The alt-right and the radical left may be losing elections, but there’s one kewl territory where they’re still gaining turf: the meme wars.
Take a look at 2016. Weaponized white nationalist frog militias dominated elections in the United States, as memes of Bernie cuddling tiny kittens climbed their way to the Tumblr top. Largely absent were memes coming from free market centrists known, always disparagingly, as “neoliberals.”
The moderates have a meme problem.
Neoliberalism, a socially liberal, pro-immigration, pro-market ideology popularized by Bill Clinton in the 1990s, does have its fans and its memes. There’s r/neoliberal, which currently boasts over 11,531 “free traders” and some unapologetically wonky commentary. The page Gnarly Neoliberal Memes offers the equivalent on Facebook.
By and large, though, this technocratic, proudly unsexy political movement feels antithetical to populist meme culture — posing a real obstacle for moderates trying to capture the heart of the internet and even a few of their votes.
When it comes to politics, memes matter more than you think. Gross.
If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re part of the smaller-than-you think segment of the population who gets their information from traditional-ish news sources. During the course of the 2016 election, sites that traffic heavily in memes flourished: Occupy Democrats reached over 4 million followers on Facebook, with Right Wing News falling just behind at 3.37 million followers. Compare that to Politico, who hit just slightly over 1.1 million, and CNN Politics, who, at its peak, hit over 1.8.
Populist, radical-ish candidates like Sanders and Trump dominated the meme race. Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash has over 440,000 members on Facebook. It was the meme-makers at 4/chan, not the RNC, who were driving force behind the Trump campaign.
In November, America finally elected its first “meme president.”
Outside of her famous shimmy, Clinton struggled to make a mark on the meme map. Her gender likely played a role, too. A 2015 study found that the meme-sphere is dominated by images of white men, with men appearing twice as often as women.
But critics contend that that Clinton’s absence from web culture — and by extension, meme culture — was a product of her personality as well as her technocratic third way liberalism, “neoliberalism.”
Left-wing memes “can joke about gulags and right-wing meme pages can make Warhammer 40K references, [so] what can political moderates joke about?” the founder of Gnarly Neoliberal Memes, asked Mashable.
Meme-makers are trying to find the answer.
Centrist political ideology struggles to be meme-fied
The moderators of r/neoliberal understand the obstacles they’re up against. Web culture, they argue, tends to be dominated by those at the political extremes who lack an appetite for nuance:
“Despite our early hopes to the contrary, the internet has allowed political communities to isolate themselves, shutting themselves off to outside criticism and moderate voices, content to metastasize in the dark,” ampersamp, a moderator for r/neoliberal told Mashable. “Communities like /r/latestagecapitalism, a socialist subreddit, and /r/the_donald, the fan club for our commander in chief, ban any kind of dissent liberally.”
Designing memes — which rely on simple stories and rich emotions — is next to impossible when you’re trying to argue for “expanding the earned income tax credit” or “eliminating anachronistic protectionist tariffs!” It’s easy to mock Donald Trump for being a lazy buffoon or shame the Democrats for being snowflakes.
Is there anything less sexy on Earth than neoliberalism, a philosophy grounded in “open markets,” “incrementalist change,” and “empiricism?”
The moderators of Gnarly Neoliberal Memes understand the problem, just not its solution.
“We have different thoughts about this: maybe because extreme ideologies often have simple messages, and memes are an effective way of conveying a simple message?” a moderator from Gnarly Neoliberal Memes told Mashable. “Neoliberalism is kind of the insufferable nerd of ideologies, pushing glasses up its nose and going ‘well, actually…'”
Well, actually, maybe there is a way.
Maybe their memes just need a better messenger
Moderators of both groups admit that neoliberal is rarely used as a term of endearment. “Neoliberals” and their memes were just born to be mocked.
“All of the policies we support have doubtless been called neoliberal by someone, somewhere,” a moderator from r/neoliberal told Mashable.
That doesn’t mean that many of the movement’s views don’t fall in line with the American mainstream. Most Americans are socially liberal-ish (pro-choice, pro-same sex marriage) and pro-immigration-ish. Americans are more critical of free trade, a central tenet of neoliberal ideology, but a 2016 Washington Post poll found that 67 percent admit they don’t care either way.
The movement’s followers want people to know they have more compassion than their critics accuse them of.
“We look up to countries like Denmark and Australia, where the state is strongly involved in the provision of healthcare, education and other forms of public investment,” ampersand from r/neoliberal told Mashable.
So it’s thoroughly possible to imagine a world in which moderate memes and moderate ideology could trend — if only someone could simplify their agenda, and give it some heart.
Reframe free trade as individual opportunity. Shame regressive social conservatism. Offer real support for the people left behind by globalization, not just statistics and tax credits.
Moderates can rebuild their movement, they’ll just have to do it one snarky meme at a time.