured the huge number of “ghost votes” across the less inhabited areas, where isolated communities, suspended outside of the metropoles, were magnified in an electoral college that robustly enhanced their political voice in ways bluntly reflected by the flatness of the two-color map in stubborn wasy.  But as Chris Howard, inspired by the blended voting maps created by Robert J. Vanderbei of the 2012 election that showed purple America, and the cartograms of Mark Newman, transparencies could capture the magnification of political voices of low-density in the electoral map, in ways that might have suggested the potential for electoral disruption to those seeking to do so–even if such a perverse reading of the language of infographics was hard to imagine.

 

howardmap

The graphic language, migrating from electoral processes to the nightly news, may have provided a basis for newscasters to naturalize a drama of political  contestation, more than conversation.  Whereas we are increasingly talking not of “states” that suggest the fragmentation of the union, we live in an increasing economic divide largely oriented not along pitched lines of battle, but by urban/rural divisions, if the divide is belied in the flat pasteurization of space of electoral maps.  The growth of megacities across America have raised multiple divisions electoral maps fail to capture, with its fundamental insistence on the county as a unit of voting, despite the increasing evacuation of its meaning as a unit of political representation.  But as a metaphor, or master-trope, the fracturing of states was something of an invitation to a foreign nation to seize up and try to pry apart, however, as French cartographer Luc Guillmot showed in an alternative cartogram, sized by votes in red states in the so-called heartland of the midwest, in the manner of Ben Hennig’s cartograms.

 

 

deep-blue-cities-hennig

 

But President Obama’s own words come back to haunt us.  In the electoral maps for the 2016, indeed, the masking of gradations of division produced the sense of a democratic result we were bound to accept–

 

2016_presidential_election,_results_by_congressional_district_(popular_vote_margin).svg.png

 

 

–even if it brought an intensified red that was really clinched at the margins, or in Texas, Florida, Michigan and Virginia, but whose deep red “heartland” created the sense for the victor that he was indeed recognized by the “real Americans” he so desired to court.  Trump was so taken with the electoral map to have it framed, and has been so personally obsessed with imagining the scale of his supposed victory to be present in the intensity of the square mileage of red hued states to take a truly personal offense at the idea that voters swayed by Facebook pages and Instagram groups are seen as diminishing the status of his victory, and an election he imagines a total victory he pulled off by bravado, and dismiss concern of dangerous effects of foreign disturbances of the voting process.

 

12.  Widespread exploitation of such divisions, and indeed the language of opposition, subverted the democratic process by a vision of polarization that maps reinforced.   And by exploiting that narrow margin of purple states of the nation, local consensus was ready to be flipped, and precedents of civility overturned.  By stoking an an enthusiasm that few saw as even in reach on the eve of electoral night, America seemed to fall into two camps, but with the electoral collect staying clearly in Clinton’s camp.  (The hold on the lighter blue states like Florida and North Carolina were tenuous, however, and the loss in Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania tipped the scales.)

If the blue states seem able to hug the red core to prevent it overflowing to both coasts, the glare of the divisions between blue and red states was so starkly naturalized to masquerade the extent to which flipping purple states would in fact flip much more of the nation red, and alter the outcome of the electoral count in ways that renders the flat dichotomy of a two-color prediction irrelevant.  The flipping of purple and pink states upset the predictive power of a map, but did so in ways that seem only to have reinstated the logic of the divided nation we have created in our infographics which may, in the end run, do far less to inform.

 

Cahnc of Wining.png

The fact stubbornly remains that it wouldn’t involve that much demographic science or pinpoint precision polling to know that enough pressure in the purple states could create a crisis in consensus enough to blur the outcome of the vote.  But we clearly can’t go back again to seeing the national shores as creating a red/blue divide that is taking the current temperature of public opinion in each state, in isolation from the rest of the world.

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Filed under 2016 US Presidential Election, Donald Trump, electoral maps, News Maps, Presidential Elections