Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Core Post 4: Howard Dean and the Double-Edged Sword of Convergence

"Furthermore, early signs are that blogging may play a decisive role in shaping the 2004 American presidential elections, having been identified as a key factor in propelling maverick candidate Howard Dean into the front ranks for the Democratic Party nomination." Rarely has a salient point in a scholarly work so quickly sent me into a fit of knowing laughter than this nugget from Henry Jenkins. To Jenkins' credit, there's no way he could have known that the same media channels that led to the precipitous rise of Howard Dean would ultimately (and just as quickly) lead to his implosion. A quick refresher for those who may not remember, Howard Dean was the former governor of Vermont and one of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination in 2004 that would ultimately go to future Secretary of State John Kerry. His rise was built largely on the enthusiasm of young voters and bloggers communicating via then-new social media platforms. However, it all came crashing down on January 19, 2004, when Dean, delivering a speech after a respectable third place finish in Iowa and feeding on the energy of the crowd, let loose what came to be known as the “Dean Scream”, a high pitched screech accompanied by a cartoonish thrust of the arm that has largely defined Dean for a decade. It remains the first image result when searching for Dean and “Howard Dean Scream” is the first suggestion from Google when typing in the governor’s name.
History has since filled in the gaps as to what happened on that day. Dean and his staff insist that the crowd in the room was much louder than they appeared on television and thus Dean’s microphone was mixed too high, but these details did not matter in 2004. The Dean Scream quickly became a meme mocked on late-night television (including Chappelle’s Show, posted at the top of the page) and shared across the internet, ultimately dooming Dean’s campaign in one of the silliest turns in American politics. Dean, though, would not be the last politician to be undone by the uncontrollable forces of web mockery. Rick Santorum, presidential candidate in 2012 and 2016, famously had his name turned into a graphic sexual innuendo by blogger and activist Dan Savage. For years, a search for Santorum would yield Savage’s definition before that of the Senator, despite the candidate’s objections. 2012 saw Republican Rick Perry implode immediately after a debate gaffe that came to be known as the “Oops moment”. Again, bloggers and citizens on social media pounced on this, repeating it ad naseum and dooming Perry’s prospects in both 2012 and 2016

These unforced errors exacerbated by social media and other online outlets have quickly become commonplace in American politics. Already this election we’ve seen Marco Rubio crumble after a roundly mocked debate performance that led to the moniker “MarcoBot”. One might even argue that this election cycle has produced the first candidate to thrive on the viral possibilities of unpredictable ignorance, that being of course Donald Trump. Still, Howard Dean illustrates a perfect example of both how a candidate can leverage the climate of media convergence to create supporter bases through online outreach and how those same media outlets can lead to a candidate’s undoing with one brief, hilarious scream.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post, Lance. A few months ago, a friend of mine rued the state of American politics by saying that he was “nostalgic for the days when a wacky yell totally delegitimized a candidate’s campaign” – of course he was talking about this Howard Dean moment, and I found his point to be sneaky insightful. Now, in a campaign climate where, as you say, certain candidates tend to “thrive on the viral possibilities of unpredictable ignorance,” it’s like we’ve passed through to a universe where social media and meme culture demand/perpetuate such behavior instead of condemning it. I find Trump/Game of Thrones mashups and Onion articles about Ben Carson slowly floating away from the earth as hilarious as the next person, but I wonder whether we’ve become saturated with them to the point where omnipresence has led to pacification.