Irregular Times: How Bumper Stickers Matter

One day last May my brother and I, who have been writing Irregular Times since 1995, saw George W. Bush act in a manner that at once managed to be so vapid, so offensive, so ignorant, so potentially destructive and so demonstrably at odds with the truth that we decided a change was in order at Irregular Times. To be honest, I can't remember what in particular George W. Bush did that day, mostly because that's the sort of thing he seems to manage to do every day. It's kind of like asking a chain smoker to identify when last March he picked up a cigarette. But the point is, that day my brother and I had enough. We decided to do something about the whole mess. We decided to take action!

We decided to sell bumper stickers.

If that's not exactly what you expected to read next, well, you're not alone. Every Sunday I share a dinner table and freewheeling discussion with seven friends. We talk about a lot of things: last week, we argued about whether a hypothetical web site entitled would qualify as offensive or not. When I told my dinner companions that I had decided to start selling bumper stickers, they all expressed support and interest, being the supportive friends they are. But then someone asked me a simple question:

"So what do you hope to accomplish by putting these bumper stickers out there?"

"Well, I'd like to help get the word out on opposition to George W. Bush, and about global warming and John Ashcroft and alternatives to mainstream religion and environmentalism and..."

"OK, But what will putting those messages out there do? I mean, you can't fit a thorough policy analysis on a 3x10 inch strip of vinyl, especially when your target readers are zipping along at 35 miles per hour. And are people going to see Vote Bush Off the Island and all of a sudden decide to change their party affiliation? Somehow, I doubt that."

"Um. Err..."

And that's pretty much how the conversation ended. I was, for the moment, stumped.

I walked away from that conversation frustrated because I obviously thought that bumper stickers could make a difference (otherwise, why sell them?) but I couldn't articulate the reason they mattered, the way in which bumper stickers could help make social or political change. After some thought, however, I think I've come up with something: the question is not whether bumper stickers matter, but rather how they matter.

With the question posed that way, there's more than one answer that I've come up with. Let me share my answers with you, with a couple of examples along the way.

How Do Bumper Stickers Matter?

How can bumper stickers make a difference in a nation's politics? Let's count the ways:
  1. Bumper Stickers can provide the punchline to an implicit argument.

    One popular knock against bumper stickers is that they're anti-intellectual. "We need a foreign policy that doesn't fit on a bumper sticker," is a typical dig at the form in policy circles, implying that an expression of few words is not sufficient to grasp the complexities of a situation.

    No One Died When Clinton Lied I think that such criticisms are not only wrong, but also underestimate the intellectual challenge implicit in some bumper stickers. A 30-page policy tract lays out an entire argument, step-by-step, for a reader to passively digest. Bumper stickers, on the other hand, may require the viewer to make an active, re-creative interpretation of an entire argument.

    For instance, the bumper sticker to the right is really the lynchpin in a long argument that assumes the reader has been following American politics over the past decade. Fully expressed, the argument might go like this:

    To put a "No One Died When Clinton Lied" sticker on your car is to provoke thoughtful viewers to consider that line of argument. If the argument has merit, then the bumper sticker can play an important part in bringing a politician to account.

  2. Bumper Stickers can help others make unpopular stands.

    If you've been living inside the borders of the United States of America for the past two and a half years, you don't need me to tell you that there's a lot of pressure out there to conform to a certain set of political notions (supporting the troops means supporting George W. Bush, supporting the troops means supporting war, the deaths of innocent Iraqis don't matter as much as the deaths of Americans, sit down, shut up, salute the flag, sing God Bless America, pretend you love it).

    It's hard to be the only person around who seems to believe something unpopular. Solomon Asch demonstrated this in a series of experiments half a century ago: Asch brought seven subjects together into a room. He displayed a series of cards, each of which displayed three lines, and asked subjects to identify the lines that matched in length. The secret of the experiment was that six out of the seven subjects were confederates (that is, they were hired by and acted in cahoots with the experimenter) who sometimes gave obviously wrong answers. The question of the experiment was to see how often the one real subject would go along with the others and give an obviously wrong answer.

    The first-blush answer is surprising: overall, three-quarters of the subjects gave wrong answers, even when the answer was obviously wrong. Most of these subjects expressed relief when Professor Asch revealed his trick at the experiment's end.

    The Emperor Has No Brains Bumper Sticker More importantly, however, it turns out that the extent of conformity by subjects varied according to what others in the room did. If there was just one confederate who gave the right answer, then the subject became much more likely (with visible relief) to give the right answer than to go along with the majority. In other words, it's much easier for someone to publicly dissent from the conventional wisdom when just one other person in the vicinity has done so first.

    If you live in Manhattan, or San Francisco, or Denver, or Seattle, you're probably surrounded by people who feel the way you do and aren't afraid to show it because so many others out there already have. If you live in Alabama or Wyoming or Oklahoma, however, you may be surrounded by people who appear to disagree with you.

    I say "appear" with purpose, since you actually might be surprised how many progressives live in those supposedly conservative states. But it takes the first person to stand up and say out loud, "The Emperor Has No Clothes!" (or, in the case of George W. Bush, "The Emperor Has No Brains!"). Such a bumper sticker, prominently placed on a car, can have that effect. Just knowing that there are other people in a community who feel the way you do may put just a smidgen more steel in your spine. Making dissent acceptable -- another valuable purpose of bumper stickers.

  3. Bumper Stickers can help raise awareness of a person or issue.

    John Henley for Congress Last on my list comes simple awareness. When a challenger to a popular incumbent tries to get a Congressional race going, for instance, the first hurdle out there is for citizens to simply become aware that somebody is running as an alternative. Getting a name out there using a bumper sticker is a low-cost way of starting up a media campaign. As more and more people are exposed to the identity of a candidate, more and more people will become interested in learning more about that candidate, making a donation to the candidate's campaign, or volunteering to help that candidate prevail. No, this isn't an intellectually profound dynamic, but it matters, and bumper stickers taking advantage of the dynamic can help a political movement get jump-started.
In conclusion, it really shouldn't be surprising that bumper stickers can play a number of non-trivial roles in political discourse. After all, if they were so ineffective, would they appear on the backs of so many cars? Bumper stickers are a short form, poetry (good or bad) in the pursuit of persuasion (for good or bad). If a sticker is on your car not only for the right cause but also in the service of a sound strategy, it is no more to be ashamed of than a painting or a haiku. Like these other forms of condensed expression, a good bumper sticker can help move civic conversation and action forward.

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