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Lack Of Political Bumper Stickers

Lack Of Political Bumper Stickers Lack Of Political Bumper Stickers

The bad news is, for very few people is this a starting point from which they’re then going to delve into the crux of the matter and look at logic and data. A lot of times, the sticker is the end of the conversation.

Political bumper stickers make bold statements, but from within the shelter of a car. What do you make of the loud but anonymous communication achieved through bumper stickers?

A bumper sticker from Gerald R. Ford’s 1976 campaign. (Photo: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum/Public Domain)

Kennedy’s bumper sticker from his campaign. (Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/Public Domain) 

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The discussion of important political issues, I teach my students, deserves something more than a catchy slogan or 10 second soundbite that serves only to simplify what are, in reality, very complicated, multifaceted issues that often have multiple “right” answers, depending on one’s perspective, priorities, and interests.

Indeed, bumper stickers can express the full range of Americans’ political sentiments in a very limited amount of space. They are also more popular here than in any other country.

There are people who plaster tens of political stickers on their bumpers. What do you think is going on there?

We all know the guidelines about avoiding any discussion of ethics, politics, or religion at dinner parties. But the car is a perfect place to have this “discussion” and to voice your position. You can say, “We Need Change,” or, “Keep Your Change” and not have to engage in what often turns out to be a fruitless and hotly contested argument.

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Political bumper stickers are a surface-level and necessarily simplistic form of communication (they leave only a few square inches to work with), and while they may seem like aesthetic clutter on the back of a car, there’s a lot more going on, both psychologically and ideologically, with political bumper stickers than mere campaign slogans.

The first political bumper stickers were printed en masse in 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower battled Adlai Stevenson for presidential reelection (“I like Ike” was an immensely popular slogan on bumper stickers and campaign buttons for both Eisenhower elections). These days, political bumper stickers run the full gamut of slogans, from a simple “Hope,” indicating support for President Obama, to a feisty “You are NOT entitled to what I have earned”, to mark a voter’s opposition to taxpayer-funded welfare disbursements.

People now have so many other venues to voice similar ideas. With social media, the tweet has taken over for people’s itch once scratched by the bumper sticker. Now you can just “yell” something out at those following you in 140 characters and you don’t really need to defend it. Given that users tend to be connected with like-minded people, their emotional tanks get filled rather neatly by likes and shares. Aside from the occasional honk-plus-the-finger or thumbs-up, you don’t get that kind of feedback with bumper stickers.

What sort of person is inclined to use political bumper stickers?

“I hope that the candidates resist the urge to engage in ‘bumper sticker politics.’ I hope that they’ll take the opportunity to engage in some thoughtful, nuanced discussion of their respective positions, perhaps even occasionally acknowledging the merits of their opponent’s perspective. While candidates should still argue strongly for their case, I hope that they’ll take the opportunity to set an example to the American public that our political discourse doesn’t have to simplistic, obtuse, or discourteous. Instead, it can be thoughtful, informed, and respectful.”

People who are impassioned tend to share that passion on their bumpers. People who are really committed to their political cause want to get that cause out there and heard. Bumper stickers are a good way to do that.

Mitt Romey campaign stickers from 2012. (Photo: Daniel Oines/CC BY 2.0)

How do political bumper stickers contribute to our political discourse?

Bumper stickers on sale at an anti-war protest. (Photo: Patricia Marroquin/shutterstock.com)

Whether it’s “Yes She Can” or “Hillary for Prison,” it’s hard to take a drive anywhere in the United States without coming up on at least a few different political bumper stickers. Some are official campaign gear, others are custom designed, some are picked up at rallies and protests, but they all serve the same purpose: to let whoever chances upon your bumper to know where you stand politically.

Research has shown that presidential debates are profoundly educational experiences. While candidates don’t often sway many voters or change many minds as a result of their debate performances, they do succeed in educating many in the voting public of their respective positions so that voters can cast a more well-informed vote. Where better to hold presidential debates than at college campuses? Especially those in the liberal arts tradition like Centre College, whose primary mission is to provide students with a broad educational foundation that allows them to engage the world from a variety of perspectives.

Additionally, political party affiliation and approval—or, in many cases, disapproval—of candidates puts one in a group, and gives a sense of belonging. So there’s this sense of being “in” with bumper stickers. Good campaigns, just like good advertising, sell an image. People loved Obama’s “Change” campaign and wanted to jump on board: it was fun to be “in.”

Unfortunately, the structure of today’s political environment does not lend itself well to a more sophisticated type of communication. Politicians are encouraged to over-simplify issues and speak in soundbites by the news media and a voting public with a very short attention span. Personally, I think that most politicians would prefer to be able to debate issues in a more nuanced fashion, but the reality of the modern campaign environments simply punishes answers to questions that suggest complexity or that take more than fifteen seconds to explain.

A more general political bumper sticker. (Photo: Robert F. W. Whitlock/CC BY 2.0)

Ultimately, this is what I would like to see from this year’s debates: each of the candidates doing their best to inform the electorate of their respective positions in a thoughtful and respectful way while avoiding the temptation to engage in “bumper sticker politics.” I hope our contenders do not let us down.

In the middle of campaign season, we see examples of “bumper sticker politics” all over the place. I’m referring to things like when President Obama describes Governor Romney’s tax plan as “Robin Hood in Reverse … it’s Romney Hood” or when he talks about his health care reform legislation: “They call it Obamacare. It’s true — I care. The other side’s plan is the Romney Doesn’t Care Plan.” To me, “bumper sticker politics” also includes things like when Governor Romney accuses President Obama of making a global “Apology Tour” or deliberately taking a statement out of context and turning it into an entire campaign theme: “We built it, Mr. President.” Sure, it all makes for good bumper stickers… but is this really the kind of standard of political discourse that we want our presidential candidates set for the rest of the nation?

Jack Bowen, author of If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers, says that bumper stickers are a simple way for people to literally take their voices to the streets without actually speaking. Bowen spoke with Atlas Obscura to reveal the role political bumper stickers play in political culture, and why we love them.

As a Government professor at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, one of the main themes I teach my students is to avoid the temptation to engage in “bumper sticker politics.” What I mean by this is that students who acquire a quality liberal arts education (such as the one Centre provides) have the tools at their disposal to be able to debate and discuss important civic issues with a certain degree of sophistication that is often lacking in the wider public discourse. In other words, students should try, as Ezra Klein recently put it, to “extract the smart conversation” from the otherwise “not smart” back-and-forth of the campaign dialogue.

What do you make of drivers who leave political bumper stickers on their car well after they’re relevant? I still see “Kerry for President” stickers out there…

A bumper sticker showing support for Clinton and Kaine. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0)

A neglected monument in sleepy Burhanpur is connected to a much more famous place.

What’s the appeal of using cars as vehicles of political expression?

Good stickers require a little background knowledge and also some connection to previous memes, but also get the point across in very few words. Some of stickers that do this the best for this election season are: Hillary For Prison 2016; Liar, Liar! Pantsuit On Fire; Deport Trump; Trump: Making America Hate Again; Yes She Can; and Obama, You’re Fired!  

A humorous political sticker. (Photo: Mike Renlund/CC BY 2.0) 

There’s a kind of nostalgia that goes with these stickers. Like, “Those were the days!” when Reagan or Jimmy Carter was running for president. When you put a Jimmy Carter sticker on your car and leave it there for 20 years, you’re saying something about who you were, but also about who you are now. You still stand for whatever values you and society associates with Jimmy Carter.

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When people are in their cars, they behave in a way that they never would if a pane of glass and piece of metal weren’t there keeping them a foot away from the person sitting next to them. I kind of like that. It’s a chance for someone who is more introverted who isn’t engaging in public discourse to say what they think and why they think it.

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I was recently interviewed by a news reporter about the upcoming vice presidential debate at Centre College. As part of the interview, I was asked: “what do you hope to see coming out of this debate?” Because I was forced, just like the politicians are, to give a 15-second response, I was not able to answer the question the way I really would have liked. My ideal response would have been this:

It’s been argued recently that political bumper stickers are going out of style. Are bumper stickers waning in popularity or do you think they’ll remain with us as long as we have elections and cars?

Presidential debates are one of the rare places in our campaign tradition where candidates are not quite as constrained. While it’s very true that candidates are still required to give short, concise, simplistic answers to questions, they at least have slightly more freedom in explaining their preferences and opinions. Depending on the moderator, candidates usually have anywhere from two to five minutes to answer a particular question, rather than 10-15 seconds. It still isn’t much, but they have the opportunity to engage the issues at a level that they’re unable to do in a 30-second campaign advertisement.

The problem is, again, that it doesn’t allow for real discourse. It’s like shouting at someone, then putting headphones on and walking away. It’s not a conversation. 

All 150 claims they’re making on their car, they’re not expecting for you to digest what they think about abortion and taxation and euthanasia. They’re framing an ideology from an emotional position. I don’t have bumper stickers on my car, but I get how someone can get to the point that they’re so impassioned, that these messages are sort of what they’re screaming out to the world, even though they know that nobody is reading every sticker.

It’s hard for me to imagine they’re hoping to enact some kind of change or discourse; it’s like a person who wears a vibrant tie-dye shirt instead of a crisp white button-down shirt. 

The bumper sticker’s invention is largely credited to Forest P. Gill, a silkscreen printer from Kansas. Gill invented a sticker designed specifically to stay attached to a car’s bumper in the late 1940s, and it didn’t take long for the bumper sticker to become wildly popular. By the 1950s, all types of bumper stickers could be seen affixed to cars across the United States.

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This all taps into the way we think through our moral and political intuitions. Recent psychology and neuroscience have shown we go through this process in a way we’re not wholly conscious of. We first intuit a conclusion—i.e. immigration is bad, or a certain method of taxation is unfair—and only then, in some post hoc manner, fill in reasons for that emotionally-based conclusion. Bumper sticker slogans do a good job of being emotional conduits.

The ability to make a rich statement in a few words, is, at the very least, a starting point. Such as with “Deport Trump.” With this sticker, in two words you’ve said “I’m not voting for Trump,” and “I have a concern with how Trump is talking about immigrants.” You’ve actually said paragraphs and paragraphs, and now we can come back and have a conversation.

Additionally, cars just aren’t being made with bumpers any more as the car frame just extends down more than it used to, so there’s no bumpers for stickers on cars now.

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