Just as we understand the world through stories, our political narratives often revolve around characters, ordinary people who become momentarily famous as supposedly representative of some policy issue or cultural trend. Sometimes they're fictional, and sometimes they're people who have chosen to push themselves into a political debate. But often it's someone who dips a toe into the political waters, then finds the cameras swinging on to them in what surely is a bracing lesson in the contemporary media's appetites.
What ensues is a debate about just what this person is supposed to represent. Is she the embodiment of a problem conservatives refuse to solve? Is he the truest of Americans, held down by liberal meddling? Or is this person, down to his or her very soul, everything we want the public to hate about the other side?
I've written before about the standard media practice of offering "exemplars," or ordinary people used as the vehicle through which to tell the story of a policy issue or an event. The kind of political exemplars pushed by the parties aren't as common, but each one gets much more attention. Last week saw another episode of these exemplar controversies, and certainly one of the oddest ones yet. Despite some of the weird details, it was familiar in the way it wound up: with conservatives showing the worst of themselves. They haven't seemed to realize that no matter who starts these arguments, the right almost always loses them. That isn't because liberals are so brilliant at choosing these exemplars, or because liberals control the media in which the argument plays out. It's because once things get going, conservatives can't help but give vent to their ugliest impulses and anxieties, driven on by the mistaken belief that all Americans will see things the way they do.
Last week, the pro-Obama group Organizing for America put up a web ad with a photo of a 20-something man wearing pajamas and drinking hot chocolate in what looked like a Christmas-morning scene, to encourage young people to sign up for health insurance. Immediately, many in the conservative media reacted as though just looking at this young fellow had transported them back to the junior high schoolyard where the class bully had called them sissies. The only way to restore their manhood, apparently, was to go after some random kid in a web ad by saying he's kinda gay.
The National Review's Rich Lowry kicked things off with a column imputing to this fictional character, now named "Pajama Boy," an entire history and a series of character flaws. "He might be glad to pay more for his health insurance to include maternity benefits he doesn't need as a blow against gender stereotyping," Lowry wrote. But that was one of the more restrained assaults on Pajama Boy's masculinity. A writer for the popular conservative site Pajamas Media (so named as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the belief that bloggers are just people sitting in their pajamas spouting off, though by now they seem to have changed their stance on pajamas), wrote a piece beginning, "Whatever horrifying condition deprived Pajama Boy of his genitals, I suppose we must be thankful he can't pass it along to future generations." He went on to assert cleverly that left-wing academics also "have no genitals" and concluded, "Side with the left long enough, and your genitals fall off. As well they should." Lowry's National Review colleague Mark Steyn wrote, "Obamacare pajama models, if not yet mandatorily gay, can only be dressed in tartan onesies and accessorized with hot chocolate so as to communicate to the Republic's maidenhood what a thankless endeavor heterosexuality is in contemporary America." Don't even ask what happened on Twitter.
It should go without saying that if you see a photo of a somewhat nerdy-looking young man and your first impulse is to shout, "Gay! Gay! That guy's gay!" then maybe you should do some hard thinking about where this powerful sexual anxiety comes from.
So what happens when this is all said and done? Democrats put up a web ad, then conservatives blow a gasket and end up looking shrill and homophobic. This kind of pattern has repeated itself many times. Recall Sandra Fluke, the activist who became briefly famous when she testified before Congress about a controversy over insurance coverage for birth control at the university where she was a law student. Though she said nothing about her personal life, conservatives immediately attacked her for believing that women should have the right to a sex life. Rush Limbaugh, the most powerful conservative media figure in America, called called her a "slut" and a "prostitute," and said, "if we're going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch." And they wonder why there's a gender gap.
It isn't that Democrats aren't willing to criticize the exemplars Republicans elevate. You remember Joe the Plumber, whom John McCain loved so dearly he brought him up in a debate with Obama, praised him in stump speeches, and even produced an ad with salt-of-the-earth Americans proclaiming "I'm Joe the Plumber" as though he was Spartacus. Liberals certainly chuckled when Joe turned out to not actually be a licensed plumber, and took some satisfaction when he failed to turn his celebrity into a career as a lawmaker, losing his 2012 campaign for an Ohio congressional seat by a razor-thin 49-point margin. Liberals were happy to note that the small business owner who starred in a Mitt Romney ad attacking Barack Obama for "you didn't build that" actually got nearly a million dollars in government loans and contracts.
But there's a particular venom that characterizes the approach many conservatives take to the liberal exemplars. For example, it's hard to imagine a prominent liberal columnist driving to Baltimore to poke around the home and business of the family of a 12-year-old boy who advocated for the S-CHIP funding that helped his family afford medical treatment for him and his sister after a serious car accident. But that's what conservative celebrity Michelle Malkin did in 2007, in an attempt to prove that the boy's family didn't deserve the help. It certainly seems as though whenever we meet a new ordinary citizen liberals are touting, the first thought some conservatives have is, "This person must be destroyed."
There's also often a disconnect between the attempt to undermine the exemplar and the policy argument conservatives are making. Let's say Malkin had succeeded in uncovering some dirt on that young boy's family. What would that have shown—that poor children shouldn't get health coverage? It was reminiscent of something we learned more about this week, one of the most well-known exemplars in American political history: the "welfare queen" whose bilking of the system Ronald Reagan touted as proof that poor people didn't deserve help from the government. While liberals believed for many years that Reagan had simply made up the tale (like so many others), Slate has the fascinating backstory of Linda Taylor, who not only defrauded welfare in the 1960s and 70s but may have also committed multiple acts of murder and kidnapping. The problem with Reagan's use of her story is that he wasn't arguing that it showed that we needed to do more to crack down on fraud so con artists couldn't take advantage of the system. Reagan was arguing that this career criminal was actually a typical welfare recipient, and her story showed that benefits should be cut for everyone.
Reagan's "welfare queen" story had real political potency. These days though, conservatives are more likely to get worked up over some individual liberal (or the photo of someone they presume is a liberal) and eventually find that the public doesn't share their excitement. Just like they thought Joe the Plumber was going to win them the 2008 election, I guess they think a photo of a guy wearing pajamas is going to get Americans mad at Barack Obama and make them not want to get health insurance. To which liberals should probably respond: Go ahead. Keep telling us about how liberal men aren't as manly and strong as you are, and how single women are a bunch of sluts, and how racial minorities are ungrateful moochers. How's that been working out for you lately?