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Primary colors: An aesthetic study of the 2020 Democrats

| Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Theresa T

Behind every work of art hides an artist, a method and a motive. For example, Vincent van Gogh painted “Starry Night” using oil on canvas in order to … well, to what? Wikipedia suggests he wanted to capture the beauty outside his asylum room’s window. Sorry, Wikipedia, but motives are inherently opaque. Even van Gogh might not have understood the source of his creative drive.

On the other hand, not all art forms are created equal. Politics is the art of changing people’s lives, and it’s not terribly difficult to see through politicians. Consider our van Gogh analysis with an imaginary politician instead: Sen. Jonathan McJenkins creates policy by gauging public opinion in order to maximize odds of re-election.

Ah, how refreshing! If we know why politicians create art — in McJenkins’ case, because he craves power — we can easily judge their character. Unfortunately, not all cases are that simple. Politicians constantly hop in and out of the spotlight. They often conceal their flaws for votes, yet much of political character comes down to genuineness. To put a spin on art’s oldest conundrum: do politicians imitate voters, or do voters imitate politicians?

Luckily, this year offers some perfect case studies — the Democratic primary contenders. Each candidate has harnessed the power of aesthetics by creating a unique self-promotional strategy. No Democrat modeled aesthetics-driven image cultivation better than Pete Buttigieg, who surgically crafted a “brand story” to project electability. Buttigieg dropped out, though, so this study will infer the motives of the remaining candidates. I’ll leave the character judgments to you.

Starting alphabetically: Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., the popular vice president of a popular U.S. president. Biden wants you to remember the good times of the Obama era. The red stripes of Biden’s logo hearken back to Obama’s iconic logo, with blue and white completing the viewer’s deja vu experience. Biden further distinguishes himself with his unique catchphrase, “No Malarkey.” The phrase’s authentic flavor appeals to older voters, who Biden needs to win. And who cares if it disgusts younger voters? They dislike him anyway. 

Customers of the Biden campaign store can adorn themselves with slogans such as “God Love Ya,” “Honest to Goodness” or just the classic “Folks.” These boomer-isms don’t seem designed to attract Rust Belt or Obama-Trump voters. Biden likely knows he can lean into his Pennsylvania heritage and Obama connection to make up for Clinton’s losses in 2016. On the other hand, Biden’s uncool factor also indicates a disregard for energizing voters.

Next up, Michael Bloomberg. Wait, he goes by Mike now. He also only re-registered as a Democrat in 2018. Did Bloomberg have a seven-eighths life crisis, or does he just want to erase his own identity? Open nearly any website or YouTube video to enjoy an ad that provides the answer.

Bloomberg has spent over $410 million on advertisements to transform Michael into Mike. These ads provide a host of alternative identities: Mike the philanthropist, the skilled politician, the businessman, the social justice hero, family man and so on. The persona of Mike is purposefully empty — he’s a placeholder on the ballot, ready for you to fill with whatever “model” candidate you think can defeat Donald Trump. Just forget his stop-and-frisk policy, allegations of sexual misconduct and promotion of Muslim surveillance.

Ideally, low-information voters buy into Bloomberg’s masterfully crafted advertisements. Except Mike’s greatest weakness is that he isn’t Mike. He’s Michael, an anti-charismatic hurricane of controversy. Bloomberg’s weak projections for Super Tuesday prove the aesthetic doesn’t make the candidate.

Bernie Sanders brings another red-white-blue color scheme into the mix. His aesthetic, however, thrives through messaging rather than clever design. Sanders himself is the strategic centerpiece. The campaign frequently shares an image of 21-year-old Sanders being arrested for protesting segregation in 1963. Another popular photo shows Sanders speaking at Lesbian and Gay Pride Day as mayor of Burlington in 1986. These artifacts, and many others, depict Sanders as a decades-long champion for social justice with an unbeatable record.

Unlike Biden, who leans into his identity as an old white man, Sanders leverages his ethos to divert attention away from himself. “Not me. Us,” the campaign’s slogan, assures voters Sanders runs an inclusive and people-centric movement. Key endorsements from Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Omar — all savvy, progressive women of color — add vitality to Sanders’ aesthetic and bolster its credibility. Overall, the Sanders strategy aligns with his theory of politics. According to Sanders, mobilization of excluded and disaffected groups will win Democrats the election in November. 

Elizabeth Warren has crafted an image that effectively distinguishes her from fellow progressive Bernie Sanders. Warren’s aesthetic strategy revolves around one of her slogans: “Warren has a plan for that.” Dark blue, her campaign’s main color, reflects Warren’s reputation as a seriously competent politician. She adorns merchandise with an image of two pennies, a reference to her easily comprehensible wealth tax. Even Warren’s Medium page contributes to her promotional appeal with its satisfyingly dense list of policy plans.

Warren joins Sanders in marketing her past, although she lacks his record’s spotlessness. Warren has faced criticism for claims of Native American heritage and prior Republicanism. She compensates in the present by publicizing her massive selfie lines and calls to small-dollar donors. These tactics paint Warren as a grassroots candidate, and frequent appearances of her dog Bailey add to her relatability. Warren’s dual identities of skilled policymaker and down-to-earth leader position her as a potential unity candidate for a divided Democratic party.

With Super Tuesday, the sun begins to set on the Democratic primary. As these four candidates compete for voters, so do their aesthetic strategies — Biden’s authenticity, Bloomberg’s persona, Sanders’ vision and Warren’s competency. Like many art critics, I attempted to isolate my interpretations from the artists themselves. Perhaps voters should do the same and give little credence to these interpretations. After all, perceptions can deceive, but voting records and policy positions lie outside the realm of optical illusions.

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